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.

2017: The Year of the Synth

Well, it was for me anyway.

Everyone who knows me knows that I love picking up new brass instruments. By this point I’ve played at least one gig on everything commonly used except for piccolo trumpet (thankfully), plus plenty of gigs on things not commonly used. Many paying gigs have been done without touching a low brass instrument, yet every once in a while I still get to take my beloved euphonium out of the house to play it on a recording session or something.

But in January 2017, I found myself in an interesting position: I had a gigantic 40-pound keyboard synthesizer sitting in my bedroom. Worse still, I had bought this instrument with my own money on Craigslist. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I was in love with the sound this thing made and I wanted to play it. Now, on the first day of 2018, I can say that I’m glad I allowed myself to give in to the insatiable urges of Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Eight synths (and one more that I had and then sold), a few effects pedals, and lots of other gear later (but by now it has all paid for itself!), I’ve done quite a bit with synths. I never thought I would be playing a synth solo on stage in front of a packed, screaming crowd, but thanks to a band that enables my gear addiction called Huckleberry Funk that happened many times in 2017 (but don’t worry – there were plenty of trombone and flugelhorn solos too). It has been a wild ride.

What else did I do in 2017? Well, it’s kind of hard to look back on the year and remember everything I did when sometimes I don’t remember anything I did two days ago, but I’ll try my best.

In 2017 I visited both coasts – a few times home in DC, and to Los Angeles for the first time ever over Spring Break. I got to spend a whole week there exploring, taking lessons, and making connections, and it was an incredible experience. Back in between coasts, I went to Omaha, Chicago, Nashville, and many cities in between. I got to play with some amazing groups, and met some amazing people. Of course, it wasn’t a perfect year. There was plenty of frustration, hardship, stress, loneliness, and most importantly dread at having to drive the construction-riddled Route 37 for the millionth time. Such is the case every year, but every year seems to end up being good overall and I think 2017 was no exception.

If I had to boil down 2017 to lessons I’ve learned, it would probably be these:

  1. Gigging with electronic instruments takes a stupid amount of gear. Keyboard stands, keyboard cases, MIDI cables, instrument cables, a mixer, a PA speaker or amp, power cables, power strips, effect pedals, lots of wall warts, and more. I miss when I only had to bring 5-7 horns to a gig.
  2. It’s ok to say no. I feel like I learn/unlearn this every year…we’ll see if it sticks this time.

I don’t really make new year’s resolutions, but right now the two main goals for 2018 are to a) give a great master’s recital, and b) survive and hopefully thrive once I’ve obtained my second degree. But for the time being I’ll settle for at least surviving. This is because 2018 is the Year of Change – it’s the year that I finally leave the safety net of education. Yes…I did say that three years ago and then ended up going for a master’s degree. That’s a long story, one that wasn’t even in motion yet when I wrote my end-of-2015 post. But I am done for real this time…the last thing I want to do (or can afford to do) right now is get a doctorate, so once graduation rolls around I’m gone. My plan is ambitious, but the important thing is that I have one. Suffice it to say that whatever happens, the second half of 2018 will most likely be a monumental change for me. This chapter will finally come to a close and the next chapter will begin…what does chapter five entail? Only time will tell, and I’m cautiously anxious to find out.

Before any of that happens though, I need to write a metric ton of music and have a metric ton of existential crises.

Business as usual, then.

Pokemon Go and the Future

Let’s talk about Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go is a free mobile app that is essentially Niantic’s “Ingress” in a different skin. If you don’t know what that is you can be forgiven, as the augmented reality GPS-based geocaching app never really caught on. Sure, a lot of people play it, but it has hardly captured the public’s imagination. Pokémon Go takes this concept and fuses it with Pokémon, a long-standing international institution of entertainment. If you use the Internet, you’ve read about the app all over the place if you’re not playing it yourself.

And that’s the thing: everyone is playing it.

I want to take the time to explain on this dusty old blog of mine why that is so important, and why this game is so important. Because Pokémon Go could start a social revolution.

If I asked you to list off big problems in the world today, after you got through terrorism, police brutality, race issues, corruption in the federal government, and things of that nature, you would probably get to things like obesity and rampant anti-social/impersonal behavior in an age where many people whip out their phones at a restaurant instead of actually talking to the person or people they’re with. And to be honest, technology hasn’t really helped to keep these trends at bay, what with the latest smartphones, game consoles, and streaming services all enticing us to not go outside – to stay on the couch and kick back as we have all the entertainment we could ever need at our fingertips. Why go to the trouble of meeting new people and improving social skills when you could just post anonymously on Reddit instead? Many will agree that the age dehumanization through technology is the age we live in. And who can blame them? When was the last time you heard of an entertainment technology designed not only to get you to stand up and exercise (see DDR and Wii Fit), but actually go outside?

