Finding My Music Part 1: I Was a Weird Kid

The process of becoming a composer has been more difficult than I could have ever imagined. When I first began this journey at the age of sixteen I was just dicking around in a bootleg copy of Cakewalk that my brother had installed on my computer for me, not even realizing that it wasn’t primarily notation software. I spent those last years of high school writing random crap for whatever instrumentations popped into my head with no expectation to ever hear them played on real instruments. I also spent that time downloading midi files of every single video game track I could get my hands on and opening them in my software to see how they were constructed. It’s only now that I can look back on my teenage eccentricities and realize just how fucking weird I was.

I used to bring a study score of both Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Mozart’s Fortieth to school with me. When I would get bored in a class (anything from AP Calculus to AP Psychology) I would pretend to take notes and instead copy out the scores by hand to gain a better understanding of them. In a fit of boredom I start arranging video game music and other pieces for the saxophone section in my high school band. I arranged everything from the Super Mario Bros. theme song and the Mortal Kombat theme song to the C Major Fugue from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier Book 1. I was initially in the saxophone section of the high school band but switched to clarinet once I decided I wanted to “play serious music”.

Despite being a band nerd and starting out writing band music I actually had already been exposed to some very sophisticated repertoire at that age. My mother bought season tickets to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and would take me with her because my father did not enjoy the concerts. The earliest concert I can remember at all was when Andrew Litton was still the music director and he was conducting Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4. I fell asleep (which will be a running theme in my life). But the first concert that I really remember having an impact on me was the year Jaap Van Sweden took over the DSO. He opened his season with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and that is a piece that was and continues to be profoundly influential in my life. I remember seeing a performance of Bright Sheng’s Never Far Away for harp and orchestra and that in particular blew me away. On a high school band trip that same year I attended a performance by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble with the Chicago Symphony Orchstra.

What is probably even more unexpected is that in addition to the orchestral repertoire in my life I had been exposed to contemporary music including Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach and Peter Maxwell Davies Eight Songs of a Mad King. I heard these and many other piece around the time I was ten years old because my older sister was pursuing a jazz studies degree. She had a class that was almost exclusively listening exams and she would bring the CDs from that class home for me. I find it funny that I often feel like I had such a late start and exposure to classical music and particularly contemporary music. But it seems like nothing could be further from the truth.

Now my high school band director at the time was a complete jackass but he did encourage me to write a piece for the band and promised to perform it on the spring concert my junior year. This experience gave me my first taste of what it means to be a composer. In the weeks approaching the concert I had delivered a finished piece to the band director and with only a few days to go before the concert it had only been rehearsed twice and was a complete mess. So I did what anybody with any integrity would do and I pulled the piece, I picked the parts back up from the ensemble and said it would not be performed. You might think the story ends there but as I said this man was a jackass and in front of all of the parents and families at our band banquet the weekend before the concert he announced that the band would be premiering my piece. Mr. L as we called him had backed me into a corner, either I let the band butcher my piece, the first one I had truly written, or I pull the piece and look like a complete asshole. There was only one thing I could do and that was let them play the piece, I’m amazed I didn’t quit then.

At the same time that all of this was happening I was also participating in a separate band program outside of the school. When the director of that program found out I had written a piece for my high school he asked me why I had not written anything for his band. So fresh off the disappointment of my first piece I began the second. I wish I could remember the names of these piece but most of my earliest work no longer exists. In this second work I was much more ambitious, I remember that I drew inspiration from the works of Frank Ticheli and John Mackey because in the context of wind ensemble music that was what I knew. My second piece was also performed but under one very strict condition, I had to conduct the performance myself.

And now I have to take a moment of self reflection. I learned something very important about myself in the summer of 2008 that I refused to accept until years later. I am not meant to be in front of a room of people telling them what to do. I turn into a god damn dictator when you give me power. I move quickly and don’t like to compromise. So as an adult I don’t generally tell people what to do and I don’t take leadership roles in that capacity. I take care of myself and expect everyone else to handle their own shit.

That issue aside my second piece for concert band was a positive experience so I started writing more, I started on my third wind ensemble piece as well as some chamber music. My music still had no identity at that time but I was writing and creating. I was thinking about options for college and I decided I was interested in studying composition. But I needed guidance, I had no idea what I was doing and neither did anybody around me. As luck would have it John Mackey was living in Austin, Texas at time, a mere three hours away. I did what any sensible person would do, I sent him an email and asked if he ever taught lessons. Amazingly John got back to me, said yes, and told me his rate. My sister Karen was living in Austin at the time so I convinced my parents to pay for a lesson while I went down to visit her. That lesson with John is what truly set me on the path that I am currently walking…