How does a master of anything come to be? Is it through innate, profound talent? Or are countless hours of dedicated practice more crucial in becoming an expert in a specific field?

20-year-old Dale Tovar, who’s set to receive his master’s degree in music theory on June 17, has already dedicated hundreds of hours to understanding both jazz guitar and music theory. He said that in addition to a balanced mixture of both natural talent and focused practice, the most important facet of enhancing your craft is possessing unbridled passion.

Tovar first realized his passion for music at the age of 11 when he overheard his younger brother, Justice, taking guitar lessons and trying to learn “Day Tripper” by The Beatles. Dale’s father, Anthony, remembers the experience vividly. “He was 11, and everything changed,” he said. “He decided that he had to learn this song. A few months later he was sure that this would be his life’s work.”

After picking up the guitar to learn the chords to the classic Beatles track, Dale couldn’t put the instrument down. Anthony said Dale’s obsession was born.

While Dale agreed that his practice regimen could be considered an obsession, he noted that he had the most fun practicing guitar. Tovar practiced for roughly four hours a day for two years after that, honing his craft and enjoying every challenge that came with it.

As Tovar’s talent grew, the small size of his hometown, La Grande, became increasingly limiting towards his growth as a musician. So, instead of completely relocating, Tovar enrolled in the freshman music major program at Eastern Oregon University at the age of 13. At the time, most of his classmates were preparing for the transition into high school.

“I started out going half time, eight or nine credits a term. As a kid we had to make sure that I was comfortable and succeeding in my classes.” Tovar shared with the Emerald while sitting under the canopy of the School of Music courtyard.

After two years of college-level classes, Tovar qualified for the National Student Exchange program and, at 15, spent a year at the University of Utah to further his studies.

“It’s just another thing, you know, when I was young and we didn’t have the opportunities in our town — just trying to seek out what I could do next,” Tovar said.

Tovar said his time at the University of Utah was a little intimidating, but his confidence never wavered. There wasn’t much that separated Tovar from his peers besides the age gap and his talent. He was first exposed to the immense universe of music theory; a concept that would soon become his focus.

“What really draws me to it is that I’ve just always enjoyed thinking about things. Not just like ‘how does it work?’ in an objective sense, but how we respond to music,” Tovar said.

Music theory quickly became Tovar’s pursuit and he showed the same dedication to understanding the subject as he did with playing the guitar a few years prior. He poured countless hours into hardcover texts, learning and absorbing everything he read.

“He’s an incredibly well-read theorist,” said Chelsea Oden, a good friend of Tovar’s and office mate at the School of Music. “His reading ethic is inspirational. I have yet to ask him about a sub-discipline of music theory for which he couldn’t recommend multiple articles or books.”

Tovar started a book club with his peers and they meet once a week to discuss a specific article relating to music theory. Tovar is confident regarding his literary retention. He often reads almost six hours per day and says he’s able to recall the majority of it years after reading.

The book club highlights another value Tovar embraces: collaboration. “One thing I’ve really liked about the department here is the very collaborative, non-judgmental way that we treat each other.” Not only does this sense of camaraderie boost everyone’s morale, but the process of sharing ideas with his classmates helps Tovar tremendously in his own research.

“I think a lot of the work I’ve done is a product of talking constantly to people about my ideas. When you go [at] it alone things are much harder,” Tovar said.

Dale Tovar smiles for the camera in the Music School Courtyard (AmandaShigeoka/Emerald).

His work has earned him several awards, including Outstanding Soloist for Jazz Guitar at The University of Idaho Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival; National Student Exchange Student of the Year for his time at the University of Utah; Outstanding Graduate Scholar in Music Theory from the School of Music and Dance at UO; and Best Student Paper from the Rocky Mountain Society for Music Theory for his work entitled “Berg’s Romantic Rhetoric.”

After he receives his master’s degree in music theory, he’ll stay at UO for another year to receive his master’s degree in jazz studies. Tovar has a plethora of opportunities that he can pursue at his will, but at the moment he plans to earn a doctorate degree in music theory. He is not in a hurry to decide his life path, though.

“I think more than anything, the reason I’ve done everything is because I’ve just did what I wanted to do,” Tovar said. It’s a burning passion for music that has led him to the place where he is today. Tovar’s dedication provides an example to those who feel they lack the natural talent of their contemporaries. Perhaps passion is all you need.

Follow Jordan on Twitter at @Montero_Jo.

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