This story, I have shared only with the people closest to me over the years, but never publicly. I now realize that some incredibly brave people like Brandon Scott Rumsey and Monica Lynn have come forward, and they’ve inspired me to do the same. This article by Sammy Sussman really put things over the top for me, and made me realize that these things need to come out into the open.
When I came into the University of Texas in 1996, it was literally a dream come true for me. It was a dream that I thought I could never achieve. Just two years earlier in 1994, I had made the decision to go to music school. This was a big deal for me, because I come from a completely blue collar, non-musical family. We had no knowledge of the world of the arts, and we certainly didn’t have the money to know people that did.
I desperately wanted to go to UT in Austin (I’m from Spring, Texas – a suburb of Houston), however I couldn’t read music, and as a guitarist, I knew I would have to audition on classical guitar. I had never touched a classical guitar. In 1995, I was working as a manager at the now defunct Blockbuster Music, and still dreaming of going to music school. At the beginning of that year, I started private lessons in classical guitar with a guitarist in Houston named Marc Garvin. My parents had given me a deadline of one year to go to music school. Let me just say – don’t get the wrong idea about them – they have always been nothing but supportive, loving and proud of me. Just at the time, none of us had any idea what it would take to go to a music school like this.
I was green, naive, and full of enthusiasm. It was my plan to study with Marc for a year, and then audition in the Spring of 1996. I had already been teaching myself to read music, and I had a year to learn classical guitar to a level that would pass me into the music school. The funny thing? I actually pulled it off. I received a call from my mom in April of 1996 – I was sitting in the back room of Blockbuster Music checking in a box of new CDs. I had received my letter. She said, “Do you want me to open it?” I – resigned to my fate – told her, “yes”. I heard the tearing of the envelope, and she yelled, “You got in!!”
This quite simply changed my life.
I went from being a frustrated young man with an uncertain future, to being in a place surrounded by the most talented people I had ever met. I walked the halls and heard music everywhere – incredible music. And I could finally TALK to people who really understood me. At 23 years old, I had finally found my place – my world.
It was difficult for me in a lot of ways because I was learning practically everything from scratch, but it never felt like work. It just felt like the work that I was supposed to be doing. I entered as a Music Composition major, and quickly met the faculty and students. I learned that Dan Welcher was seen by many as the “Head Honcho” of the composition department, and that most people wanted to study with him, as he was perceived as the most well known and influential composer on the faculty.
I began studying with Dan during my Sophomore year in 1997. I was learning a lot from him musically and compositionally, but one thing I found odd and off-putting was how he talked about his other students with me during lessons. He talked terribly about them. He joked with me (a new student of his) like I was his buddy of 50 years about how awful a composer this person was, personal jabs at another, and yes, sexually inappropriate comments about female students. At the time, I was a young man with dreams of being a composer, and a young man with crippling social anxiety. I viewed Dan as someone that had influence and power, and as someone that I did not want to be on the wrong side of. I didn’t know what to do, other than fake a smile and laugh uncomfortably at his comments. I felt sick inside.
This is to say nothing of end-of-semester composition juries where Dan, and specifically another composition faculty, Russell Pinkston, would seem to revel in tearing people down. They would come at you like a group of mocking, entitled frat boys, eager to point out any deficiency in the most condescending and degrading manner possible. I can’t imagine what those juries must have been like for the female students – it must have been hell.
Dan actually liked me at first (I think), but over the course of that year, he sensed that I was not on board with his antics. He sensed my discomfort. His treatment of me slowly went downhill from there. During my last year there – the school year 1999-2000 – things really took a turn for the worse.
That school year, I had my composition lessons on Wednesday afternoons at 1PM. One of Dan’s strict rules for all studying with him was – do NOT be late to your lesson. Despite this rule for his students, he would take his lunch at noon, and almost every week, he would come back late. As an undergraduate, I only had 30 minutes for my lesson.
A typical lesson for that year would go something like this: Dan would show up at 1:10 – ten minutes late. He would let me in, and then proceed to sit down at his computer and check his email and his messages. Depending on what was there, this could take anywhere from 2 to even 10 minutes. Then, he would finally sit at the piano and ask me what I had for him. Often times, we would only have 5-10 minutes left to have a “complete” composition lesson.
After enduring this for a few months, I understandably started to get upset about it. Dan acted as if he didn’t care at all about me or my music – that it was the last priority on his list. In addition, he would deride me in my lesson, referring to me as a “rocker” that didn’t know anything.
