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Young People's Concert Interview

Prior to a series of student concerts (March 2004) Long Island Philharmonic's Education Administrator Joanne Spencer interviews Russell Peck:

- Tell us a little about your background growing up—when did you first start composing; did people encourage you in music? Do you play an instrument?

RP: Believe it or not, my best friends in grade school were fans of orchestra music, and we would get together after school either to play outside or go inside to listen to symphonies!

The schools I attended near Detroit, Michigan had great music programs—and they were competitive. Kids wanted to be in music because it's so exciting. In high school I was in the orchestra, band, and chorus. My high school band even played a piece of mine. My parents also encouraged me, especially my father. He was a professional singer and loved symphony music.

From the first time I heard Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in grade school I wanted to be not a performer, but a composer. I was thrilled by orchestra music and wanted to create that excitement myself for other people by writing music. So I took piano and composing lessons from a wonderful teacher starting in fifth grade, and began to write pieces in grade school. Then in high school I learned to play trombone so I could be "inside" the music of the orchestra as a performer. I knew that would help me compose better, and loved being part of a performing group.

- Do you think music is magical?

RP: I think music can be like magic in a way, and I say so in "The Thrill of the Orchestra." It really is amazing to think people in the orchestra are scraping strings, buzzing with their mouth, and hitting things—and then from this you can get a great feeling of excitement and emotion. And it's real magic—not a trick, but the real thing.

- How did you get the idea to write "The Thrill of the Orchestra"?

RP: In addition to the emotion and feeling of music, I also like humor, and learning things, too. So I had the idea to put that all together into one piece about the orchestra. This was my big chance to tell people what was so fun and special about the orchestra, and have an orchestra right there to actually show off the different instruments and the power of the orchestra all together.

It took me about nine months to write the piece, and I called it "The Thrill of the Orchestra", because that's what it is really about. But I also sketch musical ideas—like tunes—on paper and sometimes keep them for a long time. One main tune of "The Thrill" was one I had carried around for years as I moved to five different cities, until finally I used it in "The Thrill of the Orchestra."

I get most of my musical ideas two ways: one is that I improvise—that is, I just play around with notes and rhythms on the piano. Sometimes I come up with a little bit of something I like. Then I work on changing it to make it bigger and better—with more notes, more rhythms—until I can use it in a piece. The other thing I do is to lie back and imagine an orchestra playing my piece as I watch and listen. That gives me ideas, too.

- What do you do when you're not composing?

RP: Most composers teach in a school or college, but I don't. To make a living,
I just write music for orchestra, which is a very rare thing to do. I am extremely lucky to be what I wanted to be since I was in grade school: a professional composer. Besides music, I love the forest and lakes and streams. I do a lot of speed-hiking in the woods, and also love to kayak and do white-water rafting.

- Who is your favorite classical composer?

RP: I guess my favorite classical composer is Debussy; but it's so hard to say, because one of the greatest things about orchestra music is the variety. There are so many really great composers and pieces, and they're all so different. To hear these great pieces is almost like traveling to different worlds, each one is its own fantasy in sound.

- Will computers and robots one day replace composers and musicians?

RP: Some people think computers and robots can replace the people who write and perform music. But I don't think that will happen unless robots also replace the people who listen to music. People like the music that actual people create and perform, and I think it's likely to stay that way.

- Would you ever compose music for cartoons and movies?

RP: Many people have encouraged me to write for films, and I would love someday to do an animated film-version of "The Thrill of the Orchestra." I think it would be fantastic—with cartoon instruments dancing around and so on! However, while there is some great music being written for movies and TV, the special talent I try to have is writing music for live concerts. That's what I love: being there when music, and just music, is what's happening.

- Can you offer some encouraging words to aspiring composers or performers?

RP: Getting involved in music in a serious way, performing in a band, orchestra, or chorus, and maybe music lessons, is something I would really recommend. I do think it makes people smarter, and better able to work with themselves and other people in life. I think it also offers fantastic rewards as an experience. In fact, it is so rewarding that many people sacrifice a lot just to be part of music, just to be musicians on some level or other. That's because when a concert is happening and you're part of it, making the musical effect, it is something that feels like nothing else in the world.