Note-worthy Experiences Music Studio
F E A T U R E
Interview with Garrett Wallace
F E A T U R E
Interview with Garrett Wallace
First off, what is a multi-instrumentalist?
A multi-instrumentalist is someone who plays two or more instruments at a high level of proficiency! Most musicians I’ve met are multi-instrumentalists, being able to play any stringed instrument like guitar and bass; or play flute, clarinet, and saxophone for a jazz orchestra. They can introduce themselves easily as a “guitarist,” a “string player,” or a “woodwind doubler.” Since my instruments come from many different families, I’ve chosen to call myself a “multi-instrumentalist” because I’m just as comfortable on bass as I am singing classical art songs or playing woodwinds in a big band!
What is your musical journey?
I had just turned 4, and my older brother was taking piano lessons. Naturally, being the younger, I wanted to do everything he did, so I climbed up on the piano bench and started playing! I took piano lessons for the next 12 years, stopping to focus on my other instruments! I took a year of cello lessons in 2nd grade before deciding to study Viola in my elementary school’s orchestra program, then exchanged my viola for saxophone in the 5th grade, which was one of the hardest decisions I had ever made! In middle school I re-added the string family - this time picking up the electric bass to play and sing in my church’s youth group band - and this time I stuck with it! I also started taking voice lessons in Middle School - I had been active in church and community youth choirs since I was young, and wanted to dig deeper into repertoire and technique. Middle School also brought my switch from primarily playing Alto Sax to playing a lot more Tenor in Jazz and Concert band.
During high school, I started taking clarinet lessons occasionally from my saxophone teacher alongside teaching myself with some beginner books. I also started getting familiar with the upright bass and the other two common saxophones - soprano and baritone. I also acquired my accordion and taught myself some tunes! I had my first brush with conducting as a Drum Major for our high school competitive marching band, and started playing out more in the community. By the end of my Sophomore year, I was starting to realize that playing and teaching music was my calling. Some friends and I put together a jazz combo and played in coffee shops and restaurants occasionally. I also was a Saxophone sub for the South Dakota Jazz Orchestra and the Sioux Falls Municipal Band. Playing in the SDJO, I met Ken Hoyne who pointed me in the direction of Berklee College of Music. I did a summer workshop, auditioned, and made it in!
At Berklee, I declared saxophone as my primary instrument, and studied Music Education and Composition. Part of the coursework I was expected to do included taking lessons on instruments I would potentially have to teach as a band or orchestra director, so I studied flute, trumpet, and upright bass. I continued to take lessons on clarinet, saxophone, and voice, and still played piano almost every day. I also started to teach myself guitar and ukulele. Now, in addition to teaching for Note-worthy Studios and teaching high school band and middle school guitar for Lexington Public Schools, I play bass with two Boston-based groups - electric for my experimental rock group ROGOZO!, and upright/vocals for bluegrass/americana group The Splinters. I also am a freelance woodwind player, playing in pit orchestras and recording albums for bands like Billy Baldwin (https://billybaldwin.bandcamp.com/track/tv), or playing shows with groups like Department of Everything, Witchpanic, and Eli Roberts, and was a regular performer for all three seasons of Charles River Variety on WMBR.
When did you first start teaching music?
When I was in high school, I gave a few informal lessons to younger students in my district. Sometimes I’d be asked by my director, who played trumpet, to work with a middle school saxophonist who needed more specific direction on their instrument. While at Berklee, I started teaching at La Sociedad Latina, teaching voice, piano, and saxophone lessons. I also started taking some private students on clarinet, saxophone, piano, and even ukulele! After I graduated, I taught lessons and adult classes with Lexington Community Education, and as a freelance instructor.
Who were some of your most inspiring teachers?
I think one of the most inspiring teachers I’ve ever had was Dr. Mario Chiarello, who teaches Orchestra and Music Theory in my hometown of Sioux Falls, SD. Mario is also the principal bassist in the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, and inspired me to pick up the upright bass! Dr. Chiarello is the reason I wanted to teach music. I hope to impact the lives of my students the same way he impacted mine.
I studied with a lot of saxophone and clarinet teachers at Berklee, but the one who really spoke to me was Harry Skoler. He helped guide me as a multi-instrumentalist, showing me how to extract the universal concepts out of any lesson, and apply them to every single instrument I play. Harry taught me how to find the words to express complex and almost indescribable concepts without being too verbose - a direct reflection on how he approaches music. Some of my favorite memories of Berklee are the lessons where we would play together, taking a recording in case anything spectacular happened (https://soundcloud.com/user-919723855/its-easy-to-remember-garrett-wallace-and-harry-skoler).
