Jim Stephenson: Composing His Future

Mike Lawson • Features • July 15, 2020

Last fall, Hal Leonard and composer Jim Stephenson made a deal that would have shocked him decades ago: Stephenson agreed for Hal Leonard to be the exclusive print distributor for Stephenson’s original compositions.

Originally a trumpet player, Stephenson fell backwards into a thriving career as a composer in his mid-twenties. Since then, what started as a mere “hobby” has transformed into a career spanning over 300 works for orchestra, band, chorus, chamber music, brass band, and solo instrumental.

Chatting with Stephenson about his journey, SBO spoke to the Chicago-based composer (and trumpeter, and conductor) about his musical journey, daily routine, and presenting composing as a more modern art form.

I’d love to hear a little bit about how you got involved with this Hal Leonard deal.

Essentially, I’ve been a composer now for about 25 years, but professionally, about 15 years having formerly played in the symphony orchestra as a trumpet player. Then switching to composition relatively late in life. So, since the age of 38 composition has been my full focus. That’s all I’ve been doing. But you know, when you do something like that at age 38, you kind of have to start from scratch, and figure out how to run your own business and make sales and pay for your kids to go to college and all that fun stuff.

But, somewhere along the line I think Hal Leonard heard some of my music. Specifically, Paul Lavender at Hal Leonard. And then he heard some more of my music, and he reached out to me at some point and said, “Why don’t you come up and just tour our facility and we’ll chat for a while and get to know each other?”

Since Hal Leonard is only an hour from me, it was a relatively easy trip to make. We talked, had lunch, had a good chat and then kind of just… we left it there for a while. Then, I saw him at another concert where some of my music was being featured and it was right after that, he said, “You know, we’d like to chat with you about the opportunity of representing you as your sole distributor.”

So, over the course of the next several months, my wife and I would go up and meet with them. My wife is very instrumental in my business too. We’d go chat with them, and we finally arrived at a deal where they would represent me as a distributor. I’m still the publisher of my music, but they distribute worldwide, on my behalf.

You had said how you started composing as a hobby. I think that’s interesting how you almost fell backwards into it. Can you tell me a little bit more about how this hobby turned into something so much more serious? Or, at what point did you know it was something more serious for you?

You couldn’t be more accurate. I mean, I literally fell backwards into this career. As a matter of fact, my introduction to composition was taking a class at Northwestern and when I was about 24 years old. We had this assignment, which was to write a bad piece of music. The class was called “Adventures in Bad Music,” and it was just a three-week discussion class. It was over the summer. I wasn’t a student at Northwestern, it was just this little class. I was just interested in what this was all about.

I had never written any music at that point. And so, the final assignment was to write a bad piece of music and I literally thought, “Well this will be easy. I’ve never composed.” So, I tried to write the worst piece I possibly could. And one person, who I still remember, he raised his hand and he said, “Hey Jim, you failed the assignment. That was actually a pretty cool piece.”

Literally if I had not gotten that little bit of backwards compliment from that classmate, I wouldn’t be here talking to you, I don’t think, as a composer today. It was just that little push I needed. That’s when I started composing as a hobby and more for fun, and getting a little bit more serious at it.

Then people started asking me to write for them, and they started paying me to write for them and it’s like, “Whoa, people can actually make money doing this?” That’s just kind of when it started. And it became a true passion of mine that I never even knew it was possible.

I remember being a teenager and somebody asking me “Jimmy do you ever think about composing?” and I literally said, “No, that’s what dead people do.” It was the furthest thing from my mind being a trumpet player, that’s all I thought I ever wanted to do. Then, here I am now, two decades later and I’m writing music every day of my life. Who knows what can happen in a lifetime?

I really do like your comment there, “that’s for dead people.” I think that’s how a lot of people see it or feel about it. People think “Oh, it’s old and boring.” When looking at young people, both children and teenagers, or young adults who are going into college, how would you say that we can make it so it doesn’t seem like it’s this archaic, boring, art form? How can we show it for what it really is?

You know, that’s a really good question. I think social media is going to play a large role in that. I mean we can now show videos of living composers talking about their music or at a concert, or pictures, photos. Or, even us commenting and being in touch with performers directly, and younger people.

Myself, I love going to schools, whether it’s middle school, high school, colleges, whatever, and interacting with the people, because it just makes it so much more immediate. That, yes, we’re real people, and performers are real people, and we have this chance to actually chat with each other. I just drove down to Indiana University last night because they were playing music of mine, and I just had a chance to talk with the performers. I think those are steps in the right direction towards making this a more living reality.

Now, prior to you going to that class on that fateful day, what was your plan for life and your career path? What was it that you wanted to do with the rest of your life?

Oh, there was no doubt, I was going to be a trumpet player forever. I was going to move up from the orchestra I was currently in, and hopefully get a job in a bigger orchestra. Then, maybe someday my dream would have been to be in Chicago Symphony, because that’s where I’m from. I dreamed big. But, yeah, that was a no brainer. I had nothing else on my mind than being a trumpet player forever.

