1. When did you decide you wanted to be a musician, and what drew you to that decision?
It’s funny, but I’m not sure I ever really made a concerted decision at a specific moment in my life. I feel that my life as a musician developed naturally both as I progressed on my instrument and as I learned more about music and musicians through listening and reading. I do distinctly remember being drawn to the saxophone when instruments were introduced to us in elementary school, but being a musician became the obvious way that I could best be creative and express myself. The thing that makes it work for me is that I love getting to work with people. I love helping to open doors for students as they learn, I love the interaction between myself and colleagues in performances, and I love the creative process when working in either commissioning or recording projects with composers.
2. Who are your musical inspirations?
Inspiration comes in many forms and at many times in your life. When I was young, my parents being musical certainly encouraged me, and I still rest on what I learned from them in musical, professional, and personal respects. My wonderful middle school band teacher, John Walker, who I have unfortunately lost touch with, and my first saxophone teacher, Reginald Jackson, who I keep in regular contact with, were huge influences in my life. My later teachers, Frederick Hemke and Joseph Lulloff, inspired me to realize whatever potential I had, and they continue to serve as invaluable examples to me in music and life. My colleagues who I work with on a regular basis, both in the h2 quartet and at the Cortona Sessions every summer, are always inspiring to be around. It’s truly a privilege to be surrounded by musicians like these! On a daily basis, though, one has to find inspiration in solitary moments as well. Mine comes in part from hearing great performances (live and recorded), watching incredible films, and going to galleries in whatever city I find myself in to see the works of artists I know well or am just discovering. More recently, I’ve been inspired most by ideas: learning about a bioacoustician on a recent TED radio hour gave me a lot of ideas, and my recent research into the overlap between the social justice movements of the 1960s and free jazz and improvisation have me really buzzing at the moment! Great music is always entertaining, but what I want is to be able to use music as a tool toward achieving larger goals: understanding, justice, and genuine progress. Music can give voices to those who need to be heard.
3. What are the greatest challenges you have faced as a musician and how have you overcome them?
Probably my biggest challenges lie ahead—I wouldn’t be doing it right if that wasn’t the case! I am working hard right now through reading and talking to people at figuring out how I can use what I have to achieve those goals I just mentioned. However, my greatest past challenges have been in learning how to be adept when it comes to the huge complexities of contemporary repertoire and learning how to work with people. In the former case, the answer was simply not giving up and using my creativity to reinvent myself as a performer on each new piece—to me, that seems to be essentially what contemporary repertoire often asks of us. In the latter case, it was simply trying my best to be a good, understanding person and work through difficulties that arose.
4. When did you know you wanted to be a professor at the collegiate level and what steps did you take to get there?
Once again, I’m not sure I ever made a decision, but the profession allows me to work with people and to live a life where I get to be creative on a regular basis. I was incredibly lucky to be able to attend the best schools available to me and to work with fantastic teacher-mentors who would influence me far beyond that hour or two per week we spent together in lessons. Equally, I was beyond fortunate to find myself in an amazing peer group with h2—my teachers and colleagues have been so important to my success. However, I also worked extremely hard both in and outside of school; I tried to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the institutions I attended, and I made sure I didn’t stop learning once I finished my degrees. I also tried hard to make a career for myself irrespective of whatever was going to happen in academia. Thanks to an important interaction I had following the completion of my master’s degree, I realized that I had to have the mindset of an entrepreneur and make things happen on my own as a player. Despite having a high-level pedigree academically, no one was going to hand me anything. It really took a lot of pieces being in the right place starting from an early age.
5. What advice does have for students hoping to study saxophone at a university level?
Practice hard and smart, and study with the best teacher you can. Study hard in school and develop your own academic and nonacademic interests. Listen to great music in a wide variety of genres. Perform with others as often as you can in different genres and situations. Surround yourself with good people (musical and otherwise) and don’t forget to work on yourself as a human being. Remember that while music might be the most important thing to you, it shouldn’t be the only thing in your life! Finally, get used to taking risks.
6. Do you have any advice for saxophonists on your reed break-in process?
Sadly, no! Much to the consternation of some, I’m usually pretty happy taking a reed right out of the box and playing on it immediately. I don’t do much to my reeds aside from a little sanding on the bottom and on top of the corners of the tip if necessary. I try not to get too crazy about gear – fortunately, Vandoren provides great gear that I don’t need to worry about.
7. What’s your Vandoren setup?
Learn about Vandoren JUNO reeds, the only reed specifically designed for students.
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