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Interview: Curtis Melton teaches us all about persistence and teamwork

Calming all stressed minds with a superb interview, Curtis Melton shows us deeper into his fascinating life with terrific insight into the life and challenges of a musician. This well-respected music educator does what he is best at, and acquaints us about the importance and teamwork while doing what you love. Ready? Let’s go.

Cheers for having a chat with us and taking time out of your busy schedule.

Thank you for the opportunity!

Firstly, what does it feel like to be a musician and are there any perks of the job?

Being a musician has many perks – you get to create and express yourself in your own unique way every time you get to play/perform/create music. You get to have your own unique “signature” on how to express yourself. In my case, through performing (whether it is on an instrument or being a conductor) – it’s all its own art form. And then of course with composing, you get to make something unique that you get to introduce into the world. It really is such an outlet to be expressive, passionate, creative, and to contribute something that is truly “you” to the world, that no one else BUT you can share. Everyone has their own “voice”.

Not to mention, being a music educator, I get to share my passion and music with students in my high school band program each and every day. You get to instill that love for music in them. I know first-hand what music does for students; it gives them a sense of belonging to a group, gives them a sense of expression, and allows them to also find who they themselves are. Music teaches lessons that they will take with them throughout their lives, such as teamwork, perseverance, and creating something beautiful. As a music conductor, director, and teacher, I get to conduct and express myself in a way that most musicians are not able to do.

I consider myself very lucky I experience music through composing, performing, conducting, AND teaching music – each and every single day.

Secondly, how did it all start with the music? Did you play when you were younger or start a bit later?

I started when I was in 4th grade when I took guitar lessons at my local music store. And then in 5th grade – I took piano lessons from my aunt. My aunt played piano and I wanted to learn how to play, so I started doing weekly lessons with her. Then in late-5th grade, before I entered middle school, I wanted to join band in middle school. I was originally thinking I wanted to learn how to play the saxophone, but my dad told me he played drums and could teach me. So of course, I was like – that sounds cool – and it’s FREE (I would have had to pay for lessons for saxophone), and my parents both said “Also, you always hear the drums and are always seen!” – so I went ahead and started learning from my dad the summer before 6th grade.

Couple that with having taken prior piano and guitar lessons, I knew how to read music, play complex rhythms, count music, and find the pulse. I entered the 6th grade musically way ahead of my other peers who were just getting started on their musical journey. Because my middle school band director recognized my prowess so early, he moved me up to the top band in middle school at second semester – being the only 6th grader in a class with 7th and 8th graders. So then I got to take part in the spring band festival trip and go to Disneyland, and then I was in the top band all through 7th and 8th grade. In mid-6th grade I got a drum set for Christmas, so then by 7th grade I joined the jazz band – and played drum set in that class along with concert band. So naturally, I loved it, and continued being one of the top drummers in my middle school band; making the district Honor Band, performing solos at district solo festival and receiving Superior Ratings, and just enjoying playing. I found my passion at a very early age, and that took me well into high school and beyond.

I also borrowed my middle school’s 8-track recorder while I was in middle school – and me and my dad in the summer of 7th and 8th grade would make recordings of my first compositions on cassette tapes! That introduced me at a young age to recording, mixing, bouncing tracks, etc.

So by high school, I was advanced enough to make my school’s advanced concert band, the top jazz band, and also play snare drum in marching band on the drumline, all of these spots I played in all through my 4 years of high school band, along with Honor Band, All-State Band, solo festival, etc. I figured out in high school that I wanted to become a high school band director, and major in music education in college. And that is exactly what I did. I graduated in just 3 1/2 years with a music education degree (a record I still hold at that school!) and have been teaching high school band the last 18 years in the Las Vegas, NV area, 10 of those years are in my current position at Legacy High School in North Las Vegas, NV.

Please tell us more about a day in the life of a high school band director.

In the summer I always prepare for my high school marching band camp – which are three weeks before school begins, where I get the music ready for the students, get the room ready, and get us prepared for three weeks of learning the marching band show, teaching the band how to march, teaching them how to march with instruments, how to then PLAY and march with instruments, and get ready for our first THREE performances, just a week or two into band camp. We have three performances before school even begins.

And in actuality, (for me personally) preparing for the marching season (which runs from July through November) starts in December of the previous year, when I begin composing the marching band music that my students will perform the following year. I think of a general theme I want to convey musically, and then I compose for the full marching band a 7-9 minute show worth of music and movement. That involves writing music for the woodwinds, brass, and percussion sections – I usually write a 7-9 minute show – all on my music notation software, and I also think of a visual theme to go with it to “pump the crowds up”.

All springtime I am writing the show, selecting visuals, and also I recruit all year-long at the middle schools to garner new interest in the program – by getting new students to take my Beginning Band class, and of course to recruit the current 8th grade band members to continue on into my high school band to join marching band and the concert band programs.

I also compose and dedicate a concert band piece to my band students every year that we perform at our end-of-year band concert. Last year’s end-of-year concert in May of 2022 was a very emotional one as we performed a piece I had written for the band three years prior in 2020, but due to the COVID shutdown we didn’t get to play it that year. We finally got to perform it in 2022. There was not a dry-eye in the house! It was a very emotional one and one of my favorite concerts we’ve done at my school.

Last year, I also got to finally hear the premiere of a piece I was commissioned to compose for a local Las Vegas student community group in 2022 after not getting to hear it in 2020. It was awesome!

Again, these are all things that I do with my band, most band directors just purchase pre-written music for their marching shows, or hire someone else to arrange existing music for their shows.

On top of all that, we perform at local marching band shows in our area, and we also start our jazz and concert band programs the first week of school. So our program puts on 5-6 concerts a year, we perform at 4-5 home football games and the local marching band shows every year (where we perform my marching band shows I’ve composed for the students), we also perform at special engagements and do fundraising for NASCAR events where we usher racing events to raise money for the program.

And also I take my band on a performance trip out of state each year – we’ve performed at the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and also marched their St. Patrick’s Day Parade, we’ve performed in the Disneyland Parade, and also on the Santa Monica Pier and other places around the Southwestern United States.

Not to mention (hey, you asked what I do every day LOL) – balancing and keeping track of the band budget, setting up the performance rehearsal calendar each and every year for the students, parents, and school, daily rehearsals where we prepare for concerts and judged events, keeping track of instrument and uniform inventory, keeping a music library up to date, and of course my recruiting efforts, keeping in touch with parents, inputting student grades and assessments, and staying until 8:30pm a lot of of nights per week (getting to school by 6:00am each day) – my life as a band director is super busy and involved, but also very rewarding!!

How do you compose music and who do you compose everything for?

I start by coming up with a theme or a feeling I like to compose for. For example, this past year’s marching show (2022) I wrote a marching band show called “Bioluminescence” – because I wanted to incorporate light and shining lights at the audience for our visual, plus I wanted to emulate a heroic and bright musical theme. So I came up with music for the marching band show that emulated that idea. The release I had A&R Factory review just recently “Firefly Lullaby” is my studio recording version of part of that show that they performed.

This year (summer/fall of 2023) we are performing a show I wrote called “Fear, Incorporated” which is a horror-themed show. Much darker in tone, but also fun and intense.

Most of my compositions I write for my students. They are my biggest inspiration when it comes to composing music for them to play. I think about what they will like, how it will come off to the audience, and I always think of ideas that I believe they will enjoy playing. I also write music in “uncommon” band keys.

Most published band music is published in “easy” keys because they are “easy to teach”. A lot of “band music” is written for students in keys that do not have a lot of sharps or flats – so as a result, a lot of published band music sounds the same. I challenge my students by writing in keys with a lot of sharps and flats so they become “whole musicians” and not just “musicians that can play really well in a handful of keys”. Plus those “uncommon band keys” are so fresh sounding. I have written for my kids in F-sharp minor, E-flat minor – it’s fun and they are able to do it. As a result, they know how to play ALL their fingerings and ALL their instrument. It is really important to be able to know the whole instrument!!! I take great pride in my students being able to read those keys and play anything I give them to play – as I see them become “whole musicians”.

As far as studio recordings, I have always wanted to make studio versions of my music. My debut album I released in 2020 called “Skywaves”, many of those tracks are studio versions of the pieces/shows I have written for my marching/concert band. Of course there are other tracks I have composed that aren’t previous marching or concert pieces, but it’s fun to turn those marching and concert band songs into studio tracks. My two singles I have released since “Skywaves” – entitled “Restless Twilight” and “Firefly Lullaby” are also previously performed marching band songs, but they are studio versions.

Do you have any advice for young aspiring musicians who might be a bit scared to share their art?

Just go for it. Express yourself in your own unique way and be yourself. Music (and any art form) is such a rewarding art.. Put yourself out there, and go for it!!

Last, what message do you stand for in such a seemingly combustive world?

BE YOURSELF! There is only one of you, so be it. Also – whatever you decide to do – be the best you can be at it. You never know who’s lives you are changing by just being YOU.

Listen up more on Spotify.

Interview by Llewelyn Screen