arts profile

Composing a Life Story
by Jennifer Burns
When many people imagine a composer, they might conjure up a cartoon-like caricature of a man pulling manically at his unruly white hair as he dramatically aches over the arrangement of each note and furiously pounds out music on his shiny grand piano. While local composer Dr. Jeffrey Hoover hasn’t literally pulled his hair out over his work, music is his forte. The Indiana native proves composers are ordinary people with extraordinary talent who see and hear the world through music.

Hoover grew up in small, rural Kewanna, Indiana, named after the same Indian chief as central Illinois’ Kewanee. Hoover’s family later moved to Rochester, Indiana, which he now considers his hometown.

He experienced an attachment to music at an early age, since most of his immediate family had some kind of talent. He watched as his mother played piano and listened to his father singing in the church choir. And while most first graders were focused on toy dinosaurs and dolls, he was taking piano lessons from his grandmother. Music was quickly noted as one of Hoover’s passions.

“Aside from these early musical interests, I spent time as a very young child sitting in a small rocking chair in front of our old 33-1/3 record player listening to a collection of classical recordings that my parents purchased as a weekly promotional from the A&P grocery store where my father worked,” Hoover said.

He began playing the clarinet in 4th grade and took up the saxophone in high school. Hoover attended Ball State University, where he received a Bachelor’s degree in music as well as a Master’s degree in music. After years of working and teaching, he chose Texas Tech University for his Doctoral degree.

But an interest in composing didn’t immediately sound off for Hoover, it was more of something he “grew into” during his undergraduate studies.

“When I was an undergraduate at Ball State University, I studied music theory,” Hoover said. “All music majors are required to study music theory, essentially, the chemistry of music. As a part of those studies, I had opportunities to write my own brief compositions, to illustrate the different aspects of music we were studying. There was something very satisfying about this, and after I completed my required two years of theoretical studies, I took private lessons in music composition.”

Hoover studied in the areas of both music education and music theory/composition. Some of the classes required of an academic curriculum for composition include music theory, music history, arranging, conducting, private lessons in one’s instrument or voice and ensemble performance.

“There was an amazing side benefit to learning how to teach (and why to teach) the various instruments and voice,” Hoover said. “I learned these instruments from the ground up—woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings and voice. By the time I was a junior in college, I had engaged in composition studies, so that motivated me to dig deeper into my studies.”

Aside from classes in composition, Hoover says there are other experiences which help further a composer’s abilities.

“Any beneficial experience can help one in their work as a composer,” Hoover said. “Music exists within a context, and skills and experience can certainly help a composer. Gaining skills in using computers, knowledge of business practices, experience in presenting oneself and honing one’s public speaking abilities all serve composers in powerful ways.”

Also during his undergraduate studies, Hoover began teaching private saxophone lessons to local high school students. But what he considers his first “real” teaching job was when he was hired as a high school band director.

“My teaching has included students ranging from elementary age to senior citizens, in schools, colleges and in the communities where I’ve lived,” Hoover said. “Often in my teaching, I taught academic classes and conducted bands, orchestra and jazz band.”

Currently Hoover is the Associate Dean for Arts and Communication at Illinois Central College, where he says he has the opportunity to work more broadly and support arts education.

In over 27 years composing, Hoover has written approximately 100 pieces of music.

“We composers tend to write a lot, and whether it’s a threeminute piece for solo violin, or a 15-minute work for a large symphonic orchestra,” Hoover said. “It all adds to the body of work we have created. Most of my music has been performed, although I do have a few compositions that I wrote for the sake of writing them that have not yet received their premiere performance. Many of my performances happen to be chamber music compositions.”

Inspirations for his pieces can come from almost anywhere. Sometimes Hoover is hired to create a new piece; in those instances, he finds inspiration in discussing the effect or feeling the piece should have over its audience. Other times, Hoover finds inspiration in everyday occurrences.

“Sometimes I see something, or read something, or hear someone describe an experience,” Hoover said. “Often, I think, ‘What does that thing sound like?’ Music can be very simple, or very complex and layered, superficial or full of the communication of emotion.”

Hoover considers composition as using one’s imagination to create a story, but the story is in sound rather than images or words. He uses having lunch with a friend as an example.

“You may imagine what you may talk about, where you are going to have lunch and perhaps even what your friend is going to wear,” Hoover said. “In our vastly creative minds, it’s possible to get into all the details of the conversation, and even hear the sound of our friend’s voice. Now, was that a memory of a previous lunch? Maybe. But part of it is new. Your mind takes your previous experiences and brings them together in new ways, or all of it is new.

“All of this works in the same way with sound and music as well as images or words from the imaginary lunch. The composer then writes the ideas down, along with the sounds and shapes, and edits them into the finished composition. Our minds are very powerful, we can imagine combinations of sounds and musical shapes that we have not heard before. It’s truly an amazing thing.”

One of the techniques Hoover advocates in his teaching is to keep a notebook of inspirations and ideas.

“Often I’m working on a present composition, but I get an idea—a mere fragment sometimes—so I write it down,” Hoover said. “I can use that idea later in a musical composition, even though it doesn’t apply to my present composition. There have been times I’ve mined my sketches even a few years after I originally wrote the idea down for a new composition.”

Other artists and composers also inspire Hoover. Some of his favorites include Copland, Debussy, Beethoven, Palestrina, contemporary classical composers from Albright to Zwillich, jazz performers such as Stanley Turrentine, Bill Chase, Luciana Sousa and various others.

“It goes back to the sound, and how I’m taken in by it,” Hoover said. “They all inspire me and I suppose at some level their work infiltrates my composition.”

Composing consists of both natural talent and things learned, according to Hoover. Composers must have an aptitude for the art but also a passion to learn techniques and processes that will enhance their natural abilities.

“With aptitude comes a certain ease of understanding and intuition,” Hoover said. “Composers must have good memories for musical sound, musical styles and understand the details of what is involved in creating or recreating that music. Aspects of this can be trained for, but if a person has part of what some people consider to be the “natural talent,” it’s really a package of characteristics— to continually learn new things about composing and music and have the desire to grow and mature as a composer by being willing to take a good objective look at oneself and do what it takes to grow.”

Composing and performing are not the only arts in which Hoover is active. He has actually been painting longer than he has been composing, beginning his painting career when he was about 17. He enjoys incorporating the two arts, with one often finding inspiration from the other.

“In the same way a composition can be inspired by a poem, a photograph or a painting, about 15 years ago I begin to create paintings that were interpretive of my compositions, and vice versa,” Hoover said. “I’m able to use the color, visual texture, size and gesture on the canvas in the same way I shape sound. When these pieces are performed, images of the paintings can be projected while the musicians play the music. The audience can both hear and see the ideas unfold.”

Hoover has had great support from his wife, Joy, with whom he jokes about always hearing music in his head. He also feels fortunate for the support of daughters Elle and Katie who often attend concerts and show enthusiasm for his creative work. The success of a composer is measured in different ways by various groups.

“For some composers, it might be receiving broad recognition and awards for their work,” Hoover said. “There are some high-profile awards, such as the Pulitzer, that are awarded in classical music composition annually. For other composers, it might mean focusing on making one’s living solely from composition, rather than having composition as one of several things one may do to pay the bills. “A more important question to ask may be ‘why do composers write music?’ That question can be asked of any creative person and the pursuit of their artwork. For me, I compose because there is something inside me that compels me to do so.” a&s

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