By Gary White
I began composing as soon as I began piano lessons at about age eight. I wrote little pieces for my piano teacher, Mrs. Kirby. Making up one’s own music seemed as natural to me as playing some else’s music. When I began to play the trumpet I also began to play by ear. My father would come home and say, “Play Stardust for me.” I’d have to find the notes on my horn and, after much trial and error, I became quite good at it. I could play along with songs on the radio and even add my own embellishments. My early interest in jazz , contributed to my creative development and, while I was learning to play by note in the band, I was constantly fooling around on the horn at home and at school.
My active interest in composition came when I attended Midwestern Music and Art Camp at the University of Kansas. At the camp I heard a live symphony orchestra for the first time and I said to Becky Grantham, my girlfriend at camp that summer, “Some day I’ll write music for symphony orchestra.” I’m sure she thought I was just day dreaming, but she played along with me. I went home from camp that summer sure that my destiny was to be a composer.
When I enrolled at KU in the fall of 1955 as a music major my first required classes were first year harmony, sight singing and ear training, and keyboard harmony. I took to the harmony class like a duck to water and by the second year my little compositions that Mr. Ledwith required of all students were often played in class as outstanding examples of how the assignments could be done creatively. Mr. Ledwith recognized that I had talent and he took me to meet Mr. Anderson, the head of composition and organ in the school. Mr. Anderson liked what he saw and accepted me as a private student in composition. For two years I was the only Music Education major who was studying composition. In my junior year I declared myself as a double major in Music Education and Music Composition. I hoped to be able to finish both majors within the four years, but that proved impossible, since a full year of counterpoint, and a senior recital was required to complete the Music Composition degree.
The University of Kansas had a very strange approach to their music education major. For the first two years students were in the School of Music and for the final two years they were in the School of Education. There was a real turf battle going on between the two areas and they scarcely spoke to each other. Since I was in the School of Education for the final two years, all the classes related to my composition major had to be approved by my advisor, who was a music educator. For the most part, that was no problem—I could take as many additional classes as I wanted so long as I was making progress toward the MusEd degree. There was, however, one class that caused me considerable difficulty. The composition major required a class in orchestration, while the MusEd degree required a class in music arranging for instrumental ensembles. The content of the two classes was quite similar, but neither the School of Music or School of Education would accept the other’s class as equivalent. I petitioned the School of Education to allow me to take the orchestration class in lieu of the music arranging class and this caused considerable upheaval. I was called into the chairman of music education, E. Thayer Gaston’s office and was grilled for about a half hour about why I would not want to take their class. In the end, he relented and I took the orchestration class.
There are two ironies for me in this situation. I had a classmate in music education, Claude T. Smith who, of course, took the arranging class that I had waived. As a final project he wrote a quick-step march for band that was so good that the KU Band premiered it in one of their concerts. This was the beginning of a long career as a composer of works for school band that included well over one hundred pieces. His works are still in the repertoire of school bands all over the US. Claude was a much more successful composer than I ever was, measured by income generated and the recognition of the public, and he never took a composition lesson in his life! The other irony is that many years later I wrote Instrumental Arranging, a textbook for the class I had waived that is still published by McGraw-Hill.