Carnegie Mellon University

Photo of Nick Vlahakis with guitar

May 27, 2021

Hitting the Right Notes

Alumnus enriches students through scholarships and creative resources

By Jennifer Pesci-Kelly

For College of Engineering alumnus Nick Vlahakis and his wife, Kimi, students exploring their passion for the arts is music to their ears.

“I like Carnegie Mellon for what it is — it's a right-brain, left-brain approach to thinking,” Nick says.


While Nick may have a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, he is a lifelong student of the arts and music. Kimi is a respected artist specializing in iconography.

“Music is very scientific,” Nick explains. “The engineering equations I use are the same as used for musical instruments.”

Nick and Kimi were inspired to invest in educating and nurturing the creativity of CMU students by establishing the Vlahakis Recording Studio in CMU’s School of Music and securing the operations of the studio in perpetuity. The studio is a teaching facility for music technology and a resource facility for the university, which Riccardo Schulz, teaching professor in the School of Music and the studio manager, says is central for bringing talent from across the CMU campus together.

“Every good arts school has a program in music technology,” Riccardo says.

"Music is very scientific. The engineering equations I use are the same as used for musical instruments."

The recording studio, which is on the ground floor of the College of Fine Arts building, is home to the musical explorations of students from across CMU. It is often in use seven days a week and about 20 hours a day, and, over the last year, it became an even more valuable resource to create music during COVID-19. Riccardo cited one very recent example of the CMU Jazz Ensemble coming in to record in pieces before it was mixed together into a single concert. Social distancing might have kept them physically apart, but the studio allowed them to come together as musicians.

In previous years, Nick and Kimi had the opportunity to visit classes in the studio and are always impressed by the diversity of disciplines present.

“Of the students who have been in each of the classes we’ve sat in on, so many different majors were represented,” Nick says. “Collaboration is so important, and Carnegie Mellon is the best institution for doing this. We even had a neurobiologist come into the recording studio.”

While he is clearly passionate about music, Nick says his “real passion is Carnegie Mellon.” Along with the recording studio, he and Kimi have funded both a music scholarship and an engineering and science scholarship.

As a member of the CFA Dean’s Council, Nick started working with students on entrepreneurial projects as part of the Music Entrepreneurship Program. Formerly the chief operating officer of aerospace and defense company Alliant Techsystems, Nick brings the business acumen and engineering expertise of his 25-year engineering career to coach student projects, like working with oboe performance graduate student Camille Strahl on a business that creates affordable and reliable reeds. Riccardo explains that Nick’s expertise in materials science and his interest in music made him a unique resource for this particular project.

“There aren’t many people who know all of this or who are willing to share their time and knowledge,” he says.

"Collaboration is so important, and Carnegie Mellon is the best institution for doing this. We even had a neurobiologist come into the recording studio."

Nick expresses his appreciation of this program that is advancing student skills to create a bright future for them.

“It’s not just making products,” Nick says of the entrepreneurship program. “What they’re trying to do is teach the students how to survive in the art world. It covers the whole gamut.”

With a desire to create music and a passion to support those who do, Nick invited Riccardo to help him set up a personal recording studio at his home in Virginia. The two often exchange digital tracks of their work.

“I admire Nick and Kimi for living life to the fullest,” Riccardo says. “Part of that life is doing things for others.”

With his own studio in place, Nick now invites local musicians to his home to record.

“This is for aspiring artists to make a demo so they can market themselves, make a CD for their gigs or whatever they need,” he explains. “I'm having a ball with it.”

“I think music is the only language that is universal.”