The old (and false) adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” has never been so wrong as in the case of artist, arranger, bandleader, and educator Todd Simon. A first-call musician and arranger for artists like Madlib, Odd Future, Ghostface Killah, Adrian Younge, Flying Lotus, and Mayer Hawthorne to name only a fraction, Simon has crafted a parallel career performing on one end and teaching in underserved communities (as well as in the Red Bull Music Academy) on the other.
Mr. Simon recently won our iPad giveaway and has implemented Chromatik in his classroom. Take a look at his experience teaching, using Chromatik in the classroom, and performing with our generation’s top innovators.
Tell me about how you go started in music.
My earliest memory is playing with my parent’s record player and radio. That was my favorite thing to mess around with and they luckily gave me access to their records. My earliest memories are really just being intrigued with music. When you’re a kid you’re just open to everything, so I was listening to the Beach Boys, classical music, Queen, Al Green, and stuff like that. I loved it.
At the elementary school that I went to, we were really lucky because they had this super old — she was in like her 80s — music teacher, Mrs. Rosenberg. She mainly taught choir and I sang in her choir my whole time in elementary school, from when I was like 5 until 12. She really sparked a huge interest in music with me and she identified that I had musical talent so she made sure I got on an instrument while I was at that school. I wanted to play the saxophone because that’s what girls liked. I watched Happy Days and Chachi played the saxophone on that [laughs]. Unfortunately at my school they didn’t have any saxophones, so the next best thing was a trumpet. My mom wouldn’t let me pick the bass because it was too big to take home, so I took the trumpet.
I never originally thought anything would pan out on it, but it’s become my whole life and my reason for getting up in the morning; it’s really special. You’ve been involved in so many incredible projects as an artist. How did you break into the scene where now you record, orchestrate, arrange, and do the whole bit?
I credit a lot of it to growing up in LA. That was a huge help. This is where the industry is. When I was in high school I started playing in bands and gigging which allowed me to get out there and make connections. It really connected me with a lot of the people that I work with now — I’m talking about back like 18-years-ago now. A big catalyst for me was a band called Breakestra. I collected records and was really into hip-hop and looking into breaks, but what I was really into was recreating the classic breaks live and getting it to sound live. That translated into doing it in the studio. It was cool to find out that other people had the same hobby as me with Breakestra. I approach all of my projects now in that same way where I know how it should sound sonically and also stylistically. All of the projects that I take on fall under that category: Is it fun? Is it musically rewarding? Am I doing the thing that I really want to do?
It’s been a really good run and I actually credit teaching with making it possible. If you’re a musician, it’s a very challenging career in that the income is up and down. As time has evolved, it’s become very hard for instrumentalists to make a living purely being an instrumentalist. For me, teaching has really opened things up to where I’m not scrambling to get every gig I can so that I can make my rent. I have my day job teaching music to kids, which is the most amazing thing. That keeps me grounded so when I get calls for projects, I hand select what I do. I’m not worrying about the financial stability. Obviously we all want to get compensated for what we’re doing, but sometimes the projects I take on are just strictly because the music is so amazing. I’m not doing it to make a buck out of it.
The landscape for live musicians is constantly changing. Now you can arrange for artists like Flying Lotus or Madlib whose music stylistically might not have typically employed live musicians in the past. How do you see the musical landscape changing both in the classroom and out with these artists?
Some of these artists have grown up dealing with live musicians whether it was in the church or if they had bands back in the day. They are usually pretty easy-going. In other instances it’s the first time they’re working with live instrumentation like when I was involved in the first live instrument recording session for the Odd Future crew. Hodgy Beats was super excited and it was really fun. They had no idea what to expect, so we kind of mapped it out for them and it was super fun. Just to watch them react to a real horn instead of a horn sound on a keyboard or sample was awesome. They were just freaking out.
Those moments are really special, especially with hip-hop bands or in DJ and electronic kinds of stuff. To have live instrumentation in it really makes it speak more. It’s kind of like an underlying reason for what I do. I want live instrumentation in music where it’s needed. Some producers just don’t get it though; they’re like “Why would there be live instruments on a hip-hop track?” They’re stuck in their ways and that’s fine.
With the kids, exposing them to the fact that as far as classic hip-hop is concerned, it is actually sampled music — a lot of kids don’t know that. The ‘90s are long gone; our generation gets it, but the younger generations don’t. So to get the chance to even just explain to them the process of sampling — they’re so amazed by it. The fact that all of my students are playing live instruments is exciting for them. They are super interested in it. I even go back to breaking it down how it stems from Jamaican music and up to London with reggae, dub, and back and forth with the whole remix concept. They’re really blown away. Then when the time comes for me to explain to them about Flying Lotus or what’s going on with dubstep, they actually really get it. If I tried to explain dubstep to a kid who doesn’t even understand the history of hip-hop or electronic music, I think it would go way over their head. All of the kids are asking about dubstep now; they just want to know everything about it.
