Personal History

I sometimes get asked about how I got into composing. Well, the short answer is that for much of my life I have felt a need to create music. I was encouraged early on by family, friends, and my own successes that I could do it, and have been honing my skills ever since. And though at times I've waded through stretches of self-doubt and inactivity, I've always come back to the belief that this is something I am meant to do.

That's the short answer. If you want the long answer....

When I was a kid, my mother, Beverly, always sang beautifully next to me in church. She had taught herself piano in her youth, but never gave herself much credit for having a lot of musical talent. Perhaps that was some form of deference to my father, William, a musician by vocation. He was a high school band director with a love for big band jazz, who played a mean sax in a wedding band, and wrote many of his own jazz charts. My older brother, Brian, was an excellent, mostly self-taught guitarist with twin passions for heavy metal and jazz theory. Go figure.

As for me, I started piano lessons in first grade, and endured them until sixth, never achieving anywhere near what success six years of lessons should have produced. I lacked self-discipline with regards to practicing, and was easily overwhelmed by the task. I did become a capable trombone player in school bands from 5th grade on, and joined a boys choir (reluctantly) in 8th grade. Here's how that happened: after a middle school concert, the choir director, Mrs. Johnson, suggested (in front of my mother) that I should consider joining choir. I was mortified. Choir was for sissies. But my mom insisted that I might be really good at it. She eventually bribed me into going by giving me money for the ice cream sandwich machine in the cafeteria every time I went to the 7:00 am rehearsals. Well, things went pretty well. I met some guys that didn't seem very sissy-ish at all, and I signed up for the regular 9th grade choir the next year.

It was there that I had my first success as a soloist. It was as part of a duet at our holiday concert, on the carol, Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella. I remember being extremely distraught at the dinner table on the night of the concert, thinking out loud, "WHY did I ever sign up for this?!" Of course, my brother's affirming response was "YOU have a SOLO?!" But the performance went off without a hitch. That first success, and generally a very positive experience in choir that year (and learning that girls tend to like guys that can sing) really sparked something in me. I knew then that I was going to view myself as a musician, and more specifically—a singer—for the rest of my life.

About that same time, I started some crude composition at the piano, beginning the long process of learning to capture the music I hear in my imagination. I recorded myself on my cassette tape recorder, and even developed a "shorthand" system for getting my musical ideas down on paper quickly. I often drove my family crazy playing the same chords over and over again, trying to get it all just right. But I accumulated a collection of a half dozen tapes and several notebooks that I still refer to for ideas once in a while.

Our high school choir director, Karen Haines, staged a Broadway musical every other year, and conducted a variety show in the off years. My junior year was a variety show year, and I decided to write a song and audition with it for the show. I got in. It was a sappy love song called, You'll Never Cry Alone Anymore on an original text (how'd you guess?). It was a real struggle to get the notes written out on a page, but I persevered. Ever the romantic, I wanted to get a piano part written down so my girlfriend could play as I sang. But then it started getting...bigger.

Another friend who was a budding guitarist came over and helped me create a tab chart. I threw together some whole note chords that "should fit" into a synth part, and wrote a bass line that got played on another synth. And then there was a little backup singer part that came in at the bridge. I taught that to a guy the week of the show. Oh, and I asked a good friend who was an amazing drummer to just "make something up that fits." Well, it all happened, and except for an embarrassing voice break at the end (and the fact that it was over 5 minutes long), it was a successful learning experience. To my knowledge, no recordings of the performance still exist. And that's probably a good thing. But my 19 year-old brother Brian came to find me backstage right afterward, while the show was still going on. He was in tears, and kept telling me what an amazing thing I had done. That completely blew me away.

After graduation, I went off to college at UW-Milwaukee and studied choral music education. [I went there for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that my girlfriend was going across town to Marquette.] My high school choir was very accomplished, and UWM was not a huge choral music school. It was almost a step down in quality at first. But perhaps that allowed me to grow more and have solo opportunities earlier than I would have otherwise.

Midway through my sophomore year, Dr. Robert Porter (my choir director) had us sing Francis Poulenc's four Lenten motets. It was the most challenging music I had ever experienced, and it really resonated with me. I wanted to write music with the same power and grace that truly brought the text to life through music. So, I began to create my own setting of one text from the four: Tenebrae factae sunt (Darkness covered the earth). I worked on it off and on for the next two years, and finally finished it just before I graduated in 1992. I showed it to Dr. Porter, and he said he thought I was 'channeling Poulenc.' I didn't know how to take that, but was encouraged enough not to give up.

