CreatorsUkulele

In Conversation with Brent Robitaille

In the Meet Our Musicians series, Jellynote introduces you to the Creators behind the sheet music on our platform. Discover their musical style and get to know them!

It’s about 2pm Toronto time when I call Brent Robitaille from his home in Northern Toronto. He speaks to me from what I can only assume must be his practice room; guitars of all shapes and sizes line his wall, making it clear to the casual onlooker that a seasoned musician lives here. He manages to speak to me in the midst of last-minute Christmas preparations, as he prepares to spend the festive season with his three daughters, all of whom are playing a musical instrument. Clearly, a gift for music runs in the family.

Growing Up

Brent began classical guitar when he was only seven. “A very long time ago,” he laughs.

It was certainly a childhood devoted to music, Brent tells me, as he recalls hours spent playing in a variety of high school bands. Though he was by no means your average band-geek. “I’ve been on TV, made a record, been on the radio quite a bit,” he says nonchalantly. He tells me the story of the time his uncle, a professional hockey player who played for the NHL at the time, introduced him to an announcer at a radio station, who agreed, after being thoroughly impressed by Brent’s demo, to play some of his music on air. Brent was ten at the time. “I don’t think it’s because we were that good,” he tells me modestly, “it’s just because we were so young!”

Check out Brent’s score of “Thunderstruck” for the ukulele.

It was around this time he made the transition from classical to electric guitar and started playing in a band, beginning a life-long love affair with rock music. Though it could have gone a very different way…

“I think that the experience of playing in bands at a young age was part of the reason I continued in music. I don’t know if I would have stuck with the guitar if I stayed in classical. I loved the social aspect of music.”

Meeting and Learning from the Master

At 19, he applied to music school and attended Humber College, a renowned jazz school in Canada. Following a year spent honing his skills as a jazz musician, he went on to train as a composer, studying under celebrated composer Samuel Dolin. Having journeyed to Toronto to source a teacher from the Royal Conservatory of Toronto, he was most surprised to learn that Dolin, one of most experienced teachers on the course, actually lived round the corner from him. And so, for the pricely sum of $75 an hour, Dolin agreed to teach Brent everything he knew about composition. They began looking at the styles of the different periods– Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic, contemporary- analysing the work of the renowned composers, then attempting to write music in their style. The whole course lasted around two years. Was it worth the $75 dollars an hour?

Considering applying to a music college yourself? Check out our article on how to ace the audition for all our top tips.

“Oh yes,” he says with a grin on his face. Though he had to work a few part-time jobs to pay for the classes: teaching, gigging, working in a music store, etc.

The mention of the music store leads me to ask Brent if he’s concerned for the future of such establishments in the post-pandemic world we are soon to find ourselves in. Though he seems pretty confident in its survival:

“You need physical stores,” he insists, “how else are you going to try out a guitar? There’s also the atmosphere… you just don’t get it anywhere else!”

After learning all he could from Dolin, he went on to study composition at McGill University in Montreal, where he added even more instruments to his roster. “There were about six or seven in rotation,” he tells me, “even the banjo. Though I don’t practice it very much anymore.” I notice the instrument on the wall behind him in a noticeably inferior position to its musical cousins.

After graduating, Brent went on to open his own music school to inspire the next generation of musicians. He employed eight teachers in the local area and served as the director of the company. It ran for a few years, but spending most of his day completing administration work grew irksome for a man whose every action up until that point had been motivated by a passion for music. And so, he quit the company and opened his own private studio, and never looked back.  

Check out Brent’s score of “Cherry” for the ukulele and guitar.

80 Students a Week

“I had around 70 to 80 students a week through the busy times,” he tells me, though admits things haven’t been as busy since the outbreak of Covid-19. That said, it has allowed him to take on more online students, who come from all over the globe.

Are you a music teacher looking to expand your client base? Check out our article on how to find students in your local area.

He tells me that lots of students lack a good technique, i.e. “the fundamentals.”

“They try and produce music on their instrument the quickest way possible. They don’t consider the posture, the hand position, the fingering…” he laments.

I ask him if he has any advice for budding musicians and his advice is simple:

“The biggest thing is rhythm. Developing an internal metronome or clock inside.”

He recalls hours spent practicing on weekends and weekdays, reading rhythms, driving them in, in a trance-like state. “After two or three days, my mother came down to check if I was okay…”, he tells me.

It clearly paid off. I can’t help but wonder if he thinks an obsessive quality is necessary for a successful musician, if “woodshedding”, as he calls it, is the key component.

“I don’t think it hurts,” he replies honestly, “you have to be able to sit for a very long time and do mechanical rope learning. It requires a lot of concentration, for sure!”

Performance Anxiety

Of course, one of the worst victims of Covid has been the loss of performance opportunities. Before the pandemic, Brent regularly played in a Celtic band. They would regularly play at weddings, funerals, Bar Mitzvahs, and of course his favourite gig – pubs. “I generally find there’s a disconnect with a bigger stage…” he tells me, “that’s why I prefer a pub atmosphere. You can connect with the people because you’re literally sitting right beside them. Whereas on a bigger stage, all I can seem to remember is that the lights are always shining in your eyes and it’s really hard to see everybody out there.” The intimacy, the comradery, the adrenaline, it doesn’t quite translate to Zoom.

A seasoned professional who has been (literally) gigging since he was a child. Surely he doesn’t still get nervous?

“Of course! I mean solo work is always more nerve-wracking than playing in a band. You can sort of hide in a rock band. With classical, of course, there’s no hiding…”

Check out Brent’s score of “All of Me” for the ukulele.

Multiple Budding Projects Despite Covid

Brent is currently working on a jazz album, which he tells me about in an excitable tone. “I started a month ago and we’re still getting the tunes together!”

He has also previously worked on other artists’ albums, having worked on roughly 30 to 40 different albums this year alone. His clients range from all over the globe.

“I’m doing some stuff for a place called Haus Music right now. I think that’s in Germany?”

The work ranges from weekly television gigs to feature-length films to the more corporate, commercial work. It’s hard work, a job that requires absolute precision from his clients. “A little more stressful than writing music for myself!”

Out of everything he does, teaching; gigging; recording, I ask him what the most rewarding part of his career is.

“I think just getting back to writing my own original music again,” he responds, with quiet triumph.

And his relationship with Jellynote?

Brent was originally contacted by Jellynote to add write some ukulele scores, he then added some Christmas arrangements for mandolin, violin, guitar…and the rest is history.

We discuss some of the scores he’s written for the platform. There’s Can’t Help Falling in Love, an all-time favourite. “It had two angles,” Brent tells me, “it was covered by Twenty One Pilots, and of course, it’s an Elvis classic.” Also popular is his score for The Scientist. Brent tells me that he had previously written this arrangement for a student so uploading it to Jellynote was a no-brainer!

“It’s great,” he begins, “I’ve never actually arranged anything that’s been on an app before, so that’s new! It’s exciting! They’re very good at Jellynote. I get a sense a lot of them are musicians. They seem genuinely interested in the musician side of you, the creator point of view.”

Visit Brent’s Creator profile and play his favourite songs!

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About author
William Ridd is a writer based in London. After a messy divorce from the clarinet, William decided that playing music wasn’t for him, but he continues to appreciate it and likes writing about it.
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