Kevin McKee (b.1980) is an American composer of brass chamber music. He was born and raised in Yreka, CA, a little mountain town in the heart of the “State of Jefferson”. McKee began playing the trumpet in grade school at the urging of his father, who was the high school music teacher in town. He went on to earn two degrees in trumpet performance; a BM from Sacramento State, where he studied with Gary Dilworth, and a MM from the University of Maryland, under Chris Gekker. He was inspired to try his hand at composition after an spending a month working with the incredible composer/trumpeter Anthony DiLorenzo at the 2006 MMCK summer music festival in Japan. Since this time McKee’s catalogue has grown to about 15 pieces. His music has been performed on every continent, save Antarctica, and can be heard on over 20 recordings. His works are published at Balquhidder Music and Kevin McKee Music. He has contributed to the International Trumpet Guild Journal and is a member of ASCAP. In addition to composing McKee is an active trumpet performer and teacher in the Washington DC area, where he lives with his wife, two daughters, dog, cat and bird.
My Journey into Composition
A little about me
“Composer” is a description that I’ve had a hard time getting used to. With the exception of one I’ll-give-this-a-shot-even-though-I-don’t know-what-I’m-doing piece that I wrote in high school for my Senior Project, it was in graduate school that I wrote my first real piece of music. Like most of you reading this, I am a trumpet player. I started playing trumpet in the 5th grade, got the trumpet “bug” in the 8th grade and have identified myself as a trumpet player ever since. I hold two degrees in trumpet performance: a BM from California State University, Sacramento where I studied with Gary Dilworth and a MM from the University of Maryland where I studied with Chris Gekker. I have never formally studied composition. College theory, a good variety of performance experience and, perhaps most importantly, a child-like fascination with creativity and the creative process form the background from which I approached composition. I have been composing for 10 years now and recently completed my 14th piece of music. Not exactly prolific but each has been a labor of love to which I’ve given my very best effort and, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about for me.
I’ve often reflected on why I didn’t start composing sooner and I think for a long time I was really intimidated by the idea of it. Not an uncommon feeling, I have found. Looking in the rear-view mirror on the long road of musical composition, it’s impossible not to feel inadequate. Beyond this, though, a lot of contemporary music had a distancing affect on me for other reasons. Many times after playing or listening to modern music, I was left scratching my head. I didn’t get it, didn’t like it or sometimes both. This had me convinced that to be considered good, music needed to be something that was beyond my grasp. I subconsciously developed the notion that composers were some other breed of people with X-men musical abilities and understandings I did not possess. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to interact with someone who composed music that really resinated with me that my eyes were opened to the possibility of composing myself. I came to the not-so-profound-but-incredibly-important realization that, regardless of what anyone else thinks, music is good if you think it’s good.
This experience came when James Ross, the Director of Orchestral Activities at UMD, presented me with the opportunity to attend the 2005 Music Masters Course in Kazusa, Japan. MMCK (now called MMCJ) is an international chamber-music festival that focuses on bringing together musicians of different countries and cultures for the purpose of uniting through the common language of music. The festival boasted some amazing faculty, among them trumpeter/composer extraordinaire Anthony DiLorenzo. I was blown away by him. Beyond being one of the most exciting trumpeters I’d ever heard, his compositions captivated me and were just plain fun to play. This was music that I “got”. Much of his music has the cinematic sound that I love. A fellow John Williams fan, he has actually written a lot for TV and film in addition to much brass chamber music. It was this experience of being around a composer with whom I could relate, even if he was in a totally different league, that essentially humanized composers for me and provided the nudge to try my own hand at writing something.
When I got home I decided to take the plunge and compose a piece of music. Since I played in the UMD graduate brass quintet I figured that would be good a ensemble to write for, and with my graduate degree recital scheduled in the spring, I had a deadline. My goal was simple: write something fun. Fun to play, fun to listen to, FUN. I wanted it to be something that felt good to play, that sounded harder than it actually was and that would have broad appeal. This remains my approach today.
