Another Chapter Complete

It was a little shorter than the last one, this chapter. Chapter Three took four years to complete, and Chapter Four took three. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.

If you consider that Chapter Two took six years, and Chapter One took eleven, you could postulate that as the chapters seem to be getting progressively shorter, the next one will be two years at most. All I can say is I hope that’s not the case. If all goes well, this chapter will be much longer than any previous chapter, and perhaps the last one in the book.

The book, of course, being the book of my life, as told from my perspective.

You could make an argument that Chapter Four was actually not a separate chapter, but really the second part of Chapter Three. After all, it was still in Bloomington and still involved being a student at IU. But, although it has more than a few similarities to Chapter Three, I maintain that Chapter Four brought forth massive changes in my life and warrants a separate chapter.

Chapter Four has already been fairly well covered by three articles on this blog. However, for those who don’t keep up with my annual (and sometimes bi-annual) ramblings – and I don’t blame you – here’s a summary:

On May 2015 I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, ending Chapter Three for good. The next summer doesn’t even deserve a chapter, and was really just a holding pattern in which I was subjected to retail torture until I could be offered a job working for the Soul Revue and Chapter Four could begin. That Soul Revue job was one of the best things that ever happened to me, and my love for the job directly caused me to be offered a deal I couldn’t refuse that resulted in my return to IU and completion of a master’s degree less than a month ago.

Too many amazing things to list occurred over these past three years, so instead here’s a list of all the things I did in that time that I wouldn’t believe if you had told me beforehand:

  • Met Jerry Hey, one of my heroes
  • Met and got to play for Bootsy Collins, a funk legend
  • Had lessons with Bill Reichenbach and Alex Iles
  • Played synthesizer (?!) solos in front of hundreds of screaming fans
  • Played multiple concerts with the IU Latin Jazz Ensemble, on multiple instruments, with nearly every chart being a composition, arrangement, or transcription with my name on it, all without even being a member of the ensemble
  • Received a jazz composition award given in memory of David Baker
  • Became part of a community that actually felt like a home (the African-American Arts Institute)
  • Got paid to play instruments in a funk band that absolutely do not belong in a funk band, such as alto trombone and mellophonium

To list everything great that happened over these three years would take a novel, and I graduated from IU a second time with my heart full and my head held high. If forced to do everything over, from the day I first set foot in Bloomington until now, I don’t think I would do very much different. I took advantage of every opportunity I realistically could, and I believe I have accumulated the tools I need to survive as a freelance musician in post-collegiate society. Time will tell…

It must be said that not everything during my time in Bloomington was a positive experience. To do so would be looking back on the whole thing through excessively crimson-tinted glasses. In truth, I experienced the full, unfiltered palette of human emotions as I traversed the peaks and valleys of the collegiate journey, from unforgettable highs to lows that I would really rather forget. Sometimes there was unparalleled exhilaration…other times, insatiable depression. I try to forget about the negative parts, but most people who know me never knew they ever happened.

There is one exception though – my two massive degree-ending recitals, one as my last bachelor’s recital on April 27th, 2015, and one as my master’s recital on April 8th, 2018. Everybody knew about these because they consumed my life until they were complete – and because most of my friends played on them. Everyone who keeps up with me in real life or social media probably knows all about these by now, but as I will likely not be thinking about them again for a long time, I would like to collect my thoughts on both of them.

The bachelor’s recital, titled Kodachrome: A Symphonic Portrait of a Quadrennium, had two very specific goals. First, it was my rebellion against the traditional recital format perpetuated by the Jacobs School and many other institutions around the world. After having given three myself before Kodachrome and having attended far far more, I was completely disillusioned with the entire concept of a typical recital.

For those not in the know, the formula to a typical recital is simple: the soloist presents a program of several standard (and perhaps a few less standard) solo works in their instrument’s repertoire, all of which use a pianist as the accompaniment. The soloist walks on stage and bows to applause before every piece, then bows to applause and walks back off stage after each piece is completed. I have a couple of problems with this format. First, in my opinion sitting through an hour of entirely instrumental soloist+piano gets tiresome, no matter how amazing either the soloist or pianist are. There is no variation in instrumentation whatsoever, and the ears get tired. Not to mention that the instrumentation isn’t that compelling to begin with – it is only the recital standard because it’s the easiest way (logistically and musically) to present a recital without using entirely unaccompanied pieces. Of course, I realize this opinion is probably in the minority, but then Kodachrome was my rebellion, not anyone else’s.

