Pandemic Update

Now that I have limitless time on my hands, I figured it would be a good idea to give a status update to everyone who cares, since I rarely post on Facebook and not everybody know and love follows me on Instagram, the only social media platform I regularly post on anymore.

First, I’m still alive and healthy, which I’m very thankful for.

Second, I know I said that I have limitless time on my hands just a few sentences ago, but that’s actually the opposite of the truth. Due to a unique set of circumstances, I have actually become much busier since the pandemic began than I was for many months preceding. As everyone and everything else is shutting down in isolation, I seem to be just waking up.

This is due to a simple reason: I got a day job.

Now, I truly wish I could look each and every one of you in the eye and tell you truthfully that I got a day job because this pandemic cancelled my large portfolio of upcoming gigs and took away my healthy stream of income, but I cannot. To be frank, I dearly wish this reality (the same reality many of my working musician friends are unfortunately experiencing right now) was my own, but it is not. The real story is that I have been struggling to survive for well over a year now, getting very little work and having to sell quite a few instruments and other gear just to get by and be able to pay rent each month. So, I have been applying to day jobs for a long time now and happened to finally land one essentially right as the California lockdown hit.

It took a long time, but this employment opportunity was perfect for a few reasons. First, I was at the end of my rope financially. If I couldn’t find a sustainable income by the end of this month, it was likely that I would have been out of Los Angeles for good by the end of the next. And considering I had essentially no musical dates lined up for the entirety of 2020 well before and right up to when the virus shut everything down, I would likely not have been able to find that income through music even without the virus.

The second reason this job is the perfect thing right now is that it’s for an essential business, so I am working full-time when most other people are unemployed. It’s not glamorous work (no retail job is), but it IS steady income and my coworkers are great. So, in a very interesting twist of events, when most people in the country (and much of the world) are now being forced to experience the lifestyle I’ve voluntarily lived most of my life as an introvert, I am now out of the house most of the day and interacting with more people on a regular basis than ever before (since I finished school, anyway). Granted, the “interacting with people” bit has me concerned in the midst of social distancing and isolation due to a global pandemic that I have no idea how my historically weak immune system would cope with if I got it, but right now I don’t have a choice.

The final way this job is perfect is that it’s a few blocks from my house, so I can walk there. S C O R E.

With a full-time work schedule, I now only have a few hours every evening to myself, and most of that has been spent doing some quick remote horn recording for clients through Fiverr. So, that’s another twist: I’m suddenly getting quite a bit of online-only musical work, which is awesome. I still need the job to get by (LA is expensive), but it’s helping me to get out of my financial hole faster (and believe me, it is quite the hole). In an ideal world, the pandemic would be over very soon and I would begin getting all kinds of gigs once everything opened up again, allowing me to go back to being totally freelance sooner rather than later, but…remember how crazy optimistic I was about 2020 (along with everyone else I knew) in my last blog post? Yeah…probably not a good idea to plan for that.

But here’s the point, and I promise it’s a positive one.

I have a job that will cover my expenses, and during this pandemic there’s no gig that that job could get in the way of so I can get down and make some money grabbing all the hours they’ll let me work without worrying about compromising my career. I’m getting paid pretty regularly to record horn parts for people on the side, and there will (allegedly) be a $1200 stimulus check coming eventually which will help a ton. So, even though my bank account looks bleak right now, it will only get better from here. In a few months I could be doing better financially than I was before I moved to LA, so hopefully by the time this pandemic gets solved I will be in a great position to make the rest of 2020 (and the rest of the decade) amazing.

I’m blessed with health and employment and, although my mental health is still very fractured for a lot of reasons, I have reason to be joyful. And right now, I will gladly take that.

2020 Vision

It’s not very often that a decade ends.

Well, ok. That’s not strictly accurate. Technically the decade-long timespan that began at 3:56 pm on December 31st, 2009 (PST, obviously) is ending as I type this. But a calendar decade, like the ’80s or the 1350s BC, is a much rarer and more significant event. (I did some complex differential equations and determined that it happens every ten years.)

