When Ethan Hanzlik isn’t feeling well, everyone around him knows.
“We got a call from a middle school teacher one time who asked whether everything was OK with Ethan,” his father, UConn trumpet professor Louis Hanzlik, says. “We told her he seemed all right, maybe a little down, and wondered why she was asking. She said he hadn’t been singing in the hallways like he usually did, because Ethan would walk around and just sing.”
Now a 17-year-old junior at E.O. Smith High School, Ethan Hanzlik always has turned to music whether he was happy or sad, angry or scared, frustrated or stressed. Today, on a bad day he’ll turn up Beyonce’s “Virgo’s Groove” or “Three Dots and a Dash” by the Punch Brothers to fight a funk.
Music has been an outlet – in much the same way that it’s inspired Louis Hanzlik, a Grammy-award winning musician and coordinator of brass and percussion in the music department, and mom Amanda Hanzlik, E.O. Smith choral director and president-elect of the American Choral Directors Association Eastern Region.
Smiles were all around, then, when Sandra Chafouleas, not just the family’s neighbor but also a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in UConn’s Neag School of Education, approached them with the idea for a musical collaboration – write and record the theme song for the Feel Your Best Self program she co-created and indirectly help young children channel their feelings, similar to the way young Ethan had learned to express himself.
“It was a melody I had tucked away, and I brought it back,” Ethan says of the song that took him less than 10 minutes to write. “I started from the beginning and filled in the words that they really wanted, because they had a highlighted list of words they were adamant I use. From there, the song developed naturally.”
Louis says that while Chafouleas approached the family about working on the song together, he and Amanda agreed the project was better suited for Ethan, who’s taken professional music lessons on the cello, French horn, guitar, and voice and during the pandemic added online lessons in song composition.
“It’s not as intricate as my other pieces,” Ethan admits of the Feel Your Best Self theme that spans 1 minute, 14 seconds and is probably the shortest he’s written. The longest is about 5 minutes.
Chafouleas says she and co-creator Emily Wicks, manager of operations and collections at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, were focused on writing the scripts for 13 episodes of the puppet-centric program and hadn’t initially considered their musical options.
“But as we got closer to the shoot dates, we started talking about inserting music in the beginning and at the end, and at first thought we would use canned music,” she says. “But as we talked, Emily and I didn’t think that was quite right. It seemed that we should have music that was specifically connected to Feel Your Best Self.”
The two talked about words and ideas that matched the goal of the video series – like “take a break,” “get some rest,” and “it’s easy” – and approached the Hanzlik family, knowing the song would need to be a quick turnaround as filming dates neared.
“Given the project already represented