Musical Consultant Billy Jonas
500 Clown has collaborated with many wonderful artists to
create this play. One of those artists, Billy Jonas, lives out in New York.
But he was kind enough to take a pause from playing music long enough to respond
to some of our questions. Here is what he had to sayÖ
1. How did you start as a musician?
My first musical experience was pulling pots and pans out of a kitchen cabinet and banging on them, My second was reaching up above my head, (once I could stand up), and banging on the keys of a piano (though I couldn't see the keys). I used to do that a lot, just blindly moving my hands to different places, until I found something that sounded particularly good -- then I would play that shape or melody over and over and over. This drove my parents crazy, so they got me piano lessons. My third experience was singing songs with people at summer camp -- this was the first time I felt the joy and connection from making music as a community. I got my start as a professional musician by being part of a band in college called "the Big Bang Theory" -- we didn't get paid, but we put on concerts and did radio shows, and I got a taste of what it's like to really work as a musician. After that I went to "open stages" or "open mics" at clubs and coffee houses, where people would play 3 songs each. This helped me learn the craft of being a performer, which is a whole different aspect of being a musician -- honing the ability to connect with an audience through music. Finally I started going to music festivals, where I met other professional musicians, and learned about different networks for performing, and recording, and collaborating. Everything else followed from that.
2. Do you play any instruments?
My primary instrument is my voice and my body. I also play piano, guitar, trombone, and percussion.
3. What advice would you give to an elementary student who is interested in music as a career?
I would advise anyone who is interested in music as a career to do 3 things: first, play! -- that is, just find joy in what you do and create, because if itís not joyful to you, it won't serve you or the world in the best possible way; second, practice -- engage your inspiration and craft every day, and learn to slow things down so that you can really feel every note, vibration, or word, and make it a part of you, and you a part of it; third, meet and spend time with other musicians, and especially those who have made music their career already -- there are SO many ways to pursue music careers and every single person doing this has found some unique avenue. Observing the paths that others have taken can help you to open to finding your own.
4. How can music and physical theater play off of each other?
Which comes first, the music or the movement?All of life is filled with rhythm -- in our bodies there's our heart beats, our breathing, our blinking, our walking; so our bodies are our primary instruments. Likewise, in physical theater, the body is the primary medium, and everything is filled with rhythm -- walking, running, dancing around a space; dramatic pauses in interactions, repeated discoveries or mistakes. So music, and physical theater share the same essence - bodies and rhythm. Either one can inspire and inform the other, and when the creativity is really flowing, you can't tell where one begins and the other lets off!
5. What is it like to create music for a piece before it is fully developed?
There's innocence, wonder, and magic in creating music for a theater piece before the piece is fully developed, because it could go anywhere and sound like anything. When I'm writing on my own, just for the sake of "following the muse," there is a sense of something trying to be born, as if I'm trying to clear away the veils covering something that already exists, or as Michaelangelo once said, "revealing" the sculpture that's already in the rock. But when collaborating with other people, in service to a larger theater piece, there's more letting go, which makes room for synergy between us, and invites songs, rhythms, sounds and interactions that are totally unexpected.
6. What inspires you as you create new music?
In general, the inspiration to create new music comes from a deep desire in my heart, to participate in the world by helping create community. Then specifically, as I create new music, Iím inspired by many things: words and word play, rhythm, interesting sounds, ideas, and sometimes just a feeling that I want to express. The feelings, or ideas, or words might come from an experience, a conversation, a dream, a book, my journal..... Any of the items from these sources can serve as the "seed" of a song -- then it grows, just like a plant. The "seed" is usually very small -- maybe even just one line, or one rhyme. I have to "water" this seed, by spending time walking around, humming or singing or playing it, and letting my mind, or my mouth, or my hands, or my pen turn it over and over. I have to hear and see it from many angles. Then I have to "plant" it in some kind of form -- a structure that might already exist, that I know from other songs, or a totally new structure that reveals itself. Once it has taken "root", I again have to "tend" and "water" it often (preferably daily). Once it's strong (and only then!) I can start to share it with other people, or "expose it to the sun and the elements". If it's too young, it will get burned and die (like from negative feedback, or criticism); but if it's got a strong start, it can handle other people's ideas and critiques, and benefit. Then, as it grows, "leaves fall off" or it gets "pruned" in the editing process. Finally, sometimes after months, it will bear fruit -- it reaches a point of maturity where it feels complete to me and to others listening or playing along, and provides nourishment!
7. How long have you been composing music?
Just like everyone else, I made up things as a baby and a toddler, but don't really remember those things. They were spontaneous and disappeared. I composed my first pieces when I was 5 years old, at the piano. Then I wrote my first song with words when I was 8. It was called "Cold and Windy" and was a song about the environment and the need to protect it.