A Composer's Adventures

The Power of Mentors

MentorsSome time ago I wrote a blog about the teachers who had influenced my way of thinking and creating. I mentioned briefly my percussion teacher at the University of Illinois, Paul Price, but didn’t emphasize the importance and long-range effect of his influence.

On the classical music scene percussion players were at the lowest end of the music hierarchy. Price was determined to change that and wanted percussion players to be recognized as equal to other musicians. His main activity toward that goal was the development of the percussion ensemble.

He started his ensemble by playing early works for percussion by John Cage, Henry Cowell, Edgard Varese, Henry Brant, Lou Harrison and a host of other lesser-known composers. Most of their pieces were languishing forgotten on the shelves of the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Central Library in New York. Price’s power was such that hundreds of pieces for percussion were written for his ensemble, and he premiered them wherever he could find an audience.

Other schools copied this recipe for success. Now we take it for granted that most of our colleges and universities have fully accredited percussion ensembles, and our orchestras have excellent percussion players who are on par with the other musicians.

What an accomplishment! Price not only trained percussionists and inspired composers to write for them, but he started the first percussion publishing business.

I was perhaps his most impossible student, but he turned me around. He certainly altered my life by convincing me to take classical music studies seriously. I went from a single-minded young jazz drummer to a composer with a much expanded career in music.

I sometimes think of where I would be without this encounter with Paul Price. Most of us can point to a teacher, guide or mentor who opened new doors and gave us confidence to walk through them. How do you thank a person like that for what he did for you? Especially when he’s no longer around?

My way is to give free private lessons to teenage composers who are full of enthusiasm for orchestral music. I often urge absolute novices to compose in graphic notation, which is “goof-proof” (there are no “wrong notes”) and gets them into the creative process immediately. At the moment, I’m working with an entire high school class that’s creating a work for orchestra. When I see an “A-ha” on their faces and feel a sense of accomplishment, that’s my reward.

Michael Colgrass

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