With over three million copies of his compositions and books sold, Robert Sheldon is one of the most performed composers of wind band music today.
A twenty-eight-time recipient of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publisher’s Standard Award for his compositions in the concert band and orchestral repertoire, Mr. Sheldon has been the topic of articles published in The Instrumentalist, Teaching Music and School Band and Orchestra Magazine, The World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) World Magazine, and is one of eleven American wind band composers featured in Volume I of Composers on Composing Music for Band.
When and why did you start composing?
I began composing when I was 12 years old. I would come home from school and sit at the piano and create music, but realized I needed to write it down so I wouldn’t forget it. Then it occurred to me that I could write for some of my friends to join me. Before long I started arranging for my school band, and I guess you could say the path to writing music just gained momentum.
Who are your influences? How did they inspire you in music writing?
I am inspired by many different genres and composers. I have always loved the works of composers from the late Romantic period and the large orchestras that played those pieces, such as the music of Richard Strauss, Ottorino Respighi, Richard Wagner and Gustav Holst. But it is impossible not to feel inspired by the music of John Williams and other modern film composers. My composition teachers, Clifton Williams, Alfred Reed and Richard Bowles were very influential as well.
Would you consider your works to be mostly educational and written for young bands?
It is really a mix of pieces for me. Some are specifically written to be educational music for young bands, but other pieces in the upper grade levels have found their way into the standard repertoire for high-performing ensembles.
What would you consider the most challenging aspect of composing music?
Finding something that can significantly inspire you, and then determining how to best translate that into musical notation is the challenge, especially when trying to fulfill commissions where any number of requests or restrictions are contractually negotiated, be it difficulty level, duration, specific requests about style, genre or instrumentation, and of course – the deadline!
Would you say you have several favourite works of your own? What are they, and why?
My favorite piece I have written in the piece I am currently composing. And that is ALWAYS the answer. I feel that composition is a skill and an art that reflects the composer’s lifetime of experiences. Consequently, every time I have the opportunity to write another piece, I have that much more in terms of “life experiences” to share, and therefore, whatever I am currently writing is my favorite piece I have written.
Your works have been regularly performed over the years in concerts and competitions by many school bands in Singapore. What are your thoughts about this?
I am so very grateful to the bands and their conductors for selecting my music to perform, and for all the many hours of hard work and dedication they put into their performances of those pieces. It is an honor to know that my music has touched the lives of so many musicians in Singapore.
What are some of your newer works that you have written? Could you talk about them?
I am currently awaiting the premiere of four new works, three of which will be performed in October. Recordings of these are posted on my website, and once the premiere performances take place I will make these available to others for performance:
SENTINEL (Grade 3) – This piece takes its inspiration from the Jupiter Inlet Light that was built in 1860, which is a prominent 105 foot red lighthouse of the beautiful oceanfront beaches and nearby barrier islands. It imagines scenes of it guarding the calm waters at sunrise, overlooking the many people who visit the beach and sail recreational boats in its presence, and of course – enduring a storm!
PACIFIC CREST (Grade 4) – Commissioned by Michael Burch-Pesses from the Northwest Bandmasters Association, this work is inspired by the ridge of mountains spanning the entire range from Canada to the Mexican border, with music depicting the peaks, panoramic views, and the joy of hiking this incredible trail.
FREEFALL (Grade 4.5) – Commissioned for the 40th Anniversary of the Southwest Community Concert Band, this technical juggernaut imagines the thrill of skydiving, replete with moments of spinning, whirling, gliding, floating, trepidation, anticipation, peace and joy.
SIXTY-SIX (Grade 5) – Commissioned by Peter J. Poletti for the Saint Louis Wind Symphony, St. Louis, Missouri, Thomas Poshak, Music Director, Gary Brandes, Associate Conductor, and dedicated to Dan Presgrave and Faye Siegel, it a musical depiction of a trip on the legendary Route 66 in USA and is presented in five interconnected sections.
Do you have any advices for young composers?
Write as much as you can! Youth provides a unique perspective and energy that can inspire some truly worthwhile and passionate outcomes. But it is also important to make sure your compositions can be performed, and that requires reaching out and connecting to conductors and ensembles, and writing music that they can play and enjoy without countless hours of rehearsal.
This could mean writing for a chamber ensemble instead of a larger group, or controlling the difficulty level of the piece in order for it to be playable by the available ensembles. Regardless, it is essential for young composers to hear their music performed by a live ensemble and get feedback from the musicians in order to help grow and evolve as a composer.
Lastly, what does music mean to you?
For me, music is so very much – it is the expression of feelings and emotions, it is the conveyance of thoughts and ideas, and it is entertainment.
I feel so fortunate to have been able to have spent my life making music, writing music and conducting music, because SHARING music is what brings me the most joy!
This interview was conducted over email on 4 August 2022.