It was a twist of fate that led Connor May ’16 to the trumpet.
Inspired by the 2002 film, “Drumline” May saw himself as a future drummer under the bright lights of a Friday night football field and wanted to pursue percussion. However, when his middle school music instructor encouraged him to try the trumpet instead, the rest was history.
May, a graduate of the School of Music, has since found a way to march to his own beat. He’s performed in jazz bands, on cruise ships and with hip-hop artists. This year, he added a new experience to his eclectic resume – composer for a national commercial.
May is the creator of the original soundtrack for UofL’s Here & Beyond advertising campaign. That his music now plays on screens across the country, repping his alma mater, is an accomplishment May is extremely proud of.
“This is huge. I saw this as a great opportunity to give back, but also show I actually put this education to use,” he said.
The path to playing
“Music is really something I just fell into,” May said. “My middle school band had a concert where they played the theme to SpongeBob and the trumpets carried the melody, which I loved. It was a childish interest in the best, most curious way that led me to it.”
Though he dabbled in piano playing and even tried out the guitar and flute briefly, May became increasingly dedicated to honing his trumpet skills throughout his middle school years. Eventually, he got a private lesson teacher who became instrumental in his musicianship and continued his private lessons 34 when he entered high school.
“When I got more serious about playing, the real lessons began,” May said. “[My teacher] showed me how you can learn lessons about life through playing music. It wasn’t just playing scales and trying to get first chair. It meant something more at that point.”
That’s when May first began to realize, “Oh, I could probably seriously pursue this.”
May auditioned for scholarships at multiple colleges, including UofL, and ultimately attended Morehead State University for his undergraduate degree. But when it came time to choose a graduate school, May had only one place in mind.
“During those four years in undergrad, I never forgot about Louisville,” May said. “My parents used to live there before I was born, and I heard so many good things about the city itself.”
May also knew the importance of finding a school with a great music program with faculty and trumpet professors he could connect with as a student. He found what he was looking for at the School of Music.
“I had a great experience during the audition process getting to learn who everyone was, especially Dr. [Michael] Tunnell,” May said. “I just remember him being the greatest guy, probably the nicest guy I’ve ever met. I will always remember Dr. Tunnell telling me, ‘You will flourish here.’”
Tunnell sadly passed away during May’s first year at UofL, but his influence still reverberates throughout May’s life.
“From a personal standpoint, it really hurt because you develop a personal connection to these people. He was more than my trumpet teacher; he was a mentor. We had similar interests and he aligned a lot with what I believe in,” May said. “I never got to play with him, but his impact on me shaped who I am away from the horn and who I am as a human.”
Though May initially felt lost after losing his mentor, he soon found his groove again and experienced a key change in his musicianship when he learned the skill of listening.
“As a musician, learning to actively listen is huge. Being able to listen to a whole ensemble, but pick out the music coming from each one, it felt like I had superpowers,” May said. “Once you can do that, you can almost reverse engineer it, mentally hear what you want to sound like and make that happen. Bridging that gap is crucial and once I found that out, my playing got crazy.”
Here & Beyond
Since he graduated with his master’s degree, May unleashed his potential as a professional musician. He played in local, concert and jazz bands, performed on cruise ships and toured with hip-hop artist Kid Quill. He works in studios as well, which is one area he wants to continue growing as an artist.
“There’s nothing like playing live and it’ll never get old. But being able to create something or be a part of something that someone has created in a studio setting is just amazing,” May said. “Writing, recording, producing, touring and performing … those are things I want to continue to do.”
His blend of skills as a performer and his experience behind the scenes in the studio helped him rise to the top of the list when UofL was looking for an alum to create the soundtrack for its campaign.
“When searching for a composer for the Here & Beyond campaign music, we knew we had to find someone who not only had the musical skills needed to write and produce powerful music but also someone who exemplifies what it means to be a Cardinal,” UofL Director of Brand and Marketing Kim Butterweck said. “Connor’s love for his alma mater really comes through in our brand anthem and elevates the work.”
May was asked to write music that represented the university, which he knew meant diving into the city of Louisville.
“You can’t imagine the university without the city and vice versa. It’s the perfect marriage,” May said. “So, I tried to think of the most recognizable melody I could pull from Louisville, and it was ‘Call to the Post.’ It was the perfect fit to sample with me as a trumpet player and its ties to the city.”
May recruited producer Travis Moore to help write and produce the music, and they collaborated back and forth with multiple instruments to find the right sound. The duo worked together to add layers of instruments, ultimately creating a piece of music that sounds like Louisville and pulsed with energy.
“Epic, anthemic, inspirational … those were the descriptive words we had in our head while creating,” Moore said. “We wanted the music to evoke energy and have a modern twist, infusing genres of classical and hip-hop. Connor and I have great chemistry when it comes to making music and once we got into the studio, creativity just flowed.”
Once it came time to record, May knew he wanted UofL students to play on the track. He plotted out how many instruments and musicians he needed to record the music and reached out to his School of Music family to help him find student musicians who could lend their talents to the recording.
Returning to the School of Music also helped him overcome a barrier that nearly delayed recording. May had secured all needed musicians except one. On the day of the recording session, he was still without a drummer and decided to go straight to the source to find a percussionist. May found himself once again roaming the halls of the School of Music when he happened to pass a student drummer and asked, “Hey, are you doing anything at 2 o’clock?”
The student happened to be available and excitedly joined the group of student musicians who recorded the music under May’s leadership.
“The passion of the School of Music students who performed Connor’s piece upped the authenticity and love for UofL in our commercial,” Butterweck said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better collaboration with Connor and our student musicians.”
“I was so motivated to show how UofL produced a student who can do this professionally, and I felt so grateful they gave their students and former students a shot to write and record this music,” May said.
May, who lives in Indianapolis and works in a local music store when he isn’t touring, has no plans to slow his tempo anytime soon. He wants to continue diversifying his career to “keep moving” but his endgame is to become a professor like the ones who guided him on his path to becoming a successful musician.
“When I was in school, I was like, ‘Man, I want to be like these guys who are shaping me.’” May said. “Music got me out of a lot of trouble as a kid, was a great escape and it put me on the right path. It wasn’t academics that was doing that for me, it was my horn. So, if I can keep that energy with me, I’d love to help other kids like that.”
May is confident his diverse experiences as a professional musician will help “broaden the realm” of what he can bring to future students if he does find himself on the other side of a classroom one day. And if there’s one thing he’s learned that he would impart to other aspiring musicians, it’s that you can’t let your dreams hold you back.
“When you get out into the real world, just because you painted a picture of what you thought you wanted to do, doesn’t mean you can’t do other things,” May said. “Be open to other opportunities; don’t put yourself in a cage. You have to appreciate stubbornness to go after your goals, but don’t be afraid to branch out and mold your career on who you are and not what is expected of you. That’s the only way you’ll succeed.”