Directions, a Mentor, and Addiction
Updated: May 6, 2020
Directions. I can give them, but I can't seem to follow them. I'm always taking a wrong turn when I'm following someone's directions, even when Siri is directing me turn by turn or someone is reading them to me. I always mess it up. Recently (yes, I know. I'm a slow learner), I realized that there is no right or wrong way to get to the destination sought, so why do I consume myself with my failure to follow directions? I used to be open to simply taking a turn to see what was down that road. I still daydream about simply driving in a direction to see what happens. I imagine an amazing adventure just around the bend. Let's not discuss the negative side of that.
When I was in high school and for about one year of college, I used to dream about performing for a living, then I discovered a love for composing. I was hooked and I wanted to compose for a living. I don't know if I was oblivious to others' expectations of me, but it seemed realistic to me. Maybe I was living in a fantasy world, but I could see it plain as day. As an undergrad performance major who had no education in composition, I simply wrote what I was told to write. I knew what I liked and I knew theory, but not much else. I didn't listen or research or study. I just did it my way and was easily offended when someone tried to give me direction. I believe this is the exact definition of stubbornness. I wasn't instructed to listen; I wasn't offered guidance, I was told what to compose and I did. It worked...I guess. I yearned to be a film composer and found a great school for film music and worked hard at getting accepted. My composition professor was not encouraging and wrote a condescending recommendation letter (why anyone would have taken it seriously is beyond me). I was completely dejected and soon began thinking that I wasn't good enough. I threw away the letter and compiled a great portfolio so I wouldn't have to worry about a recommendation. It worked and I was accepted to the program I wanted! Once again I decided not to follow someone else's direction and went my own way.
The first trimester of school was amazing. I was composing and learning quickly, new technologies and new assignments weekly. The pace was perfect for me, until it wasn't. I began feeling a familiar feeling of inadequacy as I was put on an unexplained academic probation and was informed that if I wanted to make it in film music, I should "move to L.A. and wait tables." In retrospect, it makes a little sense, but the advice was delivered in a condescending and judgmental tone. I felt like I was back where I had escaped from. Then, I inquired about switching to Composition & Technology and my future mentor accepted me (and another fellow film composer) with open arms, so to speak. Once I began weekly meetings with Dr. Rothkopf and classes in Jazz Arranging, the Aesthetics of Music, and learning how to promote oneself as an artist, I knew this was the right direction. Once again, I had found my way back.
Dr. Rothkopf was my first true mentor. Don't get me wrong, I have had some great teachers along the way: Mr. Coale, Mr. Pettys, Mr. Robertson, Mr. Meaders, Mr. Warren, Mr. Gunter. All amazing band directors. Heather Graham, Susie Brown, and Richard Ramey were all great private bassoon instructors. But there was something about my study with Dr. Rothkopf that changed the trajectory of my musicianship.
We were two complete opposites in composing style and technique, but he turned out to be the best match for me. I didn't really understand why until years later, even though he did try to explain it to me. He and his instruction brought out the best in me. I was inspired to compose and it was work I wanted to do. He recommended listening and research, he asked me difficult questions that I couldn't answer, he made suggestions that did not offend me but peaked my interest and guided me into better skills. I flourished under his instruction.
So what was the difference? Why had this worked so well while other experiences fell flat? Dr. Rothkopf never directed me to do anything. He made his recommendations and suggestions known and always supported me in my decisions. He never told me how to do it, he simply guided me down the path I was already heading. He let me make bad decisions and learn from my mistakes, cringing along the way, I'm certain. But he was always there to encourage me. He was the first one to tell me that my compositional voice was important. Not good or neat or interesting...important. I was on the right path.
After sticking around to study with another amazing composer, Kenneth Frazelle, I decided it was time to pursue a doctoral degree. I was accepted to Catholic University to study Musical Theater Composition. Oh my! This was awesome. But it wasn't to be. A detour sign disguised as student loans was placed on the path and I had no choice but to enter the work force. So I began teaching.
I have been a music educator now for 14 years and I can honestly say that I love teaching! I am surrounded by music and kids making music, how could I not love that?
I get to teach kids how to make music.
However, I don't get to spend any time on my own musicianship. I get to spend time on becoming a better band director. I also get to spend time learning how to play other instruments. But for a long time, none of this made me feel like I was heading in the direction I wanted to go. On the surface, I wasn't doing anything to develop my own musicianship. But when I stepped back from it all, I realized that becoming a better band director will help me compose for young and developing bands. I realized that learning all of these other instruments helps me better compose for these instruments. I learned that I am surrounded by some amazing band directors whom I would love to compose for. And I realized that my addiction isn't composing; my addiction is being a band director.
I'm addicted to being busy.
When I'm busy, I don't have time to realize that I'm not composing. When I'm busy, I don't have time to be rejected or to be afraid of failure. When I'm busy, I don't have time to worry about taking a wrong turn, because when I'm busy, I don't have time to see that wrong turn I need to make in order to find my next big adventure.
I can see a fork in the road up ahead and I am excited to see where it leads!