Of course, nothing significant happens when the ball drops and the clock strikes midnight every year. As far as I can work out, lots of people sharing a kiss is the only thing significant that happens when the calendar rolls over (not for me yet, but we’ll get there). It should be business as usual for the genesis of 2020, and the fact that the part of the world that’s already in 2020 (as I type this still stuck in 2019) hasn’t burst into flames and/or ascended to another plane of existence is pretty good evidence for that. But everyone I know, as well as society at large, is placing huge importance on the beginning of the roaring ’20s.

Why?

Well, at least from the 20th century forward, decades have been the unit of time that defines our society. When you hear or read “the ’40s” or “the ’80s” you can instantly conjure up music, fashion, pop culture, and world events that defined that decade. Probably more things than that depending on what you’re into (for me it’s cars and trains). Each decade leaves a unique weave on the fabric of our culture that can only be imitated…never matched. Many people wish they were born in a different decade or were in their prime in a different decade. Sure, you could probably claim some decades were worse than others with a reasonable amount of evidence (it’s probably safe to say that the Great Depression-stricken ’30s were worse than the Roaring ’20s), but ultimately each one remains as an important window into what it was like to be a human at that time. With the 2010s coming to a close, we can now look back on it as a snapshot of who we were, collectively and individually.

Additionally, many people think of a new year as a new beginning – a blank slate providing opportunities for personal growth and exciting new adventures. As mentioned before, nothing really changes when the clock ticks over to midnight, but a placebo effect that works is just as valid as anything else. Imagine, then, how much of a fresh start a new decade could be. With the 2010s on their deathbed (to the relief of many, let’s be honest), we (collectively) have 3,653 days to leave a new imprint on future history books. So it’s no surprise that people are excited.

For me, leaving the 2010s is bittersweet.

On January 1, 2010, I was a junior in high school. Still yet to begin breaking out of my perpetually shy and socially awkward self, still with a buzz cut and big Harry Potter glasses, and entirely unaware of the course my life was about to take. Now, on the eve of January 1, 2020, I have two college degrees, have unintentionally fooled people into thinking I’m an extrovert, have 2-foot-long hair and no glasses, and am still entirely unaware of the course my life is about to take.

The big stages of peoples’ lives don’t usually neatly mirror calendar decades, but mine is pretty close. And furthermore, I can confidently claim that the 2010s (essentially from exactly January 1, 2010, to now) were jam-packed with nearly every event, decision, and milestone that has shaped my life thus far and will continue to shape it until the day I die. (The one notable exception as far as I can remember is deciding to join the 5th-grade band in 2003 because my brother was in it.) Granted, that’s not at all a surprise considering you don’t usually have to make many life-altering decisions before you decide what to major in, but my point is that the 2010s were an extremely important decade for me. You could say that everything before 2010 was just a tutorial and 2010 was when I started actually living.

Before I leave the 2010s (and 2019 specifically) to focus on the 2020s, I want to briefly summarize all of the great things that I was blessed to experience in the 2010s. (More detailed summaries of every year and group of years are covered plentifully by older posts in this blog.)

