TWO OF A KIND
THURSDAY OCTOBER 27th, 2011
Branson Brewer is a real go-getter, a young man of many talents, and he is already putting them to good use. It’s no surprise that this recent graduate of Lansing, Everett High School is already plotting his course several steps ahead, and most of it is in the creative arts. Brewer defies the stereotype of an aimless teen, not sure about a career path, that gravitates to creative pursuits because it is just fun.
Branson Brewer is fully aware of the work and determination it takes to make it in the creative industries. Why? Because since middle school Brewer has earned the money he needed to feed his interest in making music. Brewer has a music recording suite in a small bedroom in his home, and all of the equipment in it was paid for by him with money he earned. “I never earned money the usual way for a kid, like mowing lawns and shoveling snow,” said Brewer. “Kids at school always knew that I was the guy with a new money-making business angle. In middle school I figured out that all my friends wanted to download ringtones on their cell phones. I borrowed a connector cable from my Dad and downloaded ringtones for 50 cents apiece.”
Even as a toddler Branson was drawn to music. As soon as he could crawl he was climbing up on to the piano bench at his grandmother’s home to plunk at the keys. By three years old, his Grandmother had taught him Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and by 6th grade he was playing the cello in the school orchestra. “Because grandma lived next door, that is where I would go after school, and I would always rather play at the piano or work on music than watch TV.” His aunts and uncles are musical too, so there was always some musical inspiration around. “The classical training on the cello gave me basic music skills that created a base for building my own more contemporary beats,” explained Brewer.
Once Branson received an electronic keyboard for his birthday and realized the keyboard connected to a computer, the passion for making original electronic music pieces was in full swing. His determination to learn was put to good use when he started teaching himself how to edit music with a software program he borrowed from his Dad. “I kept working at it, and working at it until I got it right – and I guess that is how I go at most new challenges,” said Brewer. “My learning style is to find the tool, and figure it out. I got this from my Dad; he is really good at fixing computers. He taught me about fixing computers enough that I could earn money fixing them too. One summer I worked at the Black Child and Family Institute repairing computers in their computer lab. I was 15.”
By senior year in high school, Branson had joined a group of friends to form a music group called Skyline, the group creates musical events and performances employing all of the talents of the members, Branson mostly supplies “the beats” while the other guys rap over the music he produces. Out of Skyline a new talent and interest emerged for Branson – graphic arts. It was Branson that figured out how to use graphic design programs to create logos, logo-wear and cover art for the CD the group produced and sold. Next, the group is planning on releasing a music video.
This past summer, Branson Brewer had an internship at the Arts Council of Greater Lansing. Branson said it was a real learning experience. “I learned responsibility for showing up on time and being part of a team. I learned about working in an office and how to be organized with my work. I learned networking – I saw a lot of people networking. It made me realize that networking gets you farther. I learned to be focused, and that prepared me for a good start at Lansing Community College. I learned about designing for the business of art and my graphic design skills improved.”
Before his experience with the Arts Council, Branson was thinking about pursuing an associate’s degree at Lansing Community College. Now he is planning on pursuing both his music and graphic art and is taking the coursework necessary to transfer for an advanced degree at MSU.
Chris Newman is a senior at Okemos High School. Like Branson Brewer, his formal music education also began at a very early age. “I was in a young kid’s preschool music class at Michigan State University and by second grade I asked for piano lessons,” said Newman. But, it is hard to overlook the fact that Chris’ Mom is Sunny Wilkinson a jazz singer, performer, music teacher and lyricist and his Dad, Ron Newman, is a music arranger, composer, music theory teacher and piano player that often accompanies his wife Sunny. Clearly, his parents have had a profound effect on Chris Newman’s musical trajectory.
Chris says he composed his first original piece in third grade. Dad helped notate. The piece was called Exciting Birthday Party. “That piece was chosen to be played at statewide music convention, the Michigan Music Teachers convention. There was a concert that featured new works from kids around the state,” said Newman.