I spent the rest of my college career focusing on performing and teaching. I was in many opera scenes and even sang cowboy songs and sea chanteys in a men's chorus called the Grandsons of the Pioneers. What a blast. I still sing with them on occasion. Then, as student teaching came around, more and more time was spent in the classroom. I practice-taught both middle and high school choirs, and also K-5 general music.

Then I got my first job, as an elementary general music teacher at two schools in Muskego, WI. It was a tremendous amount of work getting started, and proved very rewarding. The kids were great, the staff was great, and the parents were great. I also met Fred Washa, a senior citizen whom I had a ton in common with. We ended up writing children's musicals together which were performed at the schools where I worked. We wrote both the scripts and the music, and had a lot of fun doing it. It was a huge hit with the kids and with the community. For our last show, more than 350 kids participated from 3 different schools.

Also around this time, I hooked up with four friends from college and we formed a mixed vocal jazz quintet called Acme Vocal Company. I sang bass. We practiced a lot, but only sang a few gigs per year. The big one was always our Christmas benefit concert for a local food pantry. Because not too many jazzy SSATB arrangements of Christmas tunes existed at the time, I ended up arranging several. I tried to write a cappella pieces with an instrumental jazz feel. We performed seven of the arrangements that I wrote, and most received very positive reactions. But I was apprehensive about copyright issues with the arrangements of some of the more modern tunes, and never really knew how to go about getting any of those published anyway.

Three years after graduating, I married my high school sweetheart, Teresa, a 3rd year medical student by then, and fed my composition habit by setting The Lord's Prayer for the wedding ceremony. I feel like that was my first "hit." Since that day in July of 1995, it has been sung at dozens of weddings and church services by myself and others.

After college I got distracted and involved with everything that goes along with doing a job well and being a responsible adult and all that, and kind of lost sight of giving my music the attention it needed. Part of me knows that's because I was working on becoming a good teacher. Another part of me knows that I didn't see any clear path for my composing. Another part of me knows I was really scared to try. More on that later.

Teresa and I moved to Stewartville, MN in the summer of 1996. She began her residency at the Mayo Clinic that July. I was rather burned out from the elementary music job. As I said before, I loved working there, but was relieved if not happy by the break from the constant and nearly overwhelming workload. In Minnesota, I got involved with a start-up community theater group, worked part time in a piano store and generally wondered what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Teresa suggested I make a list of "life goals". In amongst things like "having kids," "traveling" and "writing a novel," I listed "getting one of my pieces published." After I was done, I felt good about having some goals, but I was still very unsure about where I was going next.

During that time I did accomplish the mini-goal of writing the other three Lenten motets (on the same texts Poulenc had used, all of which I had sung at UWM). In one instance, I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep. (Often I compose in my head during these times, in order to get me feeling sleepier...or perhaps hoping my brain will somehow process things while I slumber and I'll wake up with a magnum opus.) As I lay there in the darkness, a little fragment wandered into my mind. It was like a ray of light. I knocked my glasses off the nightstand and literally stumbled out of bed to go get some paper and start writing it down. That theme ended up being the heart of the second motet, Vinea Mea Electa (My Chosen Vine). That led me to finish the other two texts of the set within the year.

When the middle and high school choral position in Stewartville became available, I put my name in. At the interview I was told that I was their only applicant. I told them that they were getting the best person for the job regardless. In the two years I worked there, I reaffirmed my career choice. It was like remembering, "Oh yeah, this is why I went to college." Some of my fondest performance memories are of concerts with those friends.

During my time in Stewartville, my high school choirs performed several of my pieces. What a learning situation. In truth, it was often more humbling than gratifying. In general, my choirs were overmatched by my arrangements, the performances and recordings I made were a mess, and I really had to think about why I was doing what I was doing. I realized two things: 1) that I like to write challenging music that I would enjoy performing; and 2) that making my own students sing my pieces without sound educational reasoning felt a bit like exploitation.