  • 2011: I graduated from high school and moved to Bloomington, Indiana to begin my seven years at Indiana University. Before graduating I got to perform on stage and trade solos with one of my trombone heroes, play three different instruments on my swan song high school band concert, and conduct the top band playing my first ever musical composition…all in one week. At that time it was by far the best week of my life thus far. Once I began studying at IU in the fall, I was placed in the Latin Jazz Ensemble, which began an incredible journey learning Afro-Cuban music via two of the best mentors on the planet.
  • 2013: I won a bass trombone solo competition at the annual Eastern Trombone Workshop.
  • 2014: In my junior year, I won the IU Brass Concerto competition on bass trombone and performed my winning piece as a featured soloist with orchestra. (I would win it again on euphonium the following year.) Additionally, I was recorded as the bass trombonist on two full albums, including one that was Grammy nominated.
  • 2015: I graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in bass trombone and euphonium (and a minor in jazz studies). Before graduating in May, I gave my senior bass trombone recital on April 27th, entitled Kodachrome. Kodachrome was a 40-minute piece I wrote for 42 of my friends and I to perform in lieu of a traditional, boring recital. The satisfaction of pulling it off after a very arduous journey, the thrill of performing it, and the immense outpouring of love I received from everyone (both performers and audience) afterwards made it a truly magical night. At that time it was the best day of my life thus far. And the reception afterwards, in which my family all took off their shirts to reveal matching custom shirts they had made just for the event, was the icing on the cake. (I couldn’t leave the 2010s without sharing that to the world at least once.) Finally, in the second half of 2015, I also began working for Dr. Tyron Cooper and the IU Soul Revue, which was the best job and family anyone could ever ask for and very significant in the course my life would take.
  • 2016: I began my master’s degree at IU. I wasn’t planning to, but I was offered an amazing assistantship to stay working for the Soul Revue for two more years. I felt that I didn’t need to get another performance degree, so I went for something that would broaden my pallette – jazz composition. (I also really just want to learn how to write like Brent Wallarab and Wayne Wallace do.) A jazz composition degree did not exist, but Tom Walsh (the chair of the jazz department) demonstrated his capacity for being the real-est of real ones and let me do it anyway. Additionally, in the second half of 2016 I joined the fledgling band Huckleberry Funk. Huck Funk became one of my cherished families, as well as very significant in my musical development. It exposed me (and got me addicted to) a side of playing music that you could never get in a music school (or even in the Soul Revue, really), and began my synthesizer obsession. Finally, I was recorded on another Grammy-nominated album, this time on four different instruments.
  • 2018: Possibly the banner year of the decade. I completed my master’s degree, played my last shows with the Soul Revue and Huckleberry Funk, received a prestigious jazz composition award, met and subsequently played a gig with Bootsy Collins, and then moved to Los Angeles (soon after which, the first Huckleberry Funk EP was released). I had been planning to eventually end up in LA ever since I arrived at IU, because I wanted to play on the big movie scores. I finally made the leap of faith in 2018 and began the long climb from the bottom. Before graduating from IU again in May, I staged the sequel to Kodachrome, entitled Ektachrome, as my master’s recital. This one was longer and far more ambitious, and it…sort of worked.
  • 2019: After a very optimistic end-of-2018 blog post, 2019 turned out to be a giant slog of a year, and one that I’m very happy is over. However, I got to do some pretty wild things in 2019, such as perform with the Los Angeles Opera and Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, record lots of horn parts that I wrote for a certain previously mentioned funk icon, and have four albums that I played on get released. I also played a gig in Tijuana wearing a sailor hat and played piano in a band (somehow). I also accomplished two very significant personal milestones in 2019: I wrote a symphony and released a solo album. Finally, I found an incredible church and community in January, which kept me sane as I barely scraped together enough money to survive throughout the year.

So, yeah. It was a pretty eventful decade. At this point I should probably do a more detailed total summary of 2019, but…I don’t really want to. I am very ready for this year to be over, so I’m just going to skip that. Now nobody can accuse me of padding my word count!

Alright. Now that it’s the late morning on January 1st, let’s talk about the very real new year and decade.

2020 has the potential to be the most important year of my life. I’ve lived in LA for 16 months now and, while it’s been a monumental struggle just to stay afloat, I think I now have a good foundation to build upon and potentially really thrive from. I have a feeling that the next few years will bring my musical career trajectory more into focus, or at least hint at it. As is I’ve put my foot in quite a few different areas and I don’t know what is going to stick…or make me a living. Additionally, the entirety of the 2010s has essentially set me up for where I am now, and it’s the job of the 2020s to grow the fruits of those labors. What are those fruits? At present, I have no idea. My career could go an infinite many directions, all drastically different from one another.

But forget about the potential for a moment. What do I want to accomplish in 2020 and the ’20s?

In 2020 I would like to write another symphony and release another album. (It feels good to say that these feel like very attainable goals.) I would also like to nurture all my friendships, new and old, and I would like to improve myself and (perhaps more importantly) my opinion of myself. Finally, I would like to make more than barely enough money to pay rent each month, so that I don’t have to sell any more instruments or be in a constant state of near-mental breakdown. That would be good! 