So I set to work and wrote my first piece, Escape. Though it's a pretty short piece it took chipping away at it for much of the school year to get it where I liked it. It was received well and got chosen for the honors music recital at UMD. I was so stoked! Unbeknownst to me, my trumpet teacher, Chris Gekker, contacted Rob Roy McGregor of Balquhidder Music to see if he might have any interest in publishing it. Fast forward about a year and I’m a published composer! This was crazy to me. I remember after Escape had been up on the Balquhidder site for a few weeks I checked in with Rob to see if he had sold any copies. He had sold seven. To me he might as well have said a thousand. I just couldn’t believe that people had actually bought a piece of music that I wrote! It was these little successes that really started me down the composition road. They helped me believe in myself and in my approach towards composing which, when boiled down, is to write music that I enjoy. Since then I have written 1 - 3 pieces a year and now publish my own music at Kevin McKee Music (I know, so original, right?).
A little on my philosophy on composition
I remember playing a piece for wind ensemble by Julie Giroux while in college and our director, Dr. Robert Halseth, read something from the composers notes that has stuck with me. It was simply that she took a lot of care to make all of the parts enjoyable and engaging to play. I remember appreciating that and thinking it was very cool and sure enough, her piece was a favorite of the ensemble. I have had good, worth-while experiences playing lame parts in great pieces and, on the other end of the spectrum, stupid-difficult parts that I hope I never have to see again in great pieces, but neither of these make my list of favorite musical memories. For me it is the combination of a great piece and a challengingly fun part that have proven the most memorable and satisfying. For this reason, trying to write a fun and challenging-enough part for all involved is always a priority for me. I constantly ask myself, would I enjoy playing this part? A common practice for me is to go through the score, once I’m a decent way into the piece, and count how many measures of prominent melodic material each voice has. If it’s too lop sided I try and even things out.
Another priority for me is to try and write music that can be enjoyed by non trumpeters. I feel that a lot of our rep keeps audiences at an arms length. It’s either too melodically elusive and harmonically challenging for non musicians to really “get” or it’s so difficult that the performance becomes more about making it through without folding than telling a musical story. I’ve sat through many of these performances and have even given some of my own! A goal of mine is to avoid contributing music to that category and instead to write music that walks the line of being worth while to the performer while also extending a welcoming hand to lay audiences. I feel that a significant factor in the success I’ve had as a composer has come from genuinely relating to lay audiences and trying to write music that they (read we) can also enjoy.
As a trumpeter myself I love writing for the trumpet. The fact that ten of my compositions include trumpet is a testament to this! Obviously it’s fun for a composer to get to play the music they write but, more than this, I have a genuine love for the sound and versatility of the instrument. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to study with two incredible musicians, Gary Dilworth and Chris Gekker, whose playing defied categorization and embraced this versatility in the best possible way. Their artistry left an indelible imprint on me as a musician and this influence can be found in everything I’ve written, particularly in my lyrical pieces Centennial Horizon, Song for a Friend and Lux et Lapis. The trumpet is also one of my most valuable compositional tools. While I do most of my composing at the piano and out on walks, I do play a lot of trumpet while writing and have been grateful for its guidance through many compositional decisions.
Finally, I love the individuality that comes with composition. While I very much enjoy performing and interpreting the musical stories of others, there is something uniquely fulfilling about looking within and excavating the music that is there waiting to be discovered. My feeling is that everyone has something in there, whether they know it not. For me it’s been a journey of exploring my interests through music and it’s been one of the most fulfilling endeavors of my life. Looking at my body of work thus far one might deduce that I’m a trumpeting, swashbuckling, mountain loving, klezmer digging, wild west relishing, cathedral admiring movie music fanboy… and they would be correct!
Thank you to all who have supported my music. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me and how encouraging it has been. I look forward to continuing to write music for our great instrument!