Teaching, Learning, and Creating: an Interview with Christopher Carlone
The following is a conversation with my friend Christopher Carlone.
Christopher Carlone is the Director of Instrumental Music at The Sherman School in Sherman, Connecticut; and a prolific composer, sound designer, and audio engineer for media. Chris has composed music for comedic YouTube channels such as Domics and The Angry Video Game Nerd. For a full overview of his work, visit ChristopherCarlone.com.
In this interview Chris discusses his background, creative process, and some important advice for people entering creative fields.
Ben: You have a lot of variety in your musical background. How did you come to be doing the work you're doing as a teacher and composer?
Chris: Growing up, I loved performing music, and I especially loved marching. I wanted to start a marching band. In addition to that, over time I learned how varied the musical world can be, and I loved that.
In high school and college, I took any opportunity I could to expand my knowledge and understanding. At the SYMS summer camp, I learned upright bass while working as a counselor for the kids; I played the flute, so I joined a jazz combo as a flutist; I started teaching all the brass instruments; I participated in a drum line; and so on. Basically, I wanted to be a musical jack of all trades.
That desire helped me when I was in graduate school, where I got into composing music for media. I found a community of composers: you, David Orr, and Jeff Heim. You guys wrote music for games I used to play in math class, and videos I watched on Newgrounds. It made that world seem attainable and accessible to me. That first year of graduate school felt like a new chapter.
I began by making low brass arrangements, because that was what I was most comfortable with. Then I just started sending my music to as many people as I could, looking for potential collaborators and clients. I sent something like fifty emails a day for about a month straight. I thought, "This music might not be good yet, but I'm going to get good at this."
It paid off. I built a lot of good connections between 2014 and 2016. I haven't had to send an email like that in several years.
After grad school, I became a music teacher. I'm the Director of Instrumental Music at The Sherman School in Connecticut. During the day, I teach kids in fourth through eighth grade. Then I come home and teach private lessons. And then I go into the studio in the evening, where I compose music for media.
Ben: Awesome. I admire your work ethic.
You do have a lot of different interests and skills. But it feels like you're always looking for the same thing: community. I get that from your love of marching band; classroom education; and even low brass instruments, which often play supporting roles in large ensembles. You like being part of a team.
Ben: Where did your enthusiasm for music come from?
Chris: I started piano lessons at a young age. I had a fantastic elementary band teacher: Mr. Fitzgerald. I still work with him. We run a music camp together. Thousands of people have gone through Mr. Fitzgerald's program. Whether or not they continue playing afterwards, they come out of that with a respect for music.
Now, when I was a fifth grader, I desperately wanted to quit band. I begged my mother, saying, "I'm the worst one;" "I don't sound good;" "I'm the only boy playing flute, and I'm getting teased."
My mom said no. But she offered to pay for a private lesson with a more experienced student, a high schooler. At that lesson, this older student played my flute, and set it down. He said, "No wonder you're having problems. Man, your flute is broken. You just need to get this thing repaired."
So I got my flute fixed. After some more one-on-one help, everything started to click. I got to middle school band and started thinking, alright. Maybe I'm not that bad. I got into it. I started playing piccolo. I started messing around with other instruments.
Then I got to high school, and it was just game over. We had a great marching program, which I absolutely loved. We had a great music director. I took every music class I could. I had some great buddies during that time who I still keep in touch with. Some of them became music teachers, too.
I wanted to give that experience to other kids. I figured I'd become a high school band teacher. But now I'm teaching fourth through eighth grade and I wouldn't give it up for anything. I get to watch my kids go from Hot Cross Buns to a Grade 3 Samuel Hazo piece.
There were twenty-two kids in that program when I came in. Now, there are a hundred and eighteen. There are only about a hundred and fifty kids in fourth through eighth grade at Sherman, so band is something that a high percentage of the kids do. I made it a normal, commonplace thing at the school. I went from classroom to classroom playing Star Wars on the trombone; we did instrument petting zoos for the young kids; we started going on competitions and trips (and started winning things); we started doing separate jazz shows; and so on.