Meanwhile, in the ’20s, I would love to see my musical career blossom into something spectacular, in whatever form that may take. But as long as I’m playing good music with good people and making enough money to live comfortably, I’ll be happy. Honestly though, apart from finding love and moving into a place I’m really happy with, I can’t think of many more goals I have for the decade. The fact that everything that happened in the 2010s all happened in that single decade is mind-boggling to me. It feels like I lived an entire lifetime in those ten years, so I kind of short circuit when I try to imagine all the things that might happen in the ’20s. But I am confident that whatever does happen will be better than anything I can hope for.

Here’s one thing I know for sure, though:

Everyone is excited for 2020.

Many people my age that I love, know, or follow think that 2020 is going to be a great year, or even their year. The optimism is everywhere, and it’s contagious. And alongside this optimism is something else: a battle cry announcing that we are going to make 2020 our year, and the ’20s our decade, whether they want us to or not. That we are going to grab the year and decade and conquer them with maximum zeal. There is something in the air that says “this is our time”. Of course, people say confident nothings about the new year every year, but this feels much more palpable than the usual half-optimistic resolutions. And I am so here for it.

I’m ready to go big and not go home in the Roaring ’20s. I’m ready to take that optimism and fervor and turn it into a life worth remembering. And I’m ready to do it side by side with the people I love.

You in?

I Made an Album.

At the very end of November, I released my first ever album. (It’s called “Small Talk” and you can listen to it for free on Bandcamp.) This blog has been a good place for me to collect my thoughts and spit them out after doing or experiencing anything significant, and I definitely need that closure with this album so here we are.

Since 1999, a project called National Novel Writing Month has taken place every year. Its goal is to get participating writers to break free of never getting anything done under the constant oppression of that almighty personal dictator, Perfection. This is accomplished by setting a timeframe of just one month to write an entire >50,000-word novel. With such a short amount of time to write something that large, you cannot afford to take the time to make every word and phrase perfect…you just have to start writing, and not stop. And if life has taught me anything, it’s that looming deadlines are the ultimate motivator.

Although I do love writing and aspire to write a novel someday, I am not exactly well-equipped with zero novel-writing experience to participate in NaNoWriMo. However, in recent years a musical equivalent called National Solo Album Month has gained popularity, and as it was inspired by the novel-writing challenge it has much of the same ideals. The NaSoAlMo website explains it perfectly:

NaSoAlMo favors enthusiasm, creativity, and perseverance, rather than perfectionism. It encourages musicians and would-be songwriters to silence their inner critic for thirty days in order to inspire and maximize productivity. The albums are likely to be hastily written, off-time, and out of tune, and that’s okay! The main objective is to just do it.

There are a couple of other similar challenges during the month of February, but NaSoAlMo has my favorite set of guidelines (and 30 days instead of 28 or 29). I’ve meant to participate for a few years now, but this year I decided I was going to commit to it. I had a light schedule throughout November and all the tools I needed to record. However, based on previous years I was still unsure if I would have the motivation necessary to finish, so I told several of my close friends about the challenge and asked if they would be interested in making an attempt as well, so we could be more motivated with our friends at our side. In the end I ended up surmounting the challenge by myself, but the thought of others potentially doing it with me helped me actually start and commit.

One of the guidelines set by the challenge is that you can’t use pre-existing material. Everything has to be done in November, including the earliest stages of songwriting. So, in the few days before November 1st, I prepared by organizing synth sounds and getting my recording setup in order. Once November arrived, I hit the ground running. For the rest of the month, I worked on the album with every ounce of free time I had (except for Sundays, so really I finished the album in 26 days). The result, obviously, is that I successfully made an album from start to finish in under one month.

So what did I learn?

First and foremost, I learned that the paralysis of perfection is a bigger problem for me than I had thought. I knew it was a problem, but I didn’t realize the extent until I began working on this album. The second I started, deliberately trying to avoid perfection and just crank material out, I was insanely productive. The first eight days of November I finished almost all of the rhythm section tracks for the entire album, including coming up with the initial ideas for nothing, figuring out chord progressions and form, and deciding on specific sounds. That means about one song a day – all that was left was to put vocals and horns on top. How crazy is that? I was completely shocked and bewildered at my own productivity.

The rest of the month was a bit slower because I got busier, but I was still able to knock things out quickly. And – crucially – everything I had been creating (regardless of how quickly) was good. Not just passable or “okay”. Every song on the album came from the first idea I had while messing around on a synth, which I just ran with once I had it. I only needed one tiny spark of an idea to blossom into a full song skeleton within hours. How this was possible I couldn’t fathom, but when the time came to write the horn and vocal parts on top of the base I had, it all became clear.

