First-year engineering student creating soundtracks on the side

Jeff Rice
September 12, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Wezi Mkandawire is studying chemical engineering in his first year at Penn State. But the Schreyer Honors Scholar hasn’t abandoned his longtime love of music or the compositions that are earning him national notice.

Mkandawire, of Wexford, produces music for film and television soundtracks, combining his abilities with the guitar and piano with a growing set of production skills. Videos featuring his songs have received as many as 45,000 views on Ambient, a YouTube channel that collects music designed for films, relaxation and more.

Austin Meyer, a freelance film and documentary creator for National Geographic, found Mkandawire’s music on the site and contacted him through social media to license one of his songs for use in his short film about children in a refugee camp in Jordan using soccer as a calming influence. The composition, titled “Where I Belong,” conveys a feeling that meshes with multiple themes of his film, according to Meyer.

“There’s a really high tone that kind of feels like playful and childish, which I felt captured the elements of the story — here are these kids playing,” Meyer said, “but throughout the song he also comes in with a deeper tone which to me signaled the balance between these playful children and this is deeply important, like there’s a resonance to this.”

Creating music that has a soothing effect is no accident for Mkandawire, who enjoys listening to various film soundtracks for inspiration and cites Thomas Newman — famous for the scores of films including "The Shawshank Redemption," "Road to Perdition" and "Finding Nemo" — as an influence.

“I usually think of a story that would go along with the music, then name the songs based off that,” Mkandawire said. “I always name them after I can listen to some form of the finished product, so that I can see how it makes me feel and what comes to my mind when listening.”

Mkandawire credits some of his early school band teachers, when he was growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and in Wexford, with encouraging his talent and offering him additional and individual lessons. A former pastor, Josh Leake, advised Mkandawire when he began composing and pointed him to software programs like Logic Pro. Posting his songs on websites such as Bandcamp and Audiosocket has increased their exposure and led to opportunities such as the one he found with Meyer.

Mkandawire was drawn to Penn State and the Schreyer Honors College because of the opportunities for research and “it was close to home.” He is eager to explore the engineering industry while continuing to create music.

“I’m still working at it,” he said. “But it’s something I really enjoy and I want to get better at. And I think it could be something that even though it’s on the side, I can use it in the future to share it with people so they can use it in whatever projects they’re doing.”

At least one filmmaker will have Mkandawire in mind for future projects.

“My hope is that even though he’s getting his engineering degree, he’ll keep cranking out music as well,” Meyer said, “so that filmmakers like myself can make these stories even more powerful.”

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total more than 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses. They represent the top 2 percent of students at Penn State who excel academically and lead on campus.

Last Updated September 13, 2019