The day he almost completely broke me was the day I set up a meeting with him to talk about graduate schools. I wanted to go and get my Masters and Doctoral degrees – becoming not only the first in my family with a college degree, but the first doctorate as well. However, I needed guidance. I knew the schools I wanted to apply to – all the big ones – the ones everybody wanted to go to. But I needed help with the nuts and bolts – the practicality and procedure of applying.
I sat down with Dan, and he asked me what schools I wanted to apply to. I told him my list – Michigan, Indiana, Eastman, Juilliard, USC, etc. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Don’t bother applying to those schools. They won’t take you.”
I sat in stunned disbelief that he would say this to me. He said, “You need to focus on small schools”. I mean, to completely discourage someone like this. Even with all of Dan’s faults, and the unhappy nature of our relationship, I still viewed him as a mentor at this time. I was absolutely crushed, and it was this incident that finally destroyed my confidence. I thought, “He must be right”, and I didn’t apply to any of those schools – save for one.
Just to spite Dan, I went ahead and applied to my first choice – the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I truly didn’t think I would get it, but just the act of applying for me was like a giant “fuck you” to Dan. I didn’t have a letter of recommendation from him. I didn’t have anything from him.
Fast forward a few months – I got home from school one day and checked my mail. There was an envelope from Michigan. It was a letter sized envelope – one page inside. I thought, “Well, here it is. My rejection from Michigan.” I went inside, and opened the letter. I read it – and then read it again – and then again. I stood there in utter disbelief. It read, “Congratulations, you have been accepted to the University of Michigan School of Music.” No interview – just… accepted.
That week, I had one of the best composition lessons ever. Dan came in – late as usual. Puttered around checking his email and messages just like he always did. Finally, he sat down and asked, “So, what do you have for me this week.” With a devilish grin, I whipped out my letter and slapped it on the piano right in front of his face. I then sat down, and waited. Dan just looked at it in silence for quite some time – no doubt reading it several times, just like I did. Finally, he gave it back to me, and said, faintly, somberly, “Well, congratulations”. I ended up going to Indiana University, even though I did not apply (long story). A friend told me that when Dan found out I was accepted to IU, his response was, “They’re letting anybody in these days.”
Around that same time, our new composition faculty member Kevin Puts threw a party at his home for the comp faculty and students. At this party was an acquaintance of mine – a fellow composition student named Monica Lynn. I had personally seen and heard Dan say incredibly inappropriate sexual comments about Monica – both in public and in my lesson. At the same time, he also said terrible things about her music – how she wasn’t talented – how she wrote “female” music – whatever the fuck that means. At this party, Dan was there, and drinking heavily. As the night grew later, Dan grew drunker. In college speak, he was wasted. It was here that he started in on Monica, inviting her to a strip club, and telling her he’d like to see her dance in her “dog collar and chains”. I heard and saw this. I was right.there. And I was shocked. Even with all I had seen and heard – I was shocked. And Monica was shocked, hurt and embarrassed. Monica filed a sexual harassment claim against Dan in 2001 that was sadly ignored and denied by the administration at UT. Dan was given a light tap on the wrist – nothing more.
I was nearing the end – it was now Spring of 2000. The lessons were growing shorter, and more ridiculous. I asked Dan if I could change my lesson time. He refused. I asked him if I could have an hour since we barely had time to look at anything. Again, he refused. It got to the point where, at one lesson, we had just 5 minutes to look at the music I had written. I was so angry at this point that when Dan asked, “So, what do you have for me this week”, I looked him in the eyes and said, “Nothing. I have nothing for you,” and walked out.
There are so many other specific instances of him knocking me down, but for brevity’s sake, I will keep it to the above. As one final indignation, I had my final senior recital in May of 2000. Dan – my teacher – didn’t even show up.
At the very end of the year, I did try to let the administration know about my time with Dan via his teacher evaluation. I submitted a very detailed document, laying out all of my grievances. Apparently, it was ignored.
Years later, when I was studying at Indiana University I met a new composition student that told me he had just been to Aspen the previous summer, and had worked with Dan. He said he knew who I was, because Dan apparently slandered me to a group of complete strangers. I mean, I was nobody – just a student – and years later, he still felt the need to tear me down to other people in our field.
I never had any contact with Dan after I graduated in 2000. I never received any letters of recommendation from him, or any other forms of support or help. Frankly, I was glad to get away from him and the toxic environment that he created. I’ve never shared this story publicly before, but I have been inspired by other brave people as of late, and I hope this man is brought to some kind of justice. Too little, too late probably, but, here’s to hope.