Kenji Bunch, a 1991 alumnus of Wilson High School, is coming back to Portland as a special guest at the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Winter Concert on March 13, 2010 in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Kenji was in the Portland Youth Philharmonic (PYP), America’s first youth orchestra, from the age of 12 until he graduated from high school. He will be returning to hear PYP perform one of his own compositions, "For Our Children's Children". This successful alumnus of Wilson High School and PYP is currently living and working as a performer and composer in New York. His awards and commissions are many. The New York Times calls him a “Composer to Watch.”

Q: What led you to the Portland Youth Philharmonic? What were defining moments while you were there?

I came to the PYP as a 12 year old violinist whose commitment to music was, frankly, waning. I never particularly minded practice, although it was inherently a bit isolating. The idea of a huge group of kids all playing together was intriguing, so that spring I auditioned for Mr. A. He promptly told me he couldn't use yet another violin, but would welcome me as a violist.

My immersion into the alto clef was immediate. That summer, the orchestra was performing Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony on the old Waterfront Classics series, and although I barely knew what I was doing, Mr. A invited me to play. I distinctly remember the first rehearsal. I had never been involved in anything like the PYP, and I was stunned by the amount of energy and sound the group generated. I didn't have anything resembling a tuxedo, so for that concert, I wore one of my Dad's old dark jackets that draped over me like a blanket. But, as corny as it sounds, that single concert in the park in front of several thousand people turned it around for me musically- I was hooked for life.

Q: Did you always think you would become a composer?

I left Portland after graduating from Wilson to study the viola at the Juilliard School. At that time, I had the notion I would hopefully become a professional violist in an orchestra after college. But while I was there, something unexpected happened. I really enjoyed my theory classes and was lucky enough to have a teacher who is himself a fine, prominent composer (Eric Ewazen). He could sense my interest in composing and encouraged me to pursue it. Two things spoke to me about composing. I loved the idea of leaving behind a body of work that could potentially continue to exist beyond my own lifespan. Also, I thought (and still think) that making a living off of something I can produce out of my own head was really cool. I ended up doing a graduate degree at Juilliard as a double major in composition and viola. To this day, I juggle the two vocations. At times, it's been difficult to sustain both careers, but I've learned, over the years, how to let them help each other. These days, my most satisfying projects are those in which I can perform my own music on the viola.

Q: What is the process of composing like for you?

I've learned over the years that it's better if I don't clearly define what my process is, because each new project kind of has its own unique needs that I have to recognize and solve. Sometimes the title comes to me first, and I'm intrigued to try to figure out what the music for that title should sound like. Other times, a purely musical conundrum will come up and I'll want to see if I can pull something off. Or I'll have a very specific kind of emotional expression I'll want to achieve, and it's up to me to figure out how to do that.

Often, a new piece will start for me with improvisations at the piano. I'll keep a notepad for sketches next to me on the piano and will write down anything I find interesting, until I have enough material to put something together. These days, I also carry a pocket book of staff paper with me everywhere I go. I've written music on the subway, and actually wrote a lot of the material for my 2nd Symphony on an airplane.

Q: What advice would you give other young musicians about making a life in music?

My advice would be the following:

1. Don't go into it for the money- there are far easier ways to make a living. In order to commit yourself to a life in music, you have to realize that, for whatever reason, you honestly can't do anything else.

2. Always be in the right place at the right time. In whatever you do, act like it's exactly where you want to be and what you want to be doing- even if it's not. At least 50% of being a successful, working musician is simply showing up on time and acting like someone other people can tolerate being around. Honestly, it's that simple. If you can do that consistently, doors will continue to open for you. If you can't do that, it's a very difficult rap to overcome. Never underestimate how small and connected the music world is!

3. Say "yes." Being a musician- including composing- means constantly learning on the job. You can never be fully prepared for everything you're asked to do. To continue to advance and grow artistically, you have to be willing to constantly stretch and challenge yourself- even if it makes you vulnerable and sets you up for potentially disastrous failure. If you're asked if you can read a chart, use ProTools, write a film score, sing the national anthem, etc. say yes without hesitation, and then freak out on your own until you can actually do it.

4. Hang in there! A very wise older composer once told me that all I would need to eventually become successful was to simply not quit. He said all the people in positions of authority in the music world were just his goofy colleagues when they were all students. Over time, those with lesser stamina are weeded out, and whomever is left will eventually rise to the top simple out of attrition. Just keep your head down, continue to do what you do as well as you can, and your integrity to your work will pay off- guaranteed.

Check out Kenji's website at: http://www.kenjibunch.com/bio.html.

PYP would like to offer a $5.00 ticket to the March 13th concert for any students of Wilson High School. Simply present your Wilson High School student i.d. at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall box office on the night of the concert. (The box office opens at 5:30.) For questions and information, call PYP, Monday-Friday from 9:00 to 5:00 at 503-223-5939.