Back in Summer of 2015, I was asked by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra if I could do an arrangement of a pop song for a divisional choir and the orchestra. Every other year, the River East Transcona School Division hires out the orchestra to play with their choir. This was an enormous opportunity, so of course I said yes, then got it done on time and on budget (which is a super important part of composing).
Several months passed until, finally, it premiered last week. In fact, it came up so quickly that it almost slipped by me. Everything at my school has been so crazy that it’s taken a lot of time and effort to just keep all the plates spinning. Between teaching and writing, there’s been a lot going on.
That morning, I asked about tickets and it was decided there would be some comps at the door. I left school at 5:00, grabbed a sub, then headed down to the concert hall, where there were gaggles of kids everywhere, but a noticeable absence of tickets at the box office. Someone let me inside and apologized profusely (the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall staff is exceptionally kind all the time) and I just smiled and said “so long as there’s beer, everything will be just fine.” The clerk laughed and said there’s always beer at the concert hall.
But there wasn’t this time. The divisional concert was a school event, so obviously there would be no beer. Not the end of the world, but beer at the concert hall is just the best. Really.
Going to the symphony is less fancy than it used to be, but it’s still fancy. There’s a formality when going to the biggest hall in the province to see the very best musicians we have play that night. Even though they played my piece Morgun last year, I’ve always felt like I was never at that level. I studied with the now-principal trombone of the ensemble and I was terrible. I really clawed my way to the finish line of my music degree, which had an extra year of lessons because I failed the first year of euphonium. Failed, not “got a C,” which might as well be a failure for lessons. I literally failed the playing portion of music school. For various other reasons, my university failures were the best thing that ever happened to me, but the sense of inadequacy followed me for my entire professional music career (and still does, from time to time).
When the WSO played my piece the first time, I felt like such an imposter. I was some schmuck who got commissioned to write something, like a one time shot. They certainly didn’t make me feel that way – they were amazing to me, but I had this narrative spinning in my head. It was all old baggage from university. When they asked me again, I couldn’t even believe it, but I knew deep down that I needed to accept the job.
Back to last week:
My piece closed the night and the conductor of the orchestra, Julian Pellicano, thanked the parents and staff of the division, as well as the symphony, and introduced the piece. He described the piece, then ended by saying that it was arranged by local, yet world-renowned composer Kenley Kristofferson which, while not exactly true, was cool because I was the only arranger he mentioned the entire night.
The orchestra and the choir killed it during their performance. The kids were into it, the audience dug it, and the performers really nailed the piece. It was so inspiring that, at the end of it, I thought that the only thing that could’ve made the night better was a beer.
A voice in the back of my mind told me that maybe, just maybe, they’d have beer backstage, but the voice in my mind was clear: You aren’t good enough to go backstage at the symphony. But the more I thought about it rationally, the more I realized that I wrote the last tune of the night, this is the second time I arranged for the ensemble, and I knew so many performers through university or band camps or whatever. And hey, the worst that could happen is nothing, right?
So I descended the stairs and slipped through the backstage door and into the hallway, where I hugged and shook hands with some of the RETSD teachers I knew and talked shop for a few minutes. Then the VP of Artistic Operations stopped me (with a beer in his hand) and smiled as he congratulated me on tonight’s piece. We talked more shop for a while, then told me about some potential new work on the horizon. I couldn’t even believe he remembered my name, let alone (maybe) offering me new work! And as he said the next few words, a smile stretched across my face: “Why don’t you come into the green room for a beer?”
And I did and it was packed with both WSO and RETSD folk. I saw the backstage manager and she remembered me from last year and so did the production manager. Then Julian came up and we high-fived and laughed throughout the night. Clearly, the story in my head was not the same as the story that was playing out in front of me, and only one of them can be true. And guess what, it’s the one in front of you all the time.
Eric Whitacre (one of my favourite composers) once said to music students that “nobody ever asked about his GPA after he graduated,” the important thing is that he got there. The older I get, the more true that it’s becoming. We don’t all take the same road to get there sometimes. Some roads are smoother, some roads have more ups than downs, while others have more downs than ups. Some people got to practice traversing the road before they actually had to start the adventure and that’s okay too. We don’t all get to the end the same way, but the important thing is that we get there.
And sometimes at the end, there’s a free beer in the green room.