I didn’t take the direct path to music – not by a long-shot. Many people can probably relate to this. I have learned along the way that you don’t need to feel especially burdened or like an oddball just because you come to something a bit later in life. For me this was an especially humbling lesson, because I was called “gifted” from an early age and started to expect a lot of myself by about the fifth grade or so.
In elementary school, I was given opportunities to explore many subjects outside the regular classroom routine. For example, in math I was given a textbook and set outside in either the library or the common assembly area along with one other advanced student to work through the problems at my own pace. I think it became a bit of a race between the two of us to see who could finish the book first.
I was also artistic and liked to draw and work with modeling clay. And I played violin in the school “orchestra,” which consisted of just myself and one other student during my sixth grade year. We learned a few songs and the basics of how to read music, and how to play one or two scales. That is all I remember from that time. So graduating to seventh grade and middle school orchestra was a big jump forward for me in music.
Some time around seventh or eighth grade I started to have my own ideas for compositions and tried to write them down. I have some scraps of paper with very basic notation drawn in pencil from this time. They were mostly abstract melodies, like you might find in an orchestra or solo piano piece. In most I tried to capture a mood. Apparently a predominant mood for me during that time was the burden of homework, because I titled two of the more ponderous tunes “drudgery”!
I also became fascinated with poetry starting in the seventh or eighth grade, and fancied myself for a while as a young budding poet!
In middle school I took all the art classes I could. I still have a few drawings and small clay sculptures I made during this time. I spent a lot of my spare time teaching myself to program on the Apple II computer, because I had discovered from about the age of 10 what kinds of cool drawings and animations you could create on a computer. I was also fascinated with language recognition and tried with some success to write my own interactive fiction games in which you type an instruction into the computer and it tells you the story of what happens next.
My father encouraged me to pursue computer programming as a possible career, but I was unsure it was a good path for me. From the research I had done, it seemed to lead to areas that did not thrill me much, like database management and data analysis. These were things for business, and things I did not much understand back then. I am sure I thought also about doing something creative along the lines of graphic design and/or computer animation. I was also interested in making music on the computer, but had not found that to be very productive yet (this was the late 80s and early 90s, and I had no exposure to the higher end music software of the time). I think I did not work with a computer system that could really make music until some time in college.
Meanwhile, from the seventh through eleventh grades I played in the school orchestra. I started private violin lessons around the ninth grade or so. I was never quite the best player in my classes, and had mediocre practice habits, but enjoyed it fairly well, especially for the camaraderie. I was given a concerto solo to play in the eleventh or twelfth grade, at which point my class schedule didn’t allow me to continue in orchestra, because my math class was only offered during the same period.
I had continued in the advanced track in math from middle school through high school. By twelfth grade I was taking first year calculus, and doing quite well in it. I had started participating in regional math competitions in the eighth grade, and found them rewarding. I was somewhat competitive, and they helped me feel “smart.” There’s definitely a satisfaction to being able to understand something that intimidates most people. This is something that appealed to me about both math and computers, so I spent a lot of energy in both while in school.
Both of my parents were or had been teachers, so I thought a lot about maybe being one as a career. But I was socially awkward and shy and found the idea of teaching intimidating. When choosing a college major I was drawn to the sciences in general, but was encouraged to also take computer classes and get a second degree in computer science. Because I came to college with AP exam credits equal to almost a full year, I graduated from Oregon State after only four years with degrees in both math and computer science.
So what about my music during all of this? I will leave that for my next post.