Artist Interview: Drew Shanefield

The Music Room > Additional Artist Interviews > Artist Interview: Drew Shanefield

Artist Interview: Drew Shanefield

WWBW: How did you come to gravitate to composing and arranging relative to other areas of music concentration?

DREW SHANEFIELD: I’ve been writing music as long as I can remember. I’m talking elementary school and middle school, noodling around with instruments. I grew up playing trumpet in the band, and played trumpet all through high school and college, but I also played in rock bands and jazz and fusion and things like that, progressive rock. I just opened my ears to all different kinds of ways to make music. So everything from writing classical pieces to little pep band pieces when I was in the high school marching band to short little compositions which I thought that were oh, so serious when I was in high school.

WWBW: When you’re in high school there are a lot of musicians who are going after their chops. Probably the writer, composer and arranger is a rarer beast.

DS: For sure. When I went to college, I studied performance at first, and it wasn’t until I was in college that I got turned on to understanding theory and how harmony functions and how the constituent pieces of music interact. I guess I had a passion and a curiosity but it wasn’t until I was in college when I was studying performance that I realized my creativity and my passion was in writing.

WWBW: You describe theory coming out of the mist for you. How did that occur?

DS: Studying composition and theory in college, hearing how the elements of music and intervals and chords can be manipulated in such a way that was actually codified began to make sense. For example I would hear such and such a chord and I’d say, oh, you know I’ve been playing that chord for a long time and never knew it was called an augmented 6th chord. I never knew that that really funky chord was called a 7sharp9, and how it actually functions.

So I guess it was sort of when the practice of music and the performance of music actually met the textbook I was like, whoa, I think I can do this.

WWBW: You hear that chord on “Foxy Lady” and…

DS: It’s so funny you say that because all of us, we always just referred to that as the Hendrix chord. Yeah, so it’s this and it’s this and it’s voiced that way. And what if I voice it this way and what if I add that tone to the chord? What does this become and how does it change?

That kind of stuff was super-exciting, especially in my early 20s, for sure.

WWBW: You have a second Master’s degree, too – one in Education, correct?

DS: That is true, yeah.

WWBW: How do your Music and your Education degrees manifest in your current position at Haverford Township?

DS: I’ve been a public school teacher for 20 years and I’m going to remain a public school teacher. I’ve taught high school band, middle school band. Most of my work now is with elementary school instrumentalists. Teaching the little ones woodwinds, brass, winds, percussion, all of the beginning band instruments.

I guess I never really thought I would end up being a career educator. I think I always thought I’d be a composer, a performer. And of course a little bit of reality sets in. But what I discovered is a true passion for teaching. And I’ve got to say at this point in my life as a composer and as an arranger and as a clinician, that informs just about everything I write. The education piece actually informs so much of what I compose and arrange these days.

WWBW: So you try to manifest a lesson within the composition itself?

DS: Absolutely, absolutely. A lot of the pieces I’m writing, whether it’s for professional ensemble or for the drum corps or for a jazz group or even for a middle school band, all the pieces I write are going to be played, and that’s a really, that’s a tremendous opportunity that I have in that all the music I write is going to be played in that it’s a commission or it’s a work for hire or something like that.

The education piece comes in because I realize as a music teacher I have limited resources at times, including limited rehearsal time. Not all of my kids are taking lessons. Not all the kids are playing on the top line professional instruments, especially if they’re youngsters. So what ends up happening is that the playability finds its way into the composition. There’s the compositional mind. There’s the creative outpouring and then there’s actually the practical pragmatic part. Okay. Is this such-and-such band going to be able to get this together in three weeks of rehearsal? Is this really going to be playable by, I don’t know, let’s say a high school marching band. I have this wonderful, wonderful idea but is it playable and practical for a high school band or an elementary school band?

So that teaching piece now is part and parcel I think with everything I compose

WWBW: Say you’re composing, and you know it’s going to be aimed at middle school band. And say it’s a jazz feel; is there an element of imbuing a VI-II-V-! in there with a lead line that goes through it in a very common and idiomatic way, just to ingrain that idea into the ear of the student playing it? Is that a factor at all?

DS: Absolutely. Absolutely. Especially if if it’s a commissioned piece. I want to get to know the ensemble. I want to know what the director has taught, what the director would like to get out of the piece of music. So if we’re talking about a middle school piece that’s maybe informed by some jazz chord progressions. I want to know how far can I take it or how far has the director gotten the students so I’m able to offer something that’s usable, but that’s also a couple of steps ahead of where they’re going to be.