There were a few disasters. The most poignant one involved an ancient Hindu Sanskrit poem about seizing the day that I had set for SATB, called Look to This Day. I realized about half way through teaching it to the kids that it just wasn't all that great. I felt like it was the same kind of the stuff I got in publishers' promotional packets, which I often considered "schlock"; not very original, music not directly related to the text, often too syrupy sounding. But it was too late to abandon ship and start something else. We ended up performing it at a concert or two and to me, the scattered applause seemed to express the audience's relief that the piece was over. I wanted to say, "Yeah. I know."

But it wasn't ALL bad for my compositions in Stewartville. One that turned out okay was an original Christmas song that I had first done for ACME (This Perfect Christmas Day, for SSATB choir a cappella). Although ACME never performed it, I had my select choir at Stewartville perform it successfully in 1998. I also received much sincere appreciation from the students for a four-part arrangement of my Lord's Prayer. This fact is truly bittersweet, however, because during its only public performance, the piano accompanist (working off MY personal copy—that I insisted he use) discovered too late that I had put the pages in the wrong order. Humbling.

But all too soon, it was time to move on. My wife had finished her training at Mayo, and due to a hiring freeze there, she had to look elsewhere for employment. We both missed Wisconsin, and decided to move to the small town of Baraboo when the opportunity arose. We had our first son, Julian (JJ), by then. He was 18 months old when we moved. The plan was that I would be a stay-at-home dad, in part because chances were slim that I would find a high school choir job nearby, and I wasn't interested in other music jobs.

Well, a job found me. I interviewed at Wisconsin Dells High School on the third or fourth day of school in September, 2000. Because we were in the process of building a house, had no day care for my son, and my wife was just starting her new job, it took awhile to decide to take the position. But I did, and started teaching in November, just after Thanksgiving.

Like every first year in a new job, it was rough going. Making things more difficult was the fact that I was the eighth or ninth choral director the school had in the last dozen years. There was no consistency, very little musical literacy, very low expectations and almost no enthusiasm in the students I met. I did my best, but felt quite depressed that nothing very special was being accomplished in my classroom. And I missed the people I worked with in Stewartville even more.

Because my original Wisconsin teaching license had expired, I needed to take a few graduate courses the following summer in order to renew. One of the classes I signed up for was the René Clausen Choral School at Concordia University in Moorhead, MN. [My wife's parents lived in Moorhead, and I figured that I could truly make this a working vacation.] I admired Clausen's choirs and his compositions, and expected to learn some new ideas about conducting and perhaps some educational strategies. I had no idea how that class would truly change my life.

The featured guest for that summer session was a young, very successful composer whom I had never heard of named Eric Whitacre. He was my age, and in many ways personified the visions I had for myself when I was in high school, of being a true composer. After sharing his very entertaining personal history with our class, he shared some of his music. It was incredible. He was incredible. His ideas were fresh, his music full of vitality and substance, his personality extremely engaging and authentic. And Clausen shared a lot about his own compositions, too, which I also found inspiring and instructive. Each night after class I came home and worked on some of my own compositions that I had brought along on the trip, truly inspired to new levels of aesthetic and artistry. I completed Full Fathom Five and Memoriam later that fall. Both works bear the marks of my experiences and inspirations that summer.

In my youth I was never much of a risk taker, but I was beginning to experience the rush you can get from a leap of faith. It was time to chase the dream, to approach composing as more than just a hobby. I had some serious art to contribute! I was so inspired that I very seriously considered quitting my teaching job and focusing entirely on composition while staying at home with my son. But the realization came to me that it would be very short sighted to give up the ultimate learning environment when my task was just beginning. Plus, a novice choral composer at the very least needs some performing group to work with, to learn from and maybe even have to premier something every now and again. I kept my job. Turned out that was the right choice as well.

So, that's the long answer. I stop there because that truly was the 'moment of truth' so to speak. It's when I stopped being a hobbyist, and started approaching composition more like a career. I'm still on the journey of learning to be a good composer, and learning how to say what I need to say musically.

Thanks for reading this. I deeply appreciate all the generous support that friends, colleagues and students have granted me thus far. A composer's life is a bit of a dichotomy: though the creative act of composition is usually a solitary pursuit, I feel that composers (especially of choral music) are needful of other people to help bring their music to life. Perhaps it's just part of being a singer, and the sense of community that grows out of a group of people being willing to share the most personal kind of instrument there is—the voice. In any case, I thank you.