The Creative Storm - Busch Gardens Williamsburg


When I was a young composer, I had one goal firmly in mind: I wanted to be able to notate or transcribe any musical idea that popped into my brain and turn it into an original piece of music that would be inspiring, fun to play and even more fun to hear. That seemed like such a daunting task but I practiced that skill for 10,000 hours - from 1977 until 1986 and finally, after hundreds of scores, millions of notes and more than a few failures I could do it and I remember the day it happened. 

There was a hurricane headed to Virginia; discretion being the better part of valor (to quote my Dad) we decided that my wife Rita and our two young kids should head inland, home to Oak Ridge Tennessee and that I should stay to ride it out come what may. Now we were inland from the coast, so this was not a foolhardy decision; rather it was a practical choice since it was likely that the power would go off (and in the country that means water as well) and it seemed silly for the kids to have to endure the inconvenience. I also stayed because...well I was on a deadline. Composers and every other creative type in the theme park business are always on a deadline. 

As the clouds rolled in and the wind picked up, the "kids", including the remarkably calm and competent (but very young) Rita headed South to safety. I battened what hatches I could, checked the beer supply (Busch Gardens was of course still owned by Anheuser-Busch at that point - no point in facing a crisis without sustenance - after all part of the reason the Pilgrims stopped at Plymouth was that they were low on beer) - and settled in for the night.

How fortunate I was that my colleague, fellow trumpeter and producer Sean Murray, he of indomitable spirit and great faith arrived to stand watch with me through the storm. And what a night it was. The power was out before we could place a bet on the hour of its demise; the walls shuddered and it rained so hard that streams of water regularly blew through the sliding glass door in the living room and trickled past our feet. We had a kerosene lantern, food and drink, a radio and enough good humor and confidence to stay the course. My aforementioned father, also a brass player and WWII Naval hero would have called it: "Eloquent sufficiency" to see us through the night. 

We slept not a wink but went straight to our work (sorry Clement Clarke Moore) as the winds peaked and the trees groaned and snapped . We wrote some shows, solved world problems, told a few stories and in general laughed at our circumstance until finally, the wind abated for the second time (the first was merely the passing of the eye - an intermission as it were) and a glint of red sun dared to twinkle through the (now) bare branches left behind by the storm.

As the sun rose on a stunning morning, Sean headed to the park and I retired to my studio; I opened the window and breathed in an absolutely crystal clear Autumn day. The neighborhood was a wreck but intact; there was debris as far as I could see but we were all safe. I sat down to work - didn't need any power  to be a composer in those days, just a pencil and paper and off I went.

I was in the middle of the longest production number I had ever written; a new dance arrangement of Offenbach's "Can-Can" for a stage show at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. I had been working on it for weeks; 100's of thousands of notes, each written in #2 pencil on manilla "Alpheus" score paper as quickly as my brain and hands could muster. This arrangement was, as they say, a piece of work. A bear; a monstrosity that had kept me awake night after night but on this morning, fresh from the events of the storm, my head clear as the crisp Autumn air the notes flew from my brain to the page as if I'd had some kind of epiphany. If the storm had cleared the air, rarified the atmosphere and streamlined the foliage it had also, apparently focused my thinking, stripped away the clutter and somehow wired my brain to a #2 pencil in a way I'd never experienced. Uncanny. Suddenly whatever I could conjure in my heart and soul effortlessly translated to the written page. I still have that score and I marvel that there are almost no eraser marks; no "do-overs", no second thoughts.

There are some lessons to be learned from this: If you want to do something well you have to practice, sometimes for a long time - 10,000 hours or 10 years whichever comes first. Make a habit of investing in good friends who will see you through tough times, ride out the storm and make you laugh; remember to mark the milestones you achieve - I will always remember this moment in time for its excitement, the good friend who saw me through and my personal moment of arrival, after hard work and many years, as a composer. 

Is this a great business, or what?