A graduate of Indiana University (Bloomington), and Director of Band Publications for Hal Leonard Corporation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Michael Sweeney has over 500 publications to his credit. As a winner of numerous awards from ASCAP, his Imperium (1992) and Ancient Voices (1994) are featured in the acclaimed GIA Publications series Teaching Music Through Performance in Band. Some of his other compositions such as Black Forest Overture (1996), The Forge of Vulcan (1997) and Distant Thunder of the Sacred Forest (2003) have become standard repertoire for middle school bands. He has received commissions ranging from middle and high school bands to the Eastman Wind Ensemble and Canadian Brass. His works are included on many state contest lists and his music is often performed worldwide. Mr. Sweeney is in demand as a conductor and clinician for festivals and honor bands alike. Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Sweeney and asked him to share some insight regarding his musical background with our readers.
When did you begin in music? What instrument did you begin with?
I started piano lessons when I was in the 2nd grade, then when band became an option in 6th grade I jumped at the chance to play trombone. For a while I took lessons on both, but before too long I dropped piano and focused on trombone. I still played piano, mainly for fun in groups, then studied piano again briefly in college.
Did you have a specific “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?
I can’t say there was a definite “a-ha” moment. I grew up in a musical family. My mom was a band director for a few years, then focused on elementary music and general music. She was a sought-after accompanist as well, so there was always a steady parade of instrumentalists at our house around solo and ensemble time. My dad was an optometrist, but had played baritone when he was in high school. Both of my parents were active in the church choir. So it seemed perfectly natural and logical that I’d go into music at some point, although I had a brief interest in art, math, and architecture.
What inspired you to become a composer?
I was fortunate to have a piano teacher who encouraged creativity. Along with the weekly exercise and etude assignments, she would encourage me to choose a current pop tune and learn it by ear. (I learned a lot of Beatles tunes this way!) Once I became comfortable playing by ear, I began plunking out my own little tunes and chords, experimenting with different sounds.
When did you start composing and what kind of ensemble did you start writing for?
When I was in junior high, a bunch of us in band wanted to form a rock band. This was back in the ’60s so there wasn’t really anything published for a trombone, couple of trumpets, and drums. I took it upon myself to create arrangements for us to play, and quickly learned (the hard way) about instrument transpositions and ranges. In high school, I continued to dabble with piano pieces, and with the help of our band director started doing arrangements for the marching band and jazz ensemble.
Do you have a mentor – or someone you would say has influenced your style of writing the most, and if so who would that be?
Several people have been encouraging and helpful along the way (piano teacher, band directors, college teachers, etc.), rather than me being influenced by a just single individual. I studied composition in school with three very different composers (Bernhard Heiden, John Eaton, and Donald Erb) and all of them encouraged their students to find their own style and voice rather than how to imitate their particular styles. While in college I wrote for various chamber groups including brass and woodwinds, string quartet, vocalists, and percussion, but interestingly nothing for band (other than arrangements for the marching and pep bands).
What things inspire your writing?
You’d be surprised how “inspiring” a deadline can be! But seriously, this is a very difficult question to answer. I get ideas from sounds, events and images that surround us every day. Sometimes musical ideas will be a natural response to strong emotions or feelings, but many times it’s just a matter of getting into the habit of writing down musical ideas on a regular basis, then sorting, organizing and editing at a later time.
What would you say defines your style?
I’m probably too close to the process to be a very good judge about what defines my style. I’m always intrigued by very active and rhythmic patterns, but I also like to explore unusual harmonic structures and textures even when writing for young players. Although every composer has a tendency to fall back on trusted devices, I try very hard to make every piece individualized and somehow unique. That being said, I’m sure there are similar elements that can’t help but show up from time to time in my music.
Tell me something people don’t know about you (that they might find surprising).
Given my long-standing love of percussion and ancestral affinity to Celtic music, I purchased a Bodhrán (a type of Irish drum) a while back and have been learning to play it. I’ve been frequenting a local Irish pub, having a blast sitting in with the musicians and trying not to get in their way.
Are you in the middle of any writing projects currently, and if so, would you mind telling us about them?
Currently I am working on a grade 3 concert band commission for the Zionsville, Indiana Middle School program. Their former director, Sandra Graef, had commissioned Kinesis in 2004. Sadly, she lost her battle with cancer and this new piece will be in her honor.
What would be your favorite band piece (by another composer)?
I know it’s a cop-out, but how can it not be Holst’s First Suite in Eb? I never had the opportunity to play many of the band classics when I was in high school, but I do remember several pieces leaving a lasting impression when I was exposed to them later: George Washington Bridge (Schuman), Incantation and Dance (Chance), English Folk Song Suite (Vaughan Williams), Music for Prague, 1968 (Husa).
Do you have one of your own works that you would call your favorite?