Pokémon Go is that technology, and it has already caused Internet dwellers to cry out, saying “I’ve never had a reason to go outside until now.” People that previously wouldn’t even think of leaving their desk, let alone home, at any point in the day except to get the mail and maybe go to McDonalds are now walking around in a park at 2 am catching Pokémon.

Allow me to repeat that.

This is a game that you have to go outside and walk around to play and progress in. It is not optional. And I’ve been seeing it all over the place: on my Facebook feed, on Reddit, and on all the other websites and fora I frequent, people are getting out there in search of Pokémon.

And it’s not just some people. It’s not just a tiny sliver of the population who happens to like Pokémon. It’s not just the nerdy gamers out there. Pokémon has always been a hugely popular series of video games, trading cards, and anime, but to say that a game particularly cherished by ’90s kids who grew up playing it from its inception (the same people who followed Harry Potter from the movies’ inception) doesn’t do the popularity of Pokémon Go any sort of justice.

Let me give you a demonstration of what I meant earlier when I said that everyone is playing it.

I live in a college town. My alma mater, the huge Big 10 campus within walking distance of my apartment, plays host to thousands of students year after year. Those numbers dwindle significantly during the summer, so much so that on some days you might think it’s a ghost town. But there are many people still around, you just normally don’t…see them.

Yet I was walking around campus tonight catching Pokémon with some friends, and we went to the square in the middle of campus. Was it empty? Nope. Were there a handful of people here and there passing through? Nope.

There were throngs of people in the square. It was enough that you would think a concert at the auditorium attached to the square had just finished and everyone was filing out to wait for their rides and go home. But not a single one of those people was there for a concert.

They were all catching Pokémon.

As my friends and I walked through the square, we saw in the game that four individuals had each set up a lure for everyone to be able to catch more Pokémon. When we left and then came back later, the old lures had expired and new ones had been put up in their place. As we walked elsewhere in the campus, everyone we came across was playing the game.

But the best part?

We weren’t alone in the mob. We were together. We walked over to a nearby gym and ended up teaming up with someone we’d never met before and will probably never see again to take it on. Everyone in the square was talking to each other. I’ve read posts online of long lost friends reuniting by chance through the game, of people getting a date through the game, and of people just meeting a whole bunch of people and starting friendships, all because they went outside to catch Pokémon.

This spontaneous camaraderie is occurring all over the world right now. The girl who locks himself in her home to binge watch Netflix never to see the light of day is now making friends down at the park as she catches Pokémon. The guy you know who apparently spends every waking moment on Reddit is now four blocks away, briskly walking in search of Pokémon.

In a time when “isolationist, anti-social technocrat” would be a good description for a lot of people, Pokémon Go is nothing less than a social revolution. It is forcing everyone who wants to play to go out and be in nature, to get exercise, and to meet new people. Not only that, but people are doing it. And not only are they doing it, but they are doing it without hesitation. Someone who can’t be bothered to get up from the couch to get the remote to change the channel looks down at his phone, sees a Pokémon lure a couple of blocks away, and instantly bolts up, grabbing his keys and wallet before heading out the door.

Walking around that square full of people all catching Pokémon was honestly one of the coolest things I’ve experienced away from music in a long time. I could feel the good vibes coming from everyone – we all just wanted to have a great time catching Pokémon, while interacting with anyone who felt like it. And in an age where every day we hear about something terrible that just happened in the news (not to mention “stranger danger” and being wary of anyone), it’s nice to be able to witness the beautiful side of humanity firsthand like that.

I just hope it never ends. Pokémon Go could be the start of a big shift in the social structure of our society. If more companies capitalize on the formula that made Pokémon Go already a runaway success, we could see augmented reality games like this being a significant part of society, causing everyone to become more social and connect with other people again (not to mention live more active lifestyles). In a way, it mirrors the very first Pokémon games, which encouraged people to actually meet others so that they get unique Pokémon evolutions by trading with someone. In that sense, Niantic and the Pokémon Company have nailed it on the head with Pokémon Go, as this is doing the same thing but on a much larger scale.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get outside and catch more Pokémon.

 

2015: A Year in Review

In less than five hours it will be 2016. The two-month-ish era of students writing “/15” when dating assignments and having to sloppily erase it and change it to 16 (if they even notice at all) is at hand. Only this time, they will experience a rare luxury: it’s pretty easy to retcon a 5 to a 6, so less actual erasing will be done. That means less ink and graphite will be wasted, which means students will be involuntarily environmentally conscious, which I think we all can agree is a Good Thing. I’m sure Mother Earth will appreciate the 0.0000000000000000000000000000001% of help it will do.

Since it’s nearly the Year of the Monkey (as of February 8th), it’s time for a rare blog post from me as I look back at the Year of the Sheep.

