Henderson State student knows music is in his future

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published March 3, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 1, 2013 at 11:27 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Marsalis Weatherspoon, a composer and graduate student at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, looks over an old piano in the hallway of the Garrison Activity Center on campus. The 24-year-old musician is pursuing a master’s degree in liberal arts and hopes to one day teach on the college level.

Marsalis Weatherspoon had been playing piano since he was 7 years old and became a full-time church organist at age 15, but he was rejected as a piano student at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia.

“No one helped me learn how to play,” he said. “I was mostly fooling around at first, and I learned to play by ear. I was turned down because I had no formal training.”

Weatherspoon entered HSU as a singer; he had been singing with his family as

St. Phillip’s Church of God in Christ in Hot Springs since he was 3, but he said he really had never thought about making music his career.

“I just wanted to supplement my music with formal education,” Weatherspoon said. “I was thinking more about a career in journalism, architecture; I always had a million things going on in my head, but then I heard about the composition program, and I was interested.”

He changed his concentration from vocal to composition in his second year of school, and he found a lot of encouragement.

“I remember playing with people who had had more formal training than me. I would say, ‘I wish I could play like you,’” Weatherspoon said. “A lot of them told me, ‘I wish I could play like you,’ and that helped me.”

He studies with Phillip Schroeder, who has been a professor of music theory and composition for 12 years at Henderson and who encouraged Weatherspoon to use his musical experience with his college training to create new music.

“I had all these ideas bursting in my head. I hear these complex rhythms,” Weatherspoon said. “I learned to slow down and really feel them. Getting to know Dr. Schroeder really sold me on composition.”

The study of music also opened the young student

to the work of some of the great composers of the past and in ways Weatherspoon had never considered before.

“Ravel is one of my favorite composers,” he said. “He and the other Post-Impressionists were the procurers to jazz. The way he combined instruments has influenced me.”

Schroeder, a successful composer himself, has said he enjoys working with lower-division students in their first years of college, especially those without a lot of formal study.

“They are the ones who need training in theory the most,” Schroeder said in a 2012 interview. “I want them to get a good grounding with the tools they will need for a career.”

However, there are often some frustrations for the talented students, especially with piano class.

“Having taught myself, I often come up with unorthodox fingering, and I spent a lot of time unlearning some of the things I do,” Weatherspoon said.

Schroeder teaches piano privately now and said he does try to teach the students the “right way.”

“I regret not getting more formal training earlier,” Weatherspoon said, “but not having it also gave me something unique, to have my own spin on things.”

After gradating in May as the first African-American graduate of the school’s composition program, Weatherspoon is now pursuing a master’s degree in liberal arts at Henderson State.

He is still involved with his musical studies and composition, but he is also concentrating on words with studies in rhetoric and composition.

“I’m still interested in journalism. I have written some magazine features and taken writing classes,” Weatherspoon said. “I am writing the words to a lot of my

music. A lot of my stuff is biblically inspired. I try to make it relate to people today, and I use my own words to do it.”

Weatherspoon is a McNair Scholar, a member of

a national program designed to prepare first-generation college students or students from traditionally underrepresented groups for doctoral studies. He has also been awarded a number of other scholarships at HSU.

He said his studies at Henderson have made him want to teach college. He has performed his own compositions at HSU and has had some performed by fellow students and faculty members on campus. He has gained teaching experience as music director of the Angelic Voices of Christ, the school’s gospel choir. He also remains active with playing church music around the state.

Weatherspoon hopes being a teacher will also allow him to continue to be involved in music.

“The composition students have a saying: ‘What’s the difference between a pizza and a composer?’” he said. “A pizza can feed a family of four.”

Weatherspoon said he knows he will always be involved in music.

“That is as far as I have thought it out so far,” the 24-year-old composer said. “I believe in the saying, ‘Dream a dream so big it is not possible without God.’”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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