The Full Story
I played the saxophone throughout my high school years, though without any discernable talent. While I ultimately came to grips with my limitations as a performer, playing an instrument did result in a certain interest in composing and arranging music. This was sparked by an excellent course in music theory taught by Clyde Hunt, who was an accomplished trumpet player (www.bflatmusic.com) in addition to being a teacher and band director at Peary High School in Rockville, Maryland. In college at Brown University, I took a similar course from Professor Paul Nelson. While that class was also very good, I recognized that it was essentially a repeat of Mr. Hunt's high school class in music theory. That his high school class was the full equivalent of the college-level course I later took at an Ivy League university, was a tribute to his musical and teaching skills.
These courses not only nurtured my interest in composing, they also provided some of the requisite competencies. But composing on the saxophone is hardly practical; that requires a keyboard instrument. (Beethoven wrote many of his symphonies after he was almost completely deaf, so acute was his ability to “hear” what he had written without auditory stimulation. Lacking this extraordinary ability, I needed to actually hear to be sure of what I had written.)
I had an idea about how to get my piano lessons. I made an appointment to see the then chairman of the music department at Brown, Professor Ron Nelson (no relation to Paul), and requested to be let into the Applied Music program for the purpose of obtaining piano lessons. This was a particularly gutsy request; the Applied Music program, designed for budding virtuosos, granted admission only upon passing an audition. While I knew this, I explained to Professor Nelson that there was little or no point of an audition inasmuch as I was incapable of locating “Middle C” on the piano, much less passing a rigorous audition. I asked, however, that he make an exception to the rule, since my purpose was not ultimately performance, but rather sufficient rudimentary keyboard skills to compose and arrange music. And I was quite frank: while my interest in music was sincere, I was not about to declare music as my major or pursue music as a career. It was strictly an enrichment activity consistent with the ideals of a liberal education.
Perhaps inspired by the then new “New Curriculum” at Brown, which touted the desirability of every student crafting his or her own educational program, the chairman consented to my participation in the Applied Music program for a year. I got my piano lessons. And since I was already paying full-time tuition, the lessons were free.
These lessons had their own amusing byproduct. Every few weeks, each program participant was expected to perform in front of an outside committee, which would evaluate the student's progress. A procession of students would each perform, with great skill and dexterity, some highly complex piece to demonstrate their advancing skills. In the middle of this talent parade, I showcased my quite elementary skills, roughly on par with those of an average 10-year old performer.
At the end of the year, I felt I had the requisite skill level to proceed. So I approached Paul Nelson requesting an independent study in composing and arranging. He exceeded my wildest expectations: I did not get an independent study; I got a semester-long tutorial. Each week, we would sit down at his piano. He would play what I had written (my keyboarding skills still being too rudimentary for his patience or mine), and he would make suggestions and sometimes scribble out a little musical riff which I would then take and run with for the next week. Part way through the term, I had put together a decent arrangement of “Misty.”
I then embarked upon an original composition: “Blucensee” was the result. The name was to refer to the piece's derivation, “Blues in C”, without being overly obvious about it. Anyone with any musical experience will recognize that the key of C is the most simple to write in because the notes of its scale have neither sharps nor flats. So the key of C was chosen for no reason other than the fact that it was the least cumbersome key for a novice composer to write in.
I take credit for this piece with a certain amount of intellectual trepidation. The talent, inspiration, and creativity reflect the genius of Paul Nelson. The effort in putting it together, and perhaps just a modicum of the inspiration, is mine.
As any composer knows, writing a musical piece is one thing, getting it played is another. While I was still in college, however, I had a ready band. I ran the piece over to the Brown University Stage Band and was thrilled when they ran it through at practice. It was truly awesome to hear my paper composition played live by a thirty-piece band.
But that was a one-time private event. Years would pass before this piece would see the light of day. Years later, I moved to Phoenix, and became the president of the Brown Alumni Association of Arizona. The Brown Stage Band did a national tour and Phoenix was on their schedule. I put up most of the band members in my house. “Blucensee” was played in public for the first time on this tour at a gig at the Arizona State Fair. I then extracted a promise from the band director, Matt McGarrell, that he would someday record the piece for me. It was many years before this occurred.
During the intervening years, I would lobby Matt every year or two from afar to make good on this commitment, but without success. I once ran into him at a reunion in Providence; he told me that had he known I was going to attend, he would have played the piece in their concert. I told him that if I had known he was to play the piece, I would have bought tickets for my entire class. More time passed, more lobbying, but to no end.
Then, one day when I arrived home after Christmas in 2003 it was there unannounced: an MP3 file sitting in my computer's inbox. Director McGarrell had finally gotten around to recording my piece (perhaps ultimately tiring of my intermittent lobbying.) He explained that the piece was only recorded with only one or two microphones, and that the MP3 file was inherently an inferior recording to a full WAV file, but it also made the file smaller and playable.
I played it immediately on my computer; it was instantly recognizable. It was a thrill. I remembered the piece vividly. As pleased as I was, however, I felt the urge to be in McGarrell's shoes and conduct the music with my own hands: more pianissimo and lithe in the beginning. Louder, more brassy, hard–driving, and even vulgar at the end. Well, perhaps someday I'll have the opportunity to effect my own interpretation of the piece and conduct it myself.
But it's a fine representation of what I wrote as a student all those years ago. I am grateful to all – to Clyde Hunt for the original instruction and inspiration, to Paul Nelson for continuing that and especially for providing the hands-on tutelage for the piece. To Ron Nelson for his willingness to break the rules on my behalf, to Brown for being the kind of place where that was not unusual, and to Matt McGarrell and the Brown University Stage Band for ultimately recording this piece, many years after its original conception. I am grateful to all of them.
I was true to my projection to Ron Nelson; I did not become a musician. Indeed my interests and skills are about as far from the creative and artistic as one could imagine. But, in a way, the fact that Mike O'Neil did not grow up to be a composer makes this story all the more interesting. My life's work involves a fairly “by the numbers” profession, measuring people's opinions on a wide range of subjects. While the interpretation and design elements of this do have their creative sides, much of my work more closely resembles that of my mathematician parents than it does the creative genius of a Paul Nelson or Clyde Hunt. So they have contributed to what, apart from raising my three children and possibly figuring out how to build a business from scratch, is the single most creative exercise of my life.
I highly recommend downloading onto a CD and playing on a home stereo. Unless you have monster speakers on your computer, what you can hear on a computer is a pale approximation of what you will hear on a real audio system.
To download or play the music, click here or paste http://www.oneilresearch.com/blucensee/blucensee.mp3 into your browser.