My older brother Ted graduated from high school in 1972. At some point before that (probably around 1969), he acquired a reel-to-reel tape copy of Wendy (of course, she was Walter back then) Carlos’s “Switched-On Bach.”
This was hugely important to me, at least in memory, because it was my first real introduction to classical music. Moreover, the album’s innovative use of the Moog synthesizer was also on the cutting edge of modern music.
At some point in the early 1970’s I started listening to tons of classical music. I would spend hours in the Beaumont Public Library (both the original one in the converted church as well as the new one that was constructed about the same time), digging through the stacks as well as checking out music to listen to at home.
Around the beginning of high school, I received a very nice cassette tape recorder for Christmas. Once I had a tape recorder, I would check out albums from the library and record them onto cassette to listen to later. (I realize now that this was a Very Bad Thing. At the time, however, I had no conception of copyrights or “intellectual property,” and it wasn’t until a few years later when my own music was being copyrighted that I started to understand how the system worked.)
I worked my way through Bach (which is where I started), Beethoven, and Mozart (who, frankly, I found fairly frivolous and uninteresting). I climbed the heights of Mahler and soared into the wondrous clouds of Stravinsky.
And, ultimately, I found the esoteric avante garde in the works of Pierre Boulez, especially his 12-tone Pli Sélon Pli, which was (and still is) one of the more fascinating musical works I’ve ever heard. I realize that music like this is not for everyone. It takes work—long, hard concentration and analysis—to understand and appreciate music like this. For most people, music is something to be tasted, enjoyed, and then either repeated or ignored. I tended to approach music like an engineer—I wanted to know how it works, and what needs to be put on paper to achieve the results. The music itself, the results, were almost secondary to me; it was much more important to understand how to get there.
Once I started junior high school and began playing in the band, I learned to read music. Not well, of course, since I was a percussionist, and our bands did not really teach melodic percussion (xylophone, marimba, etc.) to students, leaving them to be played by those percussionists who had happened to have piano lessons. I was not satisfied with this, so I, in essence, taught myself how to read and play music on the piano that was in our house.
Eventually, when I was a sophomore in high school, I started taking piano lessons. Like any other piano student, I practiced my scales and arpeggios and played music more suitable for a child than a teenager, but my piano teacher seemed to understand what I was looking for (not so much to become a performer as to be a creator) and he pushed me down that path. I learned how to read and play chord symbols so that I could improvise piano parts for pop and jazz songs.
Ultimately, I started writing my own music. Part of the thrill of composing was actually seeing notes on paper; they were (and are) magical to me. Those little black dots could cause sounds to leap forth from a voice, an instrument, an ensemble, and it was amazing to me that my notes could get performed by others. My orchestra conductor (Mr. F) also encouraged me; during my senior year, the orchestra actually included two of my arrangements in one of our concerts. He also introduced me to Dr. Richard Willis, the Composer-in-residence at Baylor University, who conducted our all-Area orchestra that year.
Mr. F told me to bring some music to show to Dr. Willis; he, too, was encouraging, and he took some of my works away with him to study further. I enjoyed meeting a “real, live composer,” and, frankly, didn’t think much about it until a few months later when, totally out of the blue, I received a letter announcing that I had been awarded the Baylor Composition Scholarship.
I had never really considered Baylor for college. In fact, I honestly wasn’t really aware of it much until the Area Orchestra concert. I didn’t know, for example, that it was a Baptist university. I just knew that they played in the now-defunct Southwest Conference. Until that moment, I had fully intended to go to North Texas State University, very well-known for its music (and, in particular, it’s jazz) program.
Once I received notice of the scholarship, I visited Baylor’s campus, applied, was accepted, and made plans to attend as a music major. I still write music; you can hear one of my compositions, “Channeling Philip Glass,” by clicking on the player.