How old are the students you teach?
They’re between 14 and 18; I teach 9th-12th grade.
How did you get involved with the charter school that you teach at now?
I’ve always taught even from when I was in high school. I’d give trumpet lessons to friends who wanted to learn. Then I went to CalArts and they have a great community outreach program called CAP [Community Arts Partnership]. Through that I taught at a lot of after-school programs in East LA and up in Valencia. It’s just very important. Even if you’re a working musician, it’s kind of like a full cycle. If you’re able to talk and explain how you’re doing something musically, when you go to make the music it means much more to you.
When I lived in New York I hooked up with an afterschool program and taught at a couple of schools in the South Bronx, which was probably one of the greatest opportunities teaching that I’ve ever had. The kids there were so into it, so talented, and it was a lot of fun. When I moved back to LA in 2002, I saw a job opening at a Catholic high school, St. Bernard’s High School in Playa Del Rey. Their band director I guess went crazy and lost it and then quit. They needed a band director in the middle of November, so I came in and somehow managed to gain the kid’s trust. Specifically in music, it’s a real sensitive thing. Somehow it worked out and I worked for the Archdioceses for almost eight years. They helped me get my masters and credentials.
Later on I ended up linking up with PUC [Partnerships to Uplift Communities] schools where I’m at now. I’m really into the charter movement. I think it’s important and it pressures the public school districts to step up their game. At my charter that I work at, they are very supportive of the arts. Day-after-day we keep hearing about how public schools keep cutting their bands or visual arts programs, so every day I understand how lucky I am to be at a school that actually cares about their music programs.
Have you been able to utilize Chromatik at all in your classroom yet?
I have three levels of instrumental classes — 2 beginner classes, an intermediate band, and then an advanced band. The advanced kids are super into it. They love that they can pull up their music anywhere they are if they have the proper device. Our school is in a challenging community, so a lot of kids can’t afford a smartphone or a computer. But for the kids that have the access, they’re super into it. They’re really utilizing the function where they can record an example, send it to me, and ask me for feedback. That started over winter break, which is cool because I was able to sign a lot of kids up before that. It was such a sweet surprise to get an email from a student working on a piece and asking, “Am I playing this right? Can you give me some feedback?” I was out of the country and I could write in the example very clear feedback — circling parts and putting in the right articulations and stuff. They really got into it, which was great.
On a beginner level, I think I need to work out a way to build the app into the curriculum. I’m always trying to get them to practice and I think having technology incorporated will help, like “Oh this guy wants me to do something on my phone or computer? Awesome.” So I’m trying to come up with some more accessible warm-ups for them. It’ll be like, “I want you all to do this warm-up and I want you to send me a recording of it within two weeks.” If they need help, they can do it in the class because a lot of these kids don’t have access to the Internet. So my goal is to give them a positive environment to do it in.
We do performance juries — even with the beginners — and I think with our next line of juries I’m going to try and do it through Chromatik. That way, it’s something that they can always have.
You’ve been involved with the Red Bull Music Academy as well in both a performance and mentoring capacity. Tell me about that experience.
I always wanted to be a participant actually. For those who don’t know about it, every year in a different country they have two-week terms where each term is a different setup with usually 14-20 participants. Each person is from a different place around the world. So I always wanted to be a participant and the year after I found out about it, I got a call from Torsten Schmidt who is one of the main directors of the academy. He said they were going to be in Seattle for the academy and they wanted to do this big concert with the Northwest Sinfonia and DJ/producers. They needed somebody to be the middleman between the orchestra and the producers and they also added in arrangers — the concert was called ArRange. Famous arrangers for the ‘60s and ‘70s were doing arrangements of music from the producers. So you would have like Eumir Deodato doing Oh No or David Matthews doing Kirk Degiorgio and that type of stuff. It was really cool. Then the DJs were doing versions of the arranger’s stuff.
So they wanted somebody to be in between the orchestra, the DJs, and the arrangers. They were asking around and Egon, who was at Stones Throw, recommended me. That was a huge treat. It’s probably one of my favorite projects that I’ve ever worked on. Oh No needed help because he had all of these ideas and wanted to do a tribute to Clare Fischer, so we took a bunch of breaks and remixes and he was like, “I want the orchestra to be able to do this.” So then I had to go and orchestrate and chart it out and then help him conduct it because he didn’t know how to conduct. So I ended up conducting, putting charts together, and all of this stuff. It was crazy — like four whole days of literally no sleep to get it together. It was so crazy.
