Sample Profile: His Work Is No Joke

What follows is a sample of a profile such as my students are being asked to write for the Profile assignment in the Fall 2015 term at Oklahoma State University. It conforms partially to the content guidelines expressed on the Profile assignment sheet for that term, and it adheres to the length requirements (approaching 1,600 words; the assignment asks for 1,400 to 2,100), although the formatting will necessarily differ due to the different medium of presentation. How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.

I am grateful to the subject of this sample, my brother, for agreeing to it and for offering information. If there are errors in the text, they are entirely my own.

Daniel Elliott was born in northwest Louisiana, a bit more than five years after I was. Like me, he grew up in the Texas Hill Country. We graduated from the same high school a bit further apart than our ages would have it, and we started our baccalaureates in more or less the same way, majoring in music at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He succeeded where I failed, however; while I was obliged to change my major and pursue another field of study entirely, he was able to complete his music degree, earning a Bachelor of Music in 2011.

While the degree itself provokes no few jokes among the family—Daniel grew up among people who enjoy wordplay and direct it at and to one another as a form of entertainment, so that his holding a BM could be expected to prompt comment—Daniel himself is not a joke. Instead, he is a serious musician, dedicated to his craft and hardworking in its pursuit. Having been a touring musician at one time, he has also played with no few bands in school and outside it. His keyboard, trombone, and vocal work feature on the Juantanamos’ debut album, Ghost Tracks, and they sound out several times a week across much of Texas with the eminent party band Play It 4ward. In each, Daniel presents himself as a consummate professional, attentive to the fine details of performance and to ensuring that those details are as they ought to be.

His family background, in addition to offering no small number of quips, helps suit him to the work he does now. Growing up, Daniel displayed musical talent early on, aided in the display by the long association of his extended family with music. A great uncle, Denny Hardy, had himself been a touring and local musician for several decades, family history having him playing with such eminent figures as Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, Count Basie, Diana Ross, David Lee Roth, and Kenny Rogers; a grandfather, Russell Elliott, had been a music teacher, vocalist, and saxophonist for every bit as long. His father, Kevin Elliott, played in a local swing band for several years in Daniel’s youth, as well, and others in the family played instruments or sang for their own enjoyment and work in school. As such, there were many instruments available to Daniel during his formative years, and he was encouraged to play with them early on. His doing so built a familiarity with them that has stood him in good stead since, making music not a thing to do for him so much as a thing that is part of who he is and where he is.

That Daniel’s talent was recognized early did not mean he was not pushed to develop it. From an early age, he was enrolled in piano lessons with a local music teacher, Gaylene Ingram; his lessons with her continued through high school, and they were supplemented by other instruction in college. They were joined in sixth grade by formal instruction on trombone, picked up because of amenable facial structure and the odd chance of his father having a spare instrument at the house, as he noted to me in text messages on 15 September 2015. Daniel continued studying trombone through high school and pursued it with a different teacher in college. From sixth grade on, he also participated in a number of school ensembles: concert bands, marching bands, big bands, jazz combos, orchestras, and the occasional rock band. The breadth of his performance repertoire did much to enhance his abilities in each mode; he freely borrows across musical genres in his performances, doing such things as inserting strains from Sousa into jazz trombone solos or writing lines evocative of Gershwin into tracks for the Juantanamos. The tactic is unusual, borrowed from his great uncle and deployed without ostentation. Daniel simply plays what seems right—and what ends up being right, something betokening his mastery of his craft.

Similarly, as he plays, his body is remarkably relaxed. At shows where I have seen him perform as a trombonist, his posture is upright but not painfully so. No tension appears in his shoulders, even when thunder booms from the bell of his horn or when notes better suited to trumpets call out from it; his eyes close and any hint of lines upon his still-young forehead smooth away as the muscles beneath ease themselves in a way unlike that seen upon many who put horns to their faces. As a keyboardist, he almost slumps over the many racks of ivories—he usually plays multiple keyboards at a time: an electric piano complemented by synthesizers of various sorts—again closing his eyes, his head weaving around in sympathy with the sounds surrounding him. He moves with what he does, not so much making music as being it and serving as a conduit for some other voice that only he can hear before he makes it manifest for his audience. And when he sings with a voice that does show the effects of playing in bars and smoking in them and elsewhere, there is still no strain in him; the notes are full, not restricted, save when he sings for metal music—and even then, he does with air what many do by constriction. Only from long familiarity with the work of playing and training to make that work a thing that is rather than a thing that is done can such performance proceed; that Daniel does so nearly daily surely says that he is a consummate musician.

That Daniel already shows the skill he does does not prompt him to rest contentedly. Instead, he continues to work to refine his craft, approaching the task with a paradoxically confident humility—the knowledge that there is room for him to improve and that he is capable of making improvements. In part, doing so takes the form of attention to equipment such as typifies the greatest workers in any craft; mastery of a discipline includes caring for the tools involved in that discipline. I have seen him spend no small amount of time cleaning his trombones, for example, ensuring that nothing remains in the bore to interfere with the flow of air and sound through it and that the outside of the instrument gleams under sunlight or stage light. I have seen him also search far for a new keyboard cable or pedal to plug in, the specifications of it only slightly different than what he had had before, but in that small difference registering no small change in sound or responsiveness. I freely confess that the details of what he does with his keyboards exceed my understanding, but I know that the hours he spends in assembling, testing, and reconfiguring his equipment produce subtle changes telling in the performance, small shifts that occur only to those at the highest levels of their craft—and who recognize that there are higher levels yet to attain.

All of this is in addition to what would be expected of any professional in a given field: continued study. Many people spend much time listening to music, but they tend to confine themselves to a handful of artists and genres, and they tend to use it as background for their lives. Daniel, however, listens to every scrap of music he can find, from contemporary progressive metal through old recordings of Baroque scores on period instruments, to live performances by Big Daddy Kane in a park in Crown Heights or by Chicago and Earth, Wind, and Fire at a San Antonio amphitheater. Unless he is himself performing or asleep, he is most likely listening to music, attending to it in a way most cannot and processing what he hears so that he will know later on how to make more of it fit together—as would be expected of the musician he is.

Perhaps less expected but not less vital to Daniel’s musicianship is his professional handling of the managerial side of it. His training equips him to do so; his college coursework was directed towards music marketing in no small measure. I have never known him to be late to a performance, even when he has more than one booked in a day, and I have never known him to act in such a way that his fellow musicians have not been happy to hire him again—unless it is in knowing his worth and asking more for his time than a venue might be willing to pay. Even when his fellows have been less than upright, he has not acted out, finishing the jobs he has contracted before leaving a group or dismissing bandmates quietly and in private. Not for him are the flashy eruptions endemic to musicians in popular conception; for him instead is a respect for the work he does and that others do around him that bespeaks a level of professional integrity rare, but desirable, to see.

Setting aside any notion of jest, Daniel Elliott is a fine musician. More than proficient in several instruments and as a singer, attentive to his equipment, and possessed of a keen sense of how to work as a member of a musical group, his is an example well worth emulating. It may well not be the case that any given other person has the kind of innate talent that Daniel has spent decades honing, but his display of talent is a result of the honing—and that, most anyone can do, whether as a musician or in another endeavor entirely.

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