Philadelphia is positively swarming with music students. Despite their presence, the question that few of them ever seem prepared to answer of, “What are you going to do with a performance degree?” always lingers.
Vahe Sarkissian is a guitarist who is challenging the assumption that all instrumentalists go to Los Angeles to starve. After winning the lead guitarist spot in 93.3 WMMR’s “Building the Band” competition, he has stepped into the spotlight, proving that fame is not reserved for vocalists.
In 2000, Sarkissian moved from his hometown of Bensalem, Pa., to Philadelphia to attend the University of the Arts and pursue a performance degree, and to turn his dream of making music into a fulltime job. After earning his bachelor’s degree he stayed in Philly, but took a 9-to-5 customer service job to pay the bills.
Three years later, he reached a breaking point and left corporate stability for music, vowing never to work outside of his field again. Sarkissian returned to UArts to get a graduate degree in music education, which helped him secure his current job as a guitar teacher at The Music Training Center in Ardmore, Pa.
A few months ago, he heard an ad on the radio calling for submissions for “Making the Band,” the prize for which included a gig opening for big names like Shinedown, Halestorm and Godsmack at the Susquehanna Bank Center this summer. Though he initially entered “just for kicks,” becoming a finalist ignited a flame for Sarkissian, who started practicing two hours each day to prepare himself for the last round. The hard work paid off and he landed the lead guitar spot, in addition to a live performance and interview on WMMR.
The contest experience has changed his focus from searching for stability to pushing his career forward and taking advantage of every opportunity to showcase his talents. Whether living comfortably by working in music, or performing at huge venues, Sarkissian is living proof that instrumentalists can, and do, thrive after college.
The Temple News: Before you were even chosen for the band, your music was played on WMMR. How was that experience for you?
Vahe Sarkissian: It was surreal at the time because it was before I was even picked in the Top 5. They were talking about all the great stuff they’d gotten and then they played my sound-clip to showcase that. I heard it after the fact on the podcast, but I got texts from people I barely talk to congratulating me all throughout the night.
TTN: Did you feel famous?
VS: Yeah, I definitely had a little “15 minutes.”
TTN: Is it difficult to market yourself as an instrumentalist?
VS: I’m trying to get more into branding and social media. I have my site [Vahesarkissian.com] and my Facebook page [Facebook.com/vahesarkissianmusic], but it’s hard. I do a lot of solo stuff, which could appeal to other guitar players simply from an art standpoint, but that’s kind of a niche market. It’s difficult for me to pick an image or focus because I do so many different things to try to get out there in any capacity. If I [show that I] can do anything and everything, and one of those takes off, then it can allow me to do other things I want to pursue later.
TTN: Is the ultimate goal of “Building the Band” to create a band that stays together?
VS: Only time can tell, but that’s not my personal goal. I happen to know the drummer who made the band and we already collaborated so we’re hoping to allow this to push our project into the spotlight. The more people that can recognize the two of us together, the better.
TTN: You do something called “two-hand tapping.” What does that mean?
VS: You tap the fret with both hands which creates a piano kind of style and [you] get a much wider range. It’s something I did in college because I’d seen people do it and I liked the rhythm of it. I don’t think I’ll ever fully have a handle on it. I think it’s always going to be a goal.
TTN: What’s your best-case scenario? Where do you want to see yourself and your music in the next few years?
VS: Ideally, I’d like to be in a rock band that’s a little more progressive and experimental but can still cater to your pop-rock sensibility – good songwriting but with good musicianship, as well. I always wanted to write, record and perform my own music on a bigger level. Realistically, being able to play places like the Theater of the Living Arts on a somewhat consistent basis would be great.
Victoria Marchiony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.