Finding My Music Part 2: Intro to Existential Dread

In August of 2008 I travelled down to Austin, Texas to have my first composition lesson. I had reached out John Mackey a few months prior about having a lesson with him and amazingly he agreed. So with pieces for wind ensemble, mixed chamber ensemble, and solo piano I presented my music to one of my first composer idols. John was incredibly kind and dug into my music in intimate detail. One thing that still stands out in my mind is a discussion we had about articulation. He took a passage of one of my pieces that was lacking articulation and started adding slurs and staccato markings in various combinations to demonstrate how articulation can drastically change the effect of a single passage of music. Even though I had only worked out an hour lesson with him he ended up spending over three hours working with me. He talked to me about potential schools I was looking at applying to as well as how to tailor my portfolio to best showcase myself. This is the earliest memory I have of meeting a composer I looked up to and having a truly positive experience (not all of them have been so great).

I returned to Dallas newly reinvigorated after my lesson with John. I was entering my senior year at Bishop Lynch High School and had no idea how tumultuous the upcoming year would be. I was starting my second year as the drum major of my high school band and had to work with a band director who had been a complete jackass towards me in the spring. I was juggling a full load of college level courses, band programs inside and outside of school, the school play, and finishing my portfolio for college applications.

Within the second week of the semester tensions had already started to flare, I was going to have to miss one football game in order to perform in the school play. God forbid, whatever was the band director going to do? (Cue massive eye roll here) What he decided to do was get incredibly mad at me and set an ultimatum that I had to quit the play or he would fail me. I don’t remember my exact response but it was a slightly politer version of telling him to suck it. The semester continued relatively smoothly despite fairly frequent fights with the band director until one Friday in early November. I may not remember the exact date but I will never forget what happened. Around 3:00 in the afternoon I was called to the administrative office of my high school. I was a relatively well behaved kid and had only served one detention in my life so I had no idea why I was being called to the office. When I got to the office I knew something serious was going on as the entire senior administration of the school was in there. I sat down and was told that I would not be allowed to participate with the band at the football game that evening. Now there were multiple problems with that statement the first being that the only reason I was given for this is that the band director “would not be comfortable having me there”. The second problem was my car was in the shop and I had not driven myself to school that morning. I lived over thirty minutes away from my school and by this point the school day was ending in less than fifteen minutes. I asked to call my mom, calmly explained the situation to her in front of the “adults” in the room while holding back tears, and with that I had been kicked out of my high school band program.

Most of my friends at the time were in band and the administration felt it was their right to lie to my friends and tell them that I had quit the program. Anybody who has ever been in high school band knows that the kids can be quite tribal and quitting in the middle of competition season would be considered at minimum a shitty thing to do and at worst a betrayal. Within the next week almost all of my friends in band had stopped talking to me and those would be friendships that were never repaired. In part this is why there is only one person from my pre-college life who I still have any kind of frequent contact with.

The events that transpired in the fall of 2008 taught me one of the most important lessons that I have ever learned and one that sadly I have needed to be reminded of a few times over the years. I learned that I should never expect people in positions of authority to do anything that is in my best interest. It’s a nice surprise when they do but it’s safer to assume they’re self-serving scumbags.

For the rest of November I threw myself into my work for school and my portfolio. I applied to three music composition programs at the University of Miami, University of Texas Austin, and University of Southern California. And with that it was time to start counting down the days until I could get the fuck out of Dallas.

Having completed my portfolio for schools I began writing my next pieces in the spring of 2009. I created an arrangement for concert band of the first two movements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. And a short original work for concert band that was performed by my band program outside of school in May of that year, which I again conducted. During that semester I also had auditions for the University of Texas Austin and University of Miami. When I was applying I had been completely torn about what instrument to audition on but settled on clarinet. I went to my auditions with the first two movements of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and two of the Rose Etudes. My first audition was at UT, I stepped into the room to audition and played a brief excerpt of the first movement of the Mozart before the professors stopped me and asked for the second movement. I remember playing about the first line of music before they cut me off, said they had heard enough, and that they would be in touch. The only good thing that truly came out of my trip to Austin was a visit to a local record store where I bought a recording of John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man. That piece has had a significant role in my life, but I’ll get into that later. This wouldn’t be my last time at the University of Texas but that story comes much later.

My audition at the University of Miami later that semester was drastically different. Unlike at UT I got to meet the composition professors and sit in on a seminar being led by Lansing McLoskey. He was presenting his recent work for Clarinet and Basset Horn called Blur, the seminar was focused on the concept of consonance and dissonance and how can we as composers move the line between the two. I didn’t quite get the concept at the time but it was fascinating and intellectually stimulating. Then I had to audition. I walked into a room with the flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon professors. The clarinet professor, Dr. Donaghue, was welcoming and friendly. I got the impression that she didn’t want me to be nervous and that was incredibly reassuring (and a complete contrast to my experience at UT). They asked me to play one of the Rose Etudes I had prepared and as I played the oboe professor began to hum along with it. I couldn’t believe what was happening and I almost stopped playing but managed to get through. Now I was never the best clarinetist but at the time I thought I was hot shit (spoiler: I definitely was not). Luckily Dr. D has always seemed to understand that a composition or therapy applicant may not need as high of a proficiency level as a performance applicant to be successful in their chosen field.

I returned home to Dallas and had my first experience with fighting off panic as I waited for the results of my applications. Time seemed to drag on as I sat in classes I didn’t particularly care about like Linear Algebra and A.P. Psychology. The first letter I got was from UT and it was in a small envelope and we all know what that means, a crisp clean rejection letter. But then on April 1st when I was full on panicking I got home from school and a big envelope was waiting for me. I had been accepted to the University of Miami, I would say the rest is history but there have been a few twists and turns along the way so far.

After the performance of my third band piece near the end of May I began writing my fourth piece for concert band that was slated to be premiered at a summer band program in July. This is the first piece I wrote that I can remember the title of, Return to Paradise. It would be a few more years before I figured how to title my pieces in a way that wasn’t utter garbage. This piece was in two distinct sections, it began with a short introductory section that primarily consisted of solo lines in the woodwinds where I was doing some early experimentation with rhythms I had seen in the score to The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. The second section of the piece was a fantasy on Sheep May Safely Graze from J.S. Bach’s Hunting Cantata (Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208). I had heard the Egon Petri transcription of this piece performed in a recital by Yeol Eum Son during the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition just prior to starting work on my piece. I only had three weeks to bang out my fourth band piece and I knew working with pre-existing material would allow me to put something together incredibly quickly. I had an immediate connection with Sheep May Safely Graze and it is a piece that has had an important place in my life to this day.