FJH: When did you begin your musical study?
TB: I began piano lessons at the age of six, but my mother had been working with me since I was four. My father took me to purchase my first piano, and the one I liked had actually been in a fire. It turned out to be a fine instrument that I used for many years. At the age of nine, I auditioned for the preparatory program at the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music. I knew that this audition could change my life, so I practiced very hard for several months. I remember playing two Chopin etudes for the audition.
FJH: What was your experience at the Conservatory?
TB: I ended up studying with the teacher that influenced my life more than any other. Her name was Dr. Rebecca Willhide. My one-month trial period eventually led to studying with her throughout my high school years. Her emphasis on music theory and ear training was key to my development as a composer. She believed that theory must be taught at a young age so that it is internalized and becomes as natural as playing should be. Every musician has at least one person who has touched his or her life deeply, and she was that one special person in my life.
FJH: When did you decide on a career in music?
TB: I grew up in a town in Southern Ohio that evolved around a steel mill. Nearly all of my friends were planning on working at the mill, as most of our fathers did. My father sent me into the steel mill at an early age to experience the extremely difficult work that he had done for so many years. He knew that putting me in that environment would help me value my dreams of being able to attend college and leave for the life that he wanted for me. His hunch paid off and I worked harder the next year in school than I ever had. Sometimes actions speak louder than words, and I’ll always remember his smile after I told him how happy I was to leave the steel mill and return to my studies the following year.
FJH: At The University of North Texas, you studied piano performance. Did you also study composition?
TB: I had just finished my studies in piano performance at Bowling Green State University, when the Polish concert pianist Adam Wodnicki performed a recital there. After the program, I asked him if he had any openings in his class for the following year and he requested that my wife and I send a tape. She’s also a pianist. He accepted us and we left for Texas with our 3-week-old twin sons. While studying with Mr. Wodnicki at North Texas, I also concentrated on theory and counterpoint. I minored in music composition and studied composition privately with Dr. Newel Kay Brown. These lessons were really the first opportunity that I had to study with a composer. It was an exciting time for me, and my time with him gave me the confidence to believe that music composition could be a reality in my life. We still are good friends, and I consider him the biggest influence in my becoming a composer.
FJH: Were there other influences?
TB: My parents were the one constant throughout my life that inspired me to be a composer. I grew up in a house full of music. My mother had the ability to play the piano by ear, and some of my earliest memories include sitting at the piano playing “Blue Skies” as a duet for guests and relatives visiting our home. Some of my most precious memories are of my father and the conversations we had as he drove me to and from my piano lessons. They both taught me by example and instilled in me the understanding that God is the essence of all true talent. To this day, I find myself reflecting on the many conversations that I had with my parents to help put my life as both a parent and composer in perspective.
FJH: What led you to composing for pedagogical purpose?
TB: I had finished my degrees in piano performance and soon started my doctorate with the intention of teaching at the university level. I then found a temporary teaching position in the magnet program in the Dallas public school system. I realized after a very short time that I loved working with children, and that I could touch thousands of lives through teaching. So I left the doctoral program and began my work in music education. Many people discouraged this decision, but I realize now that those years were essential to my development as a composer. I earned a certificate in music education at the University of North Texas and began many years of teaching elementary-aged children. It takes years of teaching to understand how children learn. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a teaching career actually was the key ingredient needed to becoming a pedagogical composer.
FJH: What is your ultimate goal in creating a piece for the young pianist?
TB: My writing has always been based on composing a specific piece for a student who needed work in a certain technical area or just to write a solo that would inspire a child to continue his piano study. My fairy tales for the piano include works such as “Crimson Rhapsody” and “On Wings of Sound.” This music was written to help the student develop their imagination in a romantic setting. The music is very free and melodic and lends itself to the student creating imaginative stories as the music unfolds.
My second style of writing is centered on patterned pieces, such as “The Wild West” and more recently “Toccatina.” These pieces are the result of working with large groups of children at a time and trying to catch their attention quickly. Pattern pieces are an important tool for developing technique and an understanding of form and tempo. Additionally, the world of repeated patterns and alternating harmonic fifths and sixths allows the child to absorb and learn the music quickly and feel proud about their progress. Children may not remember all the musical details of their lessons, but they do remember the feeling of accomplishment when they have mastered a piece of music. That stays with them throughout their lives.
FJH: What are some of your upcoming projects?
TB: I have been working on a variety of new elementary-level materials. Sometimes I teach my pieces for years before I feel they are possible publications. I have also found that putting a piece away for a length of time helps me to hear it with a new perspective later.
FJH: What advice would you give to new or young composers?
TB: A young composer should initially gain the technical skills of their chosen instrument. There is no substitute for the years of playing the wealth of literature we have been blessed with from our past. I also feel that a composer needs to follow his or her own heart and instincts to develop a unique style of writing. The writer must also understand that the most important ingredient is the actual writing itself. As a composer writes, they develop their own pallet of harmonies and natural intuition of musical form. Studying music theory and other composer’s works are also essential steps.
My final suggestion to the young composer is to understand music composition as a personal process... yet the final goal should always be to share it with others.
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