Do you think this change surprised yourself?

Totally. It was a hobby at first and I got more and more interested in it. The key moment was, when I was getting pretty busy as a composer and still trying to hold down my job as a trumpet player. My wife and I, we have four children, and they were all very young at the time. It was my wife who said, you know, “What would you think about moving back to Chicago and you can have a go at this composing thing, maybe do it full time? Maybe you don’t have to stay up until two in the morning writing music, and then doing a rehearsal the next morning.”

I joined the orchestra when I was 21, and I thought to myself, “Do I really want to say, when I’m 65, ‘Wow, I sat in an orchestra for 44 years? Or, might I want to try this new direction and just see what happens?” Just the excitement of trying something new and not knowing where it might lead. I knew what my life was at that point, playing in an orchestra. I knew what it was like to go to work every day and to play concerts.

You know, as exciting as the arts are, when you sit in an orchestra for almost 20 years, it does get to be a little bit routine. So, this new direction of just seeing where it could go, and maybe getting to travel and meet new people, it held a lot of interest for me, all of a sudden. People thought we were crazy for moving from Florida to Chicago. I never, for once, thought it was crazy, it was just exciting. It was this new territory.

What would you say is the most fulfilling part about being a composer in 2020?

For me, it is the people I get to work with. A lot of people will come up to me at a concert, where I’m having something premiered, and they’ll say, “Oh my gosh, you must be so excited to get to hear your music.” And, actually the truth is I’ve already heard the music, I wrote it, so I sort of know what to expect. So, the performance itself isn’t really the most exciting part.

I don’t mean to lessen it. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings by saying that. But, the exciting part for me is the phone calls with the people that I’m writing for. The emails or the threads of music that go through my head, and then the journey of writing the piece. When you hit upon those notes or those chords that you know, or just [feeling] “Yes, that’s what I was after. That’s going to be really special.” That is the exciting part. Then the performance, the premiere, those are about the icing on the cake. No doubt it’s the relationships that you build, and the friendships that you create, and the musical things that you never could have dreamed of, those are the most exciting parts.

What would you say are the skills or the attitudes that young adults need to have to have a successful full-time career in music in 2020? What would you say is a must-have, or you must-know for the modern world?

Well, certainly the skill cannot be overlooked, whether that’s the technique of your instrument or as a composer, or whatever you’re doing. There are no shortcuts. You can’t just put a couple of videos online and think that that’s going to make your career happen because at some point you’re going to have to back it up with skills and talent, all that stuff.

First and foremost, I would say that education is key, studying is key. Listening, just constantly being curious about your craft and what other people are doing. That’s one side of it. The other side I think, which is the harder part, is the vulnerability of all of it. The thick skin you’re going to need because it’s so easy to get sidetracked by a possible comment that might be negative.

There’s so much out there with social media, which wasn’t the case when I was just getting started. You really have to be ready for that bad review or that negative comment on just some simple Facebook post. Just put it aside and use it as fire to encourage you, to inspire you to just tackle the next project rather than getting down about it.

I mean, a lot of people think we just hole ourselves up in a practice room or in a composer’s studio and then release our art to the world. People these days are really more curious about the process. I think that is a habit that’s not easily built, but that’s something I’d recommend, is letting people into your life and showing them what you’re doing. But, at the same time really staying focused on your craft. Making sure you’re dedicating the time to hone your skills and constantly get better. That can’t be overlooked either.

What other misconceptions would you say there are about what you do, from both people in the music community and outside of the music community?

I mean, all of us composers are different so there’s not anything I can say that might be a misconception about me that would hold true for somebody else. You know, we are normal people who are walking the streets just like anybody else. I love sports just as much as the next guy. I can make a jump shot.

I mean I get up in the morning and I sit at my desk and I write music from eight in the morning until sometime in the afternoon. I’ll break and have coffee and lunch with my wife, and I’ll go back to work. Then the rest of the day is doing normal stuff like other people who have jobs. So yes, we do, on occasion, sit around and we’ll wait for the lightning to strike, and we wait for that perfect inspiration. But, most of the time it’s just going to work and doing our job just like anybody else would.

What you do, I think is very similar to people who strictly write lyrics. They work on a piece and then ultimately it ends up in someone else’s hands and they’re not the one performing it. So, for someone who’s not a musician, from that outside perspective, it seems like it’s that person’s song. But it’s not, it’s your song. Is it hard to kind of let go of that?

Well, it becomes our song. My piece and the performer’s piece. That’s how music is. That’s the beauty of it through the ages. I remember as a young trumpet player, I would hear somebody’s interpretation of a piece of music and I would say, “You know, I think you should go a different way.” I mean, that comes from my study of the composer or just wanting to put my own stamp on it. That’s the beauty of it. . .The composer and performers need each other desperately. I try to keep that in mind as much as possible.


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