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  • Writer's pictureEmmy Rozanski

Navigating Life After Music School: Just Be You with Mike Keegan

I'm very pleased to learn more about Mike Keegan and his musical journey. Mike was one of the first musicians that I reached out to when I moved back to Milwaukee after having been in Arizona for five years. He was very helpful and suggested we could play together. We have now performed together several times and have another collaboration in the works. I'm always impressed with Mike's dedication and creativity when planning and executing musical projects. He makes it happen!

ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do. MK: I'm a freelance hornist based in Milwaukee and also play organ on the side. I have my own music publishing business, Eastwinds Music, where I self-publish my own compositions, arrangements, and transcriptions. I belong to the American Guild of Organist (AGO), Milwaukee Chapter, of which organization I currently serve as Secretary. I also have my own chamber music group, Eastwinds Chamber Ensemble, based here in Milwaukee. I have a BA in Horn Performance from UW-Whitewater and a Masters of Music in Horn Performance from UW-Milwaukee.

ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? MK: At UW-Whitewater, I performed in a number of ensembles, but most importantly, I presented the occasional solo and chamber concert. At UW-Milwaukee, I was able to do some freelance horn playing for organizations such as Milwaukee Choristers, and had the opportunity to perform wind chamber music and had a wind quintet going at that time. I participated in concerto competitions such as the Concord Chamber Orchestra and UW-Whitewater Symphony. I also did some horn demos for the Civic Music Association here in Milwaukee.

ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? MK: Finding a job in the music field. Currently, I work in a hospital as a housekeeper to supplement my income. I took a number of orchestral auditions, but never made it past the first round. So, I came up with my own opportunities such as Eastwinds Chamber Ensemble, which I will talk about in the next question.

ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful? MK: I had an internship through the Civic Music Organization in Milwaukee, networked with other musicians, sent out resumes to publishing places like Hal Leonard for work, and had the occasional horn student. Well, after longtime Composition Professor at UW-Milwaukee, Dr. John Downey, passed away in 2004, I decided to get serious with composing. It started out with works for horn, my own instrument, and now I compose for a variety of instruments, no band or orchestral works to speak of. Starting up Eastwinds Chamber Ensemble to promote music for horn, solo and chamber, was the best thing for me. It was in 2010 that I decided to add organ as my second instrument. I've been getting better at this instrument as well as horn.

ER: I understand that you are autistic and specifically have Asperger's Syndrome. What challenges has this presented in life and as a musician? MK: Well, being autistic, I tend to take things too personally such as someone making a negative comment towards me or overthinking a lot of situations in life. I'm trying to make positive changes in my life. With Asperger's Syndrome, people don't always have the best social skills. I get along with people just fine, but when I was in social settings when I was younger, sometimes I wouldn't mingle with many people. This got much better as I got older. As a stutterer, I would talk too fast and have difficulty with certain words. I had speech therapy and as I got older, the dysfluencies became less and less for me. When it comes to being a musician and you have to talk to people about a certain piece of music you are about to perform, such as in retirement places and nursing homes, senior citizens have a difficult time understanding me, and I feel pressured to speak quickly. Well, that's not so much the case anymore.

ER: How have you been able to overcome those challenges? MK: Just by being more confident as a person, performer, through composing, and many other things. One of my favorite quotes is "Music is a universal language everyone speaks." I have had many supportive friends throughout elementary school through today. Just having a strong support network makes all the difference in the world.

ER: Growing up, did you feel that music helped you deal with difficulties resulting from Asperger's Syndrome? MK: Oh yes, it did. I strongly believe music is an art form which helps people to communicate their thoughts without speaking. The way I look at it is this: Composers write pieces of music to communicate their thoughts to the general public as well as performers and artists alike. Picture an art work such as Les Nenuphars (Lily Pads) by Monet. That has a lot of Impressionistic influences with lots of colors. As one listens to a piano work by Debussy, it's great for the listener to study a work of art such as Monet's, and get a picture in their minds as to how art and music can relate to each other. I look at artworks as I think about music at times.

ER: I know you are a composer as well as performer. What role does composition play in your musical life? MK: Composition is another way to promote horn as a solo and chamber instrument. I use melody a lot as my basis for composing, and in a few of my works, I would quote other composer's works a little bit, and in a couple of my duos I use a bit of counterpoint to get the melodies to coincide with each other. My Catholicism plays a huge role in how I approach organ and composition.

ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school? MK: Don't ever let people discourage you from pursuing your dreams in the music field. Granted, symphony orchestra positions are very competitive, so find a job to help supplement your income. I minored in French, the language, and still use it in conversation to this day as well as study musical scores. Networking is strongly encouraged, connect and get to know other musicians, not just the ones in your area, but also get to know some artists, and always be curious with how the arts relate to the sciences. From working in a hospital environment, I learned a lot about science and many other aspects of healthcare. As a stutterer, I have been a member of the National Stuttering Association Chapter here in Milwaukee, and playing a second instrument such as organ was the best thing I ever did. Take as many auditions as possible, and if that doesn't work, come up with your own opportunities, work hard, and be yourself.

ER: Anything else you want to add? MK: Just be you and that's all you can be.

ER: How can people find you?

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