As a very young musician, I was greatly influenced by my high school band director’s choice of literature. Mr. John Johnson gave me a great appreciation of the “war horses” of concert band literature: Holst’s First and Second Suites for Military Band; Zdechlik’s Chorale and Shaker Dance; Clifton Williams’ Sinfonians Concert March; and, of course, the marches of Sousa and King. But, because I was a saxophone player, it was Mr. Johnson’s love of jazz that really rubbed off on me.
I never considered composition to be something that could be learned. I thought one had to be born a composer. Mr. Johnson helped start me down the road to music theory and composition by having me arrange pieces for our percussion ensemble. That’s when I began to have an inkling that perhaps I, too, could compose.
While at Northwest Missouri State University, I worked during an independent study with a theory professor on Fuxian counterpoint. I firmly believe it was the study of Fux that gave me such a lasting love of early music, particularly the dance music of the late Renaissance. I also studied the symphonies of R. Vaughan Williams, most notably his “Sea Symphony,” during another independent study with a choral teacher. Vaughan Williams’ use of ancient and traditional melodies was a powerful influence. His Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis influenced my early string orchestra writing.
It was during this time that I first heard the compositions of David R. Holsinger. He was the first true influence on my own compositional style. Holsinger’s piece Liturgical Dances made me want to be a composer! His use of ostinato rhythms and an extensive percussion section made the piece exhilarating to listen to and perform (even as an oboe player)! [As a side note, Holsinger has gone on to arrange some of his band works for string orchestra, so when I took one of my first band compositions and arranged it for string orchestra, I dedicated it to him. He was very appreciative of the dedication.]
I began listening to as much band literature as possible while in undergrad. In particular, I listened to American Bandmasters Association Ostwald Award winners, just to get the sound in my ears. NWMSU did not have an orchestra so I was not exposed to orchestral repertoire until graduate school.
At the Wichita State University School of Music, I studied composition with Dr. Walter A. Mays while I pursued my master’s degree in conducting. Dr. Mays was very kind to this country kid from Iowa. He began to expand not only my compositional skills but also my listening palette. I started listening to Kodaly, Bartok, and Stravinsky. And, even though he would often tell me that my pieces were “too B-flat,” meaning they were too tonally tied to one key, Dr. Mays encouraged me to write what I knew.
Dr. Mays and I spent an entire semester going over the orchestration and formal structure of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. That was the first time that I really understood that the choice of orchestrations could make a distinct difference in the performance of music. I learned that a composer doesn’t just give the “high part” to the first violins and flutes, but rather, must think about color, timbre, and “effect” as well. The sounds that Bartok could coax from an orchestra are still a miracle to me.
By the time I graduated from WSU I had written a handful of string orchestra pieces that would go on to get published after I won the National School Orchestra Association Merle J. Isaac Composition Contest in 1997. That was my first published piece, and I’ve been fortunate to have several pieces published every year since. But, while I was happy to write for educational ensembles, I still sought out the larger forms, exploring the various tonal languages of Peteris Vasks, Henryk Górecki, and Arvo Pärt. It was around the year 2000 that I discovered the music of Michael Daugherty. His “Metropolis” Symphony in particular has influenced me strongly, especially in the area of orchestration.
I spent the intervening years between my master’s work and my PhD studies studying the works of Carlisle Floyd (while writing a children’s opera that was commissioned by my school district), Eric Whitacre (for my choral commissions), and mostly anything I could get my hands on that had to do with early music, most notably the work of Thomas Ravencroft and anything from the Middle East during the 12th-15th Centuries. It was an odd, albeit musically satisfying, array of influences.
Once I had the opportunity to study with Dr. Weston at Kansas State University, I had already had several dozen pieces published and was receiving yearly commissions for my educational pieces. Dr. Weston opened my ears and my compositional style to the possibility of chamber music. And that is where I truly began to feel like a “real” composer. Having written a string quartet and a piano trio, I feel much more confident in my compositional abilities. Unfettered by the “educational” label, I was able to explore a polytonal language that was not “borrowed,” but was mine alone.
While studying with Dr. Weston, I studied the chamber music of Brahms and Ravel extensively. Honestly, I had never studied the works of Ravel beyond Bolero’s orchestrations, and I was struck by the profundity of language and form in his smaller scale pieces. I am still studying the Duet for Violin and Cello and cannot believe how much music he manages to pack into such a small work. It is truly a microcosm of all that we aspire to as composers. I now regularly search the Petrucci Library for Ravel’s chamber music pieces so I can have a little more inspiration for my work.
As I continue to expand the number of chamber music pieces I’ve written, I look forward to studying the work of my contemporaries while continuing to look at works from several hundred years ago. Most recently I’ve studied the chamber works of Takemistu and Zwilich, along with a Ravel piece that is new to me, titled the Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra. In addition to chamber music, I am hoping to incorporate improvisational techniques into my works for educational ensembles, especially for middle school and high school string orchestras. We don’t let kids “explore” enough on their instruments, and through improvisation, students grow more comfortable with creating their own music. And I would love to influence many more young people to follow in my footsteps as a composer.