From childhood, I was raised in a home that was immersed in the European Classical music tradition, and believed that anything else was sub-standard by comparison. My parents were both Eastman School of Music graduates, where they met each other. My father, Thomas Hohstadt, actually had four degrees in music and was in the midst of pursuing what would ultimately be a 25-year career as a Symphony conductor, while I was just a toddler. My mother, having two degrees in music education could play or teach just about any instrument or voice that came her way, and she regularly taught students at our home. As I grew up, instead of listening to the popular music of the day on radio, I heard great classical works by Beethoven, Brahms, Richard Strauss and many others blasting over the phonograph record player, as my dad studied his orchestral scores for his upcoming concerts. As a child, I remember my father showing me how he marked the score entrances in preparation for his rehearsals. My mother brought my sister and me to every one of our father’s concerts. She would sit us on the front row each time, expecting us to stay quiet and attentive for a couple of hours (we were 3 and 5 years old!). The sounds of the symphony orchestra still resonate in my musical memories, and will probably float around in my sub-conscious forever.
Even though my parents were immersed in the world of classical music, my father had a background in jazz, having toured with the big bands of the 1950’s, playing trumpet. He later was one of the first American conductors to introduce the concept of ‘Pop Concerts’ to generate a wider audience for the symphony orchestra, and he seemed to enjoy the process of bringing relevance to an appreciative audience. Maybe this mindset originally came from his mother who used to play ‘rag-time’ piano for the silent movies. My mom’s mother, however, was a church organist, who attended one of Eastman’s earliest classes to study organ. She was a very devout woman who unfortunately suffered her entire life from heart problems due to a childhood illness, and underwent many surgeries. She, however, developed an amazingly strong faith in God through the process.
Music goes back quite a ways in my family tree, but from a non-musical standpoint, my father’s father was a pioneer and educator in the early settlement of Oklahoma, and my mother’s father was a farmer in upstate New York. I learned some important lessons from these men in the brief time I spent with them. One had a tremendous passion for knowledge, while the other lived by strategic planning and common-sense leadership.
Even though my parents were highly involved in music, they never forced me to do the same. While enjoying a pleasant childhood, doing the things my generation liked to do, such as racing BMX bikes, flying kites and Boy Scouts, the urge to participate in music finally caught up to me. I began studying piano, then had the opportunity to have lessons from a fine violin teacher in Odessa, Texas, where we had recently moved. Mrs. Croft, my violin teacher, had high expectations of me, and at times I believe I met and surpassed those expectations. I made significant progress while practicing at least 3 hours a day. Within a few years, I found myself living 2,000 miles away from home with a Juilliard teacher who had invited me to come stay with her and her husband to attend the Juilliard Pre-college. Ms. Margaret Pardee and Mrs. Croft had known each other for some time and had agreed upon this new opportunity for me.
New York City seemed like another planet to me. It was dangerous and exciting all at the same time. The pangs of home-sickness would go away the more I immersed myself in my work, now practicing anywhere between 5-8 hours a day. The days were lonely, however, as I did my high-school by correspondence from my small room in Westbury, on Long Island. For three years I was virtually alone in the house, as my violin teacher traveled to NYC to teach, and would arrive home in the evenings. Her husband was about 75 years old. He was an artist (a painter), and stayed in the basement of the split-level house most of the day doing his work. Over time he and I developed a friendly relationship, as he taught me about Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Cézanne, as well a good deal of Shakespeare and Homer.
Throughout the days I began to create poetry, compose music and develop a philosophy of life. The loneliness I experienced during those teen years drove me to look deeper at life than most young people that age. I look back on that time, however, as one that forged my character and my willingness to stand alone in many decision-making processes which would come later in life.
It was during these years that I made significant progress as a performer and a composer. I began to win both violin and composition contests at Juilliard Pre-college, and began traveling to Europe with my father to solo with orchestras, as well as play recitals. Those trips are a story all in themselves, but it’s enough to say that they were both life-changing and adventurous, especially going behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.
The numerous concerts I had either played or attended (such as the countless string quartet concerts Ms. Pardee would take us to) began to spill over in my desire to compose for these various mediums. By the time I graduated from High School, I had written two orchestral works that had been performed by Juilliard orchestras, and during my first year of college, I wrote my second String Quartet, which was some of the best writing I had done up to that time. Even though I wasn’t officially a composition student, it was so much a part of my life that I would find myself, some days, spending hours writing, only to realize that evening had already come.
