Meet Mike Thompson, a Boston-based music maestro and co-founder of Hexproof Productions. A seasoned jazz composer, arranger, and music producer, Mike fuses the expertise he gained from Berklee College of Music with a deep passion for developing emerging talents. Join us as we explore his transformative journey, shaping the sounds and careers of artists across genres in the ever-evolving landscape of music production and composition.
What led you to a career in music?
I've always been drawn to music for as long as I can remember. When I was young, whenever a piano was around, I would sit down and try to plunk out a tune. Then, my aunt gave me an old Yamaha keyboard for my birthday one year, and the rest is history! I would try to play along with the radio or one of my parents' CDs, and they figured it was a good idea to get me started with lessons, and I haven't looked back since. I was always interested in pop and classical music, and I think that's a massive part of why I later became an arranger.
Who were some of your earliest musical inspirations? How have they shaped the music you write?
When I started composing, I was immediately drawn to the music of Duke Ellington — the beautiful and nuanced textures, the importance of "the line," and the apparent thought that went into every note captured my attention. As someone who grew up as a classical musician, Duke's music was always accessible and never alienating. I was then introduced to the music of Bob Brookmeyer, and from there, everything changed for me. Bob's music is so intricate and deeply human, constantly pushing the boundaries and expectations of the big band. Through listening to Bob's music, I connected mid-20th-century large ensemble music and 20th-century classical music —two different musical styles from two different traditions, converging similarly at a similar time. I've found that once you're freed from the boundaries and expectations of genre or style and begin to see them as different aesthetic choices, that's where the creative possibilities really lie.
Watch a performance of Mike Thompson's Durango Drive.
You often write music on the road. What are the challenges and benefits of composing on the go?
The biggest challenge I faced was the efficiency of my writing process. If you're writing an arrangement on an airplane or in a coffee shop, you can't get lost in the periphery around you, whether that be the noise of your own mind or the world. I became increasingly decisive about what was right or wrong in a given musical situation, and I began trusting my decision-making even more. Now, it feels like writing one piece on the road is equivalent to writing three pieces back at my studio from a proficiency perspective. When traveling, I learn much more about myself, my music, and my tools. Even now, I'm getting ready to head to Indianapolis for a few days for a convention and have a pretty heavy arranging workload, and I'm looking forward to it!
How do you approach arrangements, from the starting point to the final piece?
I start by writing a "word sketch" of the arrangement. This is where I ask: What happens when? How long will the arrangement last? What kind of treatment will I use for the arrangement (or even different treatments for different sections)? Is there a solo, and who's taking it? And (most importantly), what will the energy curve of the arrangement be? Then I write a "lead sheet," essentially a sketch for my chart, including all melodic and harmonic material, all connected with an orchestration label (trumpets play this, bari sax and bass trombone take this, etc.). I was first exposed to this process by Steven Feifke, who is a close mentor of mine. I then orchestrate, edit, and finally engrave that sketch. I try to get as many ideas down on paper in that sketch as possible, and then I make thoughtful decisions about where everything should go.
Do you have any advice for collaborating with other musicians and composers?
Leave your ego at the door, and treat every initial idea as viable. It's easy to let your ego take over or edit an idea to death before you even begin. I've found success separating the "initial ideas" phase from the "editing" phase, and that's even more useful in a collaborative environment. As time allows, try everything and see what works. If you're in a collaborative environment where respect is shared, you've got a head start!
What's the most unexpected thing that's ever inspired your composition or arrangement?
I had just finished watching the classic Mel Brooks film High Anxiety, which has a really beautiful scene in which Mel's character is singing in a bar (the song "High Anxiety," in fact!), which has a beautiful arrangement in its own right by Brooks' storied collaborator, John Morris. I think that's the only time I've been inspired by a satirical comedy to write an arrangement! (Aside from all other Mel Brooks movies, of course!)
How do you see digital tools like MuseScore 4 impacting the workflow of composers?
Regarding MuseScore 4, we're now in a time where someone can prepare a publishing-ready score with no up-front investment in software (with the appropriate skills and experience, of course!), which is a real game changer. When I started to write, I only had a few options, and anything capable of scoring for a large ensemble was expensive. I started on a computer that my school's music department owned until I saved up for my own license. Now, a young writer can download MuseScore 4 and access a strong engraving and composing suite and super high-quality sounds, all free and lightweight enough to run on the average computer. I expect we'll see even more scores from very young composers making their way to MuseScore.com and, hopefully, their local concert hall. The only way to improve as a writer is to write more and listen more. MuseScore 4, StaffPad, and other technologies in our industry are rapidly lowering the barrier to entry each day.
For music technology as a whole, I think that we will see the roles of "producer" and "composer/arranger" becoming more and more similar, especially regarding live performance. Performer-triggered samples are already a mainstay in pop and contemporary music arranging, and I think we'll see that trend continue into the future. We have so many tools available today, and more emerge every year. I'm excited to see where it goes and where the technology will lead us next!
You've ventured into many musical terrains, from jazz to contemporary. What's next?
I'm considering recording an album of Stephen Sondheim's music with a big band and vocalists, a project I'm deeply passionate about. Sondheim's music is some of the most innovative music I've heard, and I think it has a place in the concert hall just as it does in a Broadway house. But it's important to note: I have no idea what's next, and I'm excited to find out!
Are any contemporary composers or musicians currently inspiring your work?
Oh my, too many to list! But I'm fortunate that many of the people who inspire me are people I have great relationships with, notably Nicholas Urie, Ayn Inserto, and Steven Feifke. I met Nicholas before I'd ever written a big band chart, and they changed the way I thought about the fundamentals of music—not only technique but specifically how I listened to music and what the purpose of an arrangement really is.
Ayn saw me through my developmental phase as a jazz composer, writing bad chart after bad chart, and one day she said, "This one, you've got it!" and that changed everything for me. She also encouraged me to explore the music of Bob Brookmeyer and helped me make sense of what I was hearing, a sound that has influenced every note I've written since.
I was introduced to Steven Feifke through Nicholas Urie not too long ago, and he changed how I thought about my career and business. He helped me develop a systematic approach to writing for any large ensemble and has forever changed how I write. I recommend everyone check out all of their music. They're all next level!
Finally, what advice would you offer aspiring composers in the MuseScore community?
Keep writing! The only way to get better is to write a lot of music. If you write something and you're not happy with it, fix it, sure, but I think it's better just to write something else and improve from there. Don't get caught up in the music you've already written; look for the music you still need to write. The rest comes along the way.