Part I: A Composer’s Journey
Behind every piece of music there is a story – an experience or creative idea so strong it had to be written down or shared. Some write quietly for the pure joy of creating music; others, in hopes of being published or performed. Only a handful will become household names, but each composer’s journey is as unique as the music they write. In this three-part blog series, J.W. Pepper sits down with six successful instrumental composers with backgrounds ranging from teaching to film scoring. Here, they discuss their experiences writing what is seen most often in our catalogs: educational music for the student ensemble.
What was your original career path?
Deborah Baker Monday: When I left home to go to college, I knew I wanted a career in music, but I really had no idea what that would be. I had only studied piano, played guitar and taken high school music theory. So my major was automatically defined as Choral Music Education. I was so naive and inexperienced that I just said “Okay!” But the greatest thing about my requirements was that I took String Techniques and Keyboard Harmony. I absolutely loved playing the string instruments. In Keyboard Harmony, I had my first exposure to composing (other than playing around on the piano at our family home.) My assignments for Keyboard Harmony became my earliest short compositions. And they were very well received. So, that is how I went from no actual career path to the path that has led me here.
Kirt Mosier: I wanted to write music for film and possibly teach. I was also a performer and thought I may follow that path as well.
Soon Hee Newbold: My original career path and career for many years was a performing violinist/violist as a soloist and in orchestras and smaller ensembles.
Brian Balmages: When I was growing up, I wanted to be a band director like my father (he was my elementary band director!). As I got older, I started to become very interested in sequencing and recording engineering, so I began exploring that path as well. Meanwhile, I also became extremely serious about trumpet performance and began playing in a lot of groups (Disney, Los Angeles, Miami Symphony to name a few). So needless to say, I took full advantage of exploring multiple career paths before finding my way to my current one!
Lauren Bernofsky: I started out planning to be a violinist. At age 16, I entered an arts high school, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, as a violin major.
Chris Thomas: Composer, it always has been. Before my mid-twenties, life was just a struggle to make sure that path never deviated.
Who first encouraged you to begin composing music?
Brian Balmages: I suppose I encouraged myself. No one pushed me to write. More than anything, I enjoyed sitting down at the piano and playing by ear. I would do that with my dad (who also played by ear). We would sit down at different keyboards, put on a drum machine and name a song and a key and start playing (think “Howl at the Moon,” but family style). That lead to me creating my own pieces at the piano, which eventually lead to me using notation to write my music instead of just my fingers on the piano keys.
Chris Thomas: My parents and piano teacher. They all noticed the potential, as well as my early dedication. I always tried to give them reasons to keep believing in me.
Soon Hee Newbold: Mozart’s story of being a child prodigy and writing symphonies when he was very young is what gave me the idea in the first place, so I dabbled with my own compositions and improvisation when I first started playing piano at five years of age.
Kirt Mosier: Somehow I knew deep down that I wanted to compose music. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I would be a composer. My mother helped get me piano lessons and encouraged me in my early growth.
Deborah Baker Monday: When I was growing up I would pick out songs at the piano which were themes from TV or pop songs. My parents would always give me a nice comment when I was playing in the living room while practicing for lessons and doing my creative stuff. My first real encouragement for composing came in that Keyboard Harmony class at Florida State. I had real assignments to compose a 32-measure piece in some particular mode or style. It totally opened my creative mind.
Lauren Bernofsky: At the arts high school, the music theory teacher, Dr. Bert Braud, identified the kids with reasonable music skills, and he put us in a little composition class that met once a week. Our first assignment was to write a short melody. I didn’t think I’d be able to produce anything of value, since, after all, that’s what composers do, and I wasn’t a composer! But I was a good student, always doing my assignments, so I came up with something and turned it in. “Doc” seemed impressed, to my surprise (he was not one to lavish praise!). I was pleasantly surprised but didn’t think too much of it. The next assignment was a little more involved, and Doc gave me even more encouragement. My classmates did, too. The first time I ever heard myself called a composer was from a classmate who’d bummed a ride home with me and my dad – he said, “Mr. Bernofsky, we have a composer here.” His name was Harry Connick, Jr.
How did your music background and experiences up to that point influence your compositions?
