I have been around music all of my life. When I was little I used to love what I called, "The Chips Ahoy Song," which you may know better as Sing Sing Sing.
I'm pretty sure there's some wonderful home videos of me dancing around to the drum solos. Years later, I ended up in the rhythm section of the jazz band. Fancy that. My family went to a traditional Lutheran church. I was around four-part harmony at least once a week for the first 14 years of my life. When I went to college, I was there on voice scholarship. That was just a means to an end though. I was there to study composition. Why? I had no idea, it was just something I wanted to learn more about. I hadn't started composing until the year before, when I had free time during my first hour of senior year. I was supposed to be assisting the band/choir director but there was never really anything to do in the mornings, so he opened up Finale on his computer and told me to just explore it. I wrote some things. Some of them were interesting. I knew I liked Debussy, but at this point I didn't have any real theory knowledge past how chords worked, so I wasn't even trying to replicate those sounds. I could barely play piano. I was not a natural by any means, I just wanted to learn more. It's all I had ever been around.
It's funny that all of this started from singing for me. I, the sophomore, 1st chair trumpet player in the band, did not join choir that year because, "singing was not cool." At this point I had one girlfriend ever. For three days. I clearly knew what I was talking about. Freshmen at my high school were required to do choir and that's when I learned I had a low voice. I auditioned for the play that same year and was the only freshman to be cast. The next year my school switched to musicals, so I started taking voice lessons just to make sure I could still get into the drama productions. That year my school did The Music Man and I was cast as Marcellus. Throw in a few bell kicks while singing Shipoopi and I was hooked on dancing. Junior year I did choir and got into our auditioned choir as well. I continued my voice lessons. We did Fiddler on the Roof that year, heavy material for high schoolers, and it was done incredibly well. I didn't have any particular role but I was able to do lots of singing and dancing (If you've seen me at a wedding, this is where I learned my Russian dancing). You get the point. I was singing, not so much because I loved to sing, but I loved to do things that involved singing; acting, dancing, and being on stage. I still considered myself a serious musician because I played trumpet.
It's senior year of high school and I have no idea what I want to study or where I want to go to college. Some little Lutheran college in Minnesota wants me, but as a born and bred desert rat that was NOT happening. I applied to NAU as well, and was accepted, but I did not really have any interest in going to Flagstaff either. That application was more just because I knew their music building from all the camps I went to. The third and final place I applied to was Point Loma Nazarene University. Prior to visiting PLNU, I was adamantly opposed to studying in California. As an Arizonan, I found Californians to be quite strange. I did like to visit California though. My family went on vacation to San Diego. They dropped me off at a preview day that I didn't find out about until the day before. I went to the music department and learned they had a composition degree. Neat, I liked doing that. The advisor I met with asked if I was coming back the next day to audition for a scholarship. I said, "I'm going back to Phoenix tomorrow, I didn't know I was coming here until yesterday." She said she could try to get something together that day. A few hours later I'm trying to think of songs I learned in voice lessons and see if they have the sheet music for them so the accompanist can do her thing. I sang something from the ever-present 24 Italian Art Songs and Arias and I, Don Quixote from Man of La Mancha. Whatever they heard from that unprepared audition, they liked. I was offered a voice scholarship, I applied there, and was accepted. I enrolled as a composition major. No plan for a career or anything, I wanted to learn more about something that was interesting to me.
I started at the same time as a few other composition majors. Two of them became my best friends. They were interested in composing for film when we started out, so I thought, "well sure, that sounds neat." That did not last very long for me. I was introduced to something that would become incredibly formative the first semester of my freshman year, in vocal forum of all things. Here I was, singing to help pay to learn about music and composition, and the part I didn't take seriously ended up changing the way I looked at music. They different voice faculty had us do what they called a, "head improv." Three singers brought chairs together and sat very close, facing each other, heads down and arms around their neighbors shoulders. Then they sang. Just vowel sounds. No time limit, they all worked together and figured out when they were done. The first time I did this, it felt like magic. I had no idea why, I just knew something special had happened. A few years later, I'm short a few minutes on our required composing for a given semester, and I'm trying to think of a way to write about 10 minutes of music in roughly 10 minutes of effort. In this moment Variables was born.
Variables is an aleatoric piece for brass built out of a few ideas that had been floating around my head. I will get into the specifics about that piece later, but what you need to know now is the musicians who performed Variables on my recital were looking at a bunch of circles, instead of sheet music. There are no notes or rhythms on the page; only three rows of three circles, some filled in, others not, a few repeat signs, and a rough time estimate for each movement. The rest was up to the performer. It did not really sound "good," but I realized that wasn't the point. The performance was not the sound, it was the performers working together to make something cohesive at all.
It has been several years since then, and I am only just beginning to understand the implications of all of this. I've given you a brief look into the development of what I call my Internal Musical Language. The head improv and variables eject the musician from their comfort zone. I'm not talking about going and doing something that scares you, or doing something new; those activities force the musician to speak a language they were formerly fluent in without any of the methods they had before. No staff, no rhythm, no dynamic instructions. Nothing. There's plenty of other moments that influenced me on the way to this, and I plan on revisiting the ones I have mentioned here, and others, in much greater detail as I begin my journey exploring my Internal Musical Language. I don't want to know just mine though. As I seek to learn my own language, I hope to develop tools and techniques to help other musicians learn about themselves the things I am discovering about myself. I believe this will be incredibly important to the future of musicianship as we see the quality of synthetic and sequenced music increase. Performance of music needs to differentiate itself from translating instructions into sound; computers can do that perfectly well now, and it sounds incredible. Performance needs to be a collaboration between the composer and the musician.