I can remember being maybe 6 or 7 years old and going to my first piano lesson. My brother had already been going for a couple of years and it was now my turn. I can remember all of the lessons and recitals and never really understood what that would all lead too.
In 5th grade we were presented instruments. The flute looked like it had too many buttons (along with clarinet and sax) and my brother already played drums so trumpet it was. I figured three buttons couldn’t be that hard anyways…
So then trumpet began and piano stopped at some point. I played throughout middle school and in 8th grade was allowed to join the high school jazz band.
Then high school came and I was playing in the concert, marching, and jazz bands. (Don’t forget I was also president of the jazz band 👍🏻)Outside of school a friend of mine was learning bass and I couldn’t get enough. I spent countless evenings printing out Green Day tabs and playing along to my CDs.
Then as luck would have it the bass player of the jazz band got kicked out my junior year. I already knew how to read bass clef and jumped right in.I loved jazz band! I thank the kid who got kicked out to this day…
I then joined a ska band with some friends and played my first show. I was hooked from that point on! A few other little bands along the way and a good 5 year hiatus from playing and…. I’m here. In Mammothor. Opening for Megadeth. Sold out show. You get the point.
We aren’t famous and honestly I’m totally okay with that. But I’m having a ton of fun playing with bands I love and being challenged to play better every single day.
Endorsing artist for Ernie Ball Strings, Barlow Guitars, Headrush FX, In Tune Guitar Pics, SMS Cables, & Wornstar Clothing.
My first real musical memory is that of my brother and I sitting on the floor next to a box record player listening to Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Suede. We listened over and over and over. The record was a 45 rpm and I have no recollection of the B-side. That song was too cool to flip. I must have been 4 years old, possibly 3. Now, almost 50 years later I can remember that moment as if it were yesterday.
There is a small amount of musical heritage in my family. We don’t have any concert pianists or classically trained musicians in our history (well, there is one and we’ll get to him in a bit). My father comes from a line of Methodist ministers and therein lies the musical connection. Ministers have a tendency to be involved in the music of their church and certainly have a flair for performance. My mother studied piano as a child for a bit and eventually went on to become a librarian. So while there was no real drive in the family to study music there was a prevalence of music in the household.
As we moved time to time from church to church there was always some music playing. Dad liked the old big band jazz, like Glenn Miller and Count Basie, and country. Mom liked the R&B and singer/songwriters, with a love for the music of James Taylor, especially. A few years later I can remember listening to Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire over and over. Also in the mix was new record called The Outlaws featuring Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser. This record was a game changer for me. Even at 8 years old I could tell it was different from most country music at the time. It had a rougher edge to it. Then came an album by Waylon Jennings called Ol’ Waylon. I wore that one out, literally. And so it went during those years with the dawn of outlaw country and the albums of Willie, Waylon, mixed with James Taylor and an odd mix of my sister’s (the oldest of us three; I am the youngest) mix of disco and smooth 70’s pop like Captain & Tennille, The Commodores, and Barry Manilow. I soaked it all in. My brother and his friends listened to the heavier rock of the day like Queen, Styx, Peter Frampton, etc. I remember liking all of it, even if in private.
In 1980 I was in peak country phase. We lived in a small Texas town where the country ran deep. A young boy in boots and cowboy hats, I was also slightly rebellious from all the moving that a minister’s family can endure. I had enrolled in band and played trombone at the request of my dad because he thought Glenn Miller was so cool. I was pretty good at it and sat first chair most of the time. Then one day something happened that would change the course of my life, quite literally. My brother came home with two 8-track tapes he had picked up on sale. One was AC/DC’s Back in Black and the other was Black Sabbath’s We Sold Our Soul for Rock and Roll. I remember my brother putting Back in Black into the stereo and hearing those bells that open Hell’s Bells. My ears perked up because I had never heard a song start that way before. Then that guitar riff came in and my eyes got wide and I turned and looked at the speakers in wonder and my whole world turned upside down. I sat and listened like I had never heard anything before. It was different. We put on the Black Sabbath 8-track and I heard the opening to War Pigs and it was happening all over again. Something inside me was stirring and this heavy music was waking it up, whatever it was.
Shortly after this the movie Heavy Metal came out and this new music I was digging into (or was it digging into me?) started to get a name. When Christmas came my brother said he wanted an album called Blizzard of Oz. My mom and I went to the mall where she reluctantly bought it. This time, when my brother put the record on, I heard a different guitar sound and whatever it was that was stirring inside me just sunk it’s claws in deeper. Crazy Train blew some more doors open, and not just for me. At this point I was officially into a new kind of music. Then a movie called Heavy Metal came out and this new music suddenly had a name (it probably had this name before hand but remember that I am in small town Texas). I was officially a metal head. An interesting memory comes up here, though. My mom and I were travelling to see her mother. Mom was being very patient with me and my metal tapes in the car. On the way home I moved to put one in and she stopped me and said, “Nope. It’s my turn.” She put in a tape and this music started coming out from the speakers. I turned and looked at her and asked, “What is this? It’s really pretty.” She replied, “It’s call Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel.” I let is soak in. It was nice.
As a church family we often held events at our house. In 1983 we were hosting a Super Bowl party for the church youth group. I was not a football fan (still ain’t) so me and some of the other kids holed up in my room listening to music on a little cassette player. This one guy pulls out of his jacket pocket a new tape by a band I’d never heard before. They were called Iron Maiden and they had just released an album called Number of the Beast. This was the next life changing moment for me. This music was heavier. This music was more dramatic. And there was something driving it that I couldn’t quite place. When the song Number of the Beast came on I heard something at the end of the guitar solo and realized that the thing driving this music was the bass. I’d heard it in the Black Sabbath songs but in the Iron Maiden songs it just cut through and reached me. I wanted to play this instrument. “Who is this guy?”, I thought to myself. Steve Harris was his name and he is the reason I became a bass player.
The metal played loud. More albums by Iron Maiden came out. Ozzy, Def Leppard, AC/DC, WASP, The Scorpions, Lita Ford, Motley Crue, you name it, the metal just kept coming. It was glorious. Then in 1985 we moved again. This time we went from a small town to a (relatively) big city. The possibility of starting a band became real. It took about a year but it finally happened. I met my best friend and we played with a couple of other guys. The funny thing is that all we played were Black Sabbath and Rush covers. So while I wasn’t playing my beloved Steve Harris bass lines I was pushed in a different direction. Sure, I was still a metal head. Now it was getting even heavier with Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax entering the scene. Thrash metal was coming on strong. But we still played Rush and Black Sabbath. Today I often say the Steve Harris is the reason I picked up the bass and Geddy Lee is the reason I became moderately proficient on the bass.
Toward the end of high school an interesting thing happened. My best friend (a guitarist) and I started getting into fusion jazz. We were mesmerized by the virtuosity of the players. I started listening to Chick Corea, Jaco Pastorius, Steve Morse, John Patitucci, Stanley Clarke, etc. My musical world was growing. By now my parents had split up and my rebelliousness had peaked. I graduated high school slightly messy but I made it. After graduation some family stuff happened and I moved away from my friends and my band to live in Austin, Texas.
I moved to Austin with three goals in mind: play music, party, and make it big. I hit two out of three. I’ll let you guess which two. I worked the restaurant scene and played with different people, formed various bands, played a lot of shows to crowds both large and small (sometimes really small). One day a guy called me up. He had gotten my number from a girl I was dating at the time. He was a pianist and a graduate of the University of Texas School of Music and was looking for a bass player in his jazz/funk band. He had a really good drummer, the likes of which I had never played with at the time. I wasn’t nearly as good as these guys but they took me under their wing and helped me learn some rudiments of playing jazz. They really pushed me. This is where I learned to play the blue and learned how vitally important that skill is. It was during these jams with the band and other jazz players that I realized they were communicating through music on a level that I did not understand. It was like they were having a conversation in a language I could barely speak. I realized that if I really wanted to do this then I should go back to school and study music or hang it up. So I enrolled in the local community college to give it a shot. It turns out I was pretty good at it and just needed the right teacher to show me the ropes.
I enrolled fully expecting to study jazz. My first music theory teacher was just finishing is doctoral studies in classical composition. So he taught music theory from this point of view. And this was the next life changing moment for me. Under his guidance I studied the great classical composers, contemporary composers, and even some jazz greats. I began to see how interconnected all music was. The doors were now open wide, like a floodgate, and music was pouring through. I made the decision to audition for the University of Texas School of Music, borrowed a double bass, learned how to play with a bow, and practiced like I had never practiced before. I got in. I was officially a music major and was becoming a classically trained musician. I practiced and practiced and practiced. I played in orchestra. And I finally made the move at one of my performance juries (where the faculty judges your progress) to change my major to music composition with a classical emphasis. I graduated and officially became, on paper and in practice, a composer. I have written string quartets, piano quartets, and other various chamber music pieces (I even have a CD of some of them; PM me with an address and I’ll send you one for free; it’s also available on Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music under the name Res Gestae). The family now has a classically trained musician in its history.
Classical music is expensive. It takes a lot of time and skill to write and even more time and money to get it produced. It’s not easy but it is doable. Strangely, after college, I let it all go. Part of the reason was spending all that time writing and then trying to get people to play it, and the difficulty in getting all that to line up. Compound it with a career and a family and, suddenly, time becomes a rare commodity. I stopped playing, teaching, reading music. Life threw me some curveballs. It happens.
At some point, I’m not sure when, I had some of all of my instruments lined up in the living room. I was taking pictures of them so I could post them online for sale. My wife walked in and asked what I was doing and I told her. She said, “Rob, don’t do this. You will regret it.” I am in debt to her for this advice because she was right. I kept the instruments (much to her dismay I have even more now). Sometime after this I made the decision to start playing and writing again. This time, though, I was going to play all the parts myself. I was a degreed musician so I had enough skill to work things out on guitar even though I’m not really a guitar player. The same goes with the drums. In the year 2015 I decided to write, perform, record, and publish on the internet a song a month for a year. There was no preconceived idea about any one song. Whatever idea took hold I went with it. I made my goal (the songs are available on my SoundCloud page [fcleff] and a tumblr blog [fcleff69 – A Year of Song] if you are interested). This project was another life changing moment for me.
Music became fresh again. I realized after spending a year writing songs that I need music in my life. I started reading music again. I also came full circle and realized how important metal music is to me. The beast that was stirred so many years ago never went away. It’s not tame now but it is wiser and understands its power. The beast understands the power and interconnectedness of music. I’ve wrestled with this beast and have thought of music, at times in my life, as a burden. I now see it as the blessing it has always been. I never made it big but along the way I learned to reassess my vision of success. I have many successes in life and in music. I have a family that I hold dear to my heart, in good times and in bad, and am thankful that they put up with the quirks of having a musician in the family. It can’t be easy but they handle it with grace.
I now play in a metal band called Flooded Tomb. We play regularly in the Austin metal scene. Our music makes me feel happy and I’m glad I have an opportunity to work with other musicians, collaborate in the writing process, and express myself in a way I have always wanted to. I am especially happy when we play live and I get to dance with that beast I’ve always known for all of these years.
I listen to all music now. There is not one style or genre better than the other. It is all music and it is all vital. Embrace it.