From an early age Crawford showed an interest in music making and especially in composing. In an interview with Gordon Irving on 3 January 1985 Gates tells the story of when he was eight years old and sat down at the piano and played “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” by ear.

That isn’t too unusual. A five, six, seven, or eight-year-old child frequently with one finger can find the tune by hit or miss, trial and error, and that’s about what I did. I don’t think that’s really too phenomenal. . . . I remember this in my own memory, that not only did I play “My Country ‘Tis of Thee’” with one finger, but I played it with two fingers. I obtained a very primitive kind of harmony with it. I remember that was what impressed my mother, that if I could harmonize that by ear with two fingers with no instruction at age eight, I should have lessons.4


Despite economic hardships, Gates found opportunity to study piano, violin, and viola, and later played the clarinet, trumpet, and harp. His musical experience consisted of more than just classical style. Of his piano playing the composer recounts that he gravitated to playing in dance bands and became a very proficient dance band pianist:

The Palo Alto High School dance band was called the Royal Vikings Orchestra. It was the orchestra in Palo Alto High School. I played by ear. Once I heard them, I could play all the pop tunes by ear in any key and could improvise, because I was a composer and my improvisatory skills were developing. By that time I became a fairly proficient pianist. In fact, by the time I was seventeen I was a better pianist that I am now. But I never really tried to be a pianist after seventeen. I went into composing, arranging, conducting, and music education.5


By the age of eight he had begun composing and by age twelve had composed ten pieces. At this point he was already assigning his works opus numbers and at age sixteen he graduated from high school (he had skipped parts of four grades along the way) and had made up his mind that he was going to go into conducting, composing, or some form of professional music. Crawford started his undergraduate music studies at the College of the Pacific (known at that time as Stockton Junior College). He went straight into second-year theory and says of the experience, “I got a solid background in music theory there from a man named Russell Bodley who was a brilliant teacher. . . . I’ve taught theory myself for thirty-five years, but the foundation for that was gained in that one year with Russell Bodley.”6 At age seventeen he had composed four orchestral pieces of which the fourth, Camelot, was written for a composition contest at the College of the Pacific. The prize was twenty-five dollars and the Stockton Symphony Orchestra, a small community orchestra, would play the winning composition.

Camelot was completed in March of 1939 and submitted, and it came back with a notation about a month later: ‘This composition merits first prize, but please have the student composer orchestrate it for the size of the Stockton Symphony Orchestra.’ I had made one critical error. I had not checked on the precise instrumentation—that is, the precise size— of the Stockton Symphony. I had read in Life magazine that the Boston Symphony had 104 pieces in it, and it listed the instrumentation—four flutes, four clarinets, four oboes, etc. And I had written for this gigantic orchestra . . . Camelot was a good piece, even though it was Opus 6 and I didn’t consider that I produced a mature piece until Opus 16. It’s an immature piece. But it has some seeds of beauty and maturity within it, even at that early age, written at sixteen and seventeen. Camelot became a catalyst for me.7


  • 4Quoted in Gates, Oral History, 11.
  • 5Quoted in Gates, Oral History, 15.
  • 6Quoted in Gates, Oral History, 21.
  • 7Quoted in Gates, Oral History, 23.

 

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