After a professor called his work “cartoon music,” William A.R. May was ready to quit composing. But within a year he found himself participating in the Brevard Music Festival, “and this was without having had much teaching or training formally in composition at that point. The very next year, I won second place in the national competition, you know, with one of the very first pieces of music that I wrote when I was in college,” he says. The composition will be performed at the concert by C4 Clarinet Quartet on May 26.
Born in 1988 into a musical family, May began studying music before the age of 10. But discouragement was never far away. In eighth grade, during a discussion in a state history class, he says a teacher “told me, flat footed, that a Black man would not be able to hope to have a career in music, or the arts, professionally,” he says. He pressed ahead despite taking what she said to heart.
“I should mention, there was no perspective among Black communities for professional, classical music composers who are African-American, there just was none of that at the time,” he adds.
May earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Columbus State University and later a master’s degree in composition from Georgia State University, but he decided to take a job as a teacher.
“Every year I worked in education or worked with young people was great; I came to love it and appreciate it,” he says. “[But] the reason why I got into it in the first place was not from a place of confidence, but really more so from a place of fear: ‘Can I really make it as a composer?'” Support, he says, was lacking. He kept composing music when possible and is now a full time composer.
“… It means a great deal to me where you’re in an environment where you’re not necessarily surrounded by people who do the things that you do, are passionate about the things that you’re passionate about,” he explains. “I could go to a music festival and be surrounded by people there, and it’d be in an environment that supports the arts and supports composition from that standpoint, but then I’m the only one who is African-American in that situation. So it’s almost kind of the type of thing where no matter where I go, or what I’m trying to do, I don’t really fit.
“I was sharing with someone last night, another young person that’s looking to go into the music field, graduating from high school, looking to take on the world, and he’s Black,” May says. “I told him, ‘Take everything that you hear with a grain of salt, and don’t be deterred. Don’t be distracted or discouraged by anything that you hear whether it be too positive, or whether it be too negative, because you need some realistic perspective. But at the same time, trust yourself, your gut instinct, trust what it is that you’re doing, and know that there are people out there who support you.'”
Learn more about May at williammaymusic.com.
— Monica Hooper