What are the pros & woes of being a self-taught composer? Woody Woods



Photo by David Nichols

For me, writing music became a passion while I was still in junior high school. Being inspired by hearing a jazz version of “Whistle While You Work” on the radio, I began writing for my school jazz band. Not knowing “The Rules of the Road”, so to speak, I wrote what I heard in my head and felt in my heart.

Though my music was pleasing to the ear, it was often not so pleasing to the eye. I had stems going in the wrong directions, parts that were not as practical as they could be on certain instruments, figures on the wrong beats, etc. Fortunately, my band director, Mr. John Magruder, was there to help me out of the mire. He also inspired me to keep writing, and I did.

I would write pieces, both jazz and classical, and then rush to school to have someone play them. This was my technique for teaching myself what worked and what didn’t. I was never much of a reader. However, I did borrow Mr. Magruder’s band and orchestra director’s books, and I memorized all the fingerings and ranges of all the instruments. I also listened to the radio and records more critically; trying figure out what it was that others were doing.

By the time I reached high school, I had a writing style, something I could really work with. The good news: I could write almost anything in my style. The bad news: I had to work long and hard to write anything that was not in my style. People still find my writing very identifiable, and I think it makes breaking certain kinds of barriers a little harder than if I had a formal composition background. However, my experience allows me to create with little or no fear.