I now return to the principal topics of this blog—our lives and how we live them.
As requested by my friend Wendy Morgan, here is a second post about my music career. She asked what inspired me as a composer. I have not written a great deal about this subject, so this post will be new territory for me.
In the previous piece, Teaching Little Fingers to Play, I described my childhood musical experiences. This post will deal with some of my training as a performer as well as with my preparation for becoming a professional composer. A following article will describe in some detail the process of composition itself.
While I was growing up in the small town of Cedar Vale, Kansas, music became ever more important to me. I learned to play the trumpet and “made first chair” in the high-school band. I was also winning high marks for trumpet solos in the state music contests. Although my father had no musical training, he enjoyed singing old popular songs. He asked me to play along with him on my trumpet. Since we had no printed music, I learned to play by ear, and that skill later served me well as a composer. After all, a composer must be able to commit the musical ideas he or she “hears” in the imagination to musical notation. Being able to play a melody without printed music is half way to that goal.
In high school I was given permission to leave the dreaded “Study Hall” to practice my trumpet. I was sometimes accompanied by one of my teachers, who played piano by ear. We spent many happy hours improvising on popular songs or just playing jazz using the standard blues progression. These sessions of improvisation trained me to imagine and hold musical ideas and work with them in my mind. It would be only one additional step to put these ideas on paper. My high-school band director, George Beggs, played trumpet in a local dance band, and when my improvisation skills were good enough, he invited me to join the band and improvise my own choruses at the local dances in the town park. I had an appreciative audience and gained confidence in improvising in public.
In the summer of my junior year in high school I was given a scholarship to attend the Midwestern Music and Art Camp at the University of Kansas in Lawrence as a performer in the band and chorus. That summer was instrumental in my ultimate choice of a career in music and my desire to be a composer.
The single event that set me on my path to a career as a composer came the first time I heard a live symphony orchestra. The live music fare in Cedar Vale was limited to church choirs, local dance bands, our school band and chorus, and western music such as Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. (This was in the days when “western” had not been combined with “country” to create “country and western music.”) [LINK]
At Midwestern Music and Art Camp I heard the camp symphony orchestra at the first concert and I was dumbstruck. Never had I imagined the sheer beauty and complexity that a symphony orchestra could produce! I don’t remember what they performed, but I immediately told Becky Grantham (the girl I was dating at the camp) that I would someday write music for that ensemble. She said insincerely, “Sure you will,” and probably dismissed my ravings as the result of the hormones that we had flowing between us.
Well, Becky (wherever you are), I did make good on that early prophecy. My PhD in music composition and lifetime career as head of music theory and composition at Iowa State University were all the result of my hearing the Midwestern Music and Art Camp symphony orchestra in 1954. And yes, I did ultimately write compositions for symphony orchestra and for many other ensembles as well. When I retired from ISU in 1994, I had well over 90 published compositions.