ALTOONA, Pa. — Maybe you’ve seen him playing his saxophone around the pond on campus or at various student events. Maybe you’ve heard the sounds of his music floating throughout Misciagna or Cedar Residence Hall. Perhaps you were visiting campus and wondered who was making the melodies.
Some have dubbed the man behind the music the "Sax Guy," but his name is actually Ikechi Onyenaka, a sophomore from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. He came to Penn State Altoona to pursue a degree in information sciences technology, but music is his true passion.
Drawn to the sounds and feel of jazz music, Onyenaka opted for the clarinet when he first started learning an instrument in fourth grade. He joined his elementary school band, where the director encouraged him to learn multiple instruments and expand his musicality. Throughout the years, Onyenaka added the alto, tenor and soprano saxophones to his repertoire, plus the piano, keyboard and drums. He had some lessons at school once or twice a week, but the rest of his skills, things like improv, music theory and technique, were all self-taught.
One of the most influential experiences in Onyenaka’s musical development was a two-week summer camp at the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts in Philadelphia while he was in high school. He was invited to apply for the camp, no audition needed, after the center’s band director heard him playing at a music marathon event. He was placed as first chair in the Kimmel Center Magenta Ensemble playing the alto sax. At the camp, he was exposed to music, musicians and playing styles he’d never encountered before.
“Every day we got to meet a famous artist,” Onyenaka said. “I heard so many new things. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and it showed me a new level of where I could go with my music.”
Now, Onyenaka is in the choir and the jazz ensemble at Penn State Altoona and plays drums for the campus' pep band. His own band, East Coast Experiment, plays at open mic events and other activities on campus, like Gamma Phi Beta’s annual Putting on the Hits talent show. He also maintains a band back home, the Ikechi Onyenaka Quartet, but he never has a problem keeping it all straight. It is as natural to him as breathing.
“I wouldn't know how to live without music,” he said. “It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up. Even in classes, I'm usually just drumming in my lap, coming up with ideas.”
Onyenaka said he is strongest on the clarinet, but he loves the saxophone best. “The clarinet is made out of wood, so it's not as loud as the brass saxophone,” he said. “I want all of my ideas to be heard, and a sax has more of an explosive, cutting-edge sound. I think of instrumental music as a voice that expresses emotions and your life story. I feel like the sound I'm hearing in my head is closest to the sound a saxophone makes. It’s the closest I can get to expressing my emotions.”
While the majority of his work is comprised of original songs, some of it is off the cuff, pure improvisation. “I just love the idea of creating something from scratch on the fly," he said. “And the cool thing about jazz and improv is that if you make something up, you never make mistakes!”
Onyenaka also said that when he plays music, he feels at one with God. “I feel like I can communicate with God through playing, and that makes me at peace.”
He feels most peaceful when he is playing outside, stating he is able to not only feel the music more intensely, but come up with better ideas, as well. His favorite place to play on campus is around the reflecting pond. Although it’s for practice, Onyenaka is happy to share his music with others there and often finds that he lifts them up through his work.
“The things that I went through to get where I am, and the things my mom went through weren’t easy, so I try to create music for people who have struggles in their lives,” Onyenaka said. “I use my music to remind them not to give up. I just feel like it's a way to help people and make them happy.”
Onyenaka likes to tell the story of how one day when he was playing at the pond, a woman walking through campus stopped and asked him to play something for her. When he was done, the woman handed him $50 and said she had just been discharged from the hospital, and hearing him play was exactly what she needed at that moment.
“I felt really emotional when that happened,” he said. “It was so moving that I could actually have that much of an impact on someone else.”
Onyenaka draws his own inspiration from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Alex Han, and Musiq Soul Child. In the last year, he was able to meet other artists he admires like singer/songwriter Erykah Badu and Victor Wooten, arguably one of the best bassists in the world. He’s been able to play with the Reggie Wayne Morris Band and the group Flute Juice, along with Lilac Ocean, Beatpeace, Jafar Barron, Rudresh Manhanthappa, and Al Chez. The thought of inspiring others pushes Onyenaka to continue learning all he can about music by listening, going to concerts, and studying on his own.
“I want people to know that it's more than playing different notes,” he said. “There are depths to music. It's something really deep that you have to find within yourself. You can be a talented musician but if you don’t feel it, if you don’t have soul, it’s not the same.”
Next fall, Onyenaka will transfer to University Park to complete his degree. He wants to minor in music and join the Jazz Ensemble and, of course, looks forward to finding a new favorite place on a new campus to share his music and his passion.