When I was getting my master’s degree at Indiana University, I worked as the horn coach for the IU Soul Revue. A big part of that job was composing horn parts for the horn section to play for songs that had none. I got extremely fast at it, especially because I discovered that my very first idea for a line was almost always the best one. I could write new horn parts for a full song in as little as 15 minutes by singing ideas along with the song and immediately inputting them into my notation software, orchestrating them and then making the parts look good. When I was done I had new horn parts that I legitimately loved and was excited about without having to so much as entertain a second listen of the song for other ideas.

The same thing happened with the horn parts on this album, and I realized then that the same thing had happened with the songs themselves earlier. I took my first idea and ran with it, and it turned into something I was excited about every time. As far as composition goes, I think that’s one of my greatest gifts, second only to another one which I also used in this album.

My greatest compositional gift (in my opinion) is the ability to subconsciously have the music’s existing melodies and motifs influence what I write at all times. And when I say subconsciously, I really do mean that. When I compose, whether it’s classical or jazz or the songs on this album, I almost never think about thematic continuity but go back to discover that it exists in beautiful ways anyway. I didn’t even realize it had happened on this album until I was in the shower thinking about one of the songs (the title track). I sang through one of the verses and then the disco section at the end, and had a eureka moment where I realized the vocal melodies in these two sections, which are very different in feel, chords, and texture, have exactly the same rhythms and contour. I wrote the ending disco melody long after I wrote the verses, on a different day and without listening to the verses first. Yet I still wrote a melody that perfectly mirrored what already existed in the song. This is a phenomenon that I have noticed after the fact all over every piece I’ve ever written, but it’s mind-blowing to me every time.

One of the hardest parts of the album was writing lyrics. Apart from a few words here and there that never went anywhere, I had never written lyrics before in my life. How was I supposed to do it now, in a time constraint? I had to take extra time to listen over and over again and try to think of words to go with the music, but I did end up with lyrics I was very happy with. I notably always wrote the melody first and added lyrics to that, rather than writing the melody to the lyrics. As a brass player first, it worked much better that way for me. The only downside, which I only discovered when trying to record the vocals, was that a lot of the melodies were not very easy to sing! I was still in my horn section frame of mind and that made the vocal recording take quite a lot of time. I’m not a vocalist by any means, so I having to coax my voice into navigating these hard melodies I had written for myself was no easy task.

The other hard part of the album was attempting to mix it. Just as I’m not a vocalist, I’m also not a sound engineer, and apart from adjusting balance and panning on some of my brass multitracks, I had never tried to legitimately mix anything. That took a lot of time, and although the result is far from a professional mix, I have been pleasantly surprised at how the balance and quality of the initial mix has held up on phone speakers and other sub-standard sound systems. These songs definitely deserve to be professionally mixed and mastered, and I am positive that I’ll pay to get that done eventually, at which point I can think about physical releases and things like that. That said, I’m very glad I did it by myself because this album was intended to be a learning experience and I definitely know a lot more about production and mixing than I did before.

The craziest thing to me about this album is how many parts of it I had never done before, despite being an experienced musician. To recap, making this album is the first time I have ever:

  • Sang lead vocals
  • Written lyrics
  • Finished a song
  • Attempted to mix and produce
  • Made an album

…all within 30 days. With all that considered I’m enormously proud of what I’ve created. Looking forward, I definitely plan to do more time-restricted albums, but I want to change it up. I’d like to make my own restrictions rather than participating in the February challenges with their inferior rulesets or just sticking to the NaSoAlMo guidelines. I’d like to have friends play on songs rather than do everything alone. I’d like to experiment with different lengths of time like two months or six weeks. I’d like to try different genres to explore more of my influences. But most importantly, I’d like to keep doing it because I’m learning and improving so much, and that’s the point.

Well, there is one other important point.

