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Meet Elliott McClain of Home-based, Old Hickory

Today we’d like to introduce you to Elliott McClain.

Hi Elliott, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I was born blind, so sound and music have always fascinated me. I started picking out tunes on the piano as soon as I was old enough to reach up to the keyboard. As a toddler and child, the keyboard was a source of entertainment for hours every day. I listened to all kinds of music—from children’s songs to country, Christian, pop, and later to jazz, blues, and classical. I especially loved live music. One of my favorite memories was receiving Garth Brooks’ Double Live CD on Christmas when I was 4. I spent many hours listening and then recreating the songs on our piano. At the end of each song, I would shake a noisemaker to simulate the sound of applause. I’ve always loved an audience!

At seven years old, I started formal training. I have always been lucky to have teachers who appreciated the joy of making music, not just form and function. I studied classical music but was also allowed to explore my path, playing the music I was drawn to and with my voice. My school, the Tennessee School for the Blind, introduced me to jazz in elementary school and invited me to join the high school jazz band. I studied for 6 years at Belmont University, completing Bachelor’s and Master of Music degrees in Commercial Music, with an emphasis on piano.

One of the greatest privileges of my young career was my association with Borderless Arts Tennessee (formerly VSA Tennessee), an organization devoted to promoting the arts for young people with disabilities. As a multi-year winner of Borderless Arts Tennessee’s young soloist competition as an individual and as a member of a pop trio, I was exposed to many professional development opportunities. I had opportunities to perform in most of Nashville’s most prestigious venues, including the Ryman Auditorium, TPAC, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and the Opry House.

The pinnacle achievement of my youth was winning the 2017 VSA International Young Soloists Competition, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program, recognizing outstanding musicians with disabilities, ages 14–25, from around the world. Award week culminated with a Kennedy Center Millennium Stage performance in Washington DC.

Since graduation, I’ve continued developing my recording, performance, and composition skills. I have recorded music available, teach occasionally, and am currently planning my next project. I play publicly and privately whenever I get a chance.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle-free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth?
I have an able and supportive family, and I am very grateful for them. While I don’t come from a “musical” family, I am fortunate that they valued the arts and provided me with every opportunity to succeed. Having a piano in the home was a great blessing for me as a youngster. Without it, I might not have ever discovered my talent.

Fitting in is a challenge for any disabled person. Being unable to make eye contact or communicate non-verbally creates a social barrier, but it also affects the band’s dynamics. Listening is crucial, especially when joining in on a song I don’t know or with band members I’ve never met. I can’t count on having charts in Braille, so I must learn on-the-fly. Sometimes I get recordings to study before a session, and when I do, I prepare intensively and memorize everything.

Being dependent on others for transportation and cartage restricts my availability to work with other musicians, making networking harder. When I get a chance to work with someone, I always make the most of it.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar, what can you tell them about what you do?
If music is made to move the body or the soul, my music is more about the soul. It is music for listening and thinking. I am moved by melody, interesting harmonic progressions, and improvisation. I play with a soft touch and subtle expression. If you come to one of my solo performances, you’ll hear jazz and jazz standards, classic popular songs, blues, folk, Americana, and gospel. Blues and gospel influences find their way into almost everything I play. I believe I have exceptional aural and improvisational skills that are ideal for sessions and group performances. I can transpose and adjust on-the-fly to fluid sessions and live performance conditions.

Any advice for finding a mentor or networking in general?
Nashville is full of great musicians. I recommend the Nashville Association of Musicians (AFM Local 257), jams, and social networking groups. You will find people willing to share their experiences or grow with you.

Here are my rules: Be the best musician in your space—practice and play! Be better prepared than anyone else in the room. Be reliable. Be responsible. Be punctual.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Photo 1: Margot Schulman Photo 2: Margot Schulman Photo 3: Ash Wright Photo 4: Kelsey Ann Thomas Photo 5: n/a Photo 6: Randy Dorman Photo 7: n/a

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