By the time he was 10, Patrick McBrayer had recorded two CDs of his work and won a regional composing competition. Now his young career is taking its next step as one of his pieces makes its world premiere Monday.
Patrick, a fifth-grader at Riverview Elementary School, composed the piece, “To the Beach,” when he was 9, orchestrated it when he was 10 and, at age 11, will make his debut on the Community Concert Hall stage as the piano soloist on the piece with the San Juan Youth Symphony.
“Concert wear is all black, except for you, maestro,” San Juan Youth Symphony Music Director and Conductor Lech Usinowicz said to Patrick at Monday night’s rehearsal. “You get to wear whatever you want, but you might run it by your mom first.”
Patrick’s journey is bolstered by talent, hard work and adults who have helped him develop his talent.
He has been musical since he was a toddler, said his mother, Anna McBrayer.
“When he was about 3, he created rhythms we couldn’t replicate,” she said of herself and her husband, Justin McBrayer. “We thought, ‘Maybe he has a sense of music.’ And he was the kind of toddler who had 20 pots and pans out to play elaborate stuff.”
After he turned 4, they enrolled him in Gabrielle Dugan’s Art, Music and Movement course for students ages 3 to 5. Based on a book she wrote years ago, Dugan designed the class to be full of play, and students learn music foundations by composing and playing pieces.
“He was composing when he was just barely learning to read music,” Anna McBrayer said. “He was making up relatively interesting pieces at the age of 5.”
Dugan, the founder of the Four Corners Music Teachers Association, is one of a number of adults who have invested in Patrick’s musical growth.
“We didn’t have access to a real, live composer in Durango,” she said. “At a Colorado Music Teachers Association meeting, I heard about a Colorado composer named Toby Tenenbaum. I heard his CD and wondered, ‘Where is this guy in Colorado?’”
Tenenbaum lives in Boulder, and she drove up to meet him, inviting him to Durango to put on a composition festival, which has continued for four years.
“He was a child composer, too, starting at 10, and the relationship he and Patrick have formed is very stimulating for Patrick,” Dugan said. “Meeting a real-life composer made Patrick think, ‘I can do this.’”
Another important connection came through St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, which the McBrayer family attends. Scott Hagler, the church’s former music director and a concert musician, taught Patrick orchestration, Anna McBrayer said. His school music teachers, Bill LaShell and Curtis Storm at Park Elementary School and now Shannon Fontenot, the music specialist at Riverview, have all added to his knowledge.
At Riverview, Patrick began studying the cello, and Fontenot lets him use a variety of instruments she keeps in her office.
“I helped get it (“To the Beach”) notated properly for orchestra,” she said. “We spent Friday afternoons making sure it was how he wanted it after I read the parts and after listening to his piano and garage band recordings of it.”
Fontenot got the symphony interested in playing the piece.
“Patrick originally orchestrated this for strings and piano,” she said, “because he wanted his classmates to perform it with him. But when we determined elementary students didn’t have the skills to perform the piece, I approached Lech, and we added percussion and got parts for the winds who play in C.”
Usinowicz loves to inspire kids to play music. In addition to the advanced students’ symphony, he also teaches and directs two orchestras each at Bayfield Elementary and Middle schools, one at Bayfield High School and the Durango Chamber Music Academy.
“I’d had one other experience of working with a student composer,” he said, “when the San Juan Symphony decided to do a piece by Corey Protheroe. I saw the remarkable things it did for his confidence. I thought this could catapult this student’s confidence in his music.”
Dugan said Patrick is a talented pianist, but his hands haven’t grown as fast as his expertise.
“He’s playing (Frédéric) Chopin’s preludes and (Ludwig van) Beethoven’s sonatas,” Dugan said, “but we have to make adjustments because of his small hands. Sometimes, we adjust the fingering, maybe playing one note in a chord with his left hand. I’d love to see him play Brahms, but his fingers just aren’t long enough yet.”
But whatever she assigns, he completes it.
“Talent is a gift, and it’s great,” she said. “But if you don’t put in the hard work, talent is nothing, and his work ethic is so terrific. He does it for the love of music and the joy it brings not only himself but other people.
“I consider him a prodigy. But he’s also just like any other kid, a pretty happy-go-lucky kid. And he’s a humble little human being.”
Soccer, mountain biking, hiking, camping and freestyle skiing are all on his list of fun things to do.
“I’m interested in architecture, too, and I’m really into science,” Patrick said.
His parents take care to keep it that way, Anna McBrayer said.
“We’ve been really careful not to overcommit,” she said. “The music is just our normal.”