WWBW: So in accepting commissions you do some research on who’s commissioning you?

DS: Oh, my goodness yeah. I mean I just recently completed a piece that was just premiered a couple of weeks ago and I actually remember talking with the band director over the summer and, it may seem strange, but I actually wanted to know the students names. I was never going to meet them per se, but I didn’t want to know that clarinet one, first chair was just clarinet one, first chair. I wanted to know the kids’ names. So you know somehow that’s got to rub off into the piece. If I actually know that the piece is going to be played by Lauren or Michelle or John or whomever…

WWBW: I get it. I would think that a commissioned work has with a certain leap of faith on the part of the client .I would also think – I could tell you’re a conscientious fellow – that it would create a good bit of pressure and maybe some component of uncertainty. Does it?

DS: It does. It does and I probably worry about more than I need to. Well, like for example, I write in the Fall for the Fall season, and I do a good number of arrangements for marching bands and those are terrific. They’re fun. They’re great meaningful collaborations and along the way I do write original pieces for these bands for their Fall marching season. And all of a sudden it hit me that I was going to compose for this band, and that it is going to be a large part of their Fall semester curriculum. Like this is what these kids are going to be working on in band camp and playing it, I don’t know, at contests and at halftime of football games. So yeah, I do feel a little bit of pressure. Self-imposed I suppose. But you know, I want to make it right.

WWBW: A well-placed crisis in confidence is going to give you a piece of work that’s got good work ethic behind it.

DS: I like to think so.

WWBW: So segue into the marching work. While you’re a schoolteacher, this year you’re working with the Cadets. What is your function with them?

DS: I’m the arranger. We do a good deal of excerpts, which are original pieces as well. I’m also a composer, and I’m also in charge of supervising the brass caption. There’s a tremendous young brass caption head named Michael Terry who is going to be running and managing the daily routine of the brass ensemble, but anything musical that the brass are playing comes across my desk.

The drum corps has 70 brass members of 150; a little under half are brass players. There are some upper high school students but for the most part, they are college music majors coming from all over the country. We’re from Allentown Pennsylvania, but members come from all over the country and, as a matter of fact, internationally.

So it’s a tremendous undertaking and it’s funny because last weekend the Cadets moved in to begin their summer tour. They’re going to be rehearsing for several weeks and going on a nationwide tour and I was there over the weekend, and it was awesome. It’s such a super-charge of energy and passion and skill and talent.

And of course on Monday morning I am back in my elementary school with my trombone players and my beginning clarinet players making all kinds of sounds. It’s humbling for sure to go from one to the other.

WWBW: How has DCI changed since you’ve been involved?

DS: From my generation, drum corps were regional. They were located as part of a neighborhood, as part of a VFW post or a youth outpost. That’s really dating back to the beginning of the activity but nowadays just about everyone, like I said, is some sort of performance major or music education major. They’re all studying privately at home. The equipment we use is professional level equipment. The road show what goes into props and staging and even things like electronics and amplification it’s just state of the art. It really is tremendous. It’s a thrill, for sure.

WWBW: You pretty much stick with the music piece of it, though? The choreography and the props and all of that and sound reinforcement, that’s another department, right?

DS: You bet. How it works is there is a creative team that handles all of the elements of the show production. So music composition from the brass end, from the percussion end, choreography, what’s called drill design, prop production, everything, all the elements of creative contribution sort of create a team and we work and craft the show for months and months and months before it even gets into the kids hands.

WWBW: The Cadets are the oldest DCI competitor, I think, right?

DS: Yes, they are.

WWBW: So you’re stepping into a legend, essentially. The Cadets are known both for their sense of tradition and their sense of innovation. Which direction does this year’s show lean?

DS: It’s going to be wildly innovative. We’re doing some music of Leonard Bernstein, which actually has been a staple of the cadets over the decades. But the new production is going to be very much with an eye to the future. It’s going to be adventurous. It’s going to be exciting.

When I was a teenager I was a member of the Cadets. I was a member of the Cadets and then I went off to work with many other groups for many years. So to come back this year has been a very nice homecoming.

WWBW: Are you doing much playing?

DS: I play in school. I play with my kids. I take a couple of freelance gigs. My daughters tease me about all the trumpet cases up in the attic. They call me a trumpet owner rather than a trumpet player now.