2015 was an eventful year. Not just for me, or for the people I know, but for the entire world. In the field of science, we discovered the Higgs-Boson particle, we landed on a comet, we successfully landed a spacecraft vertically, we found water on Mars, we flew by Pluto and took sweet HD pix, NASA started working on a warp drive (kind of), and some dudes in Germany got a fusion reactor to work. In media, Donald Trump flooded the news, a new Star Wars movie AND a new Jurassic Park movie came out, the newest Transformers movie still sucked (so I’m told), and many big-deal video games were released (Fallout 4, etc.). In reality television and celebrity news, nobody cared (except for everyone that did).

Of course, we have to take the bad events with the good ones. The rise of ISIS, numerous plane crashes, more mass shootings and racial murders, the war on police, and high tension in the Middle East were on everyone’s minds this year. But so many other things happened in 2015 that it was thankfully easy to take our minds off of the turmoil all around us for a bit. Things like gay marriage being legalized in all 50 states, gas prices being so low that I can fill up for under $30, lots of new tech being released including the rise (literally, like into the air. Geddit?) of drones, the most perfect Pi Day in any of our lifetimes, Back to the Future Day, and marijuana being legalized in some states which allowed my pothead neighbors to leave in a hurry for Colorado in search of a place where the time is always 4:20.

But you obviously knew all that, because you are humans who have access to the Internet. What you may not know is how important 2015 was for my individual life and journey. Saying 2015 was a big year for me would be like saying World War II was pretty significant, or that the invention of the lightbulb was a fairly influential event. The year was filled to the brim with unforgettable experiences and unforgettable people, and I hit some very important milestones.

First and foremost, I closed the book on my life as a student, a life I have known since I was old enough to remember things. On May 9th I moved my tassel to the left side in unison with all of my classmates and signified my graduation from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, obtaining my degree in Bass Trombone and Euphonium Performance and beginning my life as a college graduate. The following summer I worked overnight stocking at Target and learned what it was like to work retail, (Never again, God willing.) but as move-in week approached I suddenly found myself interviewing for a music job. A couple of days later I walked in to the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center as the new Horn Coach for the IU Soul Revue.

Landing this job is easily one of my top five biggest blessings of the year, and definitely the least expected. It came out of nowhere, and since it started in August the blessings continued to come as I learned so much from the director, my fellow coaches, and everyone in the ensemble. Surrounded by great people playing great music, I realized during the semester that there’s really nothing else I could ask for. And, flying in the face of all the plans I had worked out for my future the months and years beforehand, I realized I didn’t want to leave it.

But before I reveal too much about what could transpire in 2016, I must refocus on the year that’s leaving us. During the course of the year I took up four new instruments, recorded on an incredible album that will drop in February, played to screaming crowds, played performances that were everything from friends’ recitals to professional multi-day out of town gigs to hilariously playing egg shaker with one of my mentors, arranged and orchestrated twenty Latin jazz tunes at the request of the ensemble responsible for four years of my best memories at IU (not to mention a fountain of knowledge), began learning bass guitar,  met many incredible people (you know who you are!), completed the first ever total paradigm shift in my appearance (long hair!), and more. It was a year of change, while being a year of staying the course; a year of new horizons while never losing sight of the old ones.

2016 has a lot to live up to, but if the trend in my life thus far continues, it will be even better than 2015. The steady climb continues every year, and it never fails to boggle my mind. With that in mind, I can’t wait for 2016 to start. I hope everyone I know has a wonderful year, and that we improve as people, as artists, and as whatever else we want to become. I’ll still be here loving life and chasing the dream.

Let’s hit it.

 

Sometimes I Design Brass Instruments

I discovered two things today.

One, that people actually read this. Never mind that the number is zero unless I post a post on Facebook, and then it gets as high as nearly 50!

Two, that some of those people are interested in some of the things I don’t think anyone is interested in and thus traditionally don’t post.

So, today I’ll be discussing the brass instrument designs I sometimes draw in boring, excruciating detail. Or maybe enthralling, arresting excitement, depending on who you are.

Above is the first design I did, a prototype for a mellophonium.

Now, since the only people who know exactly what a mellophonium is are people that I’ve explained it to or the few pockets of civilization (such as readers and staff of the Middle Horn Leader website) that are interested in both obscure alto-voiced brass instruments and jazz, I’ll begin with a mellophonium crash course.

The modern marching mellophone essentially came from a cornet valve block with a large bell attached to it. Olds released it, people copied it, and soon we had dedicated instruments like the Yamaha mellophones we have today that play very well. However, there is another type of mellophone that far predates the modern bell front instrument. Derived from an instrument called the Koenig horn, the traditional mellophone (also called “concert mellophone”, “circular mellophone”, etc.) is an alto-voiced brass instrument pitched in F (the same F as a modern marching mellophone or a high F descant French horn) or E flat with three piston valves. Wrapped in a circle with the bell facing down like a French horn and played with the right hand rather than the left (and without the hand in the bell), the mellophone was used in concert bands, soloistically, and in other capacities from before the 20th century.

