Kalamazoo, MI
one-hundred-forty-one Years of Service to the Student


Q&A with Miguel Castellanos

(Photo Courtesy of Miguel Castellanos)

Q: If you had to describe your music as belonging to a particular genre, what would it be?

Name: Miguel Castellanos
Year: First-year
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA

A: Man, I wish there was one that I could use to describe it. Since I picked up composition after I picked up playing alto sax & drums, my approach with drums and saxophone kind of mirrors my approach with music production.

For the saxophone especially, you will never get any two saxophonists to sound exactly the same. They’ll probably sound similar, but your body is part of the instrument too: how big [or] small you are determines how much lung capacity and how much consistency of the air pressure you’ll put through it. So, your body is also part of it. A lot of the times I will listen to Jazz artists and get a feel for what their doing melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, and even maybe their tone. But I am not trying to sound like them. I don’t want to do something that has already been done before. I am trying to find something that is unique to me. With saxophone, I am mainly trying to find a tone that I am comfortable with and that works well, trying to find a signature sound for me, not something that sounds just like someone else.

It’s the same thing with drums: I have tried to find a style that is a nice equilibrium between syncopation, but enough so that people will still enjoy a beat and not think so intellectual about it and less about the groove. I have and am continuing to learn all this stuff in theory from the greats and classical music and the jazz world, and I am taking all that theory but not trying to mirror all the greats back then or today but to use that to my advantage to make something different.

Sometimes I’ll feel like making something kind of old-school mixed with something with a contemporary hip-hop feel, or I’ll try to make something very ambient that you could use for prayer or meditation. When I first sit down to compose a song, I always try to set the mood I am trying to go for. Not necessarily to aim for certain emotions but the kind of mood it would create. So, because of that, I don’t really have one specific style because it changes drastically to what I try to set it as.


(Photo Courtesy of Miguel Castellanos)

Q: Do you feel that you tend to lean towards a Jazz style?

A: Yeah, I think Jazz has influenced me a lot because [the] alto saxophone is so relevant in Jazz music. But a huge part of my identity as a Christian is a lot of music I have grown up with in church, which has influenced me as much as Jazz has. I started listening to Jazz when I was in middle school, but growing up in church, that music is infused in me.

Q: You talked about trying to set a mood when you first sit down to compose a song, can you elaborate on your creative process?

A: After I think of what mood I want to set, I’ll start building chords. A lot of people start with the melody, but I start with the foundation. I will lay down a set of chords that feel right to me and that kind of compliment the mood I am trying to set. Then, everything else is really determined by what chords I choose. But that’s when music theory comes in hand, because I am not trying to do just regular triads…I want the chords to have a lot more color to them. I will be proud of a piece of music even if it’s only four chords but each chord in itself has to be complex. That’s kind of my thinking. There have been times where I have been halfway to finishing a song and I’ll say “It’s too simple, it’s too easy, I don’t like it.” And I don’t know why, I think that came out of the theoretical side of music and the Jazz part of me instead of just whatever feels right. Now, I am definitely trying to find a balance of not trying to throw anything out because it’s too easy, but letting things be whatever I feel as opposed to whatever theory tells me it should be. I think that is where the equilibrium is perfect.

Q: Do you have a weird favorite sound?

A: I really like warm pads [long blanketing notes played on synthesizers]. A lot of times there’s a specific range that I try to go for, but warm pads kind of set a nice, ambient feel. I don’t really know how to explain it, It’s just a pad that really kind of sets the ambiance. I think that actually came from two things. A lot of the songs I listen to in church use warm pads as well. That kind of just stuck with me because I just really resonate well with it. The second is because in LA, whenever I go to sleep, I have to go to sleep with the window open and have a fan running. It’s definitely more of a hum, but very spacious and ambient, and it’s not at all like a drone. It’s a very solid, deep tone.

Q: Who are the greats?

A: Django Reinhardt, Cory Henry, Louis Armstrong, Cannonball Adderley, & Michael Gungor.

Q: What is it like being a musician at K, coming from California?

A: Coming from LA, where there is just so much that you are working with, back then I was leading four bands. Two of them were Jazz bands, another was experimental, and the last one was a worship team from my church. I really loved that because it gave me a really great balance. I really miss those things and I was trying to find that here. Western [Michigan University] has a really great Jazz program, and music program in general, so I started networking there. Tuesday nights at Rupert’s I go to jam sessions with some guys from Western, and Wednesday night I go to the Union and play there with some guys. They are just incredible musicians; they will only come to the last three or four rehearsals and just read things down like whatever. I thought they were undergrads, but then I found out they’re in the graduate school, so they are way out of my league. I like hanging with them and playing with them because it really pushes me. It really challenges me to think way outside the box and really apply everything I am learning in music theory in performance. I have grown a lot from it and have gotten a lot better since my time with them. Western has definitely been the pool where I have really been trying to network with Jazz musicians.

Something I see that Kalamazoo kind of lacks is a greater music industry. Recording studios in the area are very scarce, and the ones I know of are pretty much home studios—not like an actual business. Specifically at K, I feel that unfortunately it’s very obvious that the arts aren’t appreciated as much as the maths and sciences. I see in the instruments we have for Jazz band that simple repairs have to be done. Where in the sciences, there is definitely a lot of attention to detail to make sure that the kids get the best equipment and curriculum and all of that. So, it’s kind of rough, specifically at Kalamazoo College being a music major. Many times I have found myself needing help with homework, but everyone in the building is in math or science or English. Whereas in my high school, I could find someone to ask within five minutes. It’s been hard finding a pool of networking musicians at K, but the ones that I have found have been great.

Q: What do you enjoy more, the moments during composition or the moment after, when you finish a song or a show?

A: When I am composing, it might not even be when I finish a song, it might be the moment when I think “Oh, man, I found the best bridge for this song” or something like that. I am so happy for the smallest thing. It’s really a great feeling. I will kind pat myself on the back. At the same time, it’s so beautiful seeing it when it’s complete when you’re performing it and seeing the audience’s reaction. If they really dig it, you are so proud. When I am composing, though, I am not composing with the intention to please an audience or a crowd. I am not sure if I favor one over the other. As a worship leader in church, you are pretty much ushering the congregation into a moment of worship, but at the same time, you are being ushered too, so it’s very different. I definitely prefer the church over the secular performance, because the feeling of accomplishment I get in writing a worship song over say a jam or something is just far greater.

Q: Where do you want to take your music

A: I got into Berklee College of Music, but I wasn’t able to go through with it. But the great thing is that Berklee also has a graduate school and it’s in Valencia, Spain. That’s really convenient for me because I speak Spanish and I really love music. In the end, my really big goal is to go back to LA and give back to the community that gave to me. Being a first gen [generation], my dad had to go above and beyond and work ridiculously hard for me to even be able to afford a used saxophone, and it’s the same sax I’ve used since sixth grade. But man, it’s worked wonders.

Throughout my life as a musician, I’ve encountered a lot of people who were just such a blessing in my life. I look at that and am just so in awe. There are so many people in my church who in their kids I see myself. I see the same passion for music or passion for other things, but they can’t pursue it because they don’t have the finances. Through all that I am learning and all that I’m doing, I want to be able to go back and open up a school or individually give lessons to these kids for free. I see that they have the desire and passion to do it, but it’s not their fault that they can’t. It’s just circumstance. Now that I am blessed with being in a really great college and having the family that I do and the resources that I do, I want to able not to hoard it for myself but to give it to other people.

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Q&A with Miguel Castellanos