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Band Composer Series: Michael Sweeney

April 26, 2011

Mike Sweeney, Hal Leonard

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.

Favorite pastime?

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.


“For His Contribution to Music”: Sir George Shearing, 1919-2011

February 16, 2011
George Shearing

Sir George Shearing

The 2011 Grammy Awards have scarcely ended and the music world mourns the loss of jazz pianist and legend, George Shearing.  Recognized for orchestrated and inventive jazz, he created 300 compositions, but is most well-known for Lullaby of Birdland.  Among his many awards and honors are honorary doctoral degrees (Westminster College, Hamilton College and DePauw University), two Grammys in 1982 and 1983, respectively, and knighthood bestowed in 2007 by Queen Elizabeth II.

When the letter requesting his appearance before the Queen was read to him, George simply said, “I don’t know why I’m getting this honor… I’ve just been doing what I love to do.”  And, when asked by the press how he felt about receiving the highest honor the Queen can give, he replied, “My mind keeps flashing back on my beginnings as pianist playing in a pub for the equivalent of $5.00 a week.  What a journey it has been from that pub to Buckingham Palace.  Receiving such an honor as a knighthood might also show young people what can be achieved in life if one learns his craft and follows his dreams.”

While many of us, as musicians and students, may not achieve the status of knighthood, perform in the presence of three U.S. presidents, win Grammys, or actively perform until the age of 85, may we all learn our craft and follow our dreams.

Click here to see a list of music by and books about George Shearing.

*Quotes and biographical information taken from the George Shearing website.  For further information, please visit his website at

Music Advocacy

Creativity: Your Brain on Improv

January 20, 2011

I know what you’re thinking.  How can one scientifically analyze a concept that, by its very nature, is capricious and unpredictable?  Dr. Charles Limb, a faculty member of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, has done a fascinating study on the activity of the brain when engaged in a musical activity.  Using a Functional MRI machine, which not only takes pictures but also monitors blood flow to the different areas of the brain, Dr. Limb put jazz musicians and rappers through a series of exercises to see what goes on neurologically when we play music.  From what he has found, our brains react very differently when performing a memorized piece of music versus improvising.  During improvisation, areas of our frontal lobe which are thought to be responsible for self-monitoring (self-reflection, introspection and memory) were turned off, while other areas that are thought to be responsible for self-expression turned on.  There seems to be an interesting shift in dynamic that occurs when your brain transitions from being inhibited and assigned limitations versus given the freedom to be creative.

Perhaps even more fascinating was Dr. Limb’s second experiment, during which he and renowned jazz musician and composer Mike Pope took turns improvising back and forth with one another.  Results show that areas of Mike’s brain which are thought to be responsible for language and expressive communication suddenly began lighting up on the FMRI monitor.  Similar results were found when rappers were monitored during freestyling.  Could it be that there is a neurological basis for the sentiment that music is indeed a language of its own?

To watch the presentation Dr. Limb introduced at the TED Conference this past November which details the process involved in obtaining these results, click here.


Enter Our Facebook Drawing!

October 15, 2010

 Psst… spread the word!   Enter your group for our Facebook sweepstakes called “Put Your Group on Canvas.”  A few J.W. Pepper employees put their creative resources together to offer you a chance to display your music ensemble’s photograph on a top-quality, large canvas!    The winning organization’s  photograph will be professionally printed on a 30″ x 40″ canvas, and mounted on a sturdy wood frame. 

If you’ve visited one of our stores, you’ve seen this type of canvas print decorating our walls.  Just imagine how excited your music students are going to be when they see an impressive portrait with their musical talents on display for all to enjoy.

Click here  to enter and to view contest details. 

Select the sweepstakes tab to enter the “Put Your Group on Canvas” drawing, which runs through  October 31, 2010.  Five winners will be randomly selected.    The prizes are valued at $100, and will be shipped free of charge to each of the five winners.

This is a golden opportunity to let your music ensemble’s talents shine!  Good luck!

The Pepper Difference

Are your ears ringing?

April 19, 2010
Choral Music Editor Steve Kupferschmidt

Choral Music Editor Steve Kupferschmid

Did you ever get the feeling someone is talking about you?  Well, this time of year you are being talked about plenty here at Pepper.  For a span of about three months, our music editors sequester themselves amidst stacks of scores and read through every note, hunting for high-quality music for your school, community and church music programs.  While music is published year ’round, the lion’s share of new music is composed by springtime so it can be in your hands in time for the fall season.