Starting in the 1950s, people began looking for a bell front instrument to replace the French horn in marching bands. There were many various attempts, including the Getzen frumpet (I own one) and the altonium. One such attempt was the mellophonium, which was a traditional circular mellophone with the bell straightened out. There are still people out there who marched in high school and college when these instruments were in widespread use. Of course, once the modern marching mellophone came along the others were phased out.

Why?

Because these instruments were, to put it nicely, not the greatest. Conn 16E mellophoniums like the one I own were notorious for terrible intonation, complete lack of slotting and a difficult and whiny high register. Some other mellophoniums like the Reynolds were reportedly even worse (among the few people who do know about the mellophonium, many only know about the Conn. In fact many manufacturers produced mellophoniums, including Conn, Holton (2 different models!), Olds, Reynolds, and even Courtois. Amati (from the Czech Republic) still makes them today!), and the Getzen frumpet was no better.

So why do I own one?

Apart from looking cool and being very inexpensive, there is a very good reason. The Conn 16E is blessed with a unique history that makes it special. The Stan Kenton Orchestra, which happens to be one my favorite big bands ever, used a section of four Conn 16Es from 1960 to 1963. There is a host of legends, myths and anecdotes about the so-called “mellophonium band”, but the proof is in the recordings. The albums that featured the mellophonium section (“More Mellophonium Moods”, “West Side Story”, etc.) provide a glimpse into why the mellophonium is worth saving; the mellophonium produces a glorious sound inimitable by any other instrument, distinct from its traditional mellophone predecessor and with a character totally lacking from its marching mellophone successor. Is it hard to play? Immensely. But the sound is worth the struggle, and when I first heard a live recording of Ray Starling playing “Misty”, my favorite jazz ballad, as a mellophonium solo with the Kenton band, I knew that I had to have one. I have since gotten away with far too much with it at IU, performing jazz and Latin jazz on it, soloing in jazz and Latin jazz on it, and even playing a studio session for a professional Latin jazz album on it. There aren’t many champions of the mellophonium out there, but I am one of them.

That being said, while the sound is worth it, it would be nice if there was a mellophonium out there that got that sound without being a bear to play. The Conn 16E was sold in F with an included slide to put it in E flat, and although it’s apparently better in E flat than F (I say apparently because mine didn’t come with that slide) it doesn’t really work in either key because Conn got the math wrong and the valve slides are too long for F and too short for E flat. I bet if you built an E slide for it it would be pretty close.

Building my own brass instruments has long been a dream of mine, so I decided to design a custom mellophonium that alleviates all of the 16E’s problems. I don’t know if any of my designs would accomplish that, but built with care and the right math they’d at least get close. I also wanted it to be able to use crooks like a natural horn, and that’s what those circular tubes to the left of the instrument are. This design is tuned at the leadpipe like a flugelhorn, and the crooks plug in there. There is also a precedent for using crooks on this style of instrument, including the specific keys (F, E, E flat, D, and C) that I chose, and that is that many traditional mellophones were sold with the same set of crooks. Some instruments had a manual change valve from F to E flat, a few had two manual change valves (allowing F, E flat, D, and C), and a couple even had one giant multichambered change valve that, depending on where you set it, would put the instrument in any one of those four keys. I haven’t designed any mellophoniums with one of those yet…maybe I should do that next. These multi-keyed mellophones were often sold with two mouthpieces, one mellophone sized to play in F and E flat, and one trombone/euphonium sized to play in D and C, and it is likely mellophoniums with this many crooks would have multiple mouthpiece sizes as well (and perhaps also extra valve slide sets).

I also designed the instrument with a few more creature comforts. A 3rd valve slide trigger, also like a flugelhorn, would help with intonation. Often when recording multitracks I find that I have to pull the 3rd valve slide nearly all the way out to get a particular note in tune. (Multitracking with such an unwieldy instrument is no easy task, and I often have to retune every valve for one passage, and even then use lots of alternate fingerings.) The bell is a screw bell like a French horn, which adds mass to the bell flare and allows the instrument to be stored more compactly. You’ll also notice above the design a little doodle of a 2-valve Conn 16E in G – a “mellophonium bugle” for drum corps use. My mind works in odd ways.

After I completed this design, which deviated minimally from the Conn 16E it was based on, I decided to design another one, this time with a normal main tuning slide instead of leadpipe tuning. This was so that I could then install a tuning trigger on the main slide and be able to adjust any note, not just the third valve notes. This is the result:

To me it’s very pleasing aesthetically, while also being practical. Three water keys and a trigger activated by the thumb of the left hand ensure an instrument easier to use than my first design.

