The New Groove: Now Available for Streaming!

Today I am celebrating my birthday!

I am so thankful to be entering my next year of life being healthy, happy, and inspired. Thank you to everyone who has sent their birthday wishes. It means so much.

Join me in celebrating this milestone by streaming my EP The New Groove! You can find it on Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube Music among many other places. And it is still available to purchase on Bandcamp. If you like it, please share it with your friends!

Thanks for continuing to support me and my music. Can’t wait to make more for you soon!

The Ragtime Revival of the 1970s

This blog post is part of my Ragtime Project, which encompasses an upcoming EP of Ragtime-inspired music, blog posts about the history of the music, and a forthcoming self-published collection of essay about what in this music and its history resonates with me as a performer and composer.


Ragtime is often considered the first popular music originating from the United States, reigning prominent from the 1890s until the mid-1910s. [1] Its popularity was displaced by Jazz, though the nature of this transition is disputed (Schuller, Early Jazz, p. 63). (I intend for this to be the topic of a future blog post.) There was a brief revival of Ragtime in the 1950s, but much of the music was highly commercialized and played on out-of-tune pianos to mimic old-time saloons. [2] 1950 was also the year in which scholars Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis published their seminal history book entitled They All Played Ragtime. However, the most impactful Ragtime revival occurred in the 1970s, the events of this time truly securing the art form’s place in the United States culture.

There are several important projects that contributed to the Ragtime revival of the 1970s, several of which will be outlined here.

1. The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake

In 1969, Columbia Records released The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. Prior to this double-LP, Blake had a successful career as a songwriter with hits such as Charleston Rag (1899), I’m Just Wild About Harry (1921), and Memories of You (1930). [3] He collaborated with Noble Sissle on the Broadway musical Shuffle Along (1921), which renewed the popularity of Black musical comedies and launched the careers of many Black actors including Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Paul Robeson. [4] The release of The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake gave Blake’s career a second wind. [5] As one of the few surviving musicians from the Ragtime era, Blake became a beloved celebrity and torchbearer for the music. [6]

A playlist of The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake

2. Piano Rags by Scott Joplin

In 1970, pianist/conductor Joshua Rifkin released Piano Rags by Scott Joplin on the Nonesuch label. In contrast to the Ragtime recordings of the 1950s which featured out-of-tune pianos to caricaturize a by-gone era [6], Rifkin treated Joplin’s music with the utmost respect and taking into account all of Joplin’s directions. [7] In 1971, the album was nominated for two Grammy awards for Best Album Notes and Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (Without Orchestra). [8] It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame this year. [9]

A playlist of Scott Joplin Piano Rags

3. The Red Back Book

In 1973, the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, under the direction of Gunther Schuller, released The Red Back Book. The album won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance that year. [10] The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble became in-demand for performances and events across the country. [11] The collection of Joplin pieces featured on the album was thought to be lost, but Schuller came into contact with someone who had possibly the last surviving copy of the Red Back Book. [12]

A playlist of The Red Back Book

4. The Sting

The contribution that had perhaps the most broad impact on the Ragtime revival was the film The String (1974). The soundtrack featured an abridged version of Joplin’s The Entertainer (1902), which rose to the top of the pop record charts. [13]  

The Sting soundtrack

5. Producing Treemonisha

The 1970s also saw the first performances of Joplin’s second, though only surviving, opera entitled Treemonisha (c. 1911). [14] In 1972, the Atlanta Symphony and the Morehouse College Music Department gave the first full performance of the opera. [15] In 1975, the Houston Opera gave the first fully produced performance of Treemonisha. Gunther Schuller was responsible for the orchestration for the performance and the subsequently released recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label. In his lifetime, Joplin did not orchestrate the opera. He self-published the piano score, which he played in a reading of the opera for potential financial supporters in 1915. [16] Joplin tragically passed away at the age of 49 without living to see his opera produced.

A playlist of Treemonisha, as recorded by the Houston Grand Opera and orchestrated by Gunther Schuller

Because of these key events and the public’s overall positive reception to them, Ragtime music will continue to be a remembered and cherished part of the unique musical heritage of the United States.


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

Ragtime Project Update

It has been an incredibly moving experience to work on my Ragtime Project. I have learned so much about the complicated, tragic, triumphant history of popular music in the United States through my research, reflection, composition, and analytical processes.

My original plan was to release the full project on July 3rd, but, after careful consideration, I decided to postpone the full release date to provide me ample time to put forward the best work I can. The music deserves the highest level of attention and there is still so much I want to learn! Stay tuned for a new release date.

However, I will be releasing a single from the Ragtime Project EP on Friday, July 3rd. I will be giving all the proceeds from the single to The Sphinx Organization, which has the mission of “transform[ing] lives through the power of diversity in the arts.”

I have already released a few blog posts encompassing the Ragtime Project and have more in the works so be on the lookout!

Ragtime Project Blog Series

Announcing My Next Project

In my next release, I look forward to exploring the music of Ragtime – the first popular music originating in the United States.More

I also compiled a list of resources I have used in my Ragtime research. I update this collection regularly.

I look forward to sharing more with you about the importance of this music and its relevance in today’s musical and societal landscapes.

5 Scott Joplin Piano Pieces to Know

This blog post is part of my Ragtime Project, which encompasses an upcoming EP of Ragtime-inspired music, blog posts about the history of the music, and a forthcoming self-published collection of essay about what in this music and its history resonates with me as a performer and composer.


Content warning: racist drawing accompanying 5th (last) piece discussed
What is a content warning?


1. Maple Leaf Rag (1899)

Maple Leaf Rag, as played by Scott Joplin on a piano roll

Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag (1899) was the first piece of written music to sell 1 million copies. It also set the standard for the Ragtime sub-genre “Classical Ragtime,” a phrase coined by one of Joplin’s primary music publishers, John Stark. Countless imitation and inspiration pieces followed. A notable one is Jelly Roll Morton’s Maple Leaf Stomp (1938), an adaptation of the rag into the stomp style.


It took years for Joplin to convince a publisher to take on his masterpiece. The financial success of Maple Leaf Rag enabled Stark to relocate his publishing business from Sedalia, MO to St. Louis, MO to New York, NY. While Joplin also benefited from the success of Maple Leaf Rag, he was only granted a 2% royalty for each copy sold.

Maple Leaf Stomp, as played by Jelly Roll Morton

Joplin’s own Gladiolus Rag (1907) was heavily inspired by Maple Leaf Rag. Some consider it to be even more refined than the original.

Gladiolus Rag, as played by Joshua Rifkin in his album Scott Joplin Piano Rags (1970). This album was among the catalysts for the ragtime revival of the 1970s and was nominated for a Grammy award.

2. Great Crush Collision (1896)

A piano roll performance of Great Crush Collision

This piece was written to commemorate the train crash in “Crush, TX.” The train crash was a marketing scheme for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company. They built a fake town and named Crush after the railway agent William Crush who planned the event. Crush found two trains that were going to be retired and commissioned them to crash into each other, head-on. About 40,000 people showed up for the spectacle, including Scott Joplin. Two people died and many were injured, but spectators still rushed toward the collision to find a piece of the exploded trains as a souvenir.

More on the Crush Collision.

3. Bethena – A Concert Waltz (1905)

Bethena, as played by Joshua Rifkin in his album Scott Joplin Piano Rags (1970).

While rags are generally in a duple meter, there are ample rag waltzes in the literature. Bethena is said to be among Scott Joplin’s most masterful rag waltzes.

Bethena, as played by the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble under the direction of Gunther Schuller.

4. Solace (1909)

Solace, from the Motion Picture soundtrack of Sting (1973), which played a role in the 1970s ragtime revival.

Subtitled “A Mexican Serenade,” this is the only known Scott Joplin piece to utilize tango elements. Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) took this idea further, coining the phrase “Spanish Tinge.”

5. Original Rags (1899)

Original Rags on a pianola

This is the first Scott Joplin rag ever published. The original credits on the sheet music cover read “Picked By Scott Joplin” and “Arranged By Chas. N. Daniels.”

The racist imagery on the cover of Original Rags. From Wikipedia.

The term “picked” implies multiple meanings. This could refer to the phrase “picking the piano,” which was a slang term for Ragtime music. The second meaning could be in reference to rag-picking, or picking trash off the street. This meaning seems more intentional when considering the sheet music cover design, which depicts an elderly Black man picking up trash in front of a dilapidated cabin. The imagery is deeply racist, and unfortunately very commonplace for sheet music published in that era (late 1800s thru mid 1910s).


Ragtime scholar Rudi Blesh suggests that Charles Daniels’ name appears most likely because he was the one who suggested that the rag be published and it is unlikely that he made substantial – or any – musical contributions. This crediting practice may have been common-place as a way to help budding composers break into the industry. Years later, Scott Joplin gave up-and-coming composer Joseph Lamb permission to use his name on Lamb’s first published work, Sensation Rag (1908).

Pianist Cory Hall performs Sensation Rag

Are these the pieces you would include on your list? Let me know in the comments!


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

Announcing My Next Project

I am excited to share plans for my next project! Inspired by the amazing creative work my friends have done in spite of COVID and motivated by Bandcamp’s first Friday initiative to help artists, I decided that I would release new, original music every month.

Last month, it was The New Groove. I was experimenting with new technology, trying to find meaning and humor in a confusing time. I am so grateful for all the support around this project. Thank you to everyone who has purchased, listened, dropped me a note, shared on social – you all are amazing!

My next project, which I intend to release on July 3rd, has been incredibly special. Inspired by Gunther Schuller’s book Early Jazz and by his Grammy-winning recording The Red Back Book, I decided to take a close look at Ragtime music. My initial plan was to just release an EP of my original rags. I knew I would need to do extensive research for this project and realized that I could – and should – find ways to share the story of this music with the people who know me and my music. The project has evolved to encompass an EP and a self-published collection of essays about Ragtime music. Many of the essays will also be available on my blog, some of which will inevitably overlap with my Encountering Gunther blog series.

I look forward to sharing this project with you and shining a light on this often overlooked art form that was so critical in the development of music in the United States.


Read the Latest Posts from my Ragtime Project

OUT NOW: THE NEW GROOVE

I have wanted to put out music for a long time but was too afraid to do it. When will I be “good enough” at the saxophone? When will my compositions sound “original enough” to be worthy of being recorded? When will I have enough money to afford studio time, engineers, compensate musicians, promote, etc.? The pandemic made me realize that there will never be a “perfect” time to release music, that I will always be a work in progress, and that it’s about time to rip off the bandaid and put something out there!

I was really inspired by my peers and the amazing recordings, livestream concerts, and other creative pursuits they were accomplishing online. With the help of my boyfriend and YouTube, I learned how to use my new recording gear.

Then I started creating the music. My usual composition process involves me sitting at the piano and painstakingly try things out, writing them down on manuscript paper as I go. I took a different approach this time. I wrote all the songs starting from my saxophone. I thought more about layering different sounds/textures instead of long melodic lines. I incorporated some effects like distortion, echoes, octave doublings, and more. I never thought I would create music with such a strong technological component. But I realized that now is a time to try new things and step out of my comfort zone, and I’m so glad I did!

Time to get your groove on!

June 2020 Newsletter

[Subscribe to see this in your inbox next month!]

Dear friends,

My heart is so heavy for this country. I am horrified by the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the continued oppression and brutality our black brothers and sisters continue to face. We need to do better.

It is not lost on me that I owe a great debt to black artists for their contributions to American music. I must credit my late mentor Bobby Jackson for teaching me that “jazz” (this is not a unanimously accepted word to describe the music) was not created in a vacuum. It is of its time, reflecting the conditions under which it was created. Because of Bobby’s teachings, I began prioritized learning the history (they don’t teach you in school) surrounding the creation and development of “jazz” and reading the memoirs of its innovators. I still have much to learn.

I encourage you to find a way to take action. I have started each morning finding a new petition to sign and a new elected official’s email or phone number to voice my concerns. Here are some causes I have supported and the resources I have been using to learn more about the history of racism in the United States.

After some soul searching, I decided to follow through with releasing my EP, The New Groove, on Bandcamp tomorrow as planned. It is an uncomfortable time to be promoting and releasing new music. I do not want my music to detract from the important work that needs to be done to make this country live up to its ideals for all who live here. I already announced the wrong release date once and I feel strange about postponing the release again. Also, I want to be able to move forward from this project and start working on new music for you all. I hope The New Groove brings you comfort during this uncertain time.

I am thinking of you all during these trying times. Let’s build a better future with compassion and music.

With hope,
Sam


Featured Sounds

The Henry Godfrey Jazz Orchestra performs Snarky Puppy’s “Bad Kids To The Back” (arr. Henry Godfrey)

Sheet Music For Sale

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Latest From the Blog


Sneak peeks for future posts available on Patreon 

  • Cab Calloway and Minnie the Moocher – A couple of nights ago, I was on YouTube and the following video showed up as a recommendation. I am not sure why I decided to click, but I am so glad I did. … [Read More] 
     
  • Encountering Gunther: Reminiscing in Tempo – It was surprising to read about this groundbreaking piece that, after many years of being a devout Ellington fan and earning a degree in jazz composition, I never encountered before … [Read More]
     
  • Miss My Blog? – I miss it, too! Just when I felt like I was getting in a groove, the world got turned on its head …. [Read More]

Cab Calloway and Minnie the Moocher

The word “Jazz” has become a broad umbrella term for many different nuanced musical styles. It is rare to find someone who is truly knowledgable about the many traditions that sprouted from the mixing of African, Latin, and European musics in New Orleans. I would certainly not consider myself to be such a person, though I aspire to be one day.

From my time studying music at the collegiate and graduate level, I have noticed that large swaths of the jazz tradition are not discussed. I think there could be many reasons for this. Here are a few that might be most pertinent:

  1. Ignorance. People have not put in the time to study some of these areas of the tradition.
  2. The music is not considered “serious.” Academia might be afraid to take on music that is seen as “popular” rather than “art music.” (Personally, these lines become more blurred for me over time. I try to live by Duke Ellington’s philosophy – “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.)
  3. There is not a widely circulated, tried-and-true methodology for teaching music in these styles.

For me, Cab Calloway has been one of those names mentioned in passing. He was never discussed during my five years of collegiate jazz education. I came across his name in my own reading, but never dug into his music.

I read about Cab in Bill Milkowski incredible book Swing It!: An Annotated History of Jive. I highly recommend it. It is a lively read jam-packed with listening recommendations. He shines a light on this area of the jazz tradition that is often dismissed for popular music.

I listened to some of the recommended tracks, but being fully immersed in my graduate studies and work multiple jobs, I could not devote the time this book and music truly deserved.

Months have gone by. A couple nights ago, I was on YouTube and the following video showed up as a recommendation. I am not sure why I decided to click, but I am so glad I did.

Cab Calloway’s performance of “Minnie the Moocher” from The Blues Brother (1980)

At first, I was taken aback. To me, the performance appeared to a mere caricature of the “golden years” of Cab Calloway’s career. A phony backdrop depicting the long-shuddered jazz clubs where he played in his youth. The retro desks for the horn players. The white suit.

But, for reasons I cannot explain, I found myself replaying the video again and again. For hours. I started to see something different in it. Here is a man in his 70’s who is still able to put on an absolutely outstanding performance – as a musician and entertainer. Here is an audience that is showering him with love. Here is a team of directors, producers, etc. who recognized the importance of Cab Calloway and wanted to include him and introduce him to a new audience. How could anyone not marvel at this?

A 1934 performance of “Minnie the Moocher”

My obsession with this performance continues. I wanted to learn as music about it as I could. I found a couple interesting facts on IMDb.

This story reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald’s infamous “Mack the Knife” performance:

When Cab Calloway originally recorded “Minnie The Moocher” in the 1930s, the chorus lyrics were simply “Ho-dee-hody” rather than the lengthened “Hody-hody-hody ho”. In an interview, Calloway explained that one time when he was singing the song, he suddenly forgot the words, so he immediately shouted “Hody-Hody-Hody-ho!”, and carried on the song that way. That proved to be more popular with fans than the original, so he had been singing it that way ever since.

IMDb

This one resonates with my first impression of the performance:

When recording the soundtrack, Cab Calloway was needed to record his hit “Minnie the Moocher” in better quality than his original album. When he came into the studio, he was prepared to do the disco version, which had just been released. The filmmakers asked for the original version, which Calloway reluctantly gave them.

IMDb

I hope that Cab Calloway was ultimately able to enjoy the experience. Based on this story, it sounds like he did.

What are your favorite Cab Calloway recordings? How can we integrate this important figure, and his legacy, into jazz education?


Did you enjoy this post? Consider supporting me on Patreon so I can continue to write these posts.

Encountering Gunther: Reminiscing in Tempo

This post explores two of my favorite artists – Gunther Schuller and Duke Ellington. After reading Gunther’s A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, it is evident that he has a deep admiration for Duke’s incalculable contributions to jazz. I share Gunther’s infatuation with Ellington’s music, and have since I was a kid first discovering jazz.

While I cannot say I know every single piece Duke wrote, I am very familiar with quite a few. My personal interests tend to lie at the opposite ends of his career – the early three-minute recordings with the Washingtonians and Duke’s illustrious extended works toward the end of his life. The interesting thing is that these two “extremes” are actually rather connected. Duke’s early works were the foundation from which he grew. While the recordings of the pieces may have not exceeded three minutes, his live arrangements would. Additionally, even in this early period, Duke was pushing the boundaries of compositional form in the jazz idiom.

Duke Ellington’s first major extended piece on record is Creole Rhapsody (1931). With a duration of more than six minutes, the piece took two sides of a record, meaning the record needed to be flipped in the middle of the piece. This did not make an ideal listening experience and was a tough sell to record producers. In his memoir Music is My Mistress, Duke recalls the following:

“… I went out and wrote Creole Rhapsody, and I did so much music for it that we had to cut it up and do two versions. One came out on Brunswick and the other, longer one, on Victor. Irving [Mills] almost blew his connection at both companies for recording a number that was not only more than three minutes long, but took both side of the record.

Music is My Mistress, p. 82
Duke Ellington’s Creole Rhapsody (1931)

The next extended work of Ellington’s that I was aware of was Black, Brown And Beige (1943), which was premiered at his Carnegie Hall debut that year. It is another masterwork and showcases Duke’s expanding imagination.

Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown And Beige (1943) live at Carnegie Hall

For a composer as prolific as Duke Ellington, the 12 years between Creole Rhapsody and Black, Brown And Beige are universes apart. What was Duke writing in between?

Gunther pointed me toward the answer in his memoir. He mentioned a Duke Ellington piece I had never heard of before (a rarity) – Reminiscing in Tempo (1935). It was surprising to read about this groundbreaking piece that, after many years of being a devout Ellington fan and earning a degree in jazz composition, I never encountered before. Perhaps this is a testament to how vast Ellington’s compositional output was.

Duke Ellington composed Reminiscing in Tempo while he was on the road with his band. He was contemplating the untimely loss of his mother earlier that year.

Duke Ellington’s Reminiscing in Tempo

In the context of A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, Gunther mentions Reminiscing in Tempo because he programmed the piece in his legendary 1957 Brandeis concert. He did this to recognize the piece as a “forerunner of extended compositions in jazz.” Reminiscing in Tempo was in good company on the concert; new works by Charles Mingus, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, John Lewis, Milton Babbitt, and Gunther himself were premiered.

The Birth of the Third Stream (1957), recordings from part of the Brandeis Third Stream festival

Upon reading Gunther’s memoir, I took a listen to Reminiscing in Tempo. I was amazed by what I heard. At 13 minutes, it was substantially longer than Creole Rhapsody. More impressively, the development of the piece is so logical with a very natural flow. Even more astounding, Duke was able to convince his record label to release this piece, which took up four sides! Duke writes:

I reflected, and I wrote music, and it came out as Reminiscing in Tempo, which eventually ran to four record sides, two more than Creole Rhapsody. This meant that Irving Mills had twice as much trouble with the record companies, who threatened to throw us out of the catalog! That was unimportant to me, because I had written my statement. Hearing it constituted my total reward, and in it was a detailed account of my aloneness after losing my mother…”

Music is My Mistress, p. 86

Gunther dedicated a substantial amount of space in his seminal text The Swing Era (1989) to Reminiscing in Tempo. He eloquently explains what makes this piece so important. I have attempted to summarize his key points:

  1. Ellington is pushing against the current conventions of swing/dance music of his time. Reminiscing is intended for listening rather than dancing. The piece is lengthy and through-composed rather than having a short repeating form.
  2. Reminiscing solidified Ellingtons skill of writing to the strengths of his players. It is often said that Ellington’s true instrument was his band, rather than the piano. (Duke disagreed with this, based on his memoir Music is my Mistress. Perhaps a blog for another day?) He knew how to utilize each player’s unique timbre to achieve his sonic goals. For instance, he gives the lead alto part to Toby Hardwick or Johnny Hodges to achieve different sounds.
  3. Duke left no room for improvised solos. However, he did have fully composed solo written to showcase that specific players’ strengths.

Like many masterworks, Reminiscing in Tempo was not always received positively at the time of its creation. In his scathing Downbeat Magazine review, John Hammond scoffed at Reminiscing for its “pretentiousness” and claimed the piece was void of “true jazz spirit.” I would have never imagined words like that describing Duke Ellington’s work. I did not know if I should laugh or cry!

I am thankful that Gunther’s memoir brought this piece to my attention. I have enjoyed listening to it, learning about it, and now sharing this with others.


Sources

Ellington, Edward Kennedy. Music is My Mistress. Garden City, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973.

Schuller, Gunther. A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty. Rochester, University of Rochester Press, 2011.

Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.


Learn more about my Encountering Gunther blog series.

Miss my blog?

I miss it, too! Just when I felt like I was getting in a groove, the world got turned on its head…

Being an artist, graduate student, and “gig worker,” the coronavirus has been devastating financially, educationally, creatively, and more. I talked about these hardships in more detail in my April Newsletter.

While it’s been hard, I’ve been rebuilding. I’m getting in a healthy routine and working on some exciting projects I will be sharing very soon! I also have some new blog content in the works that I think you’re going to like.

In the meantime, here are some ways you can help me keep writing and playing music.

Join me on Patreon. For a subscription as low as $1/month, you can access exclusive content, early access to my projects, free sheet music, and more!
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Like me on Facebook. And be sure to like and comment on my posts!
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Follow me on Instagram. I tend to get a bit more personal on Instagram, so you can follow me for great music and adorable photos of goslings by a pond.
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Subscribe to my YouTube channel. I recently bought new recording gear, so I’m putting up new and better videos much more often. Subscribe and give my videos a “thumbs up,” or even a nice comment if you feel inclined!
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Follow me on Twitter. To be 100% honest, Twitter is the social media platform I least understand. So give me a follow and watch my epic blunders – and be among the first to hear about what I’m up to!
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Subscribe to my monthly newsletter. I promise, I actually only send one email each month! No spam, only news about the music I’m creating and the blog posts I’m writing.
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Buy sheet music. If you’re a musician looking for some new pieces to learn, I have loads of sheet music for sale on SheetMusicPlus and Noteflight Marketplace. You can also commission me to write a new composition or arrangement just for you!
Browse sheet music selection.

Thank you so much for your continued support. I will have some fun, thought-provoking, highly nerdy blog posts for you soon!