Possibly the best thing about this album, as told to me by close friends and colleagues, is that I did it for me. I didn’t do it because someone else asked me to, or because I’m getting paid to, or because I needed to. I did it because I wanted to. I did it for fun, and to learn. As someone with a career as a sideman playing other people’s music (and I wouldn’t have it any other way, mind you), to make something entirely because I want to and not because I have to or was hired to is pretty significant. At the end of the day, music is still what I’m passionate about and I’m happy to fill up my whole life with it.

Still gotta make another Christmas Multitrack though…

A Year in LA

One year ago, to the day (and nearly to the hour, as of this writing), I arrived in sunny Los Angeles, nursing my overloaded Subaru Forester to its new home after an arduous three-day journey across the country. The months that followed were going to be difficult ones, as starting from scratch in a new city where nobody knows your name is never easy. But I jumped in as best I could and am still standing a year later.

Am I standing tall yet? Not really. To describe my current situation as a struggle is quite an understatement, but I never expected it to be easy and I will not quit. And in the midst of tribulation, I’ve been blessed to be a part of some very cool things.

I got to play with the Los Angeles Opera, I got to perform in the Disney Concert Hall where the LA Philharmonic plays, I got to perform in Tijuana with the voice of Spongebob, I’ve played trombone quartets (and cornhole!) semi-regularly with three LA legends, I got to record for Bootsy Collins, I got to record on a film soundtrack, I got to play a musical in the heart of Hollywood, I got to meet and jam with several world-renowned artists, I wrote a symphony, and I ate copious amounts of the best tacos in the world.

I also wrote a multi-movement trombone quartet based on IHOP menu items.

Truthfully, since I happened to arrive here on the 1st of a month, I kind of feel like September 1st is now my New Year’s Day. January 1st never meant too much to me since it falls in the middle of the scholastic year, but now it means even less. I’ve even had to think about it when people ask me how my year has been – a moment of hesitation occurs when I have to work out if they mean my year or just calendar year.

So what’s in store for year 2? So far not a lot, but that will hopefully change. I have been inexplicably getting some gigs playing principal trombone in orchestras, which is something I’ve never really done before. I played one last night in Laguna Beach (for the Pageant of the Masters) and I am playing another one with the Pasadena Symphony in a couple of weeks. Later on, I will be taking an audition for the bass trombone spot in the San Diego Symphony, a couple of albums I’m on will come out, and that should round out 2019. A lot of other things are in the works and 2020 is really up in the air, but if things line up the way they seem to be trending I’ll be in great shape.

Speaking of 2020, I’m not ready for that to be a real year.

When I was little, one of the things I did a lot was watch VHS tapes of a TV show called “Extreme Engineering” that my mom would record for me. Every episode was about an existing idea for some future megastructure, like a mile-high skyscraper or a vacuum tube train underneath the Atlantic Ocean or a huge bridge across the Strait of Gibraltar. Every feature would be explored with detailed CGI, and at the end of every episode a scenario would play out where the completed structure had to cope with some emergency. I mention all of this because in every episode the year of the scenario was 2020.

I watched those episodes countless times each, and since then my mind’s dictionary has defined “2020” as “the future”. To me, that year can only be in the future – it’s science fiction. For it to be the present (not to mention in a world in much worse shape than those programs portrayed) is not something I’m at all prepared for. Ten-year-old me would probably be shocked that I wasn’t an architect, as that’s what I wanted to be right up until I decided to major in music. I’m happy with that decision, but not happy that 2020 is four months away. Anyway, I digress.

I suppose with year 2 upon me I should set some goals. Goals are always a good thing and the few people who do keep up with this blog are welcome to hold me to them. So, without further ado, here are my tentative goals for 1 ALM (After LA Move):

  1. Don’t die or run out of money
  2. Play gigs more frequently, meet more people
  3. Play on at least one more film session
  4. Write another symphony
  5. Begin to thrive (rather than just survive)

The first goal is the easiest to understand, but possibly the hardest one to execute. Rent, gas, and pretty much everything (except street tacos) is very expensive in LA and it has been an uphill battle trying to stay afloat. Goal number two will help a lot with that. As is gigs have been very infrequent and often low (or no) paying, which in this town will cause your bank account to panic very quickly.

The second goal is easy enough to understand, especially as meeting more people is a good way to get more gigs. I just have to meet the right ones.