At this point I was in a design groove, and decided to do a third design that was a radical departure from my previous two designs and any real mellophoniums. This was the result:

Four rotary valves, arranged in a diamond that not only is very satisfying to look at but also provides a nice airstream, are the key feature here. The first three are activated like piston valves, which (along with the angular rotary valve arrangement itself) I stole from the Schagerl Raven trumpet (the Ganschhorn and Killer Queen have similar valve action). Essentially it gives the player the advantages of rotary valves with the feel of piston valves. The fourth valve is activated by a more traditional lever (not seen, assumed to be behind the valves on the left side of the instrument), and the main tuning slide (bottom, horizontal) has a slide trigger. The bell also has a Shepherd’s crook like on a British-style cornet, and the bell is slightly upturned. I think this is a very cool-looking design that would admittedly be the hardest to make. The tubing is very unorthodox, and the whole thing is unconventional. This one would most likely not have crooks because of the fourth valve (giving this instrument a completely chromatic range except for the G flat at the bottom of the bass clef, which might still be attainable with the main tuning trigger all the way out).

It is at this point in the creation process that an idea dawned on me. What if there was an entire family of mellophoniums? Not only would it be fun to design, but it would provide practical use for me. Any of my multitracks that include mellophoniums essentially revolve around them, whether I try to or not. The six-part (usually) mellophonium choir is an integral part of my multitrack sound, and I didn’t realize just how much until I performed a solo with multitrack accompaniment on my senior euphonium recital and I was told that the accompaniment was instantly recognizable as my classical multitrack sound once the mellophoniums came in. So, if I built a family of mellophoniums from soprano to contrabass, the unique sound of the mellophonium could be expanded to all registers.

I then had to ponder how the family would be laid out. Obviously the family’s cornerstone would be the original alto mellophonium in F, and spread out equally in both directions from it. I initially devised two versions, one stacked in fifths and the other in fourths.

The family in fifths would result in a sopranino in G, soprano in C, alto in F, tenor in B flat, bass in E flat, and contrabass in A flat. Each would have three valves and possibly several crooks (the sopranino would crook to F, E, E flat and D, the soprano to B flat, A and G, and so on). The lowest two or three instruments could possibly have an additional valve or two, and/or be compensating, but as the contrabass in A flat could play down to the lowest D on the piano, the bass in E flat down to the A below that in pedals, and the contrabass continuing down even further from the A flat, there really is no need for extra valves as long as the existing valve combinations remain in tune (which would be rendered possible by tuning triggers or compensating loops). Each individual instrument only needed to serve its individual range, as this family would function brilliantly in an orchestral (/multitrack) setting as a choir.

The family in fourths would give a piccolo in A flat, sopranino in E flat, soprano in B flat, alto in F, tenor in C, baritone in G, bass in D, and contrabass in A. While this family has a number of nice things about it, as a whole it seems worse than the family in fifths. For one, it requires two more instruments to cover the same range, and also every two instruments are a minor 7th apart. In the fifths family every two instruments are a 9th apart, which seems like a much more harmonious interval (think C trumpets on top of B flat trombones (common orchestral practice), versus B flat trumpets on top of a C bass trumpet). Additionally, there are three instances of two instruments being two octaves plus a minor 2nd apart. Definitely not ideal, and no such discord occurs in the quintal family. Naturally less crooks would be needed, and this family would absolutely stick to three valves across the board. But as a whole the family in fifths seems better.

Both of these families would work in orchestral/multitrack settings, but what about jazz? Each family has a tradeoff. The fourths family has the soprano in B flat, making it perfect for trumpet players to improvise with, but the tenor is in C, meaning trombonists/euphoniumists couldn’t easily improvise with it. The fifths family has the opposite problem, with the tenor in B flat but the soprano in C. There are three solutions to this problem. The least elegant is to build the entire family in B flat and F. I’m not a fan of that concept, so I just dismiss it straight away. The other would be to just play the C instrument with a B flat crook whenever playing jazz. That would be easy enough, but it would be nice to have instruments that stand in B flat. Finally, you could just build mellophoniums in every key and call it a day.

I also called it a day with that thought process at that point and moved on to determining exactly what makes a mellophonium a mellophonium. If I was going to have a mellophonium family, each member would have to clearly be a mellophonium and nothing else. I determined that the essential components are 1) the bell section circling the valve cluster in an actual circle before going straight out, blossoming into a proportionally very large flare (but not with a large throat), and 2) the valve slides being on the left side of the pistons instead of the normal right.