WWBW: In selecting Leonard Bernstein, how did you come to that? And what part of his repertoire?

DS: The 2017 season is going to be excerpts from the Bernstein Mass, which is a monumental part of his output. As I mentioned a couple of minutes ago, the Cadets had built their championship-level reputation in DCI with Bernstein compositions in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And then the corps moved on to some other composers and explored a few other creative muses. To come back to Bernstein this year was actually a little bit of an undertaking. As a result of the process, we’ve forged a relationship with the Leonard Bernstein office in New York City where the Cadets are going to be one of the musical ambassadors of the Bernstein repertoire, at least for the marching arts activity.

Which is terrific. That’s brought our corps director George Hopkins and me to New York City on several instances to work with the representatives of the Leonard Bernstein office, to work with the president of the New York Philharmonic in establishing some concerts that are going to be coming up in the future.

The Leonard Bernstein centennial is this year, so the Cadets are going to be doing an outdoor concert, for example, with the New York Philharmonic playing the music of Bernstein. It’s going to be exhilarating.

WWBW: What is your relationship with Kjos Publishing?

DS: My publications with Kjos have all been for intermediate and young band. There are some terrific folks out at Kjos. My original connection was through Bruce Pearson, composer and publisher of The Standard of Excellence band method series. I met Bruce and we struck up a conversation along with another colleague of mine about working on a few pieces for their Standard of Excellence publications, which are published and distributed through Kjos.

It’s so funny. I don’t know if you’ve ever done much in publishing, but especially for bands there’s something of an irony to it in that you, as a composer you really want to write from the heart and you write something you believe speaks and resonates at a deep level, something that’s meaningful. Whatever the piece is, whatever the medium is, whatever the ensemble is, you as a composer, that’s where you go from. And then sometimes in publishing that’s not necessarily what the publisher wants to put in print.

So I laugh to myself. I go, wait a second. This is my magnum opus. And they say, ah, well, we actually like the piece for the beginning band instead. What I’ve learned to embrace is that you can write meaningful music and music that has passion and content and it can be very, very enjoyable and have a message, even for young bands.

And while not every high school band or college ensemble can play my magnum opus, whatever that is, just about every school in the country has young bands and intermediate bands. I really embrace writing for young and intermediate level bands. There is a market for it and some of the work through Kjos has been published for that.

WWBW: Are most of your commitments with Kjos original compositions or are they arrangements of existing works?

DS: A little bit of both. Like I said, I have some of music published through Kjos and I have some music published through Northeastern Music, which is a music company out here on the East Coast.

WWBW: Now when you’re writing an existing work for young band, are you given the complete original scores and then you simplify according to the ensemble you’re writing for or do you just hear it and build it from the ground up?

DS: Sometimes, yes. For example, I have a few short Bach works, and I have a Telemann and a few short publications where of course I will look at the original score and figure out what’s playable for these kids. Okay, well, maybe you want to write something but the clarinet really can’t get above the break yet. A beginning clarinet player, their first year is probably not going to be fluid moving over the break or a flute player into the upper register or certain keys or certain range restrictions for French horn. You know, sometimes I guess you need to take those restrictions and those parameters and actually channel them into something creative. So sometimes the restrictions and the parameters actually yield some really interesting arrangements and compositions.

Like I said earlier, I’m teaching kids of this age. Like my day job, so to speak, is to work with beginning first year, second year, third year band kids. So I’m living it with them, so to speak.

WWBW: Muddy Waters figured out a lot to do with three and four chords.

DS: And that’s to the point of when I write a piece for a band, whether it’s an arrangement or an original composition, that’s why I want to get to know these kids. Where are they? What can they do? What can’t they do? As a teacher, what would help advance your program? If I can only use two or three notes for the tubas, well, maybe can I try four or five? You know what I mean? Is it time to expand their range a little bit? For percussion vocabulary are they playing on percussion, how far are they in their rudimentary study?

So, yes, to that point, sometimes the restrictions really open up a lot of creative doors, for sure, even for youngsters.

What’s next for Drew?

DS: I’m living my dream. Honestly. I’m assisting with one of the best DCI corps in the world. And I compose for these grade groups with a respected publisher. But more importantly, and more impressively to myself, I go to school every day and work on “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. You know what I mean? There’s something grounding about being an educator with these youngsters, as well as having had nice professional opportunities all the time and I love them, but you don’t forget where it comes from either.


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