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Playing on in pursuit of his dream: K-M senior auditions at Berklee, eyes career as a composer

Arries McQuarter taught himself piano when he was in seventh grade, and may apply his talents to get into the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he plans to study composition.  - Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter
Arries McQuarter taught himself piano when he was in seventh grade, and may apply his talents to get into the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he plans to study composition.
— image credit: Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter

Sporting a suit with a bright red shirt, Arries McQuarter stands out from his peers at Kent-Meridian High School.

He says he wears suits for a number of reasons, one of which is to look the part of a piano player. If he can look the part, he can certainly play the part.

McQuarter recently returned from an audition for the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a prestigious conservatory that accepted only 19 percent of its 2012 applicants. The school set McQuarter up with an audition two days after he applied. He'll be the first person in his family to attend a four-year university if he is accepted.

McQuarter grew up in Kent, the youngest of four brothers and living in Section 8 housing. He developed an interest in music when he started playing the trumpet in the seventh grade. That same year, he discovered a talent for piano playing during spring break.

His mother, Heather, learned to play the piano when she was younger but hadn't played it since she was a teenager. When she purchased a piano six years ago, McQuarter thought it could be interesting to play, so he taught himself.

"The only person in my family who plays piano is my mother, and she hasn't really been all over the whole playing piano thing," he said. "As a kid she was only able to play certain styles, so she didn't play piano most of her life until about six years ago, and looking at her I was like, 'huh, maybe this could be interesting.'"

Hong makes an impression

He played piano on and off during the seventh and eighth grades, but didn't take it seriously because he felt that piano music was restricted to classical styles, which he felt were either overly technical or uninteresting. He was ready to abandon playing in the ninth grade when his brother, Allyx, dragged him to see renowned Chinese-American pianist Alpin Hong perform at Kent-Meridian High School.

He was expecting an older man in a tuxedo playing Chopin, Mozart or Brahms but instead was greeted by a youthful and energetic performer who sported a Star Wars T-shirt.

Hong's charisma inspired him to continue with piano playing and work toward his dream of composing. He showed McQuarter that professional piano performance isn't limited to old classical or jazz, and that he can pursue his musical passion – soundtracks to movies, video games and TV shows.

"I can learn whatever I want, and this excites me because I will be able to have fun with piano," McQuarter said.

McQuarter still talks regularly with Hong, who is the closest thing he has had to a teacher and mentor. Hong encouraged him to pursue his dream of composing music for video games and movies and suggested that he apply to Berklee, and even sat in at his audition for the school in Los Angeles. But he has never specifically told McQuarter what to play, only offered suggestions.

McQuarter believes that it is more important to start teaching oneself instead of with a piano teacher who has a plan for how to teach.

"I believe piano teachers get paid to teach you at their pace, I think you should learn at your own pace," he said. "People who learn the instrument by themselves do a lot better because they're able to convey their message besides someone else's."

Wishing to compose

Piano is his ticket to a composition degree, and he hopes he can compose music for video games and movies, following in the footsteps of his favorite composers – Nobuo Uematsu and Martin O'Donnell composers for the Final Fantas and Halo series of video games.

While he loves instrumental music, McQuarter finds classical music less interesting than soundtracks, and finds that symphonic music encompasses a wide range from classical works to modern soundtracks. He hopes that with a degree in symphonic composing, he'll be able to go into writing music for soundtracks.

"I've sat at classical concerts where people just dozed off, there's no connection," he said. "But if you play something (happy) like Mario, people smile. If you play haunting themes, they get tense. I love seeing the way music evokes emotions in people."

What matters to him is the emotion of the music, not its complexity.

"Without music, what joy is there in life?" McQuarter said. "There's always sound behind everything, and if it's not there, life is going to be bland. Even in the silent films, there was music."

McQuarter expects to hear the results of his audition by the end of January. In the meantime, he's working on getting friends together for his first composition.

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