Then you went on to mentor one of the classes in Melbourne, right?
Yeah when they did it in Melbourne in 2006, they asked me to come out. I basically ran a live studio and when I could I helped people with arranging, tricks in editing Protools or Logic sessions, how to edit horns and strings efficiently, tricks you could do if you’re not getting a good performance, and stuff like that. That was super fun because Flying Lotus was a participant. I knew him when he was an intern at Stones Throw, but I had no idea that he made music. So he showed up and we had a good time representing LA very strong [laughs].
Is that how you ended up working on Cosmogramma?
We had known each other for a while. He helped film when Madlib and I had a thing called Sound Directions, which was one of Madlib’s only live performances. FlyLo helped document all of that, so we hung out all the time. We were just buddies already and then the fact that he was making music was great. To get the opportunity to work with him on his record was super fun.
How did you get involved in Madlib’s Sound Directions? What was that experience like?
I was involved with Stones Throw through Breakestra and then an offshoot that I had with Dan Ubick called Connie Price and the Keystones. We were doing a lot of recording for anything that Stones Throw did that needed live musicians. It was a huge honor to be a part of that. Madlib would always be deejaying at things we were at and I got to jam with him a couple times where I was playing trumpet while he was deejaying. We really connected on it and he’d always say like, “Yo man, I’ve got some music that I want to get some live stuff on.” After a couple of times you’re like, yeah, this will never happen.
Then finally a CD was sent to me in the mail with about twenty beats that he wanted live instrumentation on. He basically gave me carte blanche. He was like, “Do what you feel is right. You know what you’re doing.” So there was very little dialogue between us. I recorded a bunch of stuff, sent it to him, we linked up, and he was like, “I like this. I like this. I don’t like that. I like the rest of it.” Then he went back and edited it down and got it mixed. It was super fun because of all of the producers around, there’s just something really special about Madlib. He’s kind of like the modern day Thelonious Monk in a way — he’s really outside of the box and really changing things around. He would never admit it, but he totally knows his jazz theory and it’s evident in the music. He’ll never admit to it though.
When it came time to do the live performance when the record came out, it was really fun. He grew up playing in marching band — he played the bass drum and he’s very rhythmic. So he played the drum set in the group and he was so amazing. After the show he was shaking because he just hadn’t felt anything like that before. He said that it was one of the greatest musical experiences he had. We had a really amazing group of musicians playing with him, so he felt really comfortable. I haven’t seen him do a live thing since that concert, so it was really special. He’s like an extended family to me, kind of like a big brother.
Two questions to wrap it up: What are you working on in the classroom and what are you working on in your professional life?
In the classroom, my upper level students are recording. They recorded a Cumbia version of “The World is a Ghetto” by War and I have it out on my Soundcloud. The kids are actually getting airplay on it on KPFK, KCRW, a station in Toronto, a station in Brussels, and I think the BBC is going to start playing it too. It was actually my intermediate band; they beat out my advanced band who are still working on their recordings.
It was really cool for the kids to come back from winter break and find out that their stuff is being played on the radio. It’s kind of elevated them; they’re practicing way more now. And because of that, they are getting really into conceptual things of taking songs or styles that are known now and mixing them up with things from the past. It’s very similar to what like the Kashmere Stage Band was doing, so I’m teaching the kids about that as well. I’m showing them that they know what’s going on right now — they’re on pulse with the latest music — so it’s up to them to bridge the gap and to play the music. So we’ve been doing that and it’s been a lot of fun.
In my professional life I just started working on a record with Kelis who is coming back. I can’t really leak out too much about it, but she’s going to come back really strong. I’m really happy for her. Then the Adrian Younge and Ghostface Killah record was finished like two days ago. It’s mastered and done. So that’s super fun. Then we also did a Delfonics record that comes out on February 12th. To do the Delfonics with new music and new styles, but with the original singer, William Hart, is really fun. It’s going to blow people’s minds.
There are tons of other things too. RZA has been coming over to Adrian’s studio, which has been exciting. I have the Decoders Vol. 3 Adventures in Paradise (Minnie Ripperton Tribute) in the works with Itai Shapira, a new Quadron record, a Quantic LP, a project with RHYE, and a Beady Eye record in the works. I also have an Ethiopian Jazz group called Ethio Cali and we’re going to go into the studio next month to finally record something. Lots of exciting things coming!