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An Interview with Wesley Bullock

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Wesley Bullock(The ChopSaver story began with a random conversation I once had with one of my students who told my about the miraculous healing powers of an herb called Arnica. Well, it’s time we caught up with my student and dear friend Wesley Bullock.)

Wes grew up singing in churches and later performing in school musicals.  When he was nine, he took up trumpet.  He graduated with a degree in Music Education from Butler University, and studied under a trumpet professor of ill-repute :). While he was there, he performed with all the major performing ensembles.  During the summers, he performed with Star of Indiana.  At first, the drum corps competed in amateur competitions doing eleven-minute shows.  Later, they collaborated with the Canadian Brass doing a two-hour show called Brass Theater.  It was there that he began to be drawn to dance.  He went on to study Graham and Ballet under David Hochoy with Dance Kaleidoscope, a modern dance company in Indianapolis.  Dance Kaleidoscope became his first true artistic family, and shaped so much of how he viewed the arts, performance, and its importance in our culture.

 A few years later, he started his journey with Blast!, a Tony and Emmy- award   winning Broadway show.  An original cast member and conductor, he went on to become the trumpet swing, the visual supervisor, the artistic supervisor, and, most recently, the director. 

He became involved with Dallas Brass first as a choreographer, then as an artistic consultant.  He now tours full-time with them as their production stage manager as well. He is the program coordinator and brass arranger for Inspires Drum and Bugle Corps from Yokohama, Japan.  He works with Star United, an adult amateur 7-time DCA champion mini-corps.  And he sub-conducts for the West Suburban Youth Orchestra in Chicago.

DG – Your occupation is a little hard to define. How do you describe it and are you doing what you thought you would be doing when you were in high school?

WB – I usually just tell people that I work with musicians to help them become better performers.  Or that I’m a consultant, which defines nothing, of course, but it sounds nice.  Whatever my role is with a particular ensemble is largely shaped by what their strengths and weaknesses are.  With most ensembles, helping with the pacing of the performance is a big part.  With amateur groups, my work often includes more technical aspects like intonation.  With professional groups, my work often includes more about how to connect with people using your instrument merely as a vehicle of expression.

And no, it wasn’t what I thought I would be doing in high school.  That being said, I didn’t know what I would be doing what I was in high school.  I thought perhaps maybe I would be a music teacher.  In college I thought perhaps I would be a conductor.  I briefly considered dropping out of school to study dance.  I really had no idea what I would be doing.  And honestly, I still don’t know what will be next.  What I do know is that I feel I’m where I’m supposed to be, and I’m experiencing things that are fulfilling for my journey.

A behind the scenes look at a Blast! Rehearsal

DG – Like many musicians, your work has afforded you the opportunity to travel to some amazing places. Your job looks very glamorous and exciting – tell us about the not-so glamorous side of it!

WB – I think the less-glamorous part of it is the time away from home, or away from people that you would like to see often.  For instance, every romantic relationship I had for about 10 years inevitably became a long-distance relationship because I travelled so much for work.  Now that I can be home roughly half of the year, that part isn’t so bad.  Oh, and trying to find good nutritious food with vegetables (lettuce doesn’t count) after an evening performance in the middle of nowhere. That is a common challenge.

DG – What is your favorite/coolest venue or city you have ever performed in? (a couple of photos would be great)

WB – My favorite city is Matsumoto, Japan.  It’s a beautiful little city in a valley ringed with mountains that are just a 15-minute bike ride away.  Everything seems in such good balance:  buildings balanced with nature, art and music with commerce, old buildings with new architecture.  There is so much to do, but the way the people relate with each other is like a small town.  The Performing Arts Centre is situated on the site of the original Suzuki school (now located just across the drive).  The theatre opened in 2004, and Blast! was the second performance in it (Seiji Ozawa conducted an opera for the opening).  On the top floor, a large rehearsal studio opens onto a grass park with sculptures looking out over the city to the mountains.  Usually when we’re in a theater, there is no access to the outside.  But there, you can be rehearsing, stretching, warming up, etc, all the while looking out onto natural beauty.  To me, it’s the best of both worlds. 

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DG – What sort of things do you want to do that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?

WB – I’ve enjoyed most of the things I’ve done in my life so far, but very little of it was planned.  My approach is to try to remain balanced and sensitive so that I can accurately perceive my gut feeling and act on it naturally.  That has led me down some wonderful paths filled with opportunities.  If there is something that you really want, then just go do it.  It might take a considerable amount of work, but it can be done.  So there’s nothing that I want to do that haven’t done because of lack of opportunity.  If I haven’t done it, it’s because I don’t want it bad enough to do what it takes to make it happen.  I do hope to continue doing creative work with people that I enjoy.

DG – When you are working with any group that includes movement in their performance, what is the first thing you look for?

WB – I try not to look for anything at first.  I try instead to view the performance or rehearsal without expectations so that I sense what a first-time audience member would experience.  I let my eyes and ears wander however they are naturally drawn.  In that process, I notice things that are working, and things that could use some direction.  After that, I can start working with the group to identify what areas we can address. Things that often catch my eye are the connection of the performers to the audience and each other, the expressivity of the performers within that theatrical moment, and the overall pacing of the performance.  

DG – And after working with a group, how do you know when your message is starting to connect?

WB – Ideally, it’s when an audience can enjoy the performance for longer swaths of time before having the suspension of disbelief interrupted.  When we take in theater, a movie, or even a concert, we allow ourselves to forget that what we are watching is not real.  That’s what allows us to believe in characters in a movie, identify with them, and root for or against them.  The suspension of disbelief allows us to be emotionally swept away from our own lives.  Anything that jars someone out of that spell kills the moment.  We want the audience to be swept away on an emotional/spiritual journey, and be deposited later slightly better than when they came in.  And an audience is looking for that.  They are hoping to get chills, to laugh, to cry, to be moved.  It’s something that may be difficult for them to fabricate in their life, and we can supply a vehicle for that experience.  Anything that gets in the way of that should be addressed.  If anyone is ever looking at their watch, or trying to figure out how to get along with their spouse, or wondering what time it is, then something is wrong with that created moment.

DG – Who is the most influential musician/performer you have studied or worked with?

WB – That’s a tough one. So many of my college professors were amazing. James Mulholland shaped so much of how I listen to music, and reaffirmed my desire to hear beautiful music.  Harvey Benstein taught me how to conduct.  Henry Leck taught me so much as a musician, a teacher, and a performer.  He talked about the value of emotionally moving a listener, and he was passionate about the music he conducted.  He shared that what an audience perceives is 30% what they hear and 70% what they see.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that informed, or maybe predicted, much of the focus of my work.

DG – And the most influential performer you have NOT had the chance to study or work with.

WB – Arvo Pärt changed my life.  The first piece I ever heard of his was his The Beatitudes.  I heard the first phrase – “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – and it blew my mind.  I probably listened to just that phrase 40 times before I let myself listen to the rest of the piece.  I had never heard anything like it, and I felt like an old part of me was reawakened into this world.  I’ve never met him.  But I wouldn’t say I haven’t had the chance to work with him.  More accurately, I have not chosen to seek him out.  Maybe I should do that soon.

DG – I bet you would both enjoy that meeting. Thank you so much for your time and insight!