… four years, in fact. And what a four years it’s been!
My last blog post was in summer of 2018. I made a few random updates in 2019 just to add a few new pieces and keep up the resume/CV, but didn’t really feel like I had too much new to say. Then came 2020, and… well, we all knew where that went. So, to catch you all up, I think I’ll start there.
In early 2020, I was starting to make plans to apply for lots of jobs, publications, and really get my website and social media presence started. At the same time, I was pretty burnt out. I had been working at University of Miami consistently since I graduated, and I was very happy there… but since my position was as an adjunct, my living situation wasn’t exactly what you call tenable. There was a lot that I wanted to do, but not exactly much drive to do any of it. Nonetheless, around January of 2020, I had great plans in place to make this stuff happen.
Then March came around, and a lot of those plans went to ashes.
University of Miami went into lockdown/remote learning just like everyone else. My church services transitioned to completely online. I had some “decent enough” equipment to make the change to virtual learning pretty smoothly. At the same time, with student stress at an all-time high and what can only be described as a terrible political environment surrounding me in Florida… I realized I was burnt out. 2020 wasn’t going to be the year where I accomplished anything. I had to worry about my mental health first.
Let’s talk for a second about that… mental health. We’re in a great position in society today where people can talk about things like mental illness and past trauma more easily than ever. Online communities make it very easy for you to “find your tribe” and seek out forms of therapy that work for you. But the flip side of this: health care, particularly psychiatric health care, is more expensive than ever. And in the aftermath of the 2020 pandemic virtually everyone is carrying around some weight or other that they can’t always access true professional help to address. I don’t think we’ve fully addressed that, and I’m not sure if we ever will. I see it with students today who were never properly prepared for college, colleagues who have forgotten how to interact with people face to face, etc.
It’s all a bit… too much, isn’t it?
Some artists thrive in situations like that. They can take all of their pent-up stress and turn it into great music or beautiful sculptures or fantastic new screenplays. I am not one of those artists. To get the creative juices flowing, I need to have the rest of my mental ducks in a row. That wasn’t going to happen in 2020, at least not with composing. So I made the decision in 2020 to… stop composing for a while. I didn’t have anything musically original to say, and I wasn’t going to try.
This was smart in some ways, a little less so in others. You see, creativity is own sort of “muscle”; you need to exercise it or it’ll get weaker. So when I felt like I was ready to start composing again, there were two things wrong: no one wanted a new piece because they weren’t performing, and I was out of practice cranking out good work. I didn’t have opportunities to get my skills back up to snuff. And this is a dangerous place to sit professionally. No one wants a college professor who has grown stagnant.
That said… I still kept myself busy! You see, this is when multi-tracking for performance opportunities started to really take off. Where virtual ensembles were really making an impact. I dipped my feet into it during the Easter season, and again at Christmas, so that our church could have music for those services even if we weren’t meeting in person. And learning how to put these things together meant getting my feet wet with Pro Tools and Adobe Premiere again.
I found something new to do! Something to get the creative juices flowing. And as with any new endeavor, I started simple:
A quintet. Jean L’Heritier’s “Nigra sum sed formosa”, one of my favorite Renaissance motets. Played on giant recorders. Yes, those two in the middle are standing on the floor. They’re called “great bass” recorders, and they come even bigger than that.
Around Christmas time, I started thinking a little bit deeper… I had already been putting together multi-tracks for church services by that point. But I also saw a lot of my performance friends talking about how much they missed playing for the holidays. This applied especially to the brass players; they were used to having some sort of Christmas gig at some point or other, and Christmas music (especially all together) is its own brand of special.
I was a euphonium principal in undergrad, so naturally some of my best friends from that time were the other brass players I played with back then. And I had collected other such friends along the way. So I thought… what if I throw together a super-quick arrangement of an approachable Christmas carol and see if any of my friends want to play with me? Gave my good friend Dr. Ben Charles a call to see if he would supply a little percussion with it. I had some bites, I pulled my euphonium and my French horn out of storage, and got to work.
This was the result:
And without even realizing it, I had just created a new holiday tradition for myself. And another way to exercise some creative juices.
But then comes 2021…
Some personal things happened in 2021 where I realized that I couldn’t stay in Miami for too much longer. I had been lucky enough to not have any huge dents in my salary over the pandemic, and even managed to put a decent amount of it away. That money was now in a moving fund. I would finish out the 2021-22 academic school year, and then I would move. To where? Who knew? I certainly didn’t. But as much as I loved my jobs in Miami, I couldn’t stay unless a lot of things changed. And I needed to make it happen. It was time.
