The oboe has a certain timbre. It cuts through an orchestral texture. It’s penetratingly bright. It’s insistent. It’s Trey Makler’s instrument.
Trey just wrote a chamber opera. As if I needed another reason to feel grossly incompetent, a 22-year-old composition major preparing for his final year of college sits across from me in a coffee shop, picking on some glorious pastry that I wish I had in my mouth and telling me that he’s just had his work premiered by a university opera. I’ve set up our conversation by telling him that I’m not fond of titles, and he seems to ride in on the wave of his recent success, but not ridiculously so. He’s energetic, robust…and insistent. The bar is high, but I’ll quickly discover that our kinship lies in the shared belief that titles do not a successful musician make.
Hailing from a smallish eastern Missouri town, Trey is not from a musical family. In fact, he didn’t start private lessons until he entered college. A middle school band director started him off on that sexy icon, the saxophone, even though Trey had his sights set on the bassoon (an anomaly I can’t even begin to understand), an instrument his band director simply didn’t have the resources to support at the time. I might make the same excuse to avoid listening to a beginning basoonist, but then again, I’m partial to the lighter timbres.
He ended up on the oboe, which wasn’t exceptionally stimulating or earth-shattering, at least not right away. Lacking the adequate social skills to propagate friends (as many middle schoolers do), he traded up in the form of after-school practice sessions with various instruments, at one time giving up oboe altogether before realizing he wasn’t half-bad and that maybe he should pay attention to that.
All through high school, he had his heart set on a university in Indiana, where tuition was a gruesome forty grand a year. I could play the perspective game on this for a long while, but I’ll cage that animal. Upon visiting the program, Trey found the environment to be cold, rude, and uninviting. His parents decided to depart the tour before it was over; the college reps were oblivious to their absence (a huge marketing faux pas, methinks). The cherry on the cake: they required a level of preparation he simply didn’t have. It wasn’t a good fit, and he was devastated. His parents encouraged him to have a backup plan and suggested majoring in business, a tactic with mass appeal to the generation before ours, where loyalty and trust are accolades reserved for the company and not for the project-oriented self.
Trey started out as a music education major, dabbling in composition for fun. He applied for competitive composition scholarship and got it, set out with the gargantuan task of composing a piece for a major international performing ensemble…in one month. He was faced with major anxiety trying to prove his self-worth, so much so that during one of his lessons with a theory professor, ended up in complete tears. Barring the obvious societal problem that we would need to push a musician to the edge of sanity to elicit productivity, the trend of releasing the flood gates to the grand old faculty gods atop their pedestals seems to be a rite of passage for all the coolest musicians.
“How was that for you?”
He smiles over his coffee. “It sucked.”
On the event horizon of a complete breakdown, he threw his pride to the wind and ended up taking incompletes in three of his classes. Through some soul searching and with the support of his close faculty mentors, he came to terms with the fact that in five years, no one would really care about his final grade in basic conducting. No one class would make or break his career, and the projects before him were infinitely more important to the learning process and his individual success than final class percentages.
He’s right, of course, despite my misgivings for ridiculous cutoff gestures and inaccurately subdivided patterns. Too often during my training in the same program, I seriously contemplated what it would be like to just…not take 20 credit hours and live the life of so many other normal college students. Or, I don’t know…sing wrong notes on purpose and enjoy doing so. I wouldn’t experience either of these joys until my college career was well over and I was faced with a painstakingly normal musician’s life, somehow making a career out of allowing wrong notes to happen in favor of fun, companionship, and creativity. As it turns out, there aren’t really any wrong notes.
He’s “endlessly angry” that schools insist on creating false expectations for musicians and training people like him for jobs that don’t exist, but his personal validation comes from the fact that the better the projects get for him, the more support there is for what he does. Today, his parents have no problem with his chosen career path, and he certainly doesn’t.
“What’s the one thing to know about successful music-making?” I ask him.
He pauses for a long, long moment.
“Success is wholly intrinsic,” he insists. “You’re the only person who gets to decide if you’re successful or not.”