After years of playing his music in small coffee shops and taverns around Eau Claire, Samuel Stein struggled to stay upbeat as COVID-19 closed performance venues everywhere and canceled live shows.
Many months later, a late-summer spur-of-the-moment porch concert helped the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior see there was a silver lining in his forced break from performing.
“It was a chill thing on the porch, but more than a hundred people showed up,” Stein says of the impromptu concert he and his band, Sad House Guest, played at his student rental in Eau Claire. “It gave me that feeling of being close to the community. It reminded me that this is what I want to do with my music and my life.”
Before the pandemic, Stein, who is the band’s front man, says it was always “go, go, go” as he worked to line up gigs to help them break into the local music scene. COVID-19, he says, made him “stop to think about what I want to do and how I want to do it.”
The porch concert, which Stein describes as “the best gig we’ve ever done,” helped him see just how much that having that vision matters as he looks to his future.
The concert also gave the band a chance to showcase the new songs Stein wrote during the pandemic, songs he says are “more edgy because of COVID and the loneliness people feel.” They also better reflect and define the kind of music he hopes the band will play in the future, says Stein, a music composition and mathematics major from Moorhead, Minnesota, who will graduate in May.
Music and mathematics
Stein came to UW-Eau Claire because of its strong music composition program and the Chippewa Valley’s vibrant music scene. UW-Eau Claire’s highly respected mathematics program is a bonus.
His dream is to one day compose music for movies or theater, but he knows he may need to lean on mathematics — his “side passion” — to support himself as he works toward those goals.
While music composition and mathematics might seem like two unrelated fields of study, Stein finds them surprisingly similar.
“Math is easy for me to pick up because you’re either getting an answer or proving an answer,” Stein says. “When I’m writing music, it’s kind of the same thing. If one measure is not working for me, if it’s not feeling right, I work on it to try to get the right answer.”
Studying both math and music also helps him think about and makes sense of different parts of his life, Stein says. Math helps him understand the logical things, such as science and the natural world, while “music is where I process the more illogical things in my life, or the more emotional things,” he says.
Embracing every opportunity
At UW-Eau Claire, he’s found many opportunities — even during the pandemic — to gain knowledge and experiences in and outside the classroom that are helping him grow as a composer.
For example, he was able to underscore the music for two very different UW-Eau Claire theater productions, “James and the Giant Peach” and “Disruptions: Illusion vs. Reality.” The first was a children’s production, which opened just as COVID-19 hit. The latter was a Shakespeare Experiment created during the pandemic.
“It meant a lot to be involved in “James and the Giant Peach” because it’s exactly what I want to be doing in the long term,” Stein says of collaborating with a director and others as he wrote the music for the production. “For the Shakespeare one, we had to collaborate over Zoom, so it was a different process, but it still was underscoring and doing what I want to do in the future. It was good to have two different experiences because that versatility is what I will have to be doing in the future.”
He's also written music for and performed with various orchestras and ensembles during his time as a Blugold.
“My professors have a lot to do with what I’ve been able to accomplish because they’ve given me so many opportunities,” Stein says. “They’ve given me opportunities in both music and in theater. They’ve helped me make connections with musicians and other people who understand what I’m trying to do.”
Dr. Chiayu Hsu, associate professor of music composition, who has worked closely with Stein throughout his college career, says she’s impressed with his talent and his enthusiasm.
“Sam is passionate about writing music especially in the sound world of film scoring,” Hsu says. “He has done some fantastic work writing for theater productions and recently completed a great orchestral piece with lush soundscape. It’s been a great pleasure teaching him and working with him with various projects.”
Currently, Stein is working with Hsu on a research project that involves writing music that reflects how the pandemic is impacting musicians’ mental health. While the project isn’t yet completed, the research team has written four movements, which takes listeners on a journey that begins with the surprise of COVID-19, then through periods of levity and grief as the pandemic continues, and finally the hope that came with the vaccines.
Finding his path
While his math and music composition studies keep him busy, his band, Sad House Guest, also is always a priority. He describes the band, which formed when he was in high school and includes his brother and two friends, as a “sort of energetic indie-rock project.” The front man for the band, Stein sings, writes the music, and plays guitars, piano and banjo.
“We have some defining music coming out soon, but we do have a few songs on Spotify already,” Stein says of the band’s success.
The goal, he says, is for the band to eventually play in much larger venues, but for now he loves the more intimate experience of performing in the small venues in Eau Claire.
“Something I’ve taken away from being away from performing for a while is how much I love that feeling of being connected to the community, which is easier to do in smaller venues,” Stein says. “That’s a feeling I want to find a way to keep even when we hopefully progress to larger venues.”
One of those small venues — The Cabin coffee house in Davies Center on campus — is especially important to him. It’s where he began connecting with the local music scene in Eau Claire.
“I always wanted a place to go see live music every weekend, so freshman year I started coming to The Cabin every weekend,” Stein says. “When I played there for the first time, my first semester here, it was incredible. I got the whole dorm to come.”
Four years later, he’s now the one booking the shows in The Cabin.
“I loved going to The Cabin shows even when I was a freshman and didn’t know anyone else on campus,” Stein says. “I’d go, and it would be me and the artist’’ dad in the audience. So, now that I’m booking the shows, I try to give the other artists the same kind of hype that I give myself. I try to advertise and create a fun atmosphere for every show.”
When he graduates in May, Stein plans to focus full-time on his music for at least a year. Since he started the band when he was still in high school, he’s always had to balance it with school. He’s curious about what might be possible if he puts music first, he says.
“I really just want to take some time to kind of figure out what’s next,” says Stein, adding that he may eventually go to graduate school to study film scoring. “I want to try a lot of things, and I want to spend more time writing and do more with my band.”
Stein’s professors often bring successful composers to campus to share their stories with students. While every story is different, Stein says they all seem to describe an important moment when they met just the right person or said yes to the right opportunity.
“I don’t know what my opportunity will be or when, but I know I will be ready for it,” Stein says.