Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Building Bridges Across Cultures

Building Bridges Across Cultures

The Navajo Nation radio station in Tuba City, Arizona, can take credit for most of undergraduate composition major Michael Begay’s musical roots. Growing up on the reservation, he soaked in the station’s rock, blues, oldies, and country music. Sundays meant gathering with his parents and older brothers to listen to a Native American music program. During high school and after graduation, Begay worked at the station. 

But it was a canceled classical guitar program that set him on his creative path. Without an opportunity for lessons on the reservation, Begay taught himself to play. Encouraged by the reservation’s librarian, a retired orchestral percussionist, Begay applied to and was accepted into the Grand Canyon Music Festival Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP). Last September, he brought his cross-cultural musical talents and vision and solid track record as a composer, musician, and educator to Peabody.

Headshot of Michael Begay

What inspired you to apply to Peabody as a 37-year-old first-year undergraduate?

Because 38 would’ve been too late. [Laughs.] I chose Peabody because I had to go big or go home. I have been going to school for quite a while. I started climbing that mountain in 2012, taking a class here or there. Had I enrolled in Peabody in my 20s, I wouldn’t have had the discipline. The amount of work I have done has broadened me as a composer, creator, collaborator, and music maker and prepared me to help lead.

How did you get your start composing?

I was the one of the first five students to attend NACAP in 2001. I never left. I kept writing and soon was a mentoring composer there. Before NACAP, I didn’t know that there were Native American composers. I see that a lot on the Navajo Nation. If another student can see someone like them doing this, they can do it as well. 

How do your eclectic musical tastes inspire your compositions?

I love heavy metal and rock and came to classical guitar by trying to play like Randy Rhoads [the late, classically trained guitarist for Quiet Riot and Ozzy Osbourne]. The librarian on the reservation introduced me to classical music, which I would transpose to electric guitar. I never had a formal music class until Peabody. Everything was lessons from my Native American composer mentors, trial and error, and reading books. I play piano and Native American flute, but guitar is still my favorite. Experimentation is very important to me. The more I learn in music theory, the more I know what to rebel against later. 

How are you sharing Native American music with Peabody and beyond?

For last fall’s Composition department recital, I wrote “Spring” for cello and bass about the transformation of winter into spring. In my culture, when you hear the first thunder, the life cycle begins and Mother Earth wakes up. I had my peers do bird calls at the end of the piece. I always try to convey a word that is part of Dine’ [Navajo people] culture, which carries on the oral tradition. In December, I composed a carol for the Phoenix Trinity Cathedral Choir that included words in Navajo. I recently did a master class with Yo-Yo Ma and played “Spring” for him. He told me that I really captured the essence of where I come from. 

In today’s divided world, the greatest service I can have as an artist is to build bridges across cultures and exchange experiences through understanding and mutual respect. Being here gives me knowledge to take back home, and shows that dreams are possible with hard work. [On the reservation], access is an issue. Everything is 100 miles away. Technology and better infrastructure are helping, but nothing takes the place of in-person lessons and performances. 

-Sarah Achenbach