Let the Song Begin
(New challenges and new opportunities for composer Brad Nix )
It is often challenging for collegiate educators to adapt their highly developed compositional skills to sanctuary or community choir settings. Not for any lack of craftsmanship or talent, but because it feels a little bit like “swimming with handcuffs on” trying to balance artistry with approachability. The wonderful gift of composing in a setting where musicians dedicate themselves daily to the interpretive tasks of the music allows for a much greater diversity of approaches, and a freedom that writing successfully for amateurs does not easily allow.
Perhaps Brad Nix makes this transition so naturally because his own background reflects that diversity. Dr. Nix was raised in the church and nurtured spiritually and musically by their programs. He understands the language of worship and this directs his writing with sensitivity to the task of leading others in praise.
When composing for choirs of distinction he is able to shift gears and move in an artful approach that puts his name in the choir folders of many thoughtful ensembles. He seems to move seamlessly between cathedral and chapel, from classical styles to contemporary idioms and from concert hall to sanctuary.
His background in music theory and piano also opened the doors for him to serve as Associate Editor of publications for Shawnee Press, a division of Hal Leonard. Working with Stacey Nordmeyer and Director, Joseph Martin, he is part of a publishing effort that sees the release of over a hundred new anthems, collections and support materials each year. He is intricately involved in the production and promotion part of the industry as well. Music critics regularly recognize his sacred choral and piano compositions for their excellence and for their usability. In just a short period of time he has emerged as a leader in the sacred music world. Brad took a moment to speak with us recently and share with us a little of his life and work.
What was the Music of your youth?
I grew up in a family that adored music, and my dad was constantly playing records around the house. He has always had an appreciation for many different musical genres, so I was introduced to a wide range of music at an early age. While growing up, I remember developing a fondness for artists as diverse as Elvis, Dean Martin, the Kingston Trio, Ray Conniff, Johnny Cash, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, to name just a few. Because of piano lessons, I also had a great interest in classical music as well. Surprisingly, I really did not listen to the rock music that was popular during my childhood.
Tell us about your background and how that inspired you to pursue music as a career?
Before I started piano lessons, my family didn’t own any musical instruments, but I loved to play the piano at our church, as well as the piano at my grandmother’s house. I guess my parents eventually grew tired of me continuously pounding out self-taught boogie-woogie riffs, because they finally suggested I take formal lessons. I was twelve at the time, and although this was somewhat late to begin studying, I practiced hard and made good progress.
When it came time for me to attend college, I enrolled as a jazz piano major, but eventually switched to piano performance. Although I maintained at least a casual interest in writing, I had no real ambitions to compose or arrange professionally. My only desire was to become a classical/jazz concert artist.
However, God had other plans for my life. One morning, while practicing, I began to notice significant pain in my right wrist. As time passed and my discomfort increased, it eventually turned into a full-blown performance-related injury. To this day, I’m not sure how or why the injury happened. I had wonderful teachers, and I always practiced very carefully. I believe it was simply God beginning to point me in a new direction.
I searched for ways to heal my wrist for the next several years. However, as my injury continued to develop, I began to think of other ways I could be involved in music besides piano performance. By this time, I was serving as a Minister of Music at a church in Boulder, CO, and becoming heavily involved in choral music. This involvement, coupled with my interest in writing, led to my first attempts at composing and arranging.
Eventually, by way of some remarkable teachers, God healed my hand. But, by that time, I had been bitten by the “writing bug,” and no longer desired a career in performance. God had opened up a new world for me, and I began focusing my energies toward serving Him through writing.
What music do you listen to now?
The list would truly be too long for this interview. On my iPhone or in my CD cabinet, you would certainly find generous portions of everything from western swing (we do live in Texas, after all) to ABBA. However, the majority of my listening consists of choral music, symphonic music (I’m a Mahler addict), film and Broadway soundtracks, and jazz artists.
Tell us about your faith journey, and how it influences your musical choices.
Despite being raised in a devoutly Christian home, I did not come to faith in Christ until I was 18 (February 28th, 1993 is my spiritual “birthday”). Since that time, like everyone else, my faith journey has been a series of peaks and valleys, but I would like to think that, through the years, my relationship with Christ has continually been deepening and maturing.