The second big problem I have with the typical recital format is that everyone applauds the soloist before every piece in addition to after. Before the soloist has played a single note. I understand that this is concert tradition and not limited to academic recitals, but specifically for academic recitals it has always bothered me. Why are you applauding for me if I haven’t done anything yet? But again, I realize I am most likely in the minority on this one.

Kodachrome was designed from the beginning to completely turn this recital format on its head and present something completely new to the audience. First, the recital began with me playing a solo bass trombone motive completely alone from the balcony of the hall the performance took place in. This was partially for musical reasons, and partially so that the audience wouldn’t realize the performance was starting until it had already begun, thus denying them their opportunity to applaud before it started. As a result, in this recital the only full applause occurred at the very end of the recital.

But how could you prevent applause between pieces? Simple…you make the entire recital one long piece of your own composition. So that’s what I did – Kodachrome was a single composition, about 45 minutes in length, that was scored for an orchestra of 42 musicians and soloist. It was a magical night that I will never forget, and every aspect about it broke the mold of what was done on a degree recital; from the Grand Theft Auto-inspired promotional posters to the intimidating bureaucratic hurdles that had to be surmounted to even make it happen at all, it was a rebellion from start to finish. And it worked.

So imagine my surprise when, upon returning to IU to pursue a master’s degree (which I couldn’t have predicted when writing Kodachrome), I realized I would have to one-up myself for my master’s recital. Of course I couldn’t back down from that challenge, so the result was Ektachrome: A Stereophonic Portrait of a Triennium. This sequel was bigger in every way, from the number of musicians in the ensemble (27 more than Kodachrome – Ektachrome‘s scoring was about 57% larger) to the complexity of the composition and genres represented therein.

So, did it work?

Well…sort of.

In addition to one-upping Kodachrome, I wrote Ektachrome with two additional goals in mind. First, to make my mother cry. Second, to move the audience enough that the hall was completely silent when the last note ended, with nobody daring to break out into applause.

Both of these goals were accomplished.

But…did it work?

As of this writing that is a difficult question for me to answer.

If you watch the videos of the applause, were there to witness all the gracious and wonderful things everyone had to say to me about it afterwards, and/or consider that I did accomplish both of my goals while also achieving the anti-recital format that Kodachrome pioneered, you would probably exclaim that of course it worked and wonder how this is even a question.

But from my perspective, I see things a little differently.

Preparing the first recital, Kodachrome, was a daunting task. There is a long-standing rule at Jacobs that states that you can’t have more than 13 performers on a degree recital. It’s such an obscure rule that everyone, even my professors checking every step of Kodachrome‘s preparation, completely forgot about it. It was only brought up when the recital committee alerted me to it after the recital was well along the path to approval. In short, the issue went all the way to the dean of the music school, and it was only thanks to the humbling efforts of M. Dee Stewart and Jeremy Allen that it eventually got approved. Yet that was far from the only administrative snafu that had to be rectified to make the recital happen. Then there was of course the issue of actually writing the piece, recruiting the roster, and rehearsing the piece to performance level. It was a difficult few months but the result was well worth it.

Preparing Ektachrome made all the headaches with Kodachrome look like child’s play.

First, there was the piece itself. A mammoth 55-minute score that weaved in and out of classical, jazz, Latin jazz, and even hip-hop, with 69 individual parts and approximately 80,000 notes (not an exaggeration)? Of course it was difficult and of course it took a long time (many hours over quite a few months). But it was the least of my problems.

There actually wasn’t a single bureaucratic issue with this recital. Neither jazz recitals nor composition recitals have any personnel restrictions, and Ektachrome was technically both so I was doubly in the clear. I got the best hall in the music school which didn’t require any external reservation or fees, and booking the performance and dress rehearsal through Jacobs was a piece of cake.

