Clinician, conductor, and composer Michael John Trotta is one of the bright young minds of modern choral music. His work has been performed at Carnegie Hall and featured at several national conferences, with recordings of his compositions broadcast worldwide. Pepper had the opportunity to sit down with Trotta to discuss his background, inspiration, views on education, and some of his most successful works.
The son of a church soloist, Trotta was immersed in music at a young age. His high school choral teacher was an extremely talented pianist and singer named Loren Donley. From Donley, he learned a love for the musical craft. In this interview, Trotta remarks that he was unaware at the time how uncommonly talented his teacher really was. For him, learning the extent of his teacher’s skill drove home the idea that music is accessible to anyone with the determination to develop their craft.
Trotta attended Rowan University in the hopes of becoming a professional singer. At the same time, he played guitar in a blues band, further developing his skills. However, while studying at Rowan, Trotta was encouraged by many to consider pursuing music education along with vocal performance. He was eventually swayed and quickly fell in love with teaching.
His first teaching job was elementary music. He spent this time pushing a music cart around the building to K-6 classrooms teaching the fundamentals of music. After that, he spent five years teaching middle and high school choir. Trotta considers this an extremely valuable experience, as it allowed him to work with developing voices in several different ensembles. He worked with so many different groups, in fact, that each year he would pick out 40 different pieces for his students to perform. All the while, Trotta took what he learned and used it to create music that strives to make each singer feel that they had their own part.
Following his time as a choral music teacher in middle school and high school, Trotta went on to complete his graduate studies, earning a doctorate at Louisiana State University, studying with Ken Fulton. He taught at the collegiate level for five years before turning his attention to composition full time.
Trotta cautions young composers to be ready to accept criticism as well as rejection – sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right publisher. His first commissioned work was for a children’s choir that had an abundance of female voices but very few males. The director wanted a piece that featured the young men; the result was When I Sing to Make You Dance, which he decided to submit to publishers. After a number of rejections, Trotta found a willing publisher in Carl Fischer. Fischer was willing to engage with Trotta to improve the piece to make it more suitable for publication. The experience taught Trotta that accepting feedback and being flexible with changes that make a piece more accessible to a wider market are key ingredients in writing for choirs. Soon after this, he started to find success.
Trotta had a surprise hit with a song called Veni, Veni Emmanuel – who would think a centuries-old chant melody would resonate with high school students? In exploring the way small changes in music can evoke certain feelings, he endeavored to make the song accessible to students while providing something intriguing to those already steeped in the tradition surrounding the piece. This touches on the educational philosophy behind Trotta’s music. How a piece shapes the person performing it is important, not simply how enjoyable the song is. New generations of singers can connect with the great tradition of choral music through music that both honors the past and speaks to the present.
Trotta’s desire to connect traditional music with his own unique compositional voice is also at the core of Seven Last Words, which he debuted in May of 2017 at Carnegie Hall. The piece, published by MorningStar Music, is a seven-movement reflection on the Passion, which incorporates the wide range of emotions that the pivotal event in Christian heritage embodies. From the pain of loss to intimate moments and on to triumphant joy, the piece captures the Easter miracle in a masterful, visionary manner.
Along with building a successful career as a composer, Trotta continues to be an advocate for music education. “Choir is one of the few places where everyone gets to be themselves, and they do it together.” He promotes music that is both high quality and accessible for all levels, just as he did when he was choosing pieces for his middle and high school choirs. To evaluate selections for both musical and educational value, Trotta is a believer in the value of reading sessions, referring to them as “an opportunity to find something you love that you didn’t even know existed.” They give a young educator the opportunity to make music in a community and learn what works.
“Choir is one of the few places where everyone gets to be themselves, and they do it together.”
Trotta is a proponent of peer modeling in the classroom and taught the method to other teachers in sessions of his own. In short, the technique calls for a conductor to choose one singer they have high confidence in and have them become a leader in the ensemble. This singer becomes an example for the others as the conductor points out the positive aspects of the singer’s technique. The idea behind this is the premise that students find their peers easier to emulate than their teacher. Essentially, emulating a professional musician is intimidating, but if their classmate can do it they are more likely to think they can do it as well.
We were able to document Trotta in action, working with four choir groups of various ages and backgrounds from around the country that came together for the MidAmerica Productions performance at Carnegie Hall to premiere Seven Last Words there. MidAmerica has been bringing other amazing composers like Dan Forrest and John Rutter to do the same in past years.
From his educational insight to his exquisite compositions, Michael John Trotta is a true treasure of modern music. Please enjoy our interview with this rising star.
You can find more of Trotta’s choral music online on jwpepper.com.