The third goal makes sense when you consider that although I really just want to make a good living with music however I can, the main reason I moved to LA was to try to be a session musician. I was fortunate enough to play on a film session last October and it was an awesome experience, so I think playing on one more is a reasonable goal.

The fourth goal is a lofty one but could be possible. I wrote the first one in a month (even though I essentially planned for a decade), so one year could be enough time especially considering I also wrote two symphony-sized pieces in college in much less than a year each.

The fifth goal is the most important of the five. It’s obviously essential to accomplish the first goal, but just surviving and barely squeaking out a living has been what I’ve been doing this year and I would very much prefer to not have to spend another year, or even another month, that way. To thrive is something else entirely; it means you no longer have to constantly worry if you’ll have enough money to pay rent each month. It means you can devote all your free time and energy to being creative, building relationships, and ultimately doing what it is you really want to be doing without having to worry about putting food on the table or gas in the car. And, crucially, that your trajectory is only pointing upwards.

We all strive to thrive. Let’s see if it will be my turn this year.

I Wrote a Symphony.

When I was in the eighth grade, I had an old Casio keyboard. I don’t remember how my mom got it, but she gave it to me one day and from that day forward I regularly tinkered around with it, not really having any idea what I was doing. At that time my musical experience was playing euphonium in school band and nothing else, and I had no knowledge of keyboard playing or music theory or anything like that. What I did know was that this old Casio made sounds and I enjoyed playing around with it.

Every day after school I would come home, eat a snack while telling my mom about my day at school, then go down to the basement to sit on the floor and poke around on the Casio. (I’d then do my homework and watch Home Improvement at 6 and Monster Jam at 7 to complete the daily ritual.) Eventually, I began playing the same things each time on the Casio, having learned what keyboard sounds and harmonies I liked best out of the ones I had discovered. One day I decided that I should take these things I kept playing and write them down, and my journey as a composer began.

I had always been interested in classical music thanks to my mom, and my listening collection (consisting of CDs borrowed from my grandmother) was almost entirely orchestral works played by great orchestras. That was the sound in my head, and so when I started composing I almost immediately came up with a goal: to write a symphony. From that point forward everything I wrote was written with that goal in mind, but as a young, totally inexperienced composer the progress was slow. My parents helped me along by buying me the student version of Sibelius 5 as a birthday gift, and later the full version of Sibelius 6 as a Christmas gift (which remains to this day the best gift I’ve ever received). But as my compositional ability increased, the amount of time I had to compose decreased. AP classes in high school caused my homework load to skyrocket every night, and I began playing in more groups outside of school. Playing was (and remains) my primary passion so I wasn’t bothered by not being able to compose a lot, but by the time I shipped off to Indiana for college I still hadn’t written much of the symphony.

During my undergrad studies at IU I thought about the symphony a lot. I brought my book of music staff paper everywhere with me and would spend boring lectures sketching out ideas, but it was slow going. By the end of my undergrad I had two movements written, but I never got a note further. Ironically, while my symphony stagnated I wrote two symphony-length pieces for my last two IU recitals. The second of which, Ektachrome, consisted of 100% original composed material for 70 musicians and could very easily be considered a symphony. But it wasn’t the symphony, the one I started writing at the genesis of my compositional career.

Fast forward to about a month ago (February 2019). With the massive increase in free time afforded by not being in school anymore, I decided to tackle the symphony once again. After listening through what had been written for years, I made a startling conclusion. If I was going to write this symphony, I needed to start from scratch. I had progressed so much as a composer during my time at IU (especially during my master’s, where I studied composition directly) that I was unsatisfied with everything I had written.

So I started over.

Now, I didn’t start completely over. The symphony’s identity came from the themes I had written for it over the years, and although I had discarded what I had written, the themes still held up and I wanted desperately to finally get them out of my head and into a piece that everyone could hear. The symphony’s identity had to remain strong even as I started over.

One of the struggles I have as a composer (as does every composer) is lack of inspiration. Sometimes I get a massive burst of it but it only lasts for maybe one day and then is gone again. Professional composers must keep a constant output instead of always waiting for inspiration – taking over a decade to write a piece (no matter how long or large) doesn’t really fly if you have to use your compositions to pay your bills. Fortunately, although I have gotten paid to arrange and transcribe music enough that I consider it part of my professional portfolio and career, nobody pays me to write symphonies so I can take the time. But “taking the time” (combined with being incomprehensibly busy) resulted in the symphony remaining incomplete after over a decade.

