Before we even bother diving into my long-winded rants on music theory or teaching philosophy, I figured a proper introduction to my background as a musician would be in order. My earliest exposure to music was split between school and private piano lessons as is the case with many children, including some of my students, but that period established a basic understanding and I couldn’t tell you if I actually cared at that age. Somewhere around the age of 8, I was given my first CD, Newsboy’s Step Up to the Microphone, with a portable player and I was hooked. The following years I didn’t have any albums besides the Newsboys and a couple other Christian artists my parents would allow, and at that point I (secretly) decided I wanted to be a singer. Naturally, I took one guitar lesson and immediately gave up because my fingers hurt.
By the time high school rolled around my Zune was filled with different styles of music, albeit Christian artists so I wouldn’t risk parental judgment. I believe it was the Christmas of my freshman year that my father got me my first electric guitar, a red sunburst Epiphone LP-100 with a massive Peavey Renown amplifier. Between tabs, chord charts, and noodling around (I’d eventually learn it was some odd form of “improvising”), I taught myself everything that I thought I needed to know to be a rock star. By this point, I had finally branched out to exploring ‘secular’ music and started to realize the error of my ways as there were countless, creative inspirations to be found throughout all music. Regardless of this revelation, I was going to college at Liberty University to study Worship Leadership as I had enjoyed leading the church youth group’s praise team the last couple years of high school. I thought my playing was the golly-gee bee’s knees and no one in the world could stop my quest for stardom, even amidst my struggle with crippling performance anxiety and a refusal to sing in front of people.
Day one of my collegiate music education I walked into my first legitimate guitar lesson with my mentor, Mr. Spencer. He watched my audition video, asked if I knew the chord I ended with (it was a barred D minor, but I didn’t know), and after complimenting my bravery for submitting an original ‘song’ he admitted we had a lot of work ahead. Not much longer after that, I botched an audition to get into the program’s premier praise teams (with my cheap lil’ Epiphone in hand) and I started to believe my anxiety was justified. Could it possibly be that high school me didn’t know what he was doing when he taught me everything I needed to be the very best that ever was? (cue Pokemon theme) Enter someone that DID know what he was doing to the rescue! I cannot say what Mr. Spencer thought of me when I first arrived at Liberty, but for some reason he ignored the fact I was in worship leadership and had me working on Jazz music. In all my worship classes I never needed my guitar for much more than strumming out simple progressions; but Mr. Spencer had me learning to improvise, sight-reading melodies, working on original arrangements of chord-melodies. I loved these lessons and learning everything I could from the simplest approaches to a pleasant melody to a deep analysis of complex harmony. Despite my fascination, I had no use for all this in my major and it made me feel completely unsatisfied with the idea of becoming a worship leader.
Around this time I took an incredibly interesting course in Songwriting and I thought that pursuing that as a major could solve my problems. Unfortunately, my lack of experience made it so that the audition to get into the program resulted in a trial semester. I worked hard analyzing compositions and lyric writing, but the shallow needs in worship music writing bored me. Mr. Spencer helped me spice up my writing with a Jazz approach to my chord progressions and I realized how much better these methods were for me. The trial period came to an end and my second audition may have been the most devastating moment of my life as the board of the songwriting program not only denied my access, but criticized my writing and questioned how I’d ever passed my music classes. Rewind to several minutes prior to this little crisis, I walked into the audition and I’m asked to sit down and sing my songs for them while playing the piano. Not only had I never sung my songs for people, as I wrote them specifically for singers I was working with, but I had never played them on the piano because, as you know, I was a guitarist. Looking back, I’m impressed that I knew my songs well enough I was able to play the chords decently on the keyboard; but with my performance anxiety when it comes to singing I’m truly surprised I could get a single note out of my voice even if it sounded awful. As I sat in that room, feeling the weight of years of education collapsing (mind you, this was my junior year); something inside of me snapped and I came back the next semester enrolled in Music Education slated for several more years of college that I no longer cared about because I was a loser.
Hark! What is that on the horizon? Could it be once again? Yes! Mr. Spencer to the rescue yet again!! (Of course, aided by God’s will and blessings) The past three years the seeds had been planted and the rains had arrived; it was time for me to finally embrace my passion for Jazz and focus my commitment to my beloved instrument. The School of Music held a convocation assembly with the exciting amount of several brand new programs, including Jazz Studies, and before we were dismissed I was already heading to sign up and become the first Jazz major (Tommy already knew about this program and was joining as well, but I happened to finish the paperwork and such before anyone else). Ironically, I found a true heart of worship for God not where I expected in the worship program, but in a style with a rich history that is basically anything besides Christian. Liberty had gone from turning to my personal nightmare to paradise in a moment and the next couple years became a new era of my studies.
My studies in Jazz, besides all the courses, included me getting to play in the university’s Big Band, Jethro and the Goats Jazz Guitar ensemble, and most importantly the premier Jazz Combo ‘Round Jericho. Tommy and I also started our own quartet, Closed at Four, along with some other Jazz majors and we played around the local Lynchburg area whenever possible. Obviously, I still struggled with my anxiety, depression, etc; but the fulfillment of playing in a community of wonderfully talented, creative, and encouraging musicians eliminated my foolish rock star complex and instilled a passion for the magic of improvisational styles in a group ensemble.
I never promised my background wouldn’t be a long-winded story, but I tried to condense the tale as much as I could manage. I can’t say that I enjoy thinking about my past and much of what I know now and use in my career came from my time studying Jazz, but the everything prior to that puts my career into context and hopefully inspires those of you that might feel unsure and hopeless in your current situation. A single moment of a blessing can completely flip your circumstances for the better and I hope all of you have someone like Mr. Spencer that ignores what you might think you need to be a better musician, or whatever you want to be, and instead trains you based on your potential. I wouldn’t be the musician I am today without my mentors and peers seeing what I couldn’t; but I appreciate even more so that they took the time to make me a better person. My mentor always used sports metaphors to explain concepts of music. I’m not much of a sports fan myself, but even I can figure out that most popular sports have quite the necessity for you to play on a team. The same goes for a musician. I’ll leave you with that thought, catch me next Monday on Just the Bassics, and meantime take a listen to Closed at Four’s old Youtube channel.