Chris Thomas: I fell in love with Beethoven in the first grade. Something in the passion and joy Beethoven seemed to find in composing sparked a fire in me to do the same. Plus, it was very helpful having very musical parents who encouraged my interests.
Kirt Mosier: I have a lot of jazz piano playing in my background, and that has influenced many of my voicings. I also am a trombonist and bassist and really disliked playing music with boring parts for my instrument, so you will not find a work of mine that has a bass part that is super boring.
Lauren Bernofsky: When people ask me who my most influential composition teacher was, I always answer that it was my violin playing – since it was through my playing that I have become intimately familiar with the greatest solo, chamber, and orchestral music, and from the standpoint of a performer. Whenever I write something, I always ask myself whether it’s something I’d enjoy playing myself. Some of my earliest memories of music went back to my toddler years when my parents would play classical and folk music in our house. I have an early memory of hearing a record of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (which is still one of my favorite pieces to this day). My parents also held folk dance evenings at our house, and the accompanying music came from Israel, Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, and many other places. So, the soundtrack of my childhood was quite international!
Soon Hee Newbold: The major influences in my compositions for publication have been my experiences growing up with the Suzuki method. I loved the repertoire because it was accessible and suitable to the beginner but did not sound like elementary or “baby” music.
Brian Balmages: When I began actually writing music (and not just making up music at the piano), I was always writing for groups that I played in. So I wrote for trumpet ensemble, brass quintet, chamber orchestra, brass ensemble, and eventually symphony orchestra and concert band. For me, the biggest composition teacher was getting to hear my music played by live musicians.
Deborah Baker Monday: I didn’t have much in my background other than exposure to many genres of music, playing classical on piano, playing folk music on guitar, listening to lots of rock music. That has probably influenced my writing, trying to bring a popular style or feel to the music I write. I have also been inspired to arrange so many classical gems that I love and thought would be enjoyable to learn for students.
At what point in your life did you begin composing for student ensembles?
Lauren Bernofsky: The first time I wrote for a student ensemble was a violin ensemble piece I wrote during my doctoral studies. I even put it on my doctoral composition recital (that was the first and last time I ever heard a pedagogical work on a doctoral composition recital!) The piece was Medieval Scenes, which I later arranged for string orchestra.
Soon Hee Newbold: I started writing for publication when I was in my mid-twenties and working as a professional musician in Orlando, Florida.
Chris Thomas: In junior high (aka middle school), I was writing two pieces per year for my string orchestra and several for smaller ensembles. I also had a piece for choir by that point. However, more importantly, this was when I learned to sequence synthesizers for full orchestra mock-ups by this point. This would be a critical advantage later on.
Kirt Mosier: I began composing for student ensembles in high school. I would write charts for the pep band.
Deborah Baker Monday: I think that on Day One of my first teaching job, in a small district, using only the materials that were left for me to use, I was already starting to design exercises in my mind that would be better than what I had available for my particular group of students in my teaching situation. Eventually, while searching (during the 1970s) for concert pieces, I became aware of a huge lack of repertoire which was adaptable to my teaching situation. I began to make little customized arrangements for my groups to make them sound the best that they possibly could! That is always my number-one goal – give them music that will make them sound the best that they possibly can while teaching them fundamentals!
Brian Balmages: After I graduated with my master’s degree, I started hearing from friends who also graduated and were teaching. They enjoyed my music in college and began asking if I would be interested in writing for their kids. So I gave it a shot (and it didn’t turn out so well, but more on that later!).
What surprised you most about writing for young students?
Kirt Mosier: Writing for young students is surprisingly difficult. You need to make it the right level of difficulty while keeping it fun and saying something musically. Very difficult.
Lauren Bernofsky: What most surprised me about writing for young students was their enthusiasm for trying new and “weird” things, and their exuberant open-mindedness (which is also my favorite thing about writing for young students!)
Soon Hee Newbold: I guess what surprised me most about writing for the educational market is the lack of quality music, especially at the beginning level.
Brian Balmages: I think people get confused about what is difficult when writing for younger players. Orchestrating is not tough (at least, to me). Nor is the act of composing itself. For me, the most surprising part was figuring out how to still sound like “me” when writing for younger players.