But something interesting happened when I started over a month ago. I was inspired immediately and never lost that inspiration for a month. I spent entire days doing nothing but feverishly writing, trying to milk this uncharacteristic sustained inspiration for all it was worth. Maybe it wasn’t all inspiration – maybe I had just matured as a composer enough that all I needed was one spark to get rolling for a while. Whatever it was, it worked. I wrote four movements in about two weeks – twice as much material as I had written in the past twelve years. I slowed down significantly for the fifth and final movement, wanting to give extra care to the finale to ensure the themes occupying my mind for over a decade were given the best possible send-off.

Yesterday night, on March 6th 2019, I wrote the final note.

Now, I should clarify that my work with the piece is far from over. Editing the score and parts to make them look nice and be easily readable takes a very long time and will occupy me for a good long while. Engraving is an art form in itself, one that is entirely separate from actually composing the music. But the important thing is that all the notes are written, and the symphony as a musical (not visual) entity is complete.

I wish I could describe how it feels to complete something I’ve been working on for over a decade, or most of my life as a musician. I wish I could describe how it feels to listen to it in its entirety and to be ecstatic at the product from start to finish. But words, as they so often are, are woefully inadequate at describing those feelings. The only thing that can really describe the elation, pride, satisfaction, and overwhelming joy I feel is the music itself. And one of the most beautiful things about the piece is that I believe it really does convey all the emotions I have felt during the writing process. The ending calmly states “it is finished” and flourishes to a final outburst of pure euphoria.

But don’t let my words try to describe the music: here is the audio of the piece in its entirety.

Now of course, this recording is made by exporting the playback directly from the notation software. But the sounds are surprisingly good, and sound convincing enough that I think the listener can get an idea of what the piece should sound like. Obviously the ultimate goal is for it to be performed by a real orchestra, but even if that doesn’t happen in my lifetime I will be happy.

The symphony is scored for a large orchestra with some unusual instruments included: bass trumpet, contrabass trombone, lupophon, subcontrabassoon, chromatic hammered dulcimer, and an extended-range grand piano. Looking through this list brings me to a point I’ve wanted to discuss for a while.

From the day I first bought my mellophonium on eBay, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with rare and unusual instruments. I think it’s a shame that there are so many different types of instruments out there that don’t get used, or at least don’t get used nearly enough. Recently I’ve realized that this interest in the obscure has matured into a desire, above all else, to contribute to the repertoire for all of them, in hopes of making them a little more common, well-known, and understood. This does not mean that I’ll shoehorn an octocontrabass clarinet in a piece that really doesn’t call for it, but rather that I won’t feel restricted in what instruments I write for based on if something is commonly used or not. To compose for these instruments and expose them to new ears and minds, both with performance pieces (as soloists or part of a larger ensemble) and etudes/method books, has become one of my primary quests in life.

Take the subcontrabassoon for existence. This is an instrument that does not even exist yet, but is in the lengthy process of being built by an intrepid contrabassoonist/machinist/CAD designer named Richard Bobo. Because it doesn’t exist yet, there is no repertoire for it. Or rather, there WAS no repertoire for it before some composers learned of the project and started writing for it. Instruments like this will never get past the prototype stage if nobody ever writes anything for them. It falls on composers to make these instruments needed, not the players (excluding in an improvisational setting of course)!

I fully realize that using multiple abnormal instruments will affect my pieces’ performability, but these instruments will never become more widespread of somebody doesn’t start writing for them, and as I’m not making a living cranking out symphonies I’m perfectly fine with writing pieces that don’t fit an easily performable mould if it means doing my part to popularize instruments otherwise left to the forgotten vaults of musical instrument taxonomy. If I can help make the 97-key piano from F0 to F8 the new standard, or to make the bass trumpet and euphonium more than a novelty in the orchestra, I will jump at the chance. I encourage any composer with an interest in more than just standard instrumentation to do the same.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to start writing my next symphony…