Chris continued to study music composition with his Dad. In 6th grade he picked up the French horn, an instrument he says he still loves to play.
Tackling music theory is like learning a new language – not just in how you hear it, but how you read it and write it. For Chris, studying music theory, started with piano. He learned some rudimentary skills in middle school. Chris describes music theory as the skills you need to annotate what you want to hear in your composition …language. “It helps me be accurate in writing down what I am hearing in my head, music theory also helps me understand the historical context of a particular piece of music,” shared Newman. This thirst for understanding is probably why, just for fun, Newman has taken on the Rolling Stone Magazine anthology of the top 500 albums from 1950 – 2003. “I listen to one or two albums a day and then grade them according to my personal taste. There is a lot of pop music that really has very little to offer, but there are also some incredible works that are a real inspiration. This project changes my idea about things… it has an effect on my creativity,” said Newman.
Newman has written everything from full symphony pieces to solo pieces. He reports that sometimes the solo pieces may be more complex.
In his school Chris has made a place for himself that accommodates his love of music, literature and art. He is such an avid listener of all types of music that he understands and appreciates current pop music and can find common ground with most of his classmates. He has taken his interest in the arts a step further by creating an event in his home that showcases the talent of many of his peers. “It’s called Imploding Plastic Inevitable – a spin-off of the Andy Warhol light show music event called Exploding Plastic InevitablezZ. It is a way to share my music, and pieces of art from my friends like pottery, paintings, other musical performances, videos and poetry. There is room for about 30 people to come to the event. The first one was a success; we will see how the next one goes.”
Chris Newman is like most kids his age. He has responsibilities at home for which he gets a weekly allowance of $10, and then mows the lawn for extra pocket money. Where he differs – he uses his musical gifts by offering music lessons to students for another $30 per week. Academics in his senior year include a review class in math (he confessed some challenges in understanding the theory of algebra) and some elective class time that gives him the time to work on his music portfolio for college admission. He is looking at music programs at Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Indiana University (IU’s Jacob School of Music is one of the largest music schools in the country) and Eastman School of Music in New York. “I also have a couple of performances scheduled for my compositions this year.” There is a Brass Fanfare for a Okemos-Haslett-East Lansing Schools event; a senior concerto, solo with an ensemble, scheduled for a May performance; and he is currently writing a piece for consideration by the Lansing Symphony.
From here the conversation went to the inevitable ‘hopes and dreams’ question. Newman’s response, “…What I am looking for is to be able to add to and help steer music and music appreciation. It would be nice to be a composer and live off of just composing.” Newman then conducted an impromptu performance sample session, one – an unnamed work in progress, and another – a completed symphony inspired a novella by Ayn Rand – Anthem.
When you meet exceptional young adults like Branson and Chris you can’t help but wonder what influences were most important in their life. Branson was quick to point out that it was his family that nurtured his talents. “ It was my grandma that started me on music, my Dad teaches me creativity and resourcefulness and it is my Mom that keeps me grounded and makes sure I am making my grades.” The benefit of being from a musical family certainly doesn’t escape Chris but he was also quick to point out that he owns his talents and dreams. “I have given my parents no room to give me their dreams, mine are big enough” quipped Newman.
On a serious note, Newman did go on to talk about the benefit of being in a school system and community that values the arts. “Art is such a big thing in a community. Here in Okemos we have 20,000 people and I believe that all of those 20,000 are doing something creative. Creativity fosters so many good things for a community…there is no negative effect of creativity on a community. I feel sorry for some of those schools that don’t have access to the arts…it is like they haven’t been invited to the party.”
If you just compare Branson and Chris by their zip codes and school systems they might seem worlds apart. Both schools have an emphasis on the arts, Everett, an inner city school is the Lansing School system magnet school for the arts and Okemos High School, a suburban school, has earned national recognition for its focus on advanced placement academics, and has a robust arts program. But clearly for these two teens it’s more than school and the influence of family, but their own determination which ultimately fuels their passion – in this they are two of a kind.