Composer John Williams likely never anticipated his film score from “Star Wars” would be broadcast throughout the home of 5-year-old Brent McCollough from a “plastic, terrible-sounding” piano. Fifteen years and a few upgrades in instruments later, Brent McCollough still finds his niche in the organization and delivery of the ebb and flow of sound.
“Since I started piano, I’ve always known that’s what I want to do: just play music the rest of my life,” said McCollough, a sophomore majoring in interdisciplinary studies in commercial music.
Originally a major in jazz studies, McCollough transitioned over the summer to his new major – his own New College creation – in order to balance music performance classes with business and production classes as well.
The title may be uncommon, but McCollough said he believes combining these classes with performance experiences will best prepare him for the music career he wants to have.
“In the music field, if you can’t play, you’re not going to get gigs. They’re not going to be like, ‘Well, you can play really well, but what degree do you have?’” he said.
Matt Wiley, a jazz piano instructor at the University, has acted as a mentor for McCollough and said he hopes to see him continue to focus on what he loves about music.
“I believe we are all born with some form of creative ability. Unfortunately, academia has a way of stifling innovation. I think the best advice I could give Brent, or any of my students, is to study what speaks to you,” Wiley said. “It is the only way to get in touch with that inner artistic voice. The more we imitate what inspires us, the clearer that voice becomes.”
Both Wiley and McCollough as well as Mark Lanter, an adjunct drum set instructor of jazz studies, have had the opportunity to emulate classic albums while playing with The Black Jacket Symphony, a group that focuses on recreating entire albums “note for note, sound for sound” in their performances.
“The music we play is great, but it is the people that make it so special. They are some of the most talented and humble individuals you will ever meet with relentless work ethic. Professionalism extends way beyond musicianship, and Brent is learning from the best,” Wiley said.
Lanter has helped McCollough expand his experience by introducing him to multiple performance opportunities, including the invitation to play in his own band, Bonus Round.
“[McCollough] sang about three phrases, and I said, ‘Okay.’ And then I asked him to play with my group because I heard what I needed to know: that he’s a natural musician, he’s a great keyboardist, he has a great voice, and especially his range is something that’s also of great value,” Lanter said.
McCollough said he believes versatility contributes greatly to getting hired as a musician and said he enjoys both playing and writing music in a variety of genres.
“Some people are confused, like why I take 18 hours, while I’m also doing a lot of performing and learning and stuff, but I find it hard to not be busy. I don’t like not being busy. I like being focused. I like having to do stuff,” McCollough said.
And because in his apartment a keyboard sits opposite the bed instead of a sofa, a microphone and stand replaces what could be a floor lamp, and the computer sitting on the desk includes Pro Tools, McCollough rarely finds himself with nothing to do. He is capable of recording music in this home studio, and many of his tracks can be found on his website, www.brentmccmusic.com.
“I learned a long time ago that you can’t explain to somebody what you do, and that’s why my website is so valuable. Because I’m able to present everything that I can do in a way that people can actually understand it, or I feel like they can kind of understand it,” McCollough said.
Also featured on his website are his music videos for covers of songs he recorded and produced. Recently, he worked with Ben Carrasquillo, a junior majoring in jazz studies.
The pair created an unconventional cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” where Carrasquillo played the trombone.
“We went in on a Saturday after school was out in December … and just sort of locked ourselves in there for an entire day. We went from about one in the afternoon till about one in the morning nonstop, just writing and recording and shooting video,” he said.
McCollough edits the videos himself, a process he said takes upwards of 40 hours. Producing the audio never proves to be an easy task, but he said he appreciates the challenge.
“The great thing about music and recording and engineering and stuff, is – mastery is never achievable – you can never stop improving on piano; you can never stop getting better at mixing or mastering. There’s no way to not get better at it,” McCollough said. “You’re going to be thrown so many different recordings and that sort of thing. Everything’s different every time. I’ve noticed every single mix I do, I get a good amount better.”
Sandy Draper, a senior majoring in choral music education, worked with McCollough in a praise and worship band and was impressed with his work ethic. The two collaborated on a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay.”
“The thing I noticed just about him from the start is he knows what he wants, like in anything. He has a vision when it comes to what he wants to hear and how he wants stuff to overall look. He’s got like a natural ability for seeing the end result,” Draper said. “He’s just really good at coming up with ideas. He was very much encouraging and helpful.”
Chris Kozak, associate professor and director of jazz studies, has worked with McCollough in the UA Jazz Ensemble and sees a bright future ahead.
“The sky’s the limit for [McCollough]. He’s really ambitious, and he wants to be heard, which is important. And he’s willing to play with anybody, so he’s been branching out quite a bit since he got here, and that’s a great thing,” Kozak said.
After graduating, McCollough said he plans to complete a six-month apprenticeship at the Recording Connection in Nashville, Tenn., where he will train in a professional studio to gain more experience in music production.
“I think some of the most memorable moments are yet to come, because [McCollough] has got a lot of potential, and I think he’s going to surprise us with some really exciting things that he’s working on. I can say we had a performance with the guest artist Mace Hibbard, and he played exceptionally well in that concert,” Kozak said. “But I think the best is yet to come from Brent.”