He’s got a very good ear and understands how music works,” Hampden Academy band director Ben Aldridge said of Graham Chase, a student who composed a piece of music for the 2009 Young Composers Competition.
But for Chase, who uses hearing aids every day from the moment his eyes open to the moment they close, music can be a challenge.
“I’m the only one who is hard of hearing in the band; I hear different things than what other people hear,” the confident 18-year-old said while setting the tempo of his composition for his two music teachers to follow.
It’s this confidence that gets Chase in the composing mood.
“I love to play music a lot, but when you are hard of hearing, you can’t hear everyone play. I’m in brass and I can’t hear the flute and clarinet.”
With this in mind, Chase composed a five-piece score featuring trombone (his instrument of choice), trumpet, saxophone, piano and bass for the 2009 Young Composers Competition, sponsored by the Bagaduce Music Lending Library in Blue Hill.
Alton “Tony” Downer, former competition judge and longtime educator and musical talent, has seen many young musicians compose some spectacular pieces in the past 13 years of the competition. “All we ask is that they obey some of the general rules of composition regarding key feeling, rhythm, time and more. If these youngsters have produced their pieces on the computer, the judges need to recognize if the computer did the work or if the student did the work.”
For Chase it was all from scratch, starting with lobbying his teachers.
One of Chase’s mentors is Andy Laidman, director of the academy’s Jazz Consort and Learning Support teacher. “I could tell from his playing early on that he listens to music,” Laidman said. “I have seen tremendous growth over the years. At first, he was pretty limited; already challenged because of his hearing impairment. I make it a point to teach technique and improvisation, and Graham takes it seriously and works it out.”
Chase has broken many barriers in his life with the help of his regimented, determined mind-set and the great musical mentors in his family.
The first two years were a battle to stay alive according to Chase’s mom, Nancy Chase.
“When he was born, his heart and bowels were competing for the same space in his tiny body. He had major surgery to correct a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, followed by cardiac arrest, and other multiple complications,” Nancy Chase said. After all that, it is still uncertain how Graham became hearing-impaired when he was 2 years old.
Since then, Chase’s hearing aids have been his lifeline. “It’s all he knows; if he doesn’t have his hearing aids in, he does not hear.” Chase’s mom said.
She described how her son doesn’t quite fit in a pigeonhole. “He thinks he’s very good at anticipating how a conversation is going to go, but most often he’s wrong,” Nancy Chase said. Graham Chase often has an interpreter despite the few times he felt that support wasn’t needed.
Chase has his stubborn streak and his mom claims he’s not one for negotiating. He is working from a checklist of sorts, in an attempt to accomplish all the things his brothers have accomplished.
“Graham has the attitude, ‘if Chris [his oldest brother] did that, I can do it too’; it’s the same with his brother Ian. Both are very musical along with his dad.” Nancy Chase said. Graham Chase even tried cross-country, and after many ribbons, it was like another item was checked off the list.
Like one of his brothers, Chase picked up the trombone. “We wondered if that was a good thing because it’s a tough instrument,” Nancy Chase said. “Yet his middle school teacher, Dana Ross, said it would be the perfect instrument because the sounds go past his ear.”
Composing music for the competition was not on the brothers’ check-off list, but still became one of Chase’s goals.
“Saying he has been excited about this is an understatement,” Laidman said. “I have seen Graham in many venues, from the classroom to the workplace, and he knows how to stick with a task until it is done. He has a very good work ethic.”
Laidman echoed Aldridge’s sentiments about this young musician. “Even though he’s hearing-impaired, he can tell if it’s a good note or not. His tone on the trombone may not be that clear, but he is able to tell if something is in tune.”
Aldridge has applauded Chase for his piece titled “Old School Trombone Blues.” “That’s a lot of work, starting from scratch,” Aldridge said.
Once the piece was written out on manuscript paper, and the piano baseline was played a few times, the notes were then plugged into the computer musical software program for Chase to hear each part clearly.
Chase noted that he composed a song titled “Fresh Pie” a couple of years back for the same competition but didn’t follow through with it. Chase said he will rework that piece in the future, after which Laidman said, “It’ll be a fresher pie then.”
Getting the score on paper was just a small portion of the Chase’s task. Chase is now working to get his quintet in shape for the April 25 festival where his composition will be performed.
Leading while playing his trombone for “Old School Trombone Blues” gives Chase the jitters as he attempts to set the tempo for his music teachers to play along. “I’m pretty sure these two know what they’re doing; they’re professionals. I’m just a rookie,” he said.
After the first dry run, Chase quickly realized he wants to pick up the tempo, and added each sectional solo for the next round. The laughter kicked in when Laidman ended his trumpet piece on the wrong note. “What’s the matter with you guys, can’t you see your part?” Chase said.
The entertainment didn’t stop there. The next round had the accompanists holding the last note, waiting for their leader to wrap it up. Chase acknowledged, “I was supposed to give you a cut off … Oh jeez, do you have any suggestions, seems how I’m playing my trombone?”
Learning doesn’t stop there. As each practice goes along, the score is reviewed and the improvisational parts are repeated.
At one point Chase noticed more work needed on the background sections. “You guys aren’t hearing-impaired, but I am, and the way I hear it, Mr. Laidman, the trumpet is louder than the sax. So Mr. Aldridge, you need to bring up your volume,” Chase said, finding a comfort zone with his conducting.
Digital technology also has brought about a new level of comfort for Chase. His hearing aids allow him to hear more because of a microphone-amplification system.
Removing one hearing aid, Chase talked about the boot that is attached that allows him to receive the sound transmitted from the microphone his teachers wear around their necks. “If you’re hard of hearing, really high-pitch noises create feedback. It’s not that I mind Mr. Aldridge trying to get the right sound,” Chase said. “It just reminds me of the old analog hearing aids. But now, wow, I can hear the drums, and it’s like steam coming out of my ears — I’m overheating.”
For more information, visit www.bagaducemusic.org/CM/education.php. Young Maine musicians who submit their new works for review by a jury of professional musicians have the opportunity to receive cash awards and recognition. Awards will be presented in two categories: Category I – Through age 13; Category II – age 14 through high school. All 25 entrants will be recognized at a Festival Celebration and Performance in Blue Hill on April 25.