Actually, this comes back to what you said about community. We've formed a musical community here. I think that is so important. Music is a social activity. Yes, it can be solitary--you can play or enjoy music by yourself--but for a lot of people it's meant to be a way of sharing your creativity.
Ben: I'm sure your programs help a lot of kids share their creativity. That growth is impressive. Your students must enjoy playing in these groups.
Chris: Band is a privilege. I teach my students that if they want to be good at something it takes work. They have to take personal responsibility. I am tough on them. I am not there to be their friend. That level of challenge is partly why honors kids in particular stick with it.
Ben: What are your private lessons like?
Chris: I teach pretty much every instrument except violin, cello, and viola. Lessons are half an hour. I do "band belts" for young kids. They go through the Essential Elements beginner band book, and when they hit certain milestones and correctly answer certain questions they earn band belts. These are pieces of colored string. We do a ceremony where we bow to each other. I throw the string at them, and they tie it onto their instrument and show it off to their friends. And while they're blasting through eight or nine songs in a lesson, they're learning dynamics, articulations, phrasing...but they don't even really notice that. They just want those belts.
Ben: You've turned it into a game.
Chris: Yes. Then when they're in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, those game-like elements start to fade. At that point what they really want is to be playing serious music with the older kids.
I've had a lot of success telling kids how talented they are. When one of my kids is playing a challenging arrangement, I will tell them, "Listen, what you just did was not typical. That was very impressive." And they love this. Those are the kids who run to class. Those kids put their instruments together faster than I could so they can start playing. Because they know they're good, and it's fun to be good at something. And I'm trying to create an environment where everyone feels--and actually is--good at what they're doing. That's very hard. You have to build up the program.
Ben: That's a deep point. When you think you're good, it removes some of the anxiety around failure. It boosts your confidence. You enter the room thinking, "Alright, I already know I'm awesome. C scale? Not a problem for someone like me."
Chris: I'm trying to foster confidence. Take my low brass students, for instance. They play with a loud, very spread-out sound. Other teachers might say, "Don't blast so much. Let's think about tone quality." Not me. My feeling is we can always rein it in later. Right now, I want them to lead, not wait for someone else to play first. I want them to play with strength and passion. And then yes, over time they will learn to nuance that sound.
Ben: What ages do you teach in your private lessons?
Chris: It's a wide range. There's a lot of fourth through eighth grade, obviously, but adults as well. I retain some students who go off to high school. I have some older students too.
Ben: How does the student's age affect how you teach?
Chris: Younger students soak up information very quickly. Older students need a lot of repetition.
It's similar to teaching a language. If a ten-year-old moves to another country, he or she can generally just pick up the language. If I moved to another country right now and learned the language, I'd always have an accent. Music is like that. If you're just starting music at fifty years old, you're going to need more repetitions and reminders. I mean many more, maybe fifty times more. I know that sounds like a lot, but I think something like that is true. You can tell a kid a fingering once or twice and they'll just remember it. That's not the case with adults. They have to work much harder. I think that's why musical literacy is so valuable at an earlier age.
Ben: Let's talk about your time management. Teaching takes a lot of time and energy. During the academic year, I think most classroom teachers probably focus on their day job to the exclusion of other interests. But you don't seem to operate that way. You take on a bunch of stuff at once. You teach band during the day, private lessons in the evenings, and then at night you find the energy to compose too.
Chris: That's true! Somehow I haven't burned out (yet).
It can be tricky. I sometimes think about my teaching, "I'm not constantly taking every PD (professional development) opportunity, going to every conference, etc. so maybe I'm not as good a teacher as those other people."
That's Imposter Syndrome. I think many people in creative fields can relate to that feeling. But you can't do everything. I have a job writing music for a game company, which means I can't take as many gigs; there's the private lessons schedule to think about; and so on.
When I began my career I was very hard on myself about that. Then COVID hit, and I had more time to reflect. I made a conscious decision to prioritize variety in my life, and accept the balancing act as a consequence. To make it all work I have to be organized.
That was probably the best thing I got from my college teacher Nic Orovich, at the University of New Hampshire. Nic really helped me adopt a type-A personality. Before that I never used to set alarms, take notes in classes, or study for tests. Nic made sure I got organized and took my obligations seriously.