However.

The logistics were a complete nightmare, from recruiting musicians in the first place, to keeping them recruited, to finding rehearsal times that worked with 69 busy musicians’ schedules, to actually printing all the parts and scores out (I had to refill my enormous grad student print quota twice), to actually fitting the entire ensemble in the hall, to getting everything prepared in time for the performance’s 2 pm downbeat.

Preparing for Ektrachrome not only made me lose faith in the Jacobs School of Music and the students that attend it, but it brought my mind to the absolute breaking point. Before the recital even happened I was in a state of anger, despair, and exhaustion. I felt betrayed from every side, and as the performance date loomed ever closer the goal seemed to be slipping away from me due to reasons I was powerless to fix.

The preparation for this recital took a heavy toll on me mentally, to the point where I still haven’t fully recovered from it and (due to a combination of the recital and other issues which unraveled themselves in the post-recital decompression) I’ve begun to think that seeing a therapist might not be a bad idea.

Thus, the only way to realistically answer the question “did it work?” is to ask those who attended the performance, either on stage or in the audience. At this point I don’t think I’m able to look back at anything to do with Ektachrome with complete objectivity. I’m not even sure I’m glad I did it, but I do know that I have already started planning for a third composition in the Chrome series – one without the restrictions and headaches of performing it at IU, which will have an ensemble of over 1,000. Why? Because I’m me and I can’t help myself.

However, I can’t focus too much about that right now because I need to prepare for the biggest change to occur in my life thus far. One that’s a real leap of faith, and I’d imagine will be a grueling test. In about two months’ time as of this writing, I will have moved over 2,000 miles west from Bloomington (and over 2,600 miles west from my hometown outside the District of Columbia) to sunny Los Angeles. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and in many ways it’s what my entire musical career has been preparing me for. It’s something many professors and professionals I play with have encouraged me to do, and it seems like the most logical, attainable destination what with my skillset and the list of connections I have already begun to establish there.

Yet I’m absolutely terrified.

There’s no way I can possibly know what’s going to happen when I get there. It could take me 6 weeks or 6 years to break in and be able to make a living doing what I actually do. Having connections is good but I also need to be lucky, and to be in the right places at the right times. And of course I need to be rock solid when I do get the chance to play. There is absolutely no safety net, I’m 2,600 miles from home, and the cost of living is the opposite of cheap. There are so many variables and so many unknowns, and it paralyzes me with fear sometimes…more frequently as the countdown continues.

But I won’t back down.

I have to do this. I have to at least try to make it, because if I don’t try then I will regret it for the rest of my life. To play on film scores has always been my ultimate dream and I have the chance to chase it. It’s one powerful opportunity, but one that comes with a list of caveats as long as a CVS receipt. Whether or not I successfully navigate those caveats is something that I am just going to have to find out for myself.

In these forthcoming months good vibes, prayers, and any kind of support you can offer is more than welcome. It’s comforting to know that despite physically moving out to LA alone, I will never truly be alone with God, my family, my girlfriend, and my friends and colleagues at my back. Now I just have to hope that I’m following the right path.

If you’re still reading at this point (bless your soul), I’d like thank Bloomington and everyone in it for being a great host over these past seven years. No it wasn’t all great and frankly I’m really sick of B-town at this point, but overall it has been unforgettable and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ve met so many amazing people from every corner of the country and every walk of life, many of whom have stuck around to keep reading this book with me. Your company on this journey is cherished more than you know.

Well, this blog post is approaching 3,000 words so I should probably wrap it up (unless you want to hear about my concepts in audio synthesis in higher dimensions, not dividing the octave into 12 equal parts, or turbocharging brass instruments). I feel like this post was a little more heavy than they usually are, and for that I apologize. Sometimes you just have to get some stuff out, and writing is the best way I know how. Hopefully by the time I write another post I’m doing well enough in LA that it can be positive and light-hearted again! 😀

Until then, I’ll just be hustlin’ and maybe having a nice mental breakdown every once in a while. Business as usual.