Regarding my writing, I rely on the Holy Spirit for inspiration, whether I am writing an original octavo, an arrangement, or an orchestration. I am so aware of the fact that without Him I can do nothing. Therefore, I try to always begin my writing sessions with prayer. I often feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of presenting the Gospel of Christ to others through music, and I am leery of beginning any musical project unless it is thoroughly immersed in prayer.
In addition, I pray for the choirs that present my music, and for the congregations that will hear the music. I desperately want my efforts to serve, in some small way, as a vehicle for God to speak to others, whether they are singers or listeners. In this regard, there are several Scriptures that are foundational to the way I mentally and spiritually approach writing. For instance, “Commit your works to the Lord and your plans will be established” comes immediately to mind (Proverbs 16:3, NASB).
Name three things about yourself that would surprise people.
Well, I would say I’m a Whataburger fanatic, but, if you know me at all, that would come as no surprise. So, how about the following:
I have always been interested in the history of the American west, and, if I were not in music, I would most likely be a historian.
I have always been obsessed with James Bond. Since I grew up in the 80s, my favorite Bond will always be Roger Moore. During my childhood, I spent much of my free time trying to develop cool little spy gadgets. This included everything from placing “armor” on my bike to trying to insert paper maps into the inside of a gutted wristwatch. Who knows? Maybe I should start signing my music as “Brad Nix 006.” (Say it out loud. It rhymes!)
I try to stay as active as possible, and I love being outdoors. There are few things that I enjoy more than an outdoor jog on a cool morning, or a day spent on a hiking trail somewhere.
What projects are currently on your horizon?
The publishing industry works roughly a year ahead of time, so I am just beginning to consider what kind of choral projects I would like to tackle for Christmas 2018. I would also like to begin work on a new book of piano solos. It has been quite a while since I have written a piano collection, and I am starting to run out of things to play when I travel to churches and conferences!
When are you most creative?
The morning is definitely my most creative time. I can edit, handle correspondence, and be successfully involved in almost any other work endeavor later in the day, but my creativity seems to work best between 8:00 am and noon.
What’s your sacred space?
Well, as a believer, I actually do not have a “sacred” space. Since the Holy Spirit dwells inside of me as an adopted child of God, I never really feel that I have to go to a certain spot or location in order to feel His presence.
But, there are certainly places and locations that inspire me. For instance, I love the mountains! I was fortunate to live a portion of my life in Colorado, and the Rocky Mountains never failed to create in me a sense of wonder at the majesty and glory of God’s creation.
Which composers/arrangers inspire you?
Oh, my goodness! There are too many to count, but I will give it a shot.
My two all-time favorite composers are Mahler and Brahms. I have a strong interest in orchestration, and, to that end, I will frequently examine scores written by folks such as Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Ravel as well.
For contemporary choral music, I am continually inspired by all of my colleagues working in the field today. In addition to those folks, I often study the output of John Rutter, Morten Lauridsen, and Karl Jenkins.
Lastly, I am certainly a fan of writers such as Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, and John Kander. They could write a tune like nobody’s business!
As I mentioned above, this is a woefully incomplete list, but at least it’s a start!
What do you do when you’re not composing?
Compose. No, I’m just kidding. Well, I’m just kind of kidding. The truth is that I love music, and it is not only my vocation and calling, but it is my hobby as well.
I dearly love to spend time with my wife and three children, and together, we love exploring our adopted home state of Texas. My wife and I are “foodies,” and we never tire of exploring the incredible restaurants that Austin has to offer.
Apart from these things, I love to spend time in the gym, where I work off the copious amounts of BBQ I consume on a weekly basis!
Where do you see church music going in the future? Are there trends you think are important in the current culture of sanctuary music?
I truly appreciate all types of church music, and as long as the music is a vehicle for honest, heartfelt worship, I am good with it. Concerning trends, however, I think the church needs to be wary of worship that is “performer–centered” and not “Christ-centered.” This type of comment is usually aimed at contemporary worship leaders, but more traditional music departments are unfortunately guilty of this as well.
Because my calling is providing choral music for the church, I would hope that the church choir continues to find a valid place in our services and worship events. Perhaps I am showing my age, but it is such a spiritual uplift for me when a group comes together with one purpose: to glorify God through a community of song.
What is your #1 tip for aspiring writers?
Somehow, find an opportunity to have your compositions performed by a real choir. Music software playbacks are great, but they do not substitute for a live group. Even if the ensemble only sings through your music one time at a rehearsal, you will gain feedback from that single experience that you can gain in no other way!