David O is a composer and musical director primarily based in the U.S. He is also a warm, funny and generous artist who has a lot to share when it comes to how he made a successful career happen.
David wasn’t always an aspiring musician. “I got the theater bug in high school,” he told me from New York during our Skype interview. But before that, David was raised on music as a young child. “Our coloring books were music books.” His parents were performers on the weekends, traveling around singing music, directing church choirs on the weekend, only to return to their regular jobs during the week. This early exposure to the arts made the dream of having a career in the arts less far-fetched. He was a self-taught piano player – something he says came naturally to him – probably because his parents wrote their own music and performed for fun throughout his childhood. “The distant dream of becoming an artist” wasn’t so distant for David because of this exposure to music as a child. His parents didn’t push the arts, but since they loved it, their children enjoyed it too. David says his career as a composer and musical director chose him more than he chose it. The two major influences in his musical career have been his involvement in 1) an experimental art group and 2) a structured training experience on a cruise ship, two very different environments but the lessons learned still resonate to this day.
Early Training On the Job
Although he was studying theater at the time, college led David to part-time jobs as a pianist. He’d find work via work study programs where he would accompany vocal lessons and performance with the piano. He went to California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia and got BFA in Theatre there in 1992. After graduation an influential group came into his life and changed his career path forever. He joined what was called then “A.S.K. Theater Projects” that connected him to some of the friends he still knows twenty years later. It brought together alternative thinking writers and composers to experiment and collaborate and create all kinds of new theater. His friend Matt Almos invited him on as a composer, although David was initially thinking he’d come on as performer. From there David began to embrace the identity more and more that was given to him. David says joining this group was big for him in two ways: 1) he became more comfortable in embracing his profession as a composer (having friends point out the dozens of times he’d overlooked) and 2) the connections he made which really became the foundation of work relationships from then on even up until this point. Everything in his career, he said, leads back to that either directly or indirectly. He certainly doesn’t regret theater training because he has a real understanding of storytelling and the work of what an actor does compared to other musical directors who have a strictly music background.
Cruising Into Music
The second major influence after college came when he joined a cruise ship which required him to lead a band across the world for two years. He learned the “traditional, flashy, cheesy, jazz hands, cheesecake” musical performance that he still prides himself on. The act of training in music on a cruise ship, rather than learning it and studying it in theory or in college, is what any musician benefits from, says David. The training is immensely important. That is where you learn the most, when you are learning things about yourself as a performer and refining your skills. He says his pride is being comfortable with what he learned from this super-commercial environment back to the super experimental art group and knowing how to navigate the “in between” of both artistic styles. He understands why both are important. He says you need to continually expand and try new things in the art form and at the same time you still need to fill seats because otherwise nobody is making anything happen because nobody can afford anything. There is always this pull.
Voices Within – Nurturing Young Talent
The challenge, he says, facing artists of all backgrounds is that there is an important balancing act to managing an artistic career. He shared “that while you need to be able to create work that is artistically fulfilling, you also need to look at your needs and find ways to meet them.” At this stage of his life his most significant need is supporting his family. Thus far he has been successful in accomplishing that, but not without difficulties along the way. David has two children, one who is an aspiring artist as well. David finds it very rewarding to witness the arts in this day and age and be a part of the youth culture. He collaborated on the development of Voices Within an educational artists’ residency program of the Los Angeles Master Chorale that works in the schools with fifth and sixth grade children and helps them imagine themselves as actors in an era they are studying (e.g. American Revolutionary War.) Then the students write music with professionals who later sing and perform the compositions. The program facilitates how students and others can work together to collaborate and create really amazing musical pieces. Professional singers from the Los Angeles Master Chorale then perform with the children and sing their creations. He also embraces the power of technology and how making connections with people with mutual interests across the globe is a powerful tool and taking advantage of that is an advantage for young artists.
Networking and “The Business”
He attributes the majority of his jobs as a composer, musical director and performer to networking and “word of mouth” endorsements. He doesn’t always produce music that is driven by his vision, like right now as we sit in this interview he’s producing music for a convention that will serve corporations in the next month. Sometimes the creation of art must require you to be at the mercy of another person’s vision. The point is to have the skills to produce your vision and help produce others visions as well. One thing missing in America, says David, is that the arts are often equated with entertainment and big business. The association with celebrity culture is limiting because these people are the .001% who have made it, and they are being spoon fed to us in the media. Meanwhile, there are thousand if not millions of people, living middle class lives supporting themselves in the arts, but you don’t hear about them and that’s what a person is much more likely to be. “Let’s normalize performance careers” he stated with regards to young people who may not be the next Katy Perry, but still may be able to make a fulfilling and sustainable career from it. David says the 21st century is a great time to be an artist because it is a great time to connect with almost anybody in the world. To make connections with people who have common interests to you when maybe nobody in your community has the same one as you is the point. It is an amazing and powerful thing that goes way beyond career choices.
What’s in a Name?
Asked where the “O” came from in his name, David said “(It) has influences less as the letter ‘O’ and more as the number zero. It is the blank slate, the circle of completion, the Buddhist concept of sunyata. The more practical answer is that another dude in the business had the same name I was born with, and I had to find a way to distinguish myself from him. (Ironically enough, now there is a young Nigerian rapper who goes by the name of “Davido” and there has been some confusion online between the two of us. On my Facebook “page” over half of my 2000+ “likes” are from Nigeria – clearly a case of mistaken identity.”
Tips of the Trade:
He says that if he has any advice for young musician’s it would be “Figure out what you want, and don’t be afraid to ask for it. The people in ‘power’ are just people like you, and they want you to succeed. Don’t be intimidated by them – most people are kind and helpful, and will give you a hand if they can.”
Tips for aspiring musicians:
- Do the training then find the audience.
- Find a mentor and keep their recommendations strong.
- Follow your instinct with art the way you would let yourself fall in love. You may not be able to explain it at first, but you’ll know it when it’s right.
Three tips for parents:
- Exposure to the arts is key. Artists may become an endangered species in the “testing” culture of schools, and don’t forget children need more than celebrity role models in the arts.
- Don’t push your children – that may be the kiss of death when it comes to the arts.
- Cultivate your child’s imagination – it’s a lifelong gift.
To learn more about David O’s music and journey visit: http://www.davidomusic.com/davidomusic/David_O_Composer.html