Where did your love affair with music start?
Music saved my life. My mom’s side of the family was very musical. Her brother, Les Strandt, was one of the original jazz be-bop organists of his day. I was immersed in music as a child, everything from Bach to the Beatles. It was jr. high, however, where music became very personal for me. My parents were going through a divorce, which meant my sister and I also were going through the pain of divorce. There were a lot of unhealthy pain-numbing options available I could have turned to, but by the grace of God I discovered a gift for music as my drug of choice.
I heard a song my Uncle Les had recorded for a close family friend who died in a car accident. The song was an original composition and deeply moving. I thought, “If my Uncle can write a song then so can I!” So I went to my junior high band room, sat down at a piano and composed a piece of music. I went back the next day and wrote another song. The following day I decided I wanted to write a symphony so I went to Wells Music at Cinderella City, bought some score paper and began writing the first movement of my symphony. I titled it, “Symphony of the Storms.” I would get my concert band mates together to play through what I was writing. I learned a lot about scoring and arranging through those, often painful, rehearsals. In the end, I showed my score to Don Shupe, my Jr. High band director. He asked, “How did you do this?” I said, “I don’t know… I just want to know if I’m doing it right.” He said, “Just don’t stop.” And I haven’t.
What is your educational background?
You’re going to laugh. I just enrolled in my first college courses this week at CCA! I’m a 50-something freshman! I’ve always wanted a degree, but the truth is that being an arts and entertainment professional doesn’t require one. I’ve been making a living making music, working in theater, film, and television since before I graduated from Englewood High School. Having a degree was desirable, but not required. The other issue, specifically with a degree in music, is that much of what is taught at a college level isn’t relevant to the skill-set needed to make a living in today’s music industry. I am fond of Gregorian Chant, but learning how to be the solution on a gig is a far more valuable vocational skill.
You mentioned the very cool touring gig that you and your wife do, could you tell us about it?
For the past 11 years my wife Amy and I have been touring the world performing a headline music and clean comedy dueling pianos show we created. You can check out our website at www.michaelandamy.com. We’ve performed from cruise ships to county fairs to Carnegie Hall. The majority of our shows are booked for corporate events. We also perform at a lot of theaters, performing arts centers, festivals, fairs, concerts, fundraising and private events. We built our music business from the ground up. It was challenging at first. We knew we wanted to focus on corporate events, but a traditional dueling piano show found in bars is often a pretty blue (dirty) show. We had to create quality marketing materials to convince potential corporate bookers that our show would be both highly valuable to and appropriate for their clients. It was journey, but we managed to attract some interest. Next, we had to be able to deliver the goods! We managed to get a few big early wins, kept learning, kept creating, kept marketing, and built our business, which has taken us all over the world… together. To be able to do something you love with the person you love most of all is an amazing blessing. It’s a lot of work but we love the journey. We also love to give back, which is one of the reasons I am so excited about being able to bring my experience in music to our community at CCA.
Do you think music is essential in a well-rounded education?
I think learning gymnastics is essential. Everyone should know how to fall down without breaking something (and be able to recover gracefully). Yes, I do believe music is essential in a well-rounded education. Music is that which transcends language and connects our experiences, our feelings, even our identities heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul. Music can move us through time and space in an instant. With a sound, a riff, our minds, memories, feelings, are transported to significant moments with significant people. Each and every day music is part of our lives in more ways, spaces, and places than we may be aware. Having an understanding of music is truly having a greater understanding of who I am as an individual and who we are as a community. Studying music on some level is, in my opinion, essential to a well-rounded education, and a fuller, richer life experience.
What are your goals regarding CCA’s music department?
In a nutshell, my goal is to help our students and our community connect passion with opportunity. I believe a vibrant and relevant music program will absolutely enrich lives and our community. One of the keys is listening to our students and our community to discern exactly what is relevant with respect to music education specifically here in Aurora. I’m spending the lion’s share of this semester researching this so that we will develop a music program that achieves our goals and the future hopes and dreams of our student body.
What advice do you have about pursuing a career in music?
To successfully pursue a career in music one must learn to wear the many hats, speak the many languages, and be prepared to fill the many roles of all the support systems that make being on stage or in the studio possible. Integrity, tenacity, innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, showmanship, courage, thick skin, and more tenacity are key ingredients. Today’s musicians have more opportunities than ever before in history to develop a sustainable music career, but they also have more hats to wear and more work to do especially in the beginning stages of pursuing their dreams. New technologies, social media, and the internet continue to provide new avenues for young artists. Being on top of your creative game is paramount, but that alone isn’t enough. It is essential to also be on top of your musical business/marketing/tech game to give your voice a chance to be heard and recognized.
How do you manage the creative side of music with the business aspects that inevitably must come along with it?
With lots of coffee and little sleep! Managing these two components is a balancing act. You must be intentional about making time for creativity, rehearsals, space to imagine and space to experiment. You must also be intentional about making time to understand your industry, your audience, your branding, your bookers, your clients, fans, followers, legal, travel, production, and logistic components. In the process, most importantly, you must be intentional about prioritizing your family, friends, and faith, those core elements of life need you and will be there after the stage lights have been turned off.
What kind of music do you listen to, just for fun?
Almost everything. Yesterday I was really into the soundtrack for the movie, “Home.” I especially love “Red Balloon” by Charlie XCX. Today I’m listening to smooth jazz. I have two beautiful daughters ages four and two, so before the day ends I’ll probably also be listening to Anna and Elsa… for the millionth time… do you wanna kill a snowman?
Outside of music, what kind of hobbies do you enjoy?
I love theatre, movies, SCUBA diving, golf, and adventures with my wife and girls.
Anything else you want the CCA family to know about you?
Yes. If anyone reading this has some music in their background or hopes to have music in their future in any capacity – vocals, instrumentals, DJ, tech, business, playing the spoons, whatever, I want to meet you! Come visit me in the Fine Arts building, room 101A. Let’s make some music together and make our school, our community, and our world a better place!