With all this in mind, I began designing the other members of the mellophonium family. This was the first result:

A soprano mellophonium in B flat and A (but could also be the one in C in the fifths family), this instrument is still clearly of mellophoniac descent. I think it turned out wonderfully and I’d love to play one of these. I named it the “Polaris” because the concentric circles combined with the locations of the four braces between them reminded me of a star. The 7″ bell (could possibly be 8″) is proportionate to the size of other 4.5 foot B flat instruments (trumpets are usually 5″). The huge flare is an essential part of the mellophonium sound (only my euphonium has a bigger flare than my mellophonium).

Next, I designed the sopranino mellophonium:

In G, F, or E flat depending on which tuning system is used, this instrument was an interesting one to design. Although I had to give up the left-mounted valve slides, I feel like this instrument is still very much a mellophonium in appearance. I’d love to play one.

After this, I went to the low end and began work on the tenor mellophonium below the original alto. This was the result:

I ended up calling it a tenor-bass mellophonium because I added a fourth valve. The instrument is equally likely to have 3 or 4 valves, so I just used four to be complete about it. With this one I think I forgot about the whole valve slides on the left side thing, and looking back on it the design would be much cleaner if I had remembered. I might redo this one (or design a new one with non-leadpipe tuning) at some point, but it still definitely screams mellophonium and, with its huge bell, I’d love to give it a try. The unique loop in the fourth valve tubing is something I replicated in the bass mellophonium, pictured below, and is probably something I’d include on many instruments as sort of a trademark. Here’s that bass mellophonium:

This guy took a lot of effort to get right. By the time I finished, the paper had become brittle from the amount of erasing I had done. I lost count of how many times I erased everything and started over…it was very difficult to route the tubing so that it was aesthetically satisfying. Eventually I did though, and this was the result. Although due to the large size of the instrument (the bell would be fairly colossal) I had to make it upright instead of bell front, the instrument still retains its mellophonium profile. The tubing still coils around the valve cluster in concentric circles before going straight out into a huge bell, and the valve slides are back on the correct side. Turn your neck so that you’re looking at the screen 90 degrees to the left and you can clearly see the family shape. After this one I pretty much concluded that I wouldn’t draw a contrabass because of how much effort this one took, but I might still yet.

At this point you may be wondering where on Earth “Farbanti” comes from. There is a track in the Ace Combat 4 (a fighter pilot game for the PlayStation 2) soundtrack called Whiskey Corridor that corresponds with the in-game mission of the same name. In it there is a held low F# at one point that I became instantly convinced could be accurately replicated with a bass mellophonium. In the game’s fictional world, Whiskey Corridor is the last line of defense before the capital city of Farbanti.

After all of this was done, I posted them all on Facebook and somebody told me I should do a mellophonium Superbone/Firebird trumpet (meaning it has both a trombone handslide and piston valves), so I did:

The name “Thunderbird” is a play on Maynard Ferguson’s Firebird trumpet. Once I created this I concluded that if I took this design and got rid of the trombone handslide and upturned bell, it would be the prettiest mellophonium yet. I still have yet to do that, but maybe soon?

Those are all of the mellophoniums I’ve drawn, but I’ve also designed two trombones.

I thought it would look cool. It does.

This is my most recent design, which I’m very proud of. It’s a bass trombone whose main tubing (i.e. with no valves engaged) coils up like a serpent before looping around to the bell flare. Combined with a beautiful coil in the F attachment tubing, this results in a bell section that is several inches shorter in the back half than a typical bass trombone, making this instrument great for pit orchestras and other tight spaces.

These are all the instruments I’ve designed so far, but typing this has inspired me to do more, so watch this space!

Chapter 4: What’s Next?

So, let’s just get this out of the way first thing.

It’s been 354 days since I last posted on here.

I know, I suck.

Now, moving on.

Chapter 3 of my life concluded ten days ago on Saturday, May 9th when I ceremonially moved the tassle on my cap and gown to the left side, in unison with the rest of Indiana University’s Class of 2015. This officially concluded my epic four year journey at the Jacobs School of Music and began my epic four week (probably) journey of feeling really very weird.

Now, I know many people who graduated college years ago, other who are still in college, and still others who haven’t begun it yet. I also know that for me, I never got to hear exactly what graduating college is like.

So what is it like?

For me, only one word can truly describe what graduation weekend felt like, and that is surreal. I could never quite grasp that it was really happening, save for a few fleeting moments like when I saw most of my music school friends in the front row all wearing their caps and gowns from my place in the band right in front of the stage. A more detailed description of what it was like would be that I felt every emotion at once, and my brain was constantly short-circuiting as a result.

Delving deeper into the emotions, it’s easy to see how my brain couldn’t handle it.

I felt joy and relief – I had done it! In the blink of an eye the first twenty one years of my life were put into one neat, tidy accomplishment for all the world to see. I had been in an education system from before I could remember anything up until ten days ago – my two-decade stint was over. For the first time in my life, “student” was no longer my job description.