As I began to attend the college division of Juilliard, I found myself searching for significance beyond what I had accomplished musically up to that point. My meditations and philosophical studies had led me to a place in life where I began to ponder what direction my life should take spiritually. I went to church services, but something seemed like it was missing. This was a particularly desperate time of seeking and searching, trying to fill what seemed to be a ‘black hole’. All of my thinking, up to that point, had led me to a place of wondering if there was anything that would satisfy this place of emptiness.
One day, as I walked through the Juilliard practice rooms, there was an African-American young man, named John, who befriended me. He invited me to step into his practice room and began playing and singing for me music like I had never heard before, but that touched me deeply. Looking back I would call it Gospel music (that sort of bluesy church music that ‘Sister Act’ or ‘The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’ would produce). It was more than just a style, though. It was like he meant everything he was singing about. He wasn't just performing a miniature concert for me there. Instead, he was ministering to me the message of the Bible through song. He was a virtuoso pianist who could play Brahms’ Third Piano Concerto, and was currently working on an Olivier Messiean work. He had grown up in Detroit, playing piano and organ for churches, so he was familiar with church life and music. He had a jovial sense of humor, and seemed strangely satisfied and knowledgeable about his religious convictions. I began asking him questions about his belief in God and philosophical questions of life. To my surprise, he had a rich and intelligent understanding of the Bible, far more than I had (and I had been going to church all my life). To him, the Bible was a book full of wonder, as well as being a practical guide to answer life’s immediate problems. He invited me to attend his church, and over the course of a couple years, my own spiritual life began to deepen, as my own knowledge of the Bible grew.
During my time at Juilliard, I made a number of other friends from around the world who also shared insights from the Bible with me, and over time, I was able to do the same with them. The philosophical questions I had so acutely developed during my high-school years were like a raging hunger that was being satisfied day by day. The new friendships and relationships that were being formed were thirst-quenching for me, as we began to fellowship around something even deeper than our love for music.
I was becoming convinced that my life’s purpose was to use music, the highest quality of music, in the worship of God. Up to that point, I had observed music that placed man at the center of its focus. Ego-centric performers competing against one another was the norm, while a mostly passive audience seemed to attend concerts only for social reasons, rather than a deep love of the music. The music itself was, of course, full of beauty and wonder, but somehow something had gotten off-track, like a way-ward arrow, completely missing the target. In my own classical performances and compositions I would often include music that Biblical passages had inspired me to create, and felt satisfied in doing so, although I began to notice that not everyone seemed to appreciate my new-found faith. There was a dream that was taking shape within me. It was different than anything I had thought of before, and certainly different than anything I had ever seen anyone do. It seemed to me to be a completely suitable idea that the most beautiful music should meet the most magnificent God in worship.
Here is where the story gets even a little more interesting. I began to search for a place I could express my new-found calling, a place I could experiment. I figured it didn't matter so much where it was, as long as there was a sort of ‘blank slate’, a ‘fresh sheet of manuscript paper’ to try and see if it were possible to combine these various elements. I attended a church service in my home town of Odessa, Texas, and found that there was a group of people who passionately loved God and loved worshiping God with music. It was nothing like I had seen or heard before, not even like what I had heard my Juilliard friend play in the practice-room. Instead, it was several people who had just been ‘saved’ out of the local bars, that didn't read music and couldn't sing in tune. But they didn't seem to care. They just went about playing and singing as loudly and passionately as they knew how. Even though, as a musician, by all reasonable judgment, I should have bolted out the door running, never to look behind, there was something that made me feel like this was home. It was what I was after…a music simply from the heart of man to the heart of God. After all, I reasoned, God surely saw their hearts and accepted their music as readily as anyone else’s!
I realized, at this point, that I could either stay in the secular world and try to bring as much of God into it as they would allow, or I could enter the sacred world and try to bring as much skill and order as they would accept. It seemed to me that the better decision was to start from the central point of worship and work outwardly toward the goal of professionalism than to try to bring an awareness of God to those who, in my experience, were somewhat resistant to it. It seemed likely that those of humble circumstances would be more adaptable to musical improvements than those in the professional world would be open to God. Don't misunderstand, I wanted to reach out to everyone. I just needed a place to start with this new vision. Whether I was right or wrong, it's the journey I set myself on.
