North Allegheny teen creates music in memory of brother
Sometimes, words just aren’t enough to express the profound grief of losing a loved one.
For Brett McCutcheon, 17, of Franklin Park, it took a collection of songs to adequately convey the intense heartache he endured over losing his 19-year-old brother, Ryan, in a car accident last year.
McCutcheon and his long-time friend, June Bracken, spent the last 12 months pouring feelings into music and lyrics. They composed three original songs, professionally recorded them at McCutcheon’s family recording studio, The Vault, on Neville Island, and titled the compilation, “The Ocean.” It is McCutcheon’s first musical composition and commercial recording; it is Bracken’s second.
Partly a tribute, partly a form of bereavement therapy, McCutcheon and Bracken released the recordings Sept. 30, marking the one-year anniversary of Ryan’s death.
“We called it ‘The Ocean’ because the ocean is a huge metaphor for the process of grieving,” McCutcheon explained.
The first song, “Sinking,” represents the sadness and emptiness of losing someone. The second song, “The Bottom,” describes the feeling of hopelessness that follows. The third, “Floating,” is about accepting change while continuing to cherish the past.
Bracken, a 17-year-old senior at North Allegheny, provides the vocals. McCutcheon, a junior, plays the piano, saxophone and drums on the recordings. He also mixed and edited the tracks.
“For nearly a year, I listened to these songs three times a day on the bus ride to school. I wanted them to be perfect because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life listening to something that wasn’t right,” he said.
The recordings are available on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify and other digital outlets for 99 cents each or $2.97 for all three. CDs are available for $10 each.
All proceeds will benefit the Ryan McCutcheon Rhythm19 Fund, a nonprofit organization established May 20 — Ryan’s birthday — to support music education programs in at-risk communities and local schools in memory of Ryan.
“Ryan was passionate about music, and he loved to teach and mentor student musicians,” said his father, Robert.
While a high school student at North Allegheny, Ryan was drum captain of the marching band and led the school’s award-winning competitive indoor percussion ensemble. Later, as a business and accounting major at Robert Morris University, he spent time teaching percussion at Hampton High School, playing drums in a college band, and competing in Nomad Indoor Percussion, based in Butler.
He died while returning to campus after a long day assisting high school drum students at a local band festival.
His drumming can be heard in the song, “Sinking.”
McCutcheon and Bracken originally wrote “Sinking” as a love song, and finished it one month before Ryan died. It was a sad, reflective and haunting ballad about the pain of separation.
The day Ryan was killed, McCutcheon’s friends flocked to his house to console him. He and Bracken performed the song in front of their friends for the first time.
“I wasn’t paying attention to the lyrics as I was singing, but I noticed everyone was crying. Then it clicked. We all realized how much the words fit the occasion,” he explained.
He salvaged the lyrics of the love song, but had to re-work the music.
“We didn’t intend to have drums in the song, but we ended up splicing old recordings of Ryan on the drums so we could use it under the choruses. It magically came together,” McCutcheon said.
He credits Ryan for his appreciation, love and talent for music.
“I miss his sense of humor and fun nature. But his biggest impact on my life was teaching me to play drums and our long talks about drum lines,” said McCutcheon, who primarily played the alto saxophone before falling in love with percussion. Now he plays drums in the NA marching band and indoor percussion ensemble; he continues to play the sax in the school’s wind ensemble and jazz band.
McCutcheon plans to pursue a career in music education.
“I want to teach others how Ryan taught me and bring people together in his name,” he said. The experience has Bracken considering a music career, too.
“I didn’t know Ryan very well,” she said, “but it was extremely difficult for me to watch everyone else deal with his death. This project made me feel that I was helping them in some way. That made me realize I really want to go into music therapy for a living.”
McCutcheon smiles. “I think all of this would make Ryan really happy,” he said.
Laurie Rees is a Tribune-Review contributor.