Emma Breen had a choice to make.
She was completing her bachelor’s in music at Northwestern University, and she was preparing for graduate study. She had been admitted to the Royal Academy of Music. She had also been admitted to The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.
She chose UCLA.
“Obviously, UCLA is very different from the Royal Academy,” said Breen, who admitted that she had not initially applied to UCLA. “But after I took a masterclass with Jens Lindemann (distinguished professor of trumpet performance), I knew I wanted to come to UCLA. I was also fortunate to receive a Mimi Alpert Feldman Scholarship, which really made it possible.”
Virtually every element of her resume defies normalcy. She spent her summer playing with the Disney All-American College Band. She worked for a year at the SONIC/ATLAS lab collaborating with NASA’s long-range space missions. She currently conducts stem-cell research at the Zamudio Lab within UCLA’s Department of Molecular Cell Developmental Biology.
And now she has just won the position of principal trumpet with the American Youth Symphony, a training orchestra with a long history of placing their principal trumpets in key orchestra and university positions across the country.
“Emma Breen is quite simply the most interesting talent I have met in my twenty-two years here at UCLA,” said Jens Lindemann. “She is good at everything she sets her mind to, and she is, in my opinion, the definition of a Renaissance woman.”
Breen’s path to music came early. She grew up in a musical family. Her parents exposed her and her two siblings to music from a young age. She started playing the trumpet at the age of ten. In middle school she attended an orchestral camp, and the experience of playing every day left her, in her words, “on fire.” She knew that she had found what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
Her family moved to Corona, California for her high school years, and Breen filled her time with music. She played in symphonic wind ensemble and jazz band, and competed in the all-southern and all-state music competitions. After school, she played with the Claremont Young Musicians Orchestra, then under the direction of Roger Samuel.
“It was in that orchestra that I found my footing,” said Breen. “We didn’t have a full symphony orchestra at my high school, and the Claremont Young Musicians Orchestra kept me playing. Mr. Samuel was really my mentor. He passed away from cancer, and that was what led me to become passionate about cancer research.”
Breen began working in labs in high school. Her first job was working as a quality analyst for a commercial lab in Corona. After matriculating at the school of music at Northwestern University, she applied to work at the university’s famed Pinkett Lab.
“I kind of catfished my way into that job,” Breen admitted. “I didn’t tell them I was a music major. After they offered me a position, they took a look at my transcript, which didn’t have a single science class in it, and I had to come clean.”
Breen worked at Pinkett Lab for three years. Her senior year, she moved to the SONIC/ATLAS lab, collaborating with NASA’s long-range space missions by conducting cognitive research and working in both Russian and English. She graduated Northwestern with her bachelor’s in music and four years of lab experience, without taking a single science class. When she arrived at UCLA, she accepted a position as a research assistant in the Zamudio Lab, conducting stem cell research.
“Science feeds a part of me that that music doesn’t,” said Breen. “Working twenty hours a week in a lab is part of who I am, and I want to make time for it. At the same time, trumpet is my first love. I wake up every day and want trumpet to be part of my every day.”
Certainly, Breen has experienced the rigors of being a working musician. She spent the summer of 2022 playing with the Disney All-American College Band, a gig that carried with it demanding hours. She has begun doing session work around Los Angeles. And winning the principal trumpet position at the American Youth Symphony—one of America’s premiere training orchestras—is no small feat.
This year, Breen is the distinguished recipient of Stanley Wilson Memorial Scholarship in Composition & Brass as she completes her master’s degree. She is applying to the doctoral program in trumpet, but she intends to make it an interdisciplinary Ph.D. with a focus on cancer research and future directions for musicians in particular.
“There’s not a lot of research on musicians and cancer,” said Breen. “Cancer riddles your body. What we do, as musicians, is so physical, but we don’t have much research or experience about how to deal with it as musicians, because what we do is a rather unique kind of physical.”
Her continued work at the David Geffen School of Medicine is contingent on her acceptance to the School of Music’s doctoral program.
“I just auditioned this past week,” said Breen. “I’m excited and hoping for the best.”