What I thought would be a simple thing to do, initially, turned into an instant clash of culture and years of patient labor. A Juilliard violinist and composer meets The Rolling Stones in worship! It reminded me of the Apollo 13 space capsule’s re-entry of the earth’s atmosphere. Everyone gazed up at the sky wondering if the ship would make it or be burned up in the process. It was my goal to ‘civilize’ this unruly beast and it was their goal to resist me, or at least help me understand something about pop genres. Over the course of about 8 years, they finally won. And I finally won also. I slowly began to realize that what I had believed from a youth: that all of my music was superior, and all of theirs wasn't began to soften. I began to understand some of the methodologies behind their music-making, and little by little, they began to understand the importance of chart preparation and classical direction. What came about over time was a synthesis of pop genres with classical disciplines. It wasn't without some fiery moments, however. At one rehearsal the drummer asked me to ‘join him outside’ like he used to do in the bar-room days. I had never punched anyone in my life, and I certainly wasn't going to risk injuring my hands. (Needless to say, we worked things out in a reasonably civilized manner.)
After having been the staff music minister for about fifteen years, we had cultivated a group of fine musicians. There was a drummer who had spent many hours in recording studios in Austin, who had toured Europe with professional groups. He read music well and even insisted that rhythms be notated properly! We had a bass player who had attended North Texas State University. She played upright jazz bass and electric bass with great precision. We had a number of players with music degrees, as well as those who didn't but deserved to. Many were skilled in a variety of musical genres and were willing to work hard to achieve great music. All were volunteers, who were willing to give sacrificially…for a while.
It all lasted about four years. My leadership skills, even though they were light-years better than when I started, together with a compelling vision of making great music for God, simply weren't enough to keep the fires of enthusiasm burning in the souls of these highly skilled compatriots forever. Eventually, the conflict of church schedules with paying gigs caused that era to draw to a close. This was a defining moment for me in terms of my commitment to my original vision. It was also a technically challenging one. The first question was, “How could I keep the quality of the musical product strong when my volunteer professionals were leaving?” The second question was even tougher. Did I want to?
I knew it was going to be an uphill climb anyway you looked at it. It meant that I would personally have to generate the entire body of work each week (at least for a while, until I could find or train some more people). The hole that they left was not going to be easy to fill. And it all started breaking apart around the time preparation for our annual Christmas Eve service needed to begin. The Christmas Eve services happened to be the biggest production of the entire year!
I had dabbled in MIDI ever since graduating from college, back in the days of the Commodore Amiga. I had personally invested in a souped-up Amiga 2000 back in 1988, and even produced a musical-drama with it. Since then, I had been investing in the purchases of software, learning Finale, Native Instruments, Cakewalk Sonar, Ableton Live, and Apple Logic Studio, as well as other lesser known platforms. I knew, at that point, just weeks before the Christmas Eve service, that it was ‘make it or break it’ time. I threw myself into arranging all the bass, drum, keyboard, brass, orchestra parts, utilizing Finale for a score format, throwing all of the parts into MIDI and building flexible time-stretching arrangements with click-track for my developing players to play along with. It was a two-hour production that I had built in about 3 weeks! I cannot even begin to explain the pressure that seemed to crescendo right up to the moment when over a thousand people filled the sanctuary (some had come from several hundred miles away, as our reputation had grown over the years). I remember reaching over to push the start button hoping everything wouldn't crash.
Everything turned out fine. It wasn't like having live players, but we made it successfully through the presentations, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.
After that point, I knew I had crossed the threshold of a new day in my life as a musician and as a leader.
Since then, I have continued to build performance tracks for live worship, as well as develop eager musicians, of all ages and skill levels, who believe in what they’re doing. We have again developed into a successful team with mutual respect for one another’s ideas, appreciating an array of musical styles.
I still maintain my classical skills of playing the violin and writing contemporary classical compositions along with my work at the church. (I've taken the example of J.S. Bach as a role model.)
Through the years, I’ve learned a lot about leadership and people skills, as well as technical skills through the design and installation of a number of sound, video and lighting systems, and the production of several albums. Our team of volunteers has grown from about ten people to approximately forty, producing about two hour’s worth of music each week, in four services.
I have yet to see the fulfillment of what I imagined in my heart 25 years ago when I first took the position of music director, but I know that I am still pursuing my dream of merging the great disciplines of classical music performance and composition with the relevance of contemporary styles, all in worship to God.
And I still believe the best is yet to come!