Ben: I remember that about Nic. I used to accompany his students sometimes. In lessons, he was very down to business. There was no small talk. He would just start the lesson and look at you with this expression, like, "Well? Did you prepare, or not?"
Chris: Hey, you know what? A lot of life is like that.
Ben: Where does your creative energy come from?
Chris: It comes from getting obsessed with things. Getting obsessed motivates me to be creative and branch out into new experiences.
Here's an example: When I was in grad school, there was a period when I started gaining some weight. It made me sad. Then I got into the show Avatar: The Last Airbender. I became interested in martial arts through watching that show. It just seemed cool. I started taking adult taekwondo classes in Amherst. I became obsessed. Ever since then, martial arts has been an important part of my life. I go every Monday and Wednesday. I'm working on my secondary black belt. It's so built into my routine now that it's hard to imagine life without it.
Another example: A few years ago, I wrote a book about a family of Vikings. I just got it into my head that I wanted to tell this story. I took a summer to write it. For about two months there, I don't think I even went outside. It wasn't really healthy, but it was productive. In sixty days I wrote four hundred pages.
It can be hard to be creative when I'm not obsessed like that. That said, I have found some ways of tricking my brain into that state. Sometimes when I'm not in love with a project I can remind myself how much I love the activity itself. That will get me through it.
The thing is, if you're not really into your work, maybe you should consider doing something else. That's another lesson I learned from Nic Orovich: be honest with people. Level with them. I always respected that about Nic. If you were a college sophomore and you weren't practicing, or you didn't seem enthusiastic, or you weren't learning new music, he'd talk with you about that. He would say, "Listen, you're spending a lot of money to be here. Are you wasting it? Should you be doing something else with your life?" A lot of people would say that's harsh. I don't think so. It's a wake up call that a lot of us need. I think that was caring for him to say that.
Ben: I agree. Think about the alternative...would you wave somebody on as they went down the road the wrong way? Smiling and waving, like, "You're doing great! Don't worry about a thing." That's actually cowardly. It's avoiding conflict at the expense of the other person.
Chris: Right. I think to succeed you need to be in a place mentally where discouragement doesn't stifle you.
A while back, a friend of mine mentioned he was leaving his full-time audio production job in Las Vegas. I applied for the position. In the end, it came down to me and another person, and the other person got it. Rather than being bummed out about that--rather than feeling defeated and letting that Imposter Syndrome kick in--I was extremely excited by this whole experience. Here's why:
In my six years of higher education, I never took a composition class. I basically learned that stuff from talking with you guys in grad school, and by doing research on the Internet. I feel that to be even considered for a full time position like that, to the point where I'm one of only a couple people, was an incredible accomplishment. I came away from it with a huge amount of creative motivation.
Ben: That's an amazing story. That gratitude is really the antithesis of Imposter Syndrome. Where did that positive attitude come from?
Chris: I had teachers who told me it's hard make a living in music. People might value your art but they won't want to pay for it; music teachers often aren't compensated fairly for their time; and so on. While I think a lot of that is true, it feels so good to prove it wrong. If I make a thousand dollars composing, to me that thousand dollars is worth ten thousand. I think, wow. I made that much money doing something it's hard to make money at. And it's something I love. That makes it real.
Between a steady composing gig, running these educational programs, and teaching private lessons, I have a good income. And that feels good. It's the opposite of dirty money. Every time I get a paycheck, that money has meaning. Every dollar attached to a lesson comes from teaching a kid how to slur, how to improvise, how to get that high register on the clarinet.
When you're an educator, you go to bed and you never feel like you wasted the day. That doesn't mean it felt good in the moment, though. Sometimes kids thrive on boundaries and rules. Sometimes they don't do the right thing, and they need someone who cares about them to tell them that so they can grow as people. So there are nights when you go to bed feeling guilty, because you were not the cool fun teacher that day. But you still made a difference.
Ben: I think that's a beautiful note to end on. Thanks, Chris.
Chris: Thank you.
Christopher Carlone is the Director of Instrumental Music at The Sherman School in Sherman Connecticut; and a prolific composer, sound designer, and audio engineer for media. For a full overview of his work, visit ChristopherCarlone.com.