I felt gratitude and comaraderie – I had not done it alone! Those members of my class who I grew to know so fondly were lined up in a row in front of me, wearing their robes of matriculation. You can bet I was proud of – and grateful to – every single one of them.

I felt fear and anxiety. Being in the safety net of education for your whole life and having it finally taken away after two decades is not something that is easy to cope with (at least for me). This was real life now – what was in store for me, and would I survive?

I felt sadness and nostalgia. These four years at IU have been easily the best four of my life thus far. I made so many friends, had so many incredible experiences, and essentially lived a life that dreams are made of. Now I had to leave all of it behind.

There was, however, one emotion I did not feel:

Regret.

During my time at Jacobs, I left no stone unturned, no opportunity untaken, and no musical desire unfulfilled. I hit the ground running four years ago and I never stopped. Was it tough? Extremely. Slugging it out for semesters where a normal day is eighteen hours long was straggeringly difficult and even soul crushing at times, but I had planned it that way. It’s the way I wanted it, it’s the way I got it, and it’s the way I will happily remember it. (Now obviously, not all of it was what I wanted – classes like Early Music History 401 made sure that there was some biting and gnashing of teeth involved – but most of it was.)

Of course, by senior year it is custom for the typical college student to have an existential crisis about three times a day, and I was no exception. Am I on the right path? Where am I going to end up? Am I going to make it? Will I make the right decisions? Where is the right place for me? As the safety net of education slowly crumbled beneath our feet, all of us had these questions burning through our minds just as the relentless march of time burned through the net’s lattace work. And now that that safety net is completely gone, do I still have those questions? Am I still nervous and anxious about the future?

Um, duh.

Especially when my future (at least for the next two years) was totally figured out and then ripped out from under me.

Many people don’t know this yet because I don’t like to convey negative information about myself, but the full ride+ scholarship I was given to attend the New England Conservatory next year to get my master’s degree in bass trombone performance with Jim Markey turned out to be a lie. The so called “award package” was actually comprised of 50% legitimate award money and 50% student loans. AKA not award money. NEC’s inability to understand what the word “award” means aside, the situation actually did turn out far better than expected. I decided to defer for a year to hopefully get more money, audition for some other schools and possibly get an actual full ride award package from NEC.

But that still leaves me with where to go for the coming year. Fortunately, I have many options and even more backup plans. I’m not worried about starving in the coming year as a result, but the decision is a very difficult one, and one that I will likely need all of the summer to decide. The decision essentially boils down to go to the West Coast, check out the scene and attempt to jumpstart a freelancing career but also risk not being able to afford anything (including rent, food and peace of mind), or stay in Bloomington and live comfortably while gigging regularly but also risk not being able to jumpstart a career.

But, I survive for now and have an awesome summer in Bloomington ahead of me. Great gigs (one of which has already concluded) and bountiful time to practice, record multitracks and generally do everything I didn’t have time to do while in school make for a wonderful combination.

Of course, with no winter blog post my obviously gigantic reader base has no idea what transpired my senior year, because they definitely aren’t all my Facebook friends who have kept up with my every move through my statuses. Nope. Definitely not.

Regardless, here’s a quick summary.

I recorded on three jazz albums (one on four instruments including mellophonium and French horn), performed as far away as Columbus, Ohio, bought a trumpet and an alto trombone, played probably the first ever French horn solo in a Latin jazz setting after picking it up after winter break, actually went to a couple of parties (:O), performed the Lisjak euphonium concerto with band after winning the IU Brass Concerto Competition for the second time with it, played a jazz bass trombone cadenza in a big band concert that became quite possibly the most fame-inducing thing I’ve ever done, played a euphonium recital that included a multitracked accompaniment, braved 6 feet of snow to audition for grad schools in Boston, learned how to play the pipe organ, ate a lot of food (especially on Wing Night), and performed Pines of Rome, Britten’s War Requiem, Borodin 2, La Boheme, and the Rite of Spring (on bass trumpet!) in one semester.

However, a report on my last year at IU wouldn’t be complete without chronicling my senior bass trombone recital. This was a recital that took years to plan and make a reality, had to face every possible administrative hurdle to even be possible, and relied on a great many people to even begin. It took place in Alumni Hall, a site never before used for a non-organ Jacobs recital, and only had one piece on the program: a 45-minute symphonic work I wrote from scratch called Kodachrome. It used 42 musicians, most of which were my close friends that I’d gone through Jacobs with. My whole family was there, flying out from Hawaii and Washington, D.C. to hear it. A television film crew filmed it, a photographer shot it, and the best live sound engineer I know recorded it. To say it was an enormous success would be an understatement, and I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone involved for making my dream a reality. The piece (and thus recital) was a symphonic portrait of my time at IU, and included many references to songs and pieces dear to my heart. Three of the most prominent ones were for my family, one for each member that was there. In addition, there were two Latin jazz sections, the second of which was my favorite Latin tune of all time, transcribed in full into the piece.

