She may have a Grammy Award that says otherwise but ironically, Leah Coloff has never felt that playing classical cello was a perfect fit. Her dad, an avid enthusiast, was a music teacher and cellist, and—in a classic parental move—he molded her in his likeness.

“He started me when I was young, and he’s been a huge influence on my career,” says Coloff.

It’s a career that was just capped with the 2024 Grammy for Best New Age, Ambient, or Chant Album that she earned along with her band, the Scorchio String Quartet, the vocal group Tonality, and composer Carla Patullo for So She Howls.

Learning to Improvise

Coloff played all through her childhood in the Pacific Northwest, earned a Bachelor of Music in cello at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and attended the New England Conservatory of Music for graduate studies. But she was feeling stifled. She dropped out, made a few rock albums, dabbled in electronic music, moved to Brooklyn, did some writing and composing, and started exploring an artistic road away from the one she had been headed down—even while her classical music work and teaching cello was helping to pay her bills.

“I was having some struggles, wondering was I doing the right thing. I was wanting to have more of a say in, I don’t know…” she says before trailing off into an explanation about how classical musicians don’t get to improvise much. “They spend a lot of time learning incredibly difficult music, and there’s meaning to be found in that.”

And yet, it did not offer the freedom to express her complete artistic self. “I was coming to terms with having the desire to play music in a different way than I was raised,” she reckons. “And then I found PIMA.”

Check, Check, Check

To be clear, Coloff is a distinguished musician who has performed on Broadway and NPR’s “Tiny Desk,” and collaborated with Iggy Pop, Ziggy Marley, and Nancy Sinatra.

But she wanted to immerse herself in a diverse, multimedia, multidisciplinary experience. The Performance and Interactive Media Arts master’s degree program—with its eclectic mix of professionals from all walks of art—checked every box.

“It’s a unique program,” she says. “There really aren’t many like it. I’m interested in combining disciplines—visuals and sounds and words. PIMA is great for that.”

She says she’s thriving in the creative flexibility and “the willingness to really go out on the edge that’s nurtured here.”

Flashing Back to Push Forward

Coloff is now working on a project that takes her back full circle to something that has gnawed at her most of her musical life.

“I’ve always felt very at home on the cello. I did love it. But Dad was overbearing and had a lot of expectations,” she says. “Every family has unspoken or spoken expectations for kids, and sometimes it can get complicated.”

After her father died, Coloff found a draft of a letter in which he tried to enlist her cello professor to convince her to stop playing because he didn’t think she had the fire in her belly. It took her aback.

Working through it in her music set her free.

“He wanted me to do music a certain way, and I wanted to take it in a different direction. We never got to work through that before he passed,” she says. “The letter inspired me to finally do that.”

That inspiration spawned Super Second Rate, a solo show with original songs about “difficult truths.” Coloff can laugh now when she talks about the name, a reference to how finding that letter made her feel. She has workshopped the performance in a few intimate venues and will formally premiere it at the famed Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, next year.

She’s also exploring art that’s about “something outside of myself,” she says, explaining that she’s bringing more of a political bent to her music and even looking into becoming a death doula, creating melodic rituals for people as they are passing.

And she’s generally rolling with the journey of it all.

“I’m in an incredible program where I’m collaborating with a wonderful group of misfit adventurists who want to take their art to a different place, to a more personal place,” she says.