From his daisy-dotted periwinkle backpack to his easygoing smile, Conrad Borba ’24 exudes the kind of laid-back, go-with-the-flow ease that you might sense around a seasoned musician. Indeed, Borba is not a typical college musician who strums in his dorm on the weekends — no, he plays bass and guitar for not one, but three bands on campus. When he’s not studying, you will see him traversing between the stages of Halcyon Lane, Get Back Soon and Sheetrock, jamming with his crew to their hearts’ content.
Borba didn’t grow up with particularly strong musical influences, so he relied on teaching himself during band practice throughout middle school and high school. During this period, he was simply drawn to tunes that piqued his interest and let himself explore a nascent hobby.
“Unlike most of my bandmates, I actually didn’t grow up with a parental figure that had a lot of musical interest or talent or anything like that,” Borba said. “So a lot of my influences are new, and I get joked and laughed at every now and then because I don’t know particular things.”
Without taking private classes and adhering to strict practice regimes, Borba’s musical interest intensified for a while — until the spark died down in the 10th grade once he felt his technical knowledge outpaced what was being taught during band practice.
“That was when I really felt like I plateaued — like this is the point where the school bands cannot take me any farther,” Borba said. “So eventually, after 10th grade, I dropped out of the bands, but I just stopped playing for a year after that because I was just really sick of playing stuff I didn’t really care about at that point either.”
Borba picked up his musical hobby during the initial wave of the coronavirus, but he soon realized that the earlier leniency he had while learning negatively impacted his ability to properly master his instruments.
“When I was in the bands in school, they were larger bands, so it was all trumpets and trombones and mostly bass instruments,” Borba said. “Nobody paid attention to me — as long as I got by, I was pretty much fine. When I sat down like a year before coming to college, I really wanted to correct a lot of the bad habits that I developed, so that was difficult.”
In addition to honing his skills, he also refocused his attention on music theory. Theory may sound extremely dry, but Borba found the mechanics behind music fascinating.
“Before, it was more like I was just playing around, not really knowing what I was doing. Sometimes I play something cool, and I would wonder why that sounded cool,” he said. “And I would not be able to reproduce it because I just didn’t know why it sounded right. And then once I learned music theory, I learned a lot more about, okay, this is why this sounds good. These are the ways you can break certain rules and that kind of thing. It led me into developing like, more interesting ideas because it opened the door to things I would not have tried otherwise.”
Now fully immersed in the music performance scene at the College of William and Mary, the three bands Borba plays for have distinct styles that demand flexibility and adaptability. The different styles have compelled Borba to develop a multifaceted profile. This diversification lets him have a tighter grip on both the technical and personable aspects of creating music, contributing to a more cohesive atmosphere.
“Halcyon Lane is much more like classic rock with some indie influence in it, and that brings a certain kind of player out of me,” Borba said. “With Sheetrock it’s a bit more like prog rock, it’s a more out-there band, and I really like that because I feel I have a lot more room in a band like that to do something crazy or play off people in a particular way. That’s not to say Halcyon Lane isn’t like that, it’s just a different kind of playing. And for Get Back Soon, it’s definitely been my avenue for playing guitar. So that’s been fun.”
After all, the act of performing and sharing his love of music with the community is euphoric in and of itself. Borba has grown substantially from the high school phase of discouragement and found a genuine outlet for creativity and experimentation that knows no bounds.
“Maybe less with shows, but more when I’m playing in one of the bands, and there is this moment in the music where we all synchronize, we all do something that really fits in an organic way, and that’s the moment I feel the most like, ‘this is awesome,’” Borba said.
Performing for three bands is no easy task, and he is aware about the logistical challenges.
“The biggest challenge I faced is organizational, in terms of organizing bands, organizing practices, making sure things work out with shows,” Borba said.
And like the saying ‘we are our worst critics’ goes, Borba also confessed that he thinks he is just an ‘okay’ musician with plenty of room for improvement.
“I can definitely get better at guitar; I like to think I’m okay. But I’ve been playing bass in bands for, like, forever, so I’m pretty confident in that ability,” he said. “When I approach guitar, I approach it from a bassist perspective all the time, and breaking out of that has been difficult.”
In the marginal amount of free time between academics and band practices, Borba dabbles in instrumental songwriting as a second outlet for creative expression.
“When I’m writing a song, I don’t really think about the meaning of it, like from moment to moment, just playing for the recording or doing whatever. And I try to figure out what I meant by it after the fact, listening to it,” he said. “I’m not sure if that makes sense. But for me, it feels like when I try to think about them beforehand, wherever I’ve tried to write a song about something, I’ve always messed it up in some way.”
From his childhood days to now, Borba has always approached music from a big picture point of view that emphasizes the ability of music to speak to the soul.
“I think a lot of times, I’ll be reading my own lyrics and think, ‘this is dumb, this is awful,’” Borba said. “And then I’ll read somebody else’s lyrics and just reading off the page, I’ll feel the same, like, ‘this is kind of awkward.’ But listening to it with all of the band behind it makes it feel so much more powerful and legitimate in that way.”
At the end of the day, making music — and playing in a band — doesn’t need an end goal for Borba. The process is as much of a reward as the potential reception.
“When I’m making something, I’m always in a particular mood,” Borba said. “When I’m writing something, or just spontaneously playing, sometimes it’s just like, I’m having a good time, I’m enjoying myself and I’m playing whatever comes to mind in that regard. Sometimes I’ll be going through something, or I’ll be stressed about something else. And I’ll bring some kind of music out of me.”
And most importantly, becoming a prolific musician in a college setting has only enriched his connections with peers.
“I think music has facilitated the development of my personality a lot,” Borba said. “I’ve met certain people that have affected me through music. I learned about myself a lot. And that’s the thing, I think while listening to music, I feel like I learned a lot about how I relate to certain things or how I’ll feel about certain songs and things like that. That’s helped me a lot in just figuring myself out.”