I’m not sure if there’s all that much I really have to say about the year itself. My biggest project was helping to create a website portal for new teachers at Frost. This meant getting slides and summaries of my improvisation curriculum to hand over to Miami. There was also a lot of polishing my cover letters and CVs. There were more multi-tracks. I had gotten my hands on an oboe and a bassoon and started working on getting some semblance of playing chops on those instruments.
The one thing I didn’t do much was compose. I still wasn’t ready to get back into it. I tried. It didn’t work. I actually had a small
mental breakdown spiritual reckoning that summer trying to write something new. I just couldn’t make it happen.
So I turned my energy toward some of my old pieces. Took some orchestral rep of mine and made wind ensemble versions. Found ways to get a little more creative in my multi-track arrangements. Re-engraved some of my much older scores into something that looked more professional. That would have to do for then. I’d start composing again when I was ready.
About that moving thing… I wasn’t ready.
The job hunt was weird. I applied for dozens of things and only landed a single interview. But that interview was for one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the country. It was director position in my field. It would involve moving to New York, which would be a cool change that I think I would have loved. And a position like that is one that you essentially plan to retire from.
I advanced to the very last round of interviews. And I had never interviewed better in my entire life. The teaching demo went well, the committee seemed very interested, and everything just gelled together in the most serendipitous way.
…I didn’t get the job.
Instead, around that time I got another interview for a composition/technology position at Kennesaw State University, just outside Atlanta. I had a lot of family in Atlanta, it’s a cool enough city. The job was nothing prestigious, and I wouldn’t be making any more money than before. But I’d be in a much better position to get some other projects rolling.
So I took the job. I said goodbye to Miami. And what better way for me to say goodbye than another multi-track?
My double reed chops were finally starting to come along, thank goodness.
But I had another surprise in store! Earlier that year I had done some work with the University of Tennessee Chamber Singers, arranging some stuff for them on their Scotland/England summer tour. As I was going through the moving process, they asked me if I would like to join them! So I got to spend part of my summer with them, even singing in the choir. And the best surprise of all… my Evening Canticles in C and my anthem Love were both used in an Evensong service at none other than St. Paul’s Cathedral in London!
This was one of my first forays back into hearing my pieces performed live. It was also the first time since the pandemic I got to take part in singing with an ensemble! You might say it woke something up in me. I was recharged ready to dive back into things as soon as I got back. After I got to spend some time touring the British and Scottish countryside with the next crop of music students from UT, of course.
Great group of adults here. I made a lot of new friends and colleagues that month.
Then once I got back, I got started at my new job in Kennesaw! I’ll just lump that fall together with…
This Kennesaw job has been phenomenal so far! I’m working with a very different crop of students than I had in Miami. The collegiate atmosphere here is much more of a mixed bag: more students from lower-income backgrounds, older students going back to school, a wider variety of socioeconomic backgrounds (which means a more diverse sampling of young composers to teach!), and all in a supportive faculty environment.
The courses I’m teaching now have been markedly different, too: in Miami I was teaching solely theory and aural skills. I got plugged into the aural skills division at Kennesaw pretty quick, but the courses I’m teaching here are much more composition-oriented. Music Technology, Scoring for Media, Instrumentation and Arranging, that kind of thing. And it’s great!
It’s also scary, as all new things are. But I’ve stepped up to the occasion pretty well. Teaching Scoring for Media in particular was a fun one to dive into. And it’s all given me some new ideas and tricks up my sleeve for the more technologically-minded projects I have coming up. Working with Logic Pro on the regular has been particularly gratifying (I’ve done most of my composing on Finale in the past), and it’s inspired me to create some fun mockups like sample video game music—things outside the purview of a purely classical composer.
I still don’t know what’s next. I have some ideas, of course. But I don’t know if Kennesaw is where I’m meant to stay. I’m still deciding if academia in general is where I want to be. But whatever the next step is, I think I’m ready to get there.
I’m in the process of finishing my first textbook. I’m setting the groundwork to make my social media arm PlagalBytes much more active. I’m getting some of those wind ensemble things from the past few years together to send to ensembles, as well as some more of my choral stuff. I’m still plugging away at the multitracking. And through all of that I’m getting myself back into the regular habit of composing. It’s exciting to be back into a place where I can make music on the regular again.
Thank you all for being along for the ride! I’m looking forward to sharing whatever comes next. And I hope you are too.
In the meantime… stay healthy, and happy practicing! There’s music to make!