Hotchkiss is home to many talented students in a variety of fields. Seniors Desmond Teague and Kelly Zuo are gifted musicians who generously loaned their skills to the recent Hotchkiss Dramatic Association production of The Tempest by composing an original score.
Below is an informative Q & A with both artists, which provides some insight into their musical background, creative process, and involvement in the music and theatre programs at Hotchkiss.
Can you describe your musical background, and specialties or passions? In what ways have you been involved in music at Hotchkiss?
My musical background is pretty eclectic. I’ve just been picking things up as I go for as long as I can remember. In terms of formal lessons I started with classical viola in 5th grade, and I played some fiddle music as well. Then in 7th grade I picked up the electric bass and guitar, and joined my middle school’s rock & jazz bands. I took lessons for bass but not guitar. By 9th grade when I came to Hotchkiss I had completely abandoned the viola and was mainly focused on guitar, writing my own songs and performing live in small venues and cafes as often as I could outside of school. I took bass lessons here my first 2 years and played bass in the jazz band my sophomore year. Throughout 10th and 11th grade I spent a lot of time outside of school playing, recording, performing, and occasionally living with a psychedelic rock band called Debris of Titan. At the end of 10th grade I bought a trumpet on eBay and practiced it religiously. I played trumpet in the jazz band throughout 11th grade, and in the second semester I took my first guitar lessons with Mr. Musillami (instructor in jazz guitar). I had always loved jazz for as long as I could remember and I started really getting into it at the end of 10th & into 11th grade. At the end of 11th grade I took up the alto clarinet (which would come in handy later) and to a lesser extent the flute. I took up saxophone this year and have messed around a little with a Vietnamese traditional instrument called a đàn tranh. My focus at this point is on jazz guitar and I play guitar in the jazz band, but I also make beats and play all other types of music in my spare time. I think music is all very interconnected and I like switching between different styles and instruments all the time. At this point I get all kinds of opportunities to perform at dance recitals, dinners, auditoriums, and other such events at Hotchkiss.
I started with piano at the age of 4 and have since been receiving classical training in piano performance, music theory, music analysis, etc. Around 5 years ago, I started to compose music on my own, starting with writing piano pieces, then working with friends to write for bands. We made an album for fundraising for UNICEF during my 9th-grade fall and in that I self-taught some basic recording/producing techniques and learned how to use producing/composing software like Sibelius and Logic Pro. I started to have private composition lessons with a professional pianist and composer from 10th to 11th grade. That’s when I started to write pieces for orchestra or ensembles.
I have been learning with Dr. Witkowski (instructor in piano) on classical piano performance. I have participated in Elfers piano recitals, Elfers string recitals, Hotchkiss in Shanghai concert, and went to the Hotchkiss in Florence program during the summer of 2018. I developed my skills in music arrangement initially because I was the keyboard player in many performances and it soon occurs to me that without an arrangement, especially when string instruments are involved, rehearsals can be particularly difficult. Thus, I started to either arrange or write parts of the music for performance at Hotchkiss like last year and this year’s SMS, Upper-mid reviews, etc.. I am also a member of the Hotchkiss Chorus, which really helps me to develop a good ear and relative pitch. I am currently exploring the magical terrain of jazz, as Desmond has introduced me to, and hoping to learn more about jazz piano and impromptu.
Chicken and egg question: how did you get involved in writing the score for The Tempest? Did Mr. Reed (director of the play and instructor in theatre and English) and Mr. Brashears (director of the theatre program and technical director of theatre) ask you to get involved or the other way around?
As I remember it Mr. Brashears approached me at the beginning of this year and told me that the theater department was wondering if I would be interested in composing scores for the winter and spring plays. I agreed and began drafting my initial concepts for tone and instrumentation over the first few months, working from a script that he had given me. I had occasional meetings with him & Mr. Reed throughout the first semester. I had the concept of scoring for cello, flute, percussion, and myself on alto clarinet fairly early on, it was a format I wanted to try out.
Basically, as Desmond said, he had the big picture idea in mind already when he found me, and those instrument choices turn out to be the perfect fit! I remember Desmond asking me if I would be interested in working with him on a play a few weeks before Christmas - and of course, I said yes because scoring for a play is definitely a key element on my composition bucket list!
Have the two of you worked together before? What was the process of collaboration like? Did you divide and conquer or employ a different technique?
We had worked together a little doing SMS work the previous spring. It was my first year as a head of the project and I volunteered to do all the string and horn arrangements, something completely foreign and new to me. I got through the horns without much trouble but when it came time to do the strings I was completely lost. As the show date drew closer and closer I acknowledged I was in over my head. I think Kelly reached out offering to help, or maybe it was the other way around and I asked her. Either way, we worked a little on the show, though we didn’t write anything together.
For The Tempest the process was completely different. Upon realizing how out of my depth I was with the sheer magnitude of this project, I asked Kelly to help me, since I’d worked with her a little on SMS arrangements the year before and figured she would be well suited to the task. We would spend up to 3 hours at a time holed up in practice rooms going scene by scene scratching our heads and trying to come up with cohesive themes and ties throughout the show. We sought out our flautist, cellist, and percussionist to fill out our pit band and ran numerous rehearsals with them weeks in advance of the show. We had the opportunity to go over our rough draft of the score with a professional sound designer and got a lot of helpful notes. From there we did final edits and finished up the show for the most part before the opening day.
I think Desmond basically covered it all! We definitely learned as we go throughout the process. We started with writing the theme songs for characters that have singing elements in their actual lines - so the actors can get a feeling of the music and can prepare for them early on. I remember Ariel’s theme song in particular, where we basically spent two hours to find a 30 secs melody that fits the character and mood of Ariel on the music wing U bench. After that, we started to go through each page, finding where we need music and write for them. We gradually got better at scoring - I think Desmond could also agree that the Prospero monologue and the music at the end of the show, which we finished last, are our proudest work. We also adjusted a lot according to feedback from the professional sound designer, Mr. Brashears, and Mr. Reed. Lots of changes were made during rehearsals with the instrumentalists too - they often had some awesome input to add!
Finally, what was the most rewarding aspect of composing music for theater? Do you see yourself continuing along this particular musical pathway?
The most rewarding part of composing for theater was when it all came together in the end. Feeling the way that the stage and sound interacted was very fulfilling. By the time we were playing the actual shows most of the stress was gone and we were able to just follow the flow of production. I’m going to be the musical director for the spring play so I guess I am continuing on this path. I don’t know if I’d do it for a career, although I do have experience playing in pit bands for shows and that’s been a great experience that I’ll definitely be looking to do more of.
The most rewarding part is definitely when the show came together in the end. Since I was cueing the musicians behind the curtain during the live shows, my most fulfilling moments came whenever I saw the actors interacting with the music and the music serving their acting. It feels like the music added life to the play, in a very subtle and cohesive manner. I had people telling me that they heard the music and it felt like part of the play - and I take that as the biggest compliment!
I would definitely be willing to take similar opportunities in the future - maybe in college. This has really been a wonderful learning experience for me. The sense of satisfaction that came at the end outweighs even the most stressful times.