Here’s a glimpse into the life that is review season at Pepper:   First we bring together music editors from around the country, each with the background and skills to ascertain musical style, difficulty, and usefulness to the ensembles performing it.  Enter — you.   We think about you alot.  We examine closely how you responded to our picks from previous years, and we’re very careful to keep worthy pieces in the catalogs.  Can you imagine dropping Mozart’s Requiem or a Holst Suite from the catalog?   Neither can we.

So, at this point, now that we know what music has worked for many directors, we begin the process of combing through new scores to find music that also lives up to the standard you set.   You see, while we choose the music, it’s you that sets the standard.   Yes, we are musicians, but there is a fair amount of statistical information we examine to see important trends, performance patterns, and loyalty amongst performing groups.   We couldn’t possibly print a catalog that covers every piece every director out there loves, but we’re pretty good at creating catalogs with a wide variety of music appealing to many directors.

String Editor Tim McCarrick

String Editor Tim McCarrick

The review sessions last all day long, with song following song.  We talk amongst ourselves, write comments about the music, and discuss merits of the works with the publisher.   It’s the musical equivalent of taking the SATs.   We draw upon all our experience and knowledge and give our best answer.   We have one chance to get it right, and our business quite literally depends upon it.  There’s no time for “do-overs,” as we see on average 18,000 new publications a year.  In the end, we’ll end up featuring over 10,000 titles in our choral catalogs and 5,000 in our band and orchestra catalogs.  Phew!  None of this could happen without three things:  our unyielding passion for music, the professionalism of our review team, and caffeine.

So, back to you.  What mix of serious literature and pop tunes will you want this year?   Some directors view popular music with disdain, and for others it’s a vital part of their programming.  Have we provided enough variety in our suggestions to fill out your program?  Is there music to challenge your group?  Does the music put your performers in a good light?  Is the concept of the work clear — text, notes and all?   You are very demanding, as well you should be.  You are the one that stands at the podium.

Sacred Music Editor Amy McLoughlin

Sacred Music Editor Amy McLoughlin

There are as many opinions on musical quality as there are music directors, and we know that no one catalog can be everything to everybody.   If our catalogs save you time and serve as a great starting place for your musical exploration, then we have done our jobs well.  And don’t worry, if you love to explore beyond the catalogs, we welcome you to do so.  Our website has the largest collection of printed music in the world.  We’re happy to provide anything that works well for your group, even if it’s not in a catalog.

When our editors finish their annual quest for new music, they’ll find that it is summer (and likely wonder what happened to all the snow).  They will have created the finest print music catalogs in the world.  We trust their efforts support your work as a music director.



The Little-Known Voice in Jazz

April 15, 2010
Jazz Resources

Jazz Resources

Are you looking for interesting ways to keep your students interested in practicing over the summer?  With the school year drawing to a close and the heat of summer already upon some of us, we’ve all noticed our students becoming a little restless.

I suspect that high school and college horn students frequently live a life of musical schizophrenia.  Religiously studying and performing classical orchestral literature — while listening to or wishing to play in a jazz ensemble.  When one pictures  jazz ensemble instrumentation, saxophones, trombones, drum set, trumpets, and double bass easily come to mind.  An instrument rarely included in this list is the horn — an unfortunate oversight.  Too often high school horn players are excluded from their jazz ensembles, or worse, persuaded to participate on trumpet!  Utilizing the horn in the jazz medium is rare but was practiced as early as the 1940s with the inclusion of  the instrument in scores for Claude Thornhill and later trumpeter Miles Davis.  Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, John Graas, Tom Varner, Adam Unsworth are just a few on the growing list of noteworthy American horn players devoted to the genre.

Horn player, teacher and composer Lowell Shaw composed Fripperies (horn quartet) in order to teach his students at the University of Buffalo how to play in commercial styles including jazz, barbershop, and funk.  He has since increased the number of Fripperies to 40 and has also added Quipperies (horn quintet),  Tripperies (horn trio), and Just Desserts (solo horn with optional string bass).

For beginning players, the Essential Elements – Jazz series is a useful introduction to jazz notation.  In addition to horn, instrumentation also includes the less conventional  flute and tuba.  We’ll keep you posted as more jazz horn music becomes available in easy, intermediate, and advanced levels.  Maybe this is the summer your horn students spend some time playing jazz!


In their own words: Gordon Goodwin

March 5, 2010
Gordon Goodwin

Gordon Goodwin

Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band is a dynamic force in the jazz idiom.  Here, courtesy of the ASCAP archives, you can hear the Grammy-winning artist himself, talking about the process of building a unique voice for the band that connects with today’s audiences.  Discover the influences and key collaborations that are part of the development of this energetic contemporary jazz voice. 

Listen to Gordon, in his own words:  Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band

Sheet music available: