PASIC 2013 Recap!

I just returned from PASIC 2013 in Indianapolis, and I’m still moved by the whole experience. Just WOW. It was such a special event, one that I will never forget. Here are some photos from my trip:

Thankful to Eric Willie, Michael Burritt, and Julie Hill for programming my music for so many other percussionists to hear. Thankful to Mostly Marimba for allowing a self published composer like me to have some booth space to sell my music. And, thankful to all my friends, new and old, for a wonderful time.

Aaron, George, and Mark: Can’t wait for next year guys.

Music & Sandwiches

Three years ago, I made sandwiches. For money. That was my job. It was 2010, right after graduating from Eastman with my master’s degree, and right after my interview with NPR, where I said:

if all else fails and I can’t find a job… I’ll just have to get a normal job for the first time in my life.

And I did.

Of course, I wanted to do music stuff to make money, but that doesn’t happen right away. “OK world! I have a degree! Give me money!” Not that easy.

So, I walked next door to Eastman and stopped in at Java’s Cafe, where I ate lunch nearly everyday as a student. Their sandwiches are that good. I asked if they were hiring. They weren’t, but the manager and I had developed a friendship over the years (because I was there EVERYDAY), and he said:

“We don’t have any barista openings, but we could use an extra person to make sandwiches. We can pay you our hourly rate, and you’ll get a free sandwich whenever you work.” I was sold! Like I said, those sandwiches are GOLD.

I was in charge of the tomato-basil-mozzarella sandwich, the Plain Jane chicken sandwich, and a few other “easy” sandwiches. The difficult sandwiches were left to my co-workers, who were WAY faster at making sandwiches; my music skills didn’t translate to sandwich skills… But, they kept me around anyway.

My days would consist of sandwich making in the mornings, and job hunting / composing music in the afternoons. At that time, I shared an apartment with my girlfriend, now wife Amanda. I remember her coming home from work and asking “How is the job hunt going?”. My response: “I can’t find a job. Also, I started writing a marimba duo.”

I’m sure those are the last two things a potential future spouse wants to hear:

“Can’t find a job” and “marimba duo”… Yikes.

Thankfully, Amanda was supportive. She thought I could benefit from having a website that I could send along with my job inquiries. So, she helped me put a website together.

As the summer ended, I finished my marimba duo and called it Into the Air. I found a small teaching job at a local community music school and I respectfully bowed out of my sandwich making job, which I was tremendously gracious for. (For the record, I STILL eat lunch at Java’s nearly everyday, and every now and then, I still get the employee perks too!)

At that point, I thought I should try and sell sheet music for Into the Air on my website, (to bring in extra money, but mostly to get my music out there).

I created a MIDI recording of the piece with Finale Print Music, (which honestly sounded like toy marimbas). I then created a PayPal account, a sheet music section on my website, and VOILA! I had a “sheet music store” (just one piece to sell, but still, it was something!)

Then, I sold a million copies overnight!!!

Just kidding.

No one bought my piece, for months. It just sat there.

I was a little discouraged and thought about removing my sheet music store all together. But Amanda encouraged me to let it be. “It takes time” she would say. In the meantime, life was getting a little more settled. I was teaching, building up a studio, and writing more music (why not?).

I gave the piece to two dear friends (and fantastic percussionists), Mark Boseman and Chris Jones, who gave the world premiere of the piece in early March, 2011 at Eastman. Along with their great performance came a great recording, which I used to replace my toy piano MIDI sounds on my website. THANK YOU CHRIS & MARK.

And then, on March 21, 2011, something great happened. I got an email from PayPal saying:

Payment Received from Erik Mullins

I sold my FIRST score!!! I was SO STOKED!

I scurried to FedEx to make copies of the piece and shipped it out to Erik right away, along with an ever-so-thankful email.

This started an email thread, where Erik and I talked about my music. He was a student at Ohio University, and wanted to program the piece on a recital. Erik then asked if I was working on other stuff. So, I told him about some other projects I was working on, and we’ve been in touch ever since.


Fast forward to present day. I just returned from a three day residency at Ohio University, where I was a guest artist of the school of music. I gave clinics in music business, coached their percussion ensemble, and performed a joint concert of my music with the OU percussion studio. It was AWESOME!

My host was Roger Braun, a fantastic percussionist and the percussion professor at OU. Over a Jimmy John’s sandwich, Roger shared with me how OU came to find out about me and my music.

It was Erik.

Erik had spread word around the OU percussion studio about my music, and soon other duos were ordering Into the Air, along with some of my other pieces, like Bloom for marimba quartet and some of my solo stuff.

Here’s the best part of this whole story. The first piece I programmed at my OU concert:

Into the Air. I played the piece with Erik Mullins. It was surreal and special. What a small, crazy, amazing world. THANK YOU ERIK.


In 2011, I sold exactly four copies of Into The Air. That’s all. FOUR. Anyone in the publishing business would tell you “THAT’S A TERRIBLE NUMBER”.

But, those four people have been instrumental in helping spread my music throughout the percussion world. I’ve already mentioned Erik. Here are the other three:

Gary Shuda was the next person to buy the piece. We also exchanged emails about my music, and on Dec. 6, 2011, Gary and his friend Ben Coleman gave me this:

Their video performance has been a HUGE discovery tool for Into the Air. I just searched for “marimba duet” on YouTube, and Gary’s video is one of the first things to come up. Crazy. So grateful. THANK YOU GARY.

Ben Andrews was the third person to buy the piece. Ben also gave me a great YouTube performance, and introduced my music to his teacher Phillip O’Banion. Phillip recently commissioned me to write a new multi-percussion solo. How did Phillip find out about my music? Through Ben. THANK YOU BEN.

The fourth person to buy the piece was Josh Spaulding, a student at University of Tennessee at Martin. Josh spread my music around his percussion studio, (they’ve programmed Into The Air, Bloom, Six, and 2+1), and sure enough, I’ll be an artist / composer in residence at his school next year, which includes the premiere of a new piece I’m writing for their wind ensemble. THANK YOU JOSH.

Into The Air was a major tipping point for my composing career. It’s been programmed hundreds of times all around the world and has become a standard in the percussion duo repertoire (that’s WEIRD to say, but I heard Michael Burritt say it once, so I’m gonna go with it.)

There have been other contributing factors for Into the Air, like this awesome video performance from Thomas Burritt and Joe Kelly, which has also been a HUGE discovery tool for the piece (THANK YOU TOM & JOE). The piece has been regularly performed by Amphion Percussion Duo and Escape X Percussion Duo (THANK YOU SEAN, PETE, ANNIE & ANDREA). I’ve gone on to record the piece with Michael Burritt. (THANK YOU MIKE) and Mike and Tom Burritt performed the piece last year at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention too.



  • Being a musician is like a Sigur Rós song; a slow and steady build. Hang in there. It’s ok to make sandwiches. Be nice to people. You never know. It takes time (thanks Mandy.)
  • Our music world is SMALL, and people you don’t know can help you. That’s certainly what happened to me. Erik, Gary, Ben, and Josh gave my composing career a foundation and gave me confidence to keep it going.
  • I get lots of emails from performers saying “It’s so nice to actually be talking to the composer!” That’s one of the many reasons I like self-publishing my pieces. There’s no middle man. Just me and the performer. There’s an immediate line of communication which allows me to create a relationship with performers like Erik, Gary, Ben, and Josh. They’re not just numbers on a spread sheet, and I’m not just a name on a score. We’re people having a musical collaboration.  The least I can do is open up my email to talk about it.
  • Finally, karma does exist I think.

I’m off. That Java’s sandwich is calling my name.

– Ivan, 10/19/13

Dress rehearsal of Into the Air w/ Erik Mullins.
Dress rehearsal w/ Erik Mullins at Ohio University.
w/ Ohio University percs.
w/ Ohio University percs.
Java's let me do this when I was a student. Awesome. Photo by Kate Lemmon.
Java’s let me do this when I was a student. THANK YOU JAVA’S. Photo by Kate Lemmon, 2010.

Learning from Rock Musicians

Classical musicians are contemplative beings. We think, over think, and think some more. My former teacher use to warn me of this, “You’re suffering from over-analysis paralysis” he would say. He was right. “How should I phrase this? Where is this musical line going? What was the composer thinking?” I would spend so much time thinking about these things, so much time figuring out the perfect way to do something, thinking more than actually doing.

Meanwhile in the rock world… musicians are asking less questions. Searching for less perfection. Wrong is accepted; Rawness is celebrated. There is a no fear mentality. Anything goes. Try it today, put it in our show tonight. I love that.

What can classical musicians learn from rock musicians? A lot I think.

Rock Musicians Play. A lot.

I travel frequently between the rock and classical worlds. I’ve met many young musicians in both genres, and the biggest difference I’ve noticed between the two sides is:

Rock musicians play out way more than classical musicians do. They play more gigs. Way more gigs.

Just look at most local rock bands. They have gig after gig after gig lined up. Every weekend, they are playing in a new bar or club. They’ve got their albums for sale, their email list out, and they are slowly but surely growing their audience. Meanwhile, classical musicians who have been playing their instrument for decades, who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their music training, don’t have this same mindset. Way too often in the classical world, musicians have no gigs lined up, with no albums and no website. How does this make any sense?

There is an obvious realization here; if your job description is MUSICIAN, that means you should be playing music. A lot. All of the time. As much as possible. You can’t be a full time musician if you’re not playing music for people on a regular basis.

Some would argue that classical musicians need to hone their craft more so than rock musicians, meaning more time in the practice room and less time on stage. I agree; practicing is an extremely important part of being successful in music, regardless of the genre you live in. But at the end of the day, musicians make a living performing for people, not in practice rooms. You can’t make a living as a professional practicer. That would be silly.

The music school landscape really doesn’t help our mentality either. In an entire year, a music student might play ONE recital, and maybe a few ensemble concerts a year.

No wonder classical musicians don’t play out enough; the culture doesn’t demand for it. Doesn’t prioritize it. And it should, especially given the decreasing number of orchestral job opportunities in the U.S. There has to be a change in our culture’s mindset in order for the job description MUSICIAN to be viable. We need to adopt a rock musician’s mentality; create, experiment, explore, and most importantly, perform.

No Fear

“You don’t know until you ask.” I love that saying. And it is so true, especially in music. Rock musicians understand it. Classical musicians sometimes don’t. A student in my music business class at Eastman once asked me how to go about booking a gig. The student asked question after question about the proper semantics to use when speaking with a presenter, the proper way to contact someone (email vs. phone), etc.

All the while, a rock musician skips the contemplation. They say “screw it”, and just walk into a venue, speak with whoever is in charge, and make something happen. That’s all it takes. Worse case, the venue says “no”. And that is part of the business. Rock musicians understand that, and don’t fear it.

Most classical musicians don’t have that mindset. Again, it’s not instilled in us. We’re contemplators. We sit on things for a long time before we take action. We’ll practice the same piece for a year before performing it. We’ll study the same 100 year old curriculum without question.

We are also fearful. We fear playing things the wrong way, and fear what our peers, teachers, and audiences will think of us. It’s probably why many of us don’t improvise. We believe there’s a perfect way to do things, and we can’t settle for less.

Well, the music business is not perfect. There’s no right way to do anything. Sure, there are some givens (having a website and email list is a good start!), but in our business, anything goes. Here are some personal anecdotes to demonstrate my point:

  • My band Break of Reality met our former manager of three years while busking in Central Park. That’s right. Playing for free on the streets. He dropped his business card in our tip jar, and we called him that night.
  • We met our current agent by, get this, sending an unsolicited email.
  • This one could be my favorite: we got our music on Pandora Radio by Google-ing “How to get your music on Pandora Radio.” Pandora has turned out to be a major tipping point for Break of Reality, providing significant exposure for my band. Thanks, Pandora (and Google)!
  • We were invited to perform at Pandora Radio’s headquarters in Oakland, CA. Here’s how; my bandmate Patrick Laird simply bought a ticket to a Pandora Showcase concert in Austin, TX, with the intention of letting Pandora know how beneficial they have been to our band. He knew absolutely NO ONE THERE. But, that didn’t stop him. He started talking to whoever would listen. Sure enough, he met someone in their marketing department. He shared Break of Reality’s story and ended up getting a business card. He followed up via email, phone, etc., and months later, we were in Oakland playing music for Pandora’s entire staff.

None of these things happened by the book. Nothing does in the music business. Things happen through persistence, and maybe a little bit of luck. In order to find that luck, you have to stick your neck out there and make something happen.

That’s why I like being in a band with Patrick. Once he sets his mind to something, he’s GOING to make it happen. It’s just the way he is. He’s persistent. Sure, some of his ideas are crazy, (like going to the subways to play music), but at least he’s thinking. He’s throwing around ideas. He’s being active. And he’s not scared to put his neck out there. He’s fearless; a rock musician at heart.