This is like asking which of your kids is your favorite! What a devious question! I usually respond by saying my favorite is always the one I am currently working on. At any given time, this is the one I’m most emotionally attached to. Given the luxury of several years of reflection, I can reluctantly mention a few specifics (but don’t tell the others!). Ancient Voices always seems to hog the most attention, and while I’m pleased with how this turned out, it is not one that I very often program myself. For the easy level I tend to favor Imperium or one of the two Celtic Air & Dance settings. For grade 2, The Forge of Vulcan, Black Forest Overture, Knights of Destiny, and Silverbrook are like trusted friends. And for sheer goosebump effect and drama, I can’t forget Rumble on the High Plains (with humble apologizes to all my other “children”!)
What advice or tips would you give to an aspiring composer?
As with most things in life, you need to follow where your natural abilities and interests lead you. Be true to your heart, and doors will be opened for you. Don’t pursue anything in the music business seeking fame or fortune. You will end up disappointing your inner self, and most likely annoy your family and friends. If composing music becomes an irresistible obsession, then learn as much as you can about all types of music and instruments. This is best through firsthand experiences of learning to play the instruments, but also from working directly with musicians who can give you immediate feedback and suggestions on your creations. Be willing to self-edit. Freely discard material that upon examination does not fit or work as nicely as you originally thought. I often throw away about as much as I keep when writing any given piece of music. Be critical and exacting of your own work, and be willing to judge objectively.
Does your music come to you through slow, careful planning, or by sudden inspiration, or a combination of both?
Every piece develops differently. Sometimes ideas seem to be just waiting to come out. Other times the process seems endless, with multiple rewrites, revisions, etc. Even though I try to establish a clear goal and overall design when starting out, it seems that each piece has its own timeline that must be followed. If I find myself getting stuck, it is often helpful to set the music aside for a time, then after a few days or weeks away, ideas often come more easily. I suspect my subconscious is working on the music in the meantime.
Do you a specific type or style of work you prefer to write for?
I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to write for a wide range of students, from beginning level up to college. I thoroughly enjoy all age groups, but as evidenced by the number of pieces I’ve done at the younger levels, I have a special place in my heart for middle school. This is such an important age group, and I’ve always felt that providing interesting and substantial music for them is especially important. Most of my writing now is for concert band, but I also enjoy writing for jazz ensemble. I enjoy a variety of styles as long as I’m able to bring a sense of emotional depth and value to the music.
What is your favorite aspect about composing?
Music is a way of communicating without words, and can actually go beyond what we are able to communicate verbally. Composing music can be a lonely activity, and is always very personal. Sharing the end result with young people is very rewarding, and even more so when I’m able to do this in person as guest conductor or clinician.
Do you have the opportunity to rehearse and/or conduct your works with various groups, and if so, do you enjoy the experience? Why or why not?
I always enjoy working with school groups and honor bands. I was a band director before joining Hal Leonard full time in 1982, and the daily interaction with students is one of the things I miss the most. One of the most valuable parts of the commissioning process is being able to communicate with the composer, either via phone or email, or ideally in person. Whenever possible I try to visit the commissioning school for rehearsals and discussions, and often attend the premiere performance. I’ve been fortunate to have several opportunities each year to guest conduct, and this is always an absolute treat for me!
“Rapid Fire” Questions:
What is on your iPod?
What’s an iPod? Believe it or not, I don’t own one. My car does not have a CD player either, and I used to listen to cassettes until the cassette player broke! Now I listen to talk radio and NPR. I find that after a long day at the office working with and listening to music, then composing in the evenings and on weekends, I rarely listen to music in my leisure time.
If not composing or performing, what profession could you envision yourself doing?
That prospect seems so far from the realm of possibility it’s hard to imagine. Maybe a railroad engineer. I could definitely see myself teaching again, but that’s still related to music.
What is your favorite composition? (of any composer, in any medium)
There is not one single piece that has remained my favorite throughout my lifetime. It changes through the years, as indeed I change. Early on maybe Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, then a Beethoven symphony, or Barber’s Adagio for Strings, followed by something by Count Basie, and eventually a tune by The Beatles. Impossible to narrow this one down.
Is there anyone, past or present, that you would like to have the opportunity to meet?
Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven…
If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would that be?
How about I answer that with a writing team: John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Fishing. My idea of getting away from it all is sitting in my canoe on a quiet little lake away from the noise and crowds.
Performer or composer?
I don’t go to concerts much anymore, but in recent years the most enjoyable concert experience for me has been watching the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra perform live. John Clayton has such a warm and personal rapport with the audience, and members of the band are clearly having a great time performing — and the music itself is fantastic.
Our thanks goes out to Mr. Sweeney for taking the time to share the story of his musical journey with us.
Click here to see a list of Michael Sweeney’s works.