Lastly, Panos Liaropolous helped me find my voice as a composer, taught me to ignore what everyone else was doing and to channel my own thoughts onto the page. In my final semester, I sat down with him and thanked him for giving me my voice, and he told me “I didn’t give you your voice. I saw it inside you and helped you draw it out yourself. Many teachers try to ascribe their own way of thinking or writing onto a student, but what benefits the student the best is if you see the potential in them and give them the tools to rise to it.” I have carried those words with me, and strive to cultivate the voice in each of my students.
What is your favorite genre or music to play? To listen to?
This is maybe the cruelest question you could ask me! I love playing bluegrass, I grew up listening to it with my grandpa and have a very strong association of fond childhood memories with the music. I learn bluegrass fiddle tunes on every instrument that I play. I also really enjoy playing woodwinds in classical/contemporary ensembles; blending my tone to suit the written parts and support the other musicians fills me with an uplifting sense of camaraderie and human connection. I honestly thoroughly enjoy every type of music that I choose to play - it is impossible to pick just one favorite!
As for listening, I’ll listen to just about anything! I have a soft spot for the composers of the Minimalist movement like Philip Glass and John Adams, and love the humor in John Cage’s works. When I drive to work I like to put on metal, punk rock, or jazz, depending on my mood. Lately I’ve been fascinated with the Spectralist composers like Grisey, Lehman, and Xenakis (who wasn’t really a spectralist, but paved the way for the style!). I love getting new recommendations of things to listen to, and try to push myself into styles I’m less familiar with.
How often did you practice when you were a kid and how have your practices changed since you became a professional?
When I was little, I remember practicing around 15-30 minutes a day. As I grew older and added more instruments, that time grew! During high school, I had very limited time to split between practice, extracurriculars, and homework, but still managed to find about 30-45 minutes a day. During college, I was able to get in close to an hour a day on saxophone, and 2 hours divided on my other instruments.
Now I have a lot less time, but find time to maximize my practice. When I drive home in the afternoons I am almost always either singing and working on my breathing prep, or I try to keep a mouthpiece and reed in the cupholder to do mouthpiece exercises, so when I sit down with my instrument I’m warmed up and don’t have to waste any time! Each room of my house has a different stringed instrument mounted on the wall, so when I have 10 minutes here and there I can take it down and shed a little on whatever tune I’m working on. I keep a flute on my desk at work, and take it out when I have a free block and am all caught up on my score preparation! I also have a lot of scheduled rehearsals during the week, but I don’t like to count that time as practice. In our busy lives, it is important to find those little moments where we can at least audiate!
What was your most memorable musical performance?
When I was a junior in high school, I went on a summer music trip in Europe with a group called “The Midwest Music Ambassadors.” We visited 7 countries over 16 days and performed in churches and outdoor venues with a band of about 100 and a choir of close to 120! I auditioned and was selected to be the soloist for the choir, and sang in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It was incredibly humbling being inside the basilica filled with locals and tourists who decided to come hear us perform. When we closed our performance with “Ave Maria,” I remember looking around at the entire room - performers and audience alike - weeping at the beauty and significance of the moment.
What do you like most about teaching young musicians?
Young musicians, whether young in age or ability, approach things with such diverse and individual outlooks. It forces me to slow down and examine everything I thought I knew about fundamentals and basics of the instrument, and makes me grow as a musician myself! Seeing the excitement in the eyes of a student who has taken their first steps to mastering a difficult concept continually reignites my drive and passion for teaching! Fresh outlooks and new questions keep my brain curious, and I would hate to live any other way.
What is your best advice to students who want to learn a new instrument or improve their playing?
There is a great Bill Murray movie called “What About Bob?”, where Murray plays a patient of a psychologist who tells him that, in order to overcome any obstacle in life, all you need to do is to break things down into baby steps and take them one at a time. If you take the time to analyze each task and break it down into smaller chunks that you can work with, you’ll find success and growth every time you practice! I also am a very firm believer in a growth mindset. If you tell yourself that you can’t do something, you simply won’t be able to do it. If you tell yourself you can’t do it yet, your mindset will allow you to explore possibilities and options that you would otherwise be closed off to.
When you’re not performing or teaching, what other hobbies or interests do you have?
I feel so lucky to have music as one of my hobbies. I try to go to bluegrass jam sessions when I don’t have rehearsals, and often get together with friends to write new music or just to jam on some old tunes. At home I love to read - just started going through “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century” by Alex Ross for the second time. Two of my favorite authors are Oliver Sacks and David Sedaris. I listen to NPR and especially love “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” and am a huge Star Wars nerd. I like to play video games and paint, compose music and write songs, and my current pet project is restoring an approximately 1oo year old steel-frame piano!
To learn more about Garrett, please visit his Teacher Page.