Michael Malis on Self-Employment and Living In Between Genres

A graduate of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Michael Malis (b. 1988) is a composer, pianist, and music educator based in Detroit, MI. He performs as a jazz musician, composes for the concert stage, and contributes to multidisciplinary collaborations. In 2019 and 2018, his compositions were commissioned by organizations such as Chamber Music Society of Detroit, Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, and the Great Lakes Music Festival. In 2017, he released an album of duets with saxophonist Marcus Elliot, entitled “Balance.” The album was praised by the Detroit Metro Times as “contemporary jazz of the highest order, a benchmark for where the genre can go.” He has been lauded for his scores for film and theater, which have garnered awards, critical acclaim, and have reached international audiences. He has shared the stage with such luminaries as Marcus Belgrave, Tyshawn Sorey, William Hooker, Jaribu Shahid, John Lindberg, Dave Douglas, A. Spencer Barefield, Ken Filiano, J.D. Allen, Andrew Bishop, Dennis Coffey, and Marion Hayden. He is currently adjunct faculty at DIME (Detroit Institute of Music Education) where he teaches piano and music theory.

When you were at U-M, what program were you in?

I did a double major in Jazz Studies and English.

Were you involved in the classical side of the school at all?

Not really. I took piano lessons from a classical DMA student and took a couple composition classes, but generally speaking I wasn’t involved at all. That entire strand of what I am doing only came in the last 3-4 years. Of course I’ve always listened to and loved classical music, but I wasn’t involved in it until recently.

What inspired you to start playing and writing more classical music?

I think what it has come down to is that I’m interested in finding new sounds and following my ears. This is just where my ears have led me. When I decided to go back for my Masters at Wayne State University, I knew I didn’t want to go for a jazz degree. Not because I don’t love jazz, I mean, it’s the central area that I work in, but I wanted to treat it as an opportunity to do something that I’ve never done before, to really grow, and to find myself uncomfortable again. I had started to feel complacent in what I was doing so I needed something really different. That’s what drew me to being in a composition department, and being in composition opened me up to a whole lot of different things.

Were they receptive to you navigating between both genres?

Yeah. I was able to write whatever music I needed to write and do a lot of different work within the school. I even did a lot of work with the jazz department, including a trip to Japan with Chris Collins with a group from the Detroit Jazz Festival. A lot of the work that I was doing at WSU was focused on improvised music. Working at the border between composed and improvised music continues to define what I do. To be clear, I am by no means a classical pianist. I play a little bit at home for fun, but I would never do a recital of classical repertoire. That’s just not who I am. But I really respect people who can go both ways and I try to work with musicians on both sides of playing.

So when you were an undergraduate student at U-M, what did you see yourself doing for a career?

I wanted to play for a living. I wanted to be working as a jazz musician. I don’t know that I had the foresight to be thinking about a career. I was thinking only one to two years ahead, and I was thinking, I’m going to move to Detroit and I’m going to try really, really hard to work with older musicians, because I wanted the mentorship of older musicians. So that’s what I did. That period of time was when I really started discovering what it is I want to do and how I want to do it.

Is there anything that you are doing now that you never would have thought you would be doing for a living?

Yeah. For starters, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be writing chamber music. That concept would have been totally foreign to 21-year-old Michael.

What would have also been surprising is that I’ve had to really learn how to relate to 6-year olds. I’ve had to get good at teaching young kids how to play piano and read music. My first gig out of college was teaching at a music school and I had around 40 students. I continue to do a lot of private teaching and I have a wide range of students. Some are adults getting back into playing, and some are serious musicians working on music theory skills, but other than that it’s mostly kids ages 5-15. I’ve also been able to do some really cool interdisciplinary work with theater and dance, which has felt really good and I’ve tried to do as much as I possibly can.

How did you get involved with interdisciplinary collaborations?

The first meaningful collaboration was with a theater company called Fratellanza. The founders, Paul Manganello and Jim Manganello are brothers and both U-M graduates. I’ve worked with Fratellanza on two shows and with Paul on another, which we just wrapped up at Cleveland Public Theatre back in April.

What else do you do as part of your career?

I spend a lot of time just gigging. Often times it is creative, and sometimes it’s not. For example, I play organ at a church and I also play weddings. But if you want to be a working musician, you have to be able to create your own opportunities. It can’t always come from the top down, sometimes it has to come from the bottom up. That DIY, entrepreneurial spirit is one of the hallmarks of the city of Detroit. I feel like every time I book a show under my own name, it has come from the mentality of me just getting out there, pounding the pavement and making it happen. You need to decide how important this is to you, and are you willing to put yourself on the line to make it happen.

How do you network?

Oh man. I feel like I’m bad at networking when I’m trying too hard at it, and always better when it’s happening organically. The best thing you can do is just be honest and genuine and be yourself. Doing things that are just good things to do that might not seem like networking can actually be the best networking, like showing up to people’s show, being a substitute for someone, or giving somebody a ride to the airport. Be the person that can show up for people. The music business is a people business, so you have to be a person that others want to be around. You have to make the people around you look good, feel good, and sound good. Just be a friend.

What is your advice to current SMTD students?

Get yourself financially literate as soon as you possibly can. In this business you are probably going to be self-employed, and self-employment means all the finance stuff gets even harder. And it continues to get harder as you make more money and you take on more responsibilities. It is never going to get easier, so start implementing systems that work for you as soon as possible. Money is a huge stressor, especially for people in our profession, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. That’s something that 31-year-old me wishes he could go back and tell 21-year-old me.

Malis is recording an EP of original music this fall. Look for a winter release date!

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