What was supposed to be a poorly written composition for Jim Stephenson turned out to be the start of a passion he never knew he had. Being a dedicated trumpet player from age 10, it was the college class he took at Northwestern University, where his musical ability took off in a direction to a whirlwind career.
In his class titled “Adventures in Bad Music,” the professor assigned the task of composing a horribly written piece of music to be shared with the class. After performing his composition, it was Stephenson’s classmate that raised his hand in admiration.
“I would not be a composer today if that one person in my class had not raised their hand and said, ‘Jim, I actually liked that piece, it’s pretty cool,’” Stephenson said. “From that moment on I said to myself, ‘well if I tried to write a bad piece and it came out, in one person’s mind, good, what would happen if I actually tried to write good music?’”
Before composing was even a thought in Stephenson’s mind, the Chicago native had spent seven summers at Interlochen Center for the Arts followed by the New England Conservatory for Music solely to pursue the trumpet. Right before graduating, Stephenson had auditioned for the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra in Naples, Florida, beginning his journey and passion for orchestral performing.
“Here I am 21-years-old in an orchestra, and when you’re in one, you get the opportunity to be in a lot of educational concerts for kids,” Stephenson said. “After doing that [educational concerts] so many times, you start looking for new material to play. And someone asked me to arrange ‘Under The Sea’ from ‘The Little Mermaid’ to play for kids, and for some reason, I agreed, even though I had never arranged a composition before.”
During a Q&A on Tuesday, April 30 to students and faculty of Central Connecticut’s Department of Music, Stephenson discussed how this opportunity is where his potential bug for composing came about. After arranging a single Disney song, Stephenson found himself arranging more than 100 pieces over the next ten years for other composers.
“I found myself really getting addicted to scoring,” Stephenson said. “In composing, you have to learn how to work really quickly, which became a skill I acquired. By doing all these arrangements, I figured, ‘How would it be if I composed my own pieces of music?’”
Eventually, word had spread that Stephenson was creating music of his own and he started receiving commissions for original pieces. While still participating in the orchestra, Stephenson’s talents were being stretched and it became difficult to balance.
“I slowly began to grow some identity as a composer while still arranging and trumpet playing was getting more and more less interesting,” Stephenson said. “At this point, I have four children, a wife, I’m composing till two in the morning then going to rehearsal and then a concert each night, I knew something had to change. And that meant being a composer full time.”
Putting his trumpet and orchestral performing to rest, Stephenson becomes driven by the idea of creating emotional, unique pieces that “make the moment we are all existing in meaningful.” Creating his own business, Stephenson is his own boss, composing day in and day out searching for inspiration.
“What I have found that I’m drawn to in composing is that things have meaning and that composition goes beyond just notes on a page. I want to take an audience to a place other than where they were when they walked into the room,” Stephenson said.
“Symphony No. 2” is one of Stephenson’s compositions that convey his purpose in composing, being a piece of personal struggle and triumph. The song came about in 2015 when his mother passed away, being the inspiration behind this piece.
“When I first began composing this piece, I was grief-stricken and couldn’t come up with anything. But one day, when I sat at my piano, for some reason my hands led me even though I was angry and upset with the world,” Stephenson said. “But real life experiences are when the best music comes about.”
For Stephenson, it has always been important to express these real-life experiences through his sounds of composition but never having them sound the same. With much inspiration and influence from composers dead and alive, Stephenson is still striving to find his own voice.
“Im still trying to find my distinct sound. All of my pieces are quite different from one another. I don’t really have a ‘Stephenson sound,’ yet, I always go to where the story of that music is. My pieces always come out sounding very different from one another, so I would say my ‘voice’ is very diverse,” Stephenson said.
Fellow colleague and conductor at CCSU, Dr. Robert Schwartz, admire’s Stephenson’s technique in his unique music that evolves from his composing.
“It’s impressive to see him draw on his experience from playing music in orchestras and making music as a trumpet player. Every one of his pieces sound different, which shows his creativity as a composer and that he is a master at his craft,” Schwartz said.
Part of the process for Stephenson always leads him back to his first attempt in composing; that he would not be able to compose these pieces of “good compositions” if it wasn’t for the bad ones that came before it.
“My creativity and heart in my pieces would never be created if it wasn’t for my off days. Lots of the times I’m composing bad music and then eventually something will hit me and I’ll go, ‘Okay, I can use that,’ and then the piece will start to take shape,” Stephenson said. “Lots of the times I have to tell myself to just go to work, sit down and get busy and I’ll eventually be stricken with inspiration.”
It is these bad pieces of music that have inspired Stephenson’s successful compositions that have been the foundation of his thriving business many years later. “Stephenson Music” serves as the composer’s full-time job, where he sells original compositions and commissions for new pieces.
“Composing is my job. It’s all I do. I don’t have a position other than Stephenson Music where I’m the boss. I go to work at eight o’clock every day and when I sit at my desk I immediately feel like a kid in a candy store,” Stephenson said. “I get to play all day and create things. Even if I don’t have inspiration that day, I’m doing what I feel like I’ve always been meant to be doing.”
It isn’t about the end goal for Stephenson, but rather creating in the moment. With plans to continue composing before he retires in his later years, Stephenson is set on making each day a day for music.
“Every day when I sit at the piano, I never have to think about ‘Where is today going to end?’ Its [composing] not pressure, but an opportunity every single day.”