Chris Thomas: I was most surprised by how the music didn’t sound all bad. There were many serious flaws, but my lesson was my ideas weren’t so bad and a little practice would fix the rest. I was greatly encouraged to keep at it.
Deborah Baker Monday: Most of the time it was not so much a surprise, but an absolute joy for me to hear what I had envisioned. My first experience with writing for students was in “revising” the existing publications that were available. Perhaps in a method book, there were some students who were not quite getting it at the same rate as others. That is the fact of life in teaching today. The learning curve is so broad.
Deborah Baker Monday taught for 25 years in the award-winning Logan City School District Orchestra Program in Logan, Utah. She is a regular faculty member at the Utah State University Summer Music Clinic and performs with the Cache Chamber Orchestra. She received her B.M.E. from Florida State University with an emphasis in strings and an M.M. in composition from the University of Alabama. She continued doctoral studies in composition at Louisiana State University. Baker Monday has published over 130 works for string orchestra with seven leading educational music publishers. She has also presented sessions at numerous state music conferences, including ASTA, The Midwest Clinic, and the prestigious Ohio State String Teachers Workshop.
Brian Balmages is an award-winning composer and conductor. His music has been performed throughout the world, including premieres at the College Band Directors National Conference, The Midwest Clinic, Carnegie Hall, and the Kennedy Center. He is a recipient of the A. Austin Harding Award from the American School Band Directors Association and the Distinguished Alumni Award from James Madison University. As a conductor, Balmages enjoys regular engagements with all-state bands and orchestras as well as international appearances in Canada, Australia, and Italy. He is Director of Instrumental Publications for The FJH Music Company and on faculty at Towson University.
Lauren Bernofsky’s music has been performed across the United States as well as internationally in major venues from Carnegie Hall to Grieg Hall in Bergen, Norway. Her works are published by ten different publishers. She holds degrees from the Hartt School, New England Conservatory, and Boston University, where she earned a doctorate in composition. She has taught at Boston University; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; The Peabody Institute; and Interlochen. She conducts at regional festivals and serves as a clinician at schools, festivals, and national conferences.
Internationally known artist Kirt Mosier is both a conductor and a composer. He has conducted numerous performances with international orchestras at venues including the United States’ Carnegie Hall, Iceland’s Harpa Hall, Austria’s Musikverein and MuTh Concert Halls, and Australia’s famed Sydney Opera House. Mosier has twice won national composition awards and has had many works featured at The Midwest Clinic. Mosier was recently awarded the Joanna Nichols Artist in Residence Grant by the Taipei American School and will be the Artist in Residence in Taipei, Taiwan beginning in 2020. Currently, Mosier is the artistic director for the Youth Symphony of Kansas City and is also the associate conductor of the Lee’s Summit Symphony. Mosier also had a distinguished career as Director of Orchestras with the Raytown and Lee’s Summit School Districts in Missouri, in addition to teaching orchestration for the University of Missouri Kansas City Conservatory.
Soon Hee Newbold began studying piano at age five and violin at age seven. She has won many prestigious competitions and has performed throughout the world in venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, Aspen, and Tanglewood. She received her Bachelor of Music degree from James Madison University, where she studied film scoring, orchestration, and audio production. Upon graduation, Newbold began working as a professional musician, contractor, and stage manager. In addition to her valuable contributions to educational orchestra literature with many compositions published by The FJH Music Company, she has written and arranged works for albums, recording projects, and various performing ensembles.
Chris Thomas is a composer for film, television, and theme parks, and he has been a TEDx speaker. His scores have been nominated for a Film & TV Music Award; he won the Gold Medal Prize at the Park City Film Music Festival and the Best Film & TV Music award at eWorld Music Awards. Chris has written music for several Emmy-nominated films, and for Woman Rebel, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award. In television, he works as a composer, orchestrator, and conductor. Thomas’ work can be heard in theme parks all over the world. He has written music for the Evermore Adventure Park, Knott’s Berry Farm, Queen Mary Chill, Dreamland Theme Park (UK), Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, and many more. Thomas’ works for the concert hall have been performed from Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House to the Hollywood Bowl. He recently premiered a series of concert works in France, Belgium, and Germany. Thomas also recently completed his first symphony, called the Malheur Symphony. His educational works are published with The FJH Music Company and Wingert-Jones Publications.