By all rights I should have never been a musician, let alone a composer. As an angst-ridden 16 year-old, I picked up my mother's guitar and spent months trying to learn how to strum out a few chords and sing sad pop songs. Then she showed me the fingerstyle playing of Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham and for some naïve reason, it had never occurred to me that you could play a guitar in any other way than just with a pick. My mind was blown and I became a total devotee; one of those musical teenagers parents hope they don't get—up late at night playing in my basement room. “No electric guitar after 9pm, Josh.”
Then, as a senior in high school I got hoodwinked into joining choir by someone who had heard me casually singing and playing guitar. I wasn't good or anything, just tenacious. But once again I entered into a musical environment I had never experienced before and, from the first rehearsal, was awestruck at what I was experiencing. I had never thought about choral singing before that first day and I was regularly moved to tears in rehearsals. That same year a high school friend who was a year older than me invited me to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa to see an acoustic show by Dave Matthews. My pragmatic Midwestern parents would only let me go on one condition: that I go on a campus tour and take a scholarship audition with the music department. Other than Dave Matthews' Live at Luther College, I had never heard of the music program there but I fell in love with the campus and the Norwegian culture of the small town it was located in and decided to attend.
During the first few months I was at Luther there was a composition recital being put on by one of the graduating seniors. There was a recital requirement for all first-year music majors and I had never seen a composition recital before so I decided it would be a good idea to go. Again, for some naïve reason it had never occurred to me that music could be written by someone so close to my own age. I was flabbergasted by what I saw and heard. During intermission I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I turned to see who it was, I came face to face with the great Weston Noble. He was a celebrity around campus—and, frankly, many other choral scenes around the world—and I was starstruck. He said,“Hello, young man. What do you want to do with your life?” I was still fascinated by what was going on in the composition recital so I said, “I think I'd like to try this. Writing music.” And he said, “Well, then that's what you should be doing.” A few weeks later, at almost 19 years old—which is incredibly late for many composers—I put musical pen to paper for the first time and never looked back. A few years later I wrote a piece called “Musica animam tangens” and dedicated it to Mr. Noble as a way to show my gratitude. On a lark, I entered it into a competition and ended up becoming the youngest winner ever of the American Choral Directors Association's Raymond W. Brock Prize.
I graduated Luther with a degree in Vocal Music Education because I thought it was a sensible thing to do and I didn't hate the idea of being a teacher. I ended up teaching vocal music and music theory for six years at high schools in the suburban Twin Cities and fell madly in love with the teaching profession. There's nothing quite like watching a light bulb go off over a student's head when they finally understand a concept or to watch them shatter the glass ceiling they've somehow set up for themselves for some unknown reason. It's an addicting feeling. While living in the Twin Cities I also won a spot in a local professional choir, The Singers—Minnesota Choral Artists, and after a year was asked to be one of their three Composers-In-Residence along with Abbie Betinis and Jocelyn Hagen. Over my 10-year tenure with the choir, they elevated my understanding of the choral art with repertoire I probably wouldn't have heard anywhere else and gave me countless opportunities to workshop new pieces written specifically for them.
However, over the course of those six years I worked as an educator in the public schools, my life as a composer began to intrude on my life as a teacher and I needed to find a balance between the two or else one was going to have to go. One way to retain both of these things I love seemed to be teaching at the college level. So in 2010 I packed my bags and moved from Minneapolis to Austin, Texas. I've fallen in love with the city—in all of its breakfast tacoobsessed, Conspirarehaving, vegetarianfriendly, divebarloving laidbackishness—and am a candidate for a doctoral degree in music composition at the University of Texas. As a composer I'm busier than ever, but I've also gotten opportunities to teach undergraduate courses as well as collaborate with local non-profit organizations like the Austin Chamber Music Center and the Andy Roddick Foundation. The city of Austin and the University of Texas have both given me so much—even a husband!—and for the moment the risk of graduate school seems to be paying off.
One thing I've learned during my time here in Austin is that I don't really see myself as a Composer anymore. Rather, I like to think of myself more as a Collaborator. It's something I picked up in conversations with Craig Hella Johnson and I've been trying to see how I can make my work as a composer mesh with the idea that I'm only one link in a long chain of composer, conductor, choristers, administrators, and audience members. If I can help initiate a collaborative process that involves all of these human elements I've nearly always found the new piece that came out of it a success.
I'm Joshua Shank. I'm a Teacher, Composer, and Collaborator (not always necessarily in that order).