By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Composing music isn’t an easy way to make a living, but Northern Virginia Community College student Nathan Pereda might just have what it takes.
Pereda, 26, is beginning his third year at NOVA. During his time at the college, he’s written about 15 compositions, four of which have been performed by the NOVA Alexandria Band, an 80-member combined college and community ensemble. On Feb. 27, the band will perform one of the most difficult and time-intensive pieces Pereda has composed, “Le’oria, the City of Music,” at its annual children’s concert.
“He’s just on a different level,” Lisa Eckstein, conductor of the NOVA Alexandria Band and Pereda’s mentor, said. “He’s a really good composer. He’s going to make it. He’s going to be able to earn a living by composing.”
Getting to this point has been a bumpy ride for Pereda. While he’s always been passionate about playing and composing music, his journey has been spotted with highs and lows, challenged by his struggles with depression.
Until NOVA, Pereda was primarily a self-taught musician and composer. He grew up in Woodbridge, Virginia, where his natural talent was evident from a young age.
“My mother bought me one of those little pianos that are like two feet long with tiny keys, and I had a knack for playing melodies after hearing them,” Pereda said.
Pereda continued to play by ear and create his own melodies. It wasn’t until he joined the middle school band in seventh grade that he got his first formal training on the saxophone. Around the same time, Pereda started arranging and composing music for band and orchestra.
“I really got into orchestra music,” Pereda said. “I started listening to orchestra music and listening to how everything worked and seeing if I could hear all the instruments. So I started arranging like Beethoven sonatas for band, like the slow ones like ‘Apassionata’ or something, and that sort of helped me. I just kept writing until it sounded right to me.”
By eighth grade, his middle school band had performed one of his compositions.
Throughout high school, which Pereda attended in Hawaii, California and Virginia, Pereda continued to compose and learn different instruments. Over the years, he’s played piano, bassoon, trumpet, French horn, violin and flute. At NOVA, his main instruments are French horn and piano.
After graduating from high school, however, Pereda took a six-year hiatus from music.
He thought college was a waste of time since he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He thought composing was a waste of time since he never heard his music played. He spent six years working various jobs in the restaurant and retail industries, all the while battling with depression.
“I was in survival mode,” Pereda said. “I didn’t do music at this time, and it was my most depressing time. I’ve had depression since I was 8, and music is what kept me going. Now that I didn’t have music or I didn’t have any reason to do music aside from myself, it was like I didn’t know what to do.”
Pereda credits his fiancé, Ikra Rafi, a graphic designer who works in D.C., with helping him overcome his musical slump.
“I couldn’t even finish a piece. I didn’t finish any ideas until I met my fiancé basically,” Pereda said. “I guess she inspired something. I had two pieces within like two months of meeting her.
“I decided I had to do some sort of music for the rest of my life. I can’t not do it,” he said.
Pereda’s first step back into the world of music was joining the Prince William Community Band, the director of which, Robert Thurston, is the former chief arranger and composer for the United States Air Force Band. Thurston helped Pereda workshop some of his compositions.
In January 2018, Pereda enrolled at NOVA. Composing, however, wasn’t part of his initial plan.
“I went to NOVA to be a band director, because I was like, I’m not going to make it as a composer,” Pereda said. “I don’t mind starving for music, but my future wife will probably mind a little bit, so I decided to go to school for band directing … because that sounds stable.”
It wasn’t long before Pereda’s teachers, bandmates and fiancé encouraged him to pursue composition.
“This kid can’t not write music,” Eckstein said. “This is what he does. It’s like breathing and eating and sleeping to him. He actually probably composes more than he does eating and sleeping. He’s very passionate about it. It’s a calling for him and he is very good at it.”
Pereda said his compositions are personal, often tied to his feelings and emotions.
“Most of the time when I write anything, it’s to vent some kind of feeling,” Pereda said. “A lot of composers, when they write about their feelings, it’s deliberate. For me, it’s not really deliberate. I write whatever I’m thinking, and I’m not doing it on purpose; it’s just whatever I hear. Then, when I listen to it later, I hear how I was feeling. It just sort of shows up.”
The first of Pereda’s pieces that Eckstein programmed for NOVA Alexandria Band was called “Perseverance,” a piece inspired by his experience with depression.
“When I wrote ‘Perseverance,’ I dedicated it to people struggling with any kind of mental illness, not just depression – anxiety, bipolar, anything that’s crippling – to give them that energy to keep persevering,” Pereda said.
“You can hear the progression throughout, what he’s feeling in certain sections of ‘Perseverance,’” Isabella Lowe, Pereda’s bandmate, said. “I’d say that for all of his pieces, really. His music is something that makes him kind of vulnerable, because it speaks more than he could ever express in words.”
An audience member was so moved by ‘Perseverance’ that they anonymously commissioned Pereda to write “Le’oria,” the three-movement, 12-minute piece the band will perform at the children’s concert on Feb. 27.
The children’s concert is an annual event where the NOVA Alexandria Band invites local middle and elementary school ensembles to Schlesinger Concert Hall. The children will watch from the audience as the band performs “Le’oria” and a few other selections, then join the band onstage for a finale of two songs: “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven and another piece by Pereda called “Champion.”
“[‘Le’oria’] is difficult,” Eckstein said. “It’s definitely hard. But the NOVA band is really supportive of Nathan and they realize that having a kid like Nathan at NOVA is special and unique. They’re playing their hearts out, and it’s cool. It’s just meaningful.”
Pereda said hearing his music played out loud is inspiring.
“Whenever I hear my music being played and it’s going well, it gives me a sense of purpose, I guess. Like I really want to do this all the time. I want to always do this. And it really gives me something to look forward to, it gives me something to wake up for. And I missed that because I didn’t have that for a while,” Pereda said.
Looking to the future, Pereda said he wants to compose scores for films and video games, a distinct style that already comes through in his work. “Le’oria,” for instance, was heavily influenced by the video game series “Final Fantasy,” Pereda said.
“All of my music apparently sounds like movie score music. That’s what I get from everybody, no matter what the piece is,” Pereda said. “I really like to use a lot of loud brass. I’m not really huge on the delicate woodwinds for 30 minutes. I think it needs to have some contrast. I really like … a lot of Hollywood films, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ or ‘The Avengers.’ They have those big epic moments.”
For the immediate future, Pereda’s first step is to complete his associate’s degree at NOVA. From there, he hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in composition, possibly double majoring in band directing.
“I want to have a positive impact on people. If I can’t do it with my music, then maybe I can do it teaching,” Pereda said. “I want to compose any way I can. For anybody. I can’t stop. But if I don’t get to do exactly what I want, then that’s just how it is. I’ll keep trying, but if it doesn’t happen in 10 years, John Williams didn’t start composing for movies until he was in his 40s, so who knows.”