STU musician is a composer, a rapper, a ‘jack of all trades’

Emma Johnson (above) sings, raps and plays the keys in her band Arma Epifanía. (Jerry-Faye Flatt/AQ)

Fourth-year student Emma Johnson loves studying political science at St. Thomas Unviersity but said music is what brought her back to campus.

Johnson took a two-and-a-half year hiatus from her studies to tree plant across Canada. When she returned home to Fredericton, she spent a semester coming to STU for fun and not for credits to play music with the Chamber Music class. She came back full-time in 2017.

“The fact that they were playing music was really what always brought me back in,” she said.

The 26-year-old has played cello, classical piano and composed in the Chamber Music class, but she also sings, raps and plays the keys in her hip-hop jazz band Arma Epifanía.

But like, it’s not just this rebellion story because the thing is, I still love classical [music]. And actually … there’s no other thing that fills that void.”

Johnson tries to incorporate her wide variety of influences into her music, from rap artist Ab-Soul, to classical artist Frédéric Chopin, to singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill. 

“It’s hard to not love a lot of music … It’s hard then as a player of music, to not incorporate all of the things that you love into expressing yourself. It’s almost nearly impossible.”

Most recently, Arma Epifanía was accepted to participate in Fest Forward, an emerging artist and professional development music festival for artists in New Brunswick. She showcased her music there on Nov. 15.

Emma Johnson is a political science major, economics minor and music honours student. (Jerry-Faye Flatt/AQ)

Johnson has an extensive artistic background. She started taking piano lessons when she was six and cello when she was nine. She plays classical piano, is a composer and a visual artist who paints, draws and makes cardboard sculptures.

Tutoring others

Johnson, a political science major, economics minor and music honours student, began her university career at STU in 2011.

When she returned in the 2017 winter semester, she started tutoring music students right away.

“Once I became a tutor, I felt like there is nothing that could stop me in finishing my degree.”

In the past, music theory wasn’t Johnson’s passion. She said she avoided learning it her whole piano career. She even failed one of the first music theory courses she took at STU.

But her view changed when she realized teaching people helped her retain and learn information.

“Once I started tutoring, basically I found that there couldn’t be holes anymore in my understanding of things, and that motivated me to learn things to the next level.”

Johnson said the relationships she’s built while tutoring students have stuck with her. She remembers teaching piano to one student for a Chamber Music class who she became friends with in the process.

“She was really passionate, she just was so happy to be learning and it really encouraged me a lot and gave me the perspective I needed.”

After graduation, Emma Johnson wants to continue to teach, run after school programs, bring more music into the world of older folks and work in music therapy. (Jerry-Faye Flatt/AQ)

Johnson said tutoring has also made her better at the other classes she’s taking.

“Having to be accountable has been so good for me being accountable to myself.”

Johnson also said fine arts director Kutnowski was one of the reasons for her return because of the focus he puts on playing music in class.

“He’s just like a great teacher … He’s a hard grader, but he is very encouraging,” she said.

Where music and political science meet

Johnson comes from a musical family. Her dad plays guitar by ear, and her mom plays piano and reads music.

“She’ll just like sit down and sight-read some [Muzio] Clementi for relaxation.”

While Johnson said it’s possible she will graduate this year, she most likely needs to come back for a semester to finish her music honours. However, she has finished her political science major.

“Music is more of a thing that has sculpted me, but political science is like, I guess my own love, it’s very personal for me.”

Johnson said it’s personal because most of her family has studied science. Her sisters have biochemistry degrees, her dad a degree in math and physics and her mom a degree in philosophy.

Johnson said she took political science to understand how the world works.

“I felt like political science really like satiated that.”

She said what she learned from these classes also fed into her art, poetry and song writing.

“That really shaped a huge part of my whole kind of expression.”

Looking back, Johnson said it’s ironic she went into political science and economics, because at the time, she thought they were “more professional” than a music degree – now, she thinks differently.

“To be honest, I’ve made so much more money off of music … like, I have no idea how you make money off of political science and economics.”

“Political science and economics on its own, it has not actually gained me a cent. But it’s for my own personal education and interest, it has completely completed me I guess, or made me who I am.”

Johnson teaches younger kids music, teaches lessons privately, tutors, worked recently on creating music for the elderly, plays classical piano, plays in orchestras, composes, plays in her band and has rapped at climate rallies while also going to school full-time.

After graduation, Johnson wants to continue to do these things and more. She wants to teach, run after school programs, bring more music into the world of older folks and work in music therapy. She also wants to be a good, local classical musician.

“I’m like a jack of all trades.”

Johnson is satisfied with her education at STU.

“I love St. Thomas. St. Thomas has been an antidepressant for me. It’s like home, it’s like somewhere where I don’t feel any pressure to leave.”

She said she’s thankful for the music aspect of her education as it gave her a break from the seriousness of political science. She said it was fun to be able to go and take out her cello and play music for an hour.

“It really kept me sane.”