I went to a private prep school in Baltimore. My mom worked there so I was able to go for a very reduced cost. My parents never would have been able to send me there otherwise. I was a horrible student — I never had any motivation to do school work. But if it was something creative I would be very motivated. So I did well in creative writing classes, art classes, music, etc. I didn’t become seriously interested in music until I was around 12 or so. When my grandfather died we got his piano, an old upright which I still have. He was a very talented jazz piano player who played in a small group in Baltimore. I began to tinker on the piano and immediately discovered an aptitude for making up my own little melodies and songs. I took lessons for one year and did none of the work that was required. I hated the practicing. My teacher told me I was a very talented improviser, and since it came naturally that’s what I focused on. I started to consider the idea of becoming a “songwriter.” I also liked jazz and did pretty well improvising over basic bluesy stuff – but I was never motivated enough to really develop the technical chops required.
My parents learned about a school for young composers called the Walden School – it was every July in New Hampshire. Many of the teachers were from Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, but there were many from other places as well. I went for 3 summers, and it really changed me in a lot of ways. I grew as a musician, and by the end, I started to think of myself as more of a legitimate “musician” rather than someone who was “into” music. At the same time, I never felt like I was the same as the other students. They had started at a very early age and were very accomplished technically. Almost all of them were excellent players as well as composers – they could sight read (which I never learned to do), they listened to classical music and contemporary “serious” music and seemed to operate on an intellectual level I didn’t.
During my senior year in high school I was really doing a lot of music. I was in a band with some friends (we were pretty serious – we played actual gigs in clubs and recorded a demo in a studio), I was in a “folky” singing group with some classmates, I was starting to write a lot of songs and had picked up the guitar, and I was encouraged to try out for the school musical (The Mikado). This still makes me cringe, but when I auditioned for the musical, I sang a James Taylor song. They stopped me in the middle of it, and one of the teachers pushed me to open my voice up and do some “real” singing. It was pretty embarrassing, she stopped the whole audition and in front of all these people was giving me an impromptu voice lesson. But suddenly it clicked and this booming voice came out. Everybody looked sort of stunned. She gave me the part of the Mikado and she also pushed me to study voice and apply to Carnegie Mellon as a voice major.
Since I had also had the composing experience and was interested in that as well, I applied as a Voice/Composition double-major. I got in. I really had no idea what I was getting into.
So, you got in! And then you got out…
I left the music school after one year. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I wasn’t going to do what my peers were doing. There was a real “weeding-out” process at CMU which I resented at the time, but looking back I appreciate. There were like 20 or 25 freshman voice majors, but the graduating class was about half that. When I looked at who those people were and compared them to myself – I knew I had to get out.
I still felt that I would be some sort of musician professionally, but I didn’t want to take an academic route. I had an uncle who had a recording studio in Jersey and I would go there during the summers and work and record songs. I really started to think that that was how it would go – I would work for him, start to meet other musicians who were more into popular music, and maybe get lucky somehow. Someone would “discover” me. I did go to work for him. I worked for him for 10 years! It took me in a completely different direction though – I discovered a real love of computers and the technical side of things. I trained to become a recording engineer and worked in postproduction for about 6 years. I somehow miraculously transitioned to multimedia design and programming – but that’s a whole other story… (editor: and one that we’ll look forward to hearing in installment two…)
There was a definite point at which I stopped being something-until-I-make-it-as-a-musician, and just became something. I used to feel the need to qualify myself when I told people what I did (I’m a recording engineer – but I’m really a songwriter). I was saying it to myself more than anyone.
Taking the pressure off of myself to “make it” as a musician, whatever that meant at the time, was what I needed to do. I began to hate making music at a certain point – and that scared me. For a little while after college I was writing music for commercials. I would get so incredibly stressed out I would get sick over each job. I couldn’t detach myself from it. Every criticism was like a knife in my heart. I still face the same thing as a designer, but since it’s not music, somehow I’m able to brush it off. Part of that was just growing up. But I also know that music is just something that’s too personal to me to detach myself from.
Do you regret it?
There’s part of me that regrets it, and I worry that a lot of the decision was based on fear and not wanting to do the hard work. There is some truth to that. But I made the decision myself, and it was the right one for me. Looking back, I know now and I’m not the kind of person that can focus on one thing for too long. That’s not something I would recommend for anyone, because it’s a heck of a lot easier to get by in the world when you’re an expert in something and are driven to excel in one particular field. Your path is defined and as long as you stick to it and do the work, the world will usually reward you for it. To this day, I still can’t resist peeking down the other paths and dropping what I’m doing to go see what’s down there. Luckily, I’ve been able to do that and support my family! But there’s been a lot of luck involved.
Well, what would you have done differently?
There are things that I learned about myself later that surprised me, and looking back, I wish I’d been aware of them. If I was applying to CMU again, I’d have no question about what major I would pick from day one. It would be computer science. That pretty much sums it up right there I think — how the hell would I have known that at 18? I know so many people who knew exactly what they wanted, and went and got it. There was never any question. I used to wish so much that I was that way. Looking back, I’m so glad I’m not. I’ve been fortunate that I could make a living being that way, because it makes things much more challenging.
Challenges, huh? Tell us more!
I’ve been doing a lot of songwriting and recording at home this year. I’ve got 9 songs in the can and I’ve put them on SoundCloud, and have also created a Facebook page for my music. I’ve gotten a lot of encouraging feedback so far.
Stay tuned: Sean will be back to talk with us a little more about creative process as his personal through-line.