An Interview with Mark Camphouse, ‘American Musician’

March 22, 2007Print-Friendly Version


By Rick Custer

Mark Camphouse, well-known composer, conductor and music adjudicator, joined the Mason faculty in September 2006 as professor of music. He conducts the university wind symphony and teaches courses in conducting and composition.

Prior to arriving at Mason, Camphouse taught and conducted for 22 years at Radford University in Virginia. Camphouse also held positions at a number of other colleges and universities around the country.

Camphouse has more than a dozen published works for wind band by several different music companies. He edited and contributed to the first volume of “Composers on Composing for Band.”

In 2002, Camphouse received an Outstanding Faculty Award, Virginia’s highest honor for faculty at the state’s colleges and universities.

Each summer, Camphouse runs the Young Composer and Conductor Mentor Project, sponsored by the National Band Association. He selects three young composers to work with himself and two other well-established composers in private lessons. The students also have an opportunity to hear their music performed by a local band or ensemble.

Mark Camphouse and wind symphony
Composer, conductor and professor Mark Camphouse with Mason’s Wind Symphony earlier this year.
Photo by Nicolas Tan

When did you first become interested in music?

I studied piano from kindergarten all throughout my high school years. I started trumpet in fourth grade. I think had some evidence of creative ability just as long as I can remember.

Do you still play trumpet?

Very little. Something had to go, even though both of my degrees were technically in trumpet performance, and I studied with members of the Chicago Symphony. I just had to be honest with myself; I don’t love playing the trumpet like I love conducting, composing, teaching, guest conducting and writing books now.

When did you first begin composing?

I think I first started putting stuff on paper and orchestrating some serious pieces when I was in eighth grade.

I was first published in 1984. My first symphony was premiered by the Colorado Philharmonic in the Central City Opera House. I auditioned for that orchestra, and I didn’t make it, but I brought one of my scores to the audition and showed it to the conductor. He was fortunately impressed enough that a 17-year-old kid would have written a half-hour symphony, so he decided to program it that summer.

I’ve written three symphonies to date. My third symphony, “From Ivy Green,” might in some respects be my best piece; it’s for soprano and wind orchestra, based on texts by Helen Keller. It was premiered at my alma mater, Northwestern University. I wrote it for my wife, actually, who sang the solo soprano role. It’s also been done here at Mason with Anthony Maiello conducting. There is a wonderful recording available on Albany Records by the University of Miami Wind Symphony.

You now compose primarily for wind band and wind groups.

My first works were for symphony orchestra. I wrote some brass chamber music when I was very young, as well as a choral piece. I don’t think it was until 1980 that I wrote my first work for band.

There are three reasons that I write so much wind band music today: first, the band profession needs new music, so there’s a genuine interest in new music with the band world; second, band music gets published, orchestral music does not; and band music is where the commissions are. The band profession’s been very good to me.

The wind band historically has been a pretty accessible medium, perhaps more accessible to the masses than the cultural elite. It’s an exciting time to be in the wind band profession because we’re starting to see the band emerge as a viable means of artistic expression increasingly on a par with the symphony orchestra.

As a composer, how you do you feel about conducting your own music?

I’m not sure we composers are necessarily always the best interpreters of our own music, but there are exceptions. I played under Aaron Copland three times in my career. Mr. Copland was not a gifted conductor. Who cared? The insights and perspective and intimacy that he brought to his own music were better than any of the top maestros, in my opinion.

Many times, a composer, even though not as technically gifted on the podium, can make a connection with players and audiences that many great conductors can not.

If you are a conductor who also has compositional ability I think it gives you a leg up; you understand the creative process. You can get into the mind of other composers a little more deeply if you have both of those perspectives: knowledge and experience of both the creative and the re-creative.

In addition to composing, you are also a conductor and educator. How do you balance these roles?

I cannot imagine not being involved in these various facets of music. Some days I get up and feel that I’m a composer today. Next day I’ll get up and feel more like a conductor.

Being a teacher has also played an important role in my life. I think to be an effective educator in music one must be an excellent musician first.

I love the daily interaction with college students. I like when I’m traveling, guest conducting. I’m usually out 10 to 12 weekends a year, doing high school all-state tryouts, college residencies, professional groups and the like. The neat thing about doing those engagements is what I can bring back to share with my students here.

There are some people who seriously question, as I do sometimes, “Can composition really be taught?” I think what a good composition teacher should do is help students find themselves creatively without being overly intrusive.

Conducting is also a challenging art to teach, although since it is more re-creative than creative I think teaching conducting is a little bit easier than teaching composition. I think the thing that is important in teaching conducting is that you try to avoid cloning. You try to let the student, whether undergraduate or doctoral student, develop and find themselves.

There are two words I want on my tombstone: “American Musician.” That’s what I am.


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