The Inside Voice

The Inside Voice: An Interview with Andy Beck

May 3, 2017

A prolific composer of choral music, Andy Beck has written hundreds of works, vocal resource books, and children’s musicals. Among his most famous works are the method books Sing at First Sight and the gorgeously poetic The Snow Begins to Fall. His sheet music has graced the folders of choir members across the country and around the world, and Pepper was honored to speak with him as part of our Inside Voice series.

Andy Beck started his musical career as a teacher, which formed the basis of his opinions on what is most important in music. In particular, he saw that the time pressures placed on teachers caused many of them to turn their attention away from sight reading and toward performance preparation. Performance is important to music education, but Beck had and continues to have some concerns about its exclusive emphasis. In his words, “I wish we could turn that trend around and make music reading, music literacy, the most important part and the performance secondary.”

He has tried to bring this philosophy to his teaching, saying “What I really teach to my kids is music literacy.” And Andy Beck has certainly been successful! He taught for several years, always keeping in mind how important that role is. Of teaching, he says, “Every day as a teacher, if you take the time, you can count something important that you did.”

When he began composing his own music, it was out of a desire to serve his students. In a sentiment similar to what we have heard from other teachers-turned-composers like Mary Lynn Lightfoot, Andy Beck says that, “As music teachers, we write for our situation.” That is, teachers turn to composition out of necessity to meet the specific needs of their students. Whether it is an unusual instrumentation or varied skill levels, teachers must find a way to bring enjoyable, challenging music to their entire ensemble. For Beck, this mission had the unintended consequence of widespread recognition.

Andy Beck’s composition process can be expressed in three steps. First, he finds the subject. Then, he develops musical motives, phrases, or patterns associated with that subject. Finally, it is time to write the text and put it to the music that matches its emotional depth. According to Beck, “Text is everything for a choir.” The text should have deep meaning behind it, like the roots of an oak tree that give it strength. This strength is similar to the strength we as people need in our lives to weather the storms we face, a theme explored in one of Andy Beck’s most recent pieces, fittingly titled In the Arms of an Oak.

Using this process and employing deep, meaningful text, Beck has created some of the most popular modern choral music. And his teaching experience makes him the perfect person to write comprehensive, easy-to-use choral method books. An accomplished vocal technician and singer, Beck wrote an excellent warm-up book called Vocalize!  The book is a favorite of teachers and students, as it teaches technique through the lyrics of each singing exercise. He also wrote an excellent music history resource for young musicians called JP’s Sousaphone. It tells, in part, about the invention of the sousaphone (the first model of which was built by J.W. Pepper).

Beck has some simple advice for aspiring composers: “Find the music you love and spend time with it.” He had a small piece of advice for his younger self as well: “Don’t quit piano lessons when it gets hard.” That is good advice for anyone looking to teach or write music in the future!

Check out our site for more by composer Andy Beck!

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