Meet Robert, Music Director
Robert Sheldon is currently a Concert Band Editor for Alfred Publishing Co., Inc, a music publishing company based in California. Throughout this career, Mr. Sheldon has also attained great success as a composer, and is even recognized as one of the most performed composers of wind band music today. He has been asked to guest-conduct performances of his own compositions on the world’s most prestigious platforms, such as New York’s Carnegie Hall. Nevertheless, Mr. Sheldon claims his ‘first love’ in terms of his professional life, has always been to teach! He has enjoyed an illustrious, 28 years of working as a music educator at various levels of the education system, ranging from elementary school to college. His love for music and people has led him to receive multiple awards from the American School Band Director’s Association. Today, Mr. Sheldon is often invited to share his superior teaching skills with young aspiring musicians at music camps and clinics held all around the world.
How have you composed a successful and fulfilling career?
I first started by performing a lot in high school, which eventually led to experience with professional playing. Once I graduated, I decided I wanted to go to the University of Miami, because I knew there would be many opportunities for me to play professionally while attending school. This was especially important to me as a way of putting myself through school.
Also, at that time I was really keen on a lot of different areas of music: Jazz, performance, and of course, I also loved to teach! So although I was writing music at the time because of specific composition teachers I wanted to study under, I eventually decided to go in the direction of music education. Once I graduated, I got a job teaching high school band orchestra for four years before I went back to school at the University of Florida for my Masters in Conducting. After this, I actually stayed at the University of Florida where I continued to teach for three more years and even had a fun experience of working with the national public radio, affiliated with the University of Florida, where I led a classical music program.
After this, I worked at a high school near my hometown for six years, teaching band and orchestra while continuing to write music. My music writing career really started to take off at this time, which led to a series of guest conducting opportunities. So, although I was incredibly busy during this part of my life. I was having my school life; teaching all day, then coming home and writing at night and on weekends, then traveling on weekends to conduct different groups... it really was a very happy and fun part of my professional life!
Then I got a job offer at Florida State University, where I taught conducting, composition, arranging, and music education classes in addition to leading The Marching Chiefs, which is FSU’s 450 piece marching band. This was an unusual and amazing experience- lots of fun and lots of work! At this point in my career, I decided I wanted to focus more on my writing. So, I left that job and moved to Illinois, where I took leadership of another high school band, but this time the responsibilities of the job still allowed me to dedicate more time to composing. I did this for the next 12 years, and enjoyed a balance of all my musical passions. As my guest conducting schedule got very busy, I received lots of commissions for writing, and I really had a good time with my teaching.
Then in 2003, one of my publishers invited me to take a job as editor with the publishing company he worked for. So, after 28 years of teaching in various places, I retired and took my current job with Alfred Music in California. I live in Illinois however, and get to work remotely. This job has offered me even more opportunities for writing and conducting, because I can structure my time differently, and with more flexibility. And still I’m out conducting music clinics for teachers about 40-45 times a year, sometimes for just a day, sometimes for a week. I just finished doing a 10 day music festival in Japan, and in May I spent three weeks in China conducting various groups in a number of cities in China. Next week I’m headed to Germany to do a music camp for a week. Most frequently however, I teach in the US and Canada.
I like what I’m doing so much- working from home as the writer, editor, and director of a concert band catalogue, with wonderful colleagues- I don’t want anything to change necessarily. I will continue as long as it’s fun, and right now it’s a lot of fun!
What would you say has been the ‘high note’ of your career?
Haha, I think as a teacher, your proudest achievements are really the ones of your students, not really your own. And there were many. They happened all the time! But I would say, the proudest moments were usually the ones that no one saw. For example, one time in rehearsal, all the light bulbs fused, and there was a kind of transcendental moment when everybody just kept playing to keep the music alive. Sometimes they would occur in public during a performance, you know, you would have an amazing performance and that kind of thing. But generally, they were those moments in rehearsal when you’d finish something successfully and it would just be an amazing feeling, and it would just carry you through the rest of the day.
What advice do you have for someone considering a formal education in music?
I’ve taught music at various levels, and often I will hear students say ‘I want to be a ---’ whether its a performer or composer. That’s a great goal to have, but I would always advise them to get a music education degree. A lot of times they will say “well I don’t wanna teach.” But the thing is if you’re going to be a performer or composer, and if you’re going to do it with any kind of success, then you’re probably, at some point of your career, going to be part of a college faculty, where you’re expected to teach what you know. So, to those people who don’t want to be a teacher: the very best conductors, performers, and composers all taught at one point. And the music education degree at least enables you to be able to do something: teach. A degree in performance, or composition, or conducting- you may get some real training, but it doesn’t actually license you to anything more than before you went to school! The thing that furthers your career more than anything in that regard, is the contacts that you make- that’s valuable.
