SHAWN CROUCH: On Writing Sonic Postcards

Composer and conductor Shawn Crouch often thinks about his music as sonic postcards, and there is no other place in which that comes across stronger than in his new album, “Chaos Theory, and Other Chamber Works.”

Shawn Crouch’s latest world premiere recording,“Chaos Theory, and Other Chamber Works. was released in June, and Crouch, whose compositions have been showcased in various other artists’ works of art, has never been more thrilled about a production. Given how students at the Frost School of Music feel so strongly about his teaching, it deserves a close listening. 

“I am a very visual composer, so I do a lot of color sketches. I try to see what a song would look like if it were animated. I put greens, reds, and blues, and that helps me make musical note choices,” he says. In one of the pieces, “Suspended Contact,” he was thinking about two different worlds—an urban and a peaceful environment—like a park or a lake—similar to Manhattan and Central Park. So, he wanted to turn that into a sonic postcard.

“I have the sounds of drums and the sounds of the low end of the saxophone in this really aggressive world, that then gives way to music that is fleeting, almost like if you were sitting by a lake in the summer and you’re feeling the gentle sway of the trees. This sonic postcard concept is very much the way that I think about music and the different timbres that an instrument can give you.”

His take on the ground-breaking Frost Method® and the impact on of the Experiential Music Curriculum (EMC) also calls for a closer look.

In an exclusive interview with Crouch, who oversees the EMC that touches every undergraduate Frost student during their first two years, he says he believes that nobody’s musical education is complete until they’ve experienced composing and conducting their own music. 

“We are teaching the 21st-century musician how to be relevant in today’s society,” he says. “Musicians that come through the EMC learn how to be complete musicians with a strong foundation in musicianship, as well as being able to improvise and compose.” 

Born and raised in Columbia, Maryland, a city in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan region that has produced some of greatest artists of all time, like Billie Holliday and Cab Calloway, Crouch was trained in wide-ranging styles. 

By the age of eight, he was playing the French horn and piano. He had important teachers in his life, like his middle school band director, Shelly Williams, who convinced  the young man’s parents to send him to the Peabody Preparatory in Baltimore, a prep program for the Peabody Conservatory. From there, Crouch went to the Walden School for Young Musicians, which over the years, as both a student and faculty member, has “shaped every fiber” of his musical and spiritual life.

As we sat with Crouch, we talked about how he keeps close to his music, teaching, and family life.       

Who or what influenced your passion for music?

I have an older brother who’s ten years older than me, who plays the trombone. He worked with Hank Levy, a Jazz composer, conductor, and educator, who ran the big band at Towson University. I was seven years old the first time I heard their band, and loved sitting in the fourth row and having my hair blown back by that wall of sound.  Throughout the years, conductors such as Bernstein, Seji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, Oliver Knussen, and composers like Frank Zappa, Oliver Knussen, John Adams, Steven Reich, Lee Hyla, and August Read Thomas have also influenced my music. 

Do you consider yourself a music geek or a music guru?

[laughs] Guru, I’m a Pied Piper of sorts.

You have made some great contributions to the Frost School of Music with the Frost Method/Experiential Music Curriculum. Tell us more about this.

Well, I’m going to give you our elevator speech first: The Experiential Music Curriculum (EMC) is the Frost School’s undergraduate freshman and sophomore theory and skills sequence which encompasses a tightly integrated theory, aural skill, and sight-singing and improvisation/composition curriculum.

The Frost Method is a program that has many contributors. Dean Shelton Berg started the idea of the program many years ago before he came to Frost. And then, when he came here, he said, “I really believe that all musicians should be able to improvise and compose music.”

This is kind of a radical idea now, but it is a very old idea because if you think about Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven—the three big ones—all of them were composers, improvisors, and performers. In the 20th century, musicians separated the idea that you are a performer and a composer. Now, we’re looking back and saying, no, all performers can improvise a melody over a set of chord changes that they’ve been playing for many, many years, in many of the pieces they’ve worked on. 

So, what’s next for the Frost Method?

We have fine-tuned and refined the program and are getting ready to launch an online version of it, which will hopefully be implemented in other colleges and universities.

How does conducting the Ibis New Music Ensemble inspire your music?

I tell my composition students, “You have to conduct. You have to keep playing your instrument because what it does is it keeps you really close to the music.” You can write whatever you want on your computer and it’s going to play back perfectly but until you see how it fits under the fingers, the breath that a clarinet player has to take, the way a vocal will be shaped by the range and how much breath a singer needs, or the way a word sounds . . . you have to be right there making music.

What do you try to share with your students, and foster in their own music-making?

I tell them: find your own voice. Find what makes you happy. Ask yourself: What does music do for me at the moment? What moves me? Look at the masters and find out how that composer does it, and then incorporate it into your music. Then, ask yourself: What was the composer thinking? Why did they choose that chord?

You need to have a very high level of musicianship. And that’s certainly what we focus on in our program. But, you have to be able to wear many hats if you’re going to make a career in music. 

The contemporary musician has to be much more open to all the different opportunities that come their way. That could be starting an ensemble of their own—a chamber music group, teaching along with playing, or an orchestra job. But, those orchestras are changing. Now, if you’re looking to do all those things, that means you’re going to need to do fundraising, learn how to write a grant and how to talk to people, network, give an interview, and speak from a stage. All these skills are taught at Frost.

How are your classroom’s innovations inspiring new artists? 

Here’s the story of Leslie Miller, an undergrad clarinet performance major who graduated many years ago who performs on “95 South,” a track on my new album. She went through the EMC program and also performed for many years in Ensemble Ibis. In the first half of her senior recital, she performed The Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen, and in the second half, she brought out her bluegrass band and played her original songs playing clarinet, guitar and banjo. That is a Frost student.