That’s basically it as far as the summary goes.

I experienced and was a part of some truly amazing things during my time at IU, and I am going to miss it dearly. God blessed me an incomprehensible amount, none of which I deserved (I won’t accept claims to the contrary!). I’ll leave you all the only way I know how: with two sentimentally appropriate Alan Parsons Project songs.

The Future is Now

Everyone who’s interested in this sort of thing has an idea floating around in their heads of what the future will be like. Flying cars, maybe. Space colonization. Really cool looking architecture. A self-cleaning house. Super high speed transit to anywhere in the world in less than an hour. And so on. I myself have a rosy image of the future, and, like everyone else, I desperately want it to be now.

But it is now.

Look around you. A five year old playing with his touch-screen smartphone. Old-tech graphing calculators that have more processing power than the computers that got Apollo 11 to the Moon. Google introducing an autonomous car. Cloud storage. Businessmen holding conferences with people halfway around the world with Skype. The Internet.

Just imagine if you went back in time, say, five hundred years. Even better, imagine if you went back in time fifty years. Imagine walking out to a crisp summer day in 1964. Imagine that a normal passerby noticed your smartphone and asked you what it is, and you had to explain it.

“It’s a device that fits in my pocket that I can use to talk to anyone in the world at any time. I can access many lifetimes worth of knowledge with a few taps on the screen. I can ask – as in, audibly, with my voice – it a question about literally anything and it will have an answer within moments.”

Does that not sound like a fantastic futuristic contraption that people dream about? It sounds like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with more features. Smartphones, probably more than any other peace of modern-day technology, are proof that we are living in “the future” right now. They make alarm clocks, TV weather stations, handheld games, Garmin/Tom-Tom satnavs, calculators, watches, personal tuners and metronomes (for you musicians out there), low end cameras and camcorders, and iPods/mp3 players – all fairly recent technological conveniences – simultaneously and instantaneously obsolete, and that’s only scratching the surface of what they can do.

NASA uses a quantum computer. There are driverless trains in many of the world’s airports. Many high end cars have autonomous parking and other hands-off driving features, and Google has just unveiled its fully autonomous car, as mentioned above. There are flying cars, they’re just not popular. Spotify. This exists, is nearly twice as tall as the Sears Tower in Chicago, and was built four years ago.

Is there world peace? No. Have we colonized half of the Solar System? No. Are there time machines and holidecks? No.

But that’s because it’s not science fiction – it’s science fact.

In everyone’s vision of the future, there are some things that are always the same. Everything is standardized. Walk into a city of the future and everything is spotless. All the flying cars are spotless, all the robots are spotless, all the futuristic buildings are spotless, everything works perfectly all the time, everyone has access to everything, and so on. It’s always a perfect world.

And that is impossible because humans are not perfect.

Those in power will always find a way to be corrupt, those in management will always find a way to do something inefficiently, and those who hate will always find a way to exercise their hatred. Meanwhile, those who care will always find a way to make a difference in someone else’s life, those who love each other will always find a way to be there for each other, and those who want to change the world will always find a way to do so.

Imagine what someone in the later 20th century thought the mystical land known as “future” might be like, complete with perfect everything and flying cars and robots and starships. Now put that world in a bowl and add a touch of hatred, a dash of corruption, 2 teaspoons of inefficiency, a cup of progress-halting bureaucracy and 3 fl. oz. of human nature. Heat oven to 451 F and cook for 20 minutes. If you could actually make this dish, I think you would find that the result would look much like today. Similarly, take the same ingredients and add them to your idea of “the future”. I bet the real future will be very similar.

We strive to remove this hatred and corruption from our society but it will always remain. It will never win, but it will never lose. It is who we are. You can’t have the yin without the yang. Et cetera. Humans are a species rooted in emotions, and this is a good thing. For no matter how much hate there is, there will always be at least as much love, and the world will keep on turning.

So: will you choose to live chasing a future world that can never exist, or embracing a future world that does exist – the one we’re all living in?

We can’t make the world perfect. But we can make it better.

 

—–

 

P.S. Sorry if this post made no sense whatsoever. I had an idea and I ran with it.

P.P.S. A post that isn’t a life update? Say it ain’t so. I thought creativity was reserved for other blogs. Well, it usually is, but I had a spurt of it today. In case you’re wondering, there’s too much to say about this past semester and year to fit into a blog post. So, suffice it to say: in the midst of a year of turmoil, stress and hardships as a result of the ruthlessly difficult music history courses I had to take, there were some absolutely incredible and unforgettable musical moments – right up until this past week, which has been one of the best weeks of my life. The year sucked, but it was awesome. It was terrible while being fantastic. You get the idea.