I’m not saying dreams aren’t important, but I think it is a dangerous thing to say ‘I’m going to have a career as a music composer.’ It’s difficult to say ‘yes, I’m going to be a composer and so I’m gonna train for that’... and assume it’s going to be possible. Because no matter how much you write, it’s very possible nobody is going to buy anything you write. And even though your music may be very good, it doesn’t mean anyone is going to buy it; that has nothing to do with quality necessarily, it has to do with the attractiveness to whoever the audience is. In some cases, artists don’t necessarily produce things that are most acceptable (that’s part of art, is being a bit edgy at times). There are lots of things I’ve written that will never get published, and that’s ok with me. But as a result, I’ve never looked upon composition as being my main focus. It is not something I have ever counted on. But just like any other performance art, you may not need any training to be fantastic, and conversely no matter how much training you receive, you may still not succeed at it. I do it more for enjoyment than anything, but I’ve been very fortunate in that it has been rewarded in all kinds of ways.
We have to ask... how many instruments can you play?
Well, I started on the violin, but I was really, really bad at it. I was much better, however, on the piano. So I played that a lot when I was younger. Then I took up the trombone in junior high. My parents were actually Vaudeville performers in New York City at that time, and when we moved to Florida they opened up their own restaurant and music club. So, when I got a little older they asked me to join the house band, but not to play trombone- they wanted me to play the clarinet and saxophone. So, I got a clarinet and sax, and learned to play. I also needed a flute sometimes as a woodwind player, so I got one and learned to play. Then in high school I was intrigued by the bassoon and picked that up, as well as the trumpet.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I was singing in choir as a baritone, I played flute in orchestra, trombone in the wind ensemble, clarinet in the symphonic band, oboe in the concert band, trumpet in the marching band, and tenor sax in jazz band.
Then I went to college on an oboe scholarship, so I was an oboe major in college. I really enjoyed all of these instruments and have kept up with them. This was especially helpful as a music teacher, since I could just pick up any of these instruments and demonstrate it. It also really helps with my writing, because I knew very well what is comfortable under a musician’s fingers, what could be performed smoothly. If I could get the same sound effect but make it easier to play, I would do it. As I taught high school in my later years, especially as I always taught orchestra, I loved playing cello, so I would sit with the kids and play cello or string bass, although I was not very good. It’s fun, and I encourage kids to try out as many instruments as they can!
What influenced you to try your hand at composing music, in addition to teaching it?
Well, I’ve always written music, ever since I was in high school, and it was just something I wanted to be good at. However, it is very difficult to break into the publishing world. You typically just send music off to publisher after publisher, and you get rejection after rejection. So, it can be very disheartening, but at one point early on in my career (when I was fresh out of college), I won an award in a national composition contest, and part of my award was publication of the piece I had composed. And I remember thinking ah! I finally made it.
But it really didn’t work out that way, because the piece that won the award was incredibly difficult to play, and I wasn’t experienced enough to realize at that point that very few people were going to be able to play it. So, it wasn’t really a successful start, but it was good affirmation to have the award. I learned from the experience, and the cash was of course really nice too.
So, that was a great experience, but it wasn’t really a particularly good way to launch a composition career. The way I got my first successful publication was during my Masters degree in Conducting. I was taking lessons in composition from a very smart teacher who was very common-sensical, and he got me to rethink the way I wrote music; to make it more “playable.” He had me do a project that he was pleased with, and he was the one who got me a connection to get the piece published. The piece ended up selling an enormous number of copies, and that publisher immediately wanted more music from me.
That’s when I understood: I could still be true to myself, my artistic vision, and be proud of the music I’m writing, but write it in a way that people can play it so I actually get published. Over time, I’ve been able to expand in both directions: leveling up a bit to produce college-level works and also leveling down a bit to cater to the middle school level. That’s really what it took for me; being able to understand what people wanted to play, and being able to provide that for them, while still finding a way to present my own musical message to people. It was very satisfying.
That’s how that got started, then shortly after that I started being asked to compose pieces. And that’s when the commissioning began, probable not long after that first piece got published actually. At first I would get a commission every year, and then that steadily increased to about 13 a year, at which point I found it to be a bit too much and started to back off. I’ve found I’m most happy when writing 8-10 pieces a year. But, commission-wise I try to keep it to about 3-4 pieces a year, and the rest are at my own pace. But I love doing it, and I’m still amazed that people want me to write music for them! Often I’m also asked to go and conduct the first performance of the piece I was commissioned to write for a group. Sometimes they are professional groups, sometimes they are adult community bands, college bands, high school bands, sometimes even elementary school bands! And it’s just a very interesting experience, working with people who know this is their piece and it’s the first time it’s ever going to be performed. It’s a real special event!
How do you find your inspiration to create pieces from scratch?
The process really differs with each piece. For the ones that are commissioned, I generally try to get the inspiration from my client, and understand what kind of piece they are looking for. My inspiration may be linked to where my client is located: I try to find something related to that, like local history, lore, legends, and/or places. I travel a lot, which is very inspirational.I’m also inspired by art, other music, poetry… a variety of things. Last summer, for example, I was sailing off the coast of Northern Africa, and I experienced this incredible feeling of Sirocco winds, coming off the Sahara, and it was just felt amazing to be floating off the coast of Libya and getting hit with these incredibly hot, almost mystical winds, which were the perfect inspiration for me to write my piece ‘The Oracles of the Sirocco,’ which is being published this year. Sometimes it’s not anything like that at all, it’ll be just a particular sound, color, rhythm or idea, and you just play off of that. The specific process, for me, is to come up with a specific idea, which might be a melody, rhythm, or sound of some kind. Then I come up with a roadmap of how I’m going to go from that base, to getting my message out there. So, I approach it as if I’m taking a trip, going to visit something. I ask myself… why am I going? Why am I writing this piece? What do I intend to see? What are the themes of the piece?. Who am I taking with me? What instruments am I writing for? How long am I going to stay? What is the duration of the piece? What kind of a trip is it (am I hiking the Himalayas or laying on the beach)? Is it a really challenging trip or is it easy? What is the difficulty level of the music I’m going to write? And at the end of the trip am I going to stay there or am I coming back? How will the piece end?
Writing music is a very ethereal experience for me, in a way. I get caught up in it while I’m doing it, and when I’m in the middle of writing something, it’s all I can think about. Even when I’m sleeping! I wake up and it’s the first thing on my mind, I can’t wait to get to it… it’s all-consuming. I absolutely love writing music, but what I hate about it is having a deadline (but the deadlines are what make me finish the piece). I’m not sure how successful I would be without a deadline, and when I haven’t started the piece yet and I’m looking at a deadline, that’s when I start to feel the pressure, and that’s never good. I never want to feel like I have to write, I always want to feel like I get to write.
Do you ever have to deal with writer’s block?
Oh absolutely, yes! I’ve learned that when I have writer’s block, I need to get away from the piece for a bit. It could be as easy as just going for a walk. It could be just leaving it for a day and coming back to it. But I’ve found that when I have a serious writer’s block, which fortunately doesn’t happen often, I say ‘ok let’s not work on this project,’ instead I’m just going to play with the music and some ideas. ‘I’m not writing anything right now,’ I tell myself, ‘I’m just gonna have some fun.’ And then, I forget about the pressure of the piece, and whatever musical corner I’ve painted myself into at that point, and within about 35-40 minutes I have usually found a great idea to use in the piece, and then the writer’s block is broken.
What are the main qualities and skills someone should have if they hope to succeed as a music educator?
I think you need to be really organized and driven, like a Type-A personality. You also need to be a really good musician and have a great ear, with top-notch people skills too (knowing how to talk to people, how to engage them). It’s also important to have an incredible wealth of teaching tools. You might refer to it as a ‘bag of tricks,’ and that’s one of the reasons why you should go to conferences all the time; to learn more tricks you can put in your bag. A learning technique that has always been very successful may work for Student A, but not Student B; that’s when you need to dig into your bag of tricks and find something else to try. So, you always need to be expanding your knowledge base to include as many different professionals as possible.
You also need a lot of self-confidence as a music teacher, because you’re constantly putting yourself out there in a risky situation. If you’re a math teacher or english teacher and you give a test which the whole class does poorly on, nobody really knows about it except the kids who took the test. But when you’re a music teacher, your test is a performance, and if those kids fail it, the whole audience will know. So, you’re essentially putting your reputation as a professional in the hands of adolescents. And so, you have to have a good focus and confidence to be able to take lumps and learn this way.
For our finale, do you have any last words of advice for readers who want to pursue a career as a music teacher?
Oh my gosh! It is the best! It. Is. The. Best! Sometimes I’ll be talking to a band director and it will just hit me… how lucky are we, to get to spend our lives being surrounded by all these awesome kids, who are high-energy and just want to do their best for you? We’re surrounded by this beautiful music, and we get to decide how we’re going to teach.
Lastly, I would say if you really love music and you really love people, having an opportunity to teach people through music has to be one of the greatest joys you could have. And to be able to surround yourself with wonderful people and music... I can’t imagine a better way to spend your life.
Thank you so much, Mr. Sheldon, for taking the time to share such sincere advice and for motivating the aspiring musicians of the Gladeo network. To read more about Mr. Sheldon’s illustrious career check out his website (http://robertsheldonmusic.com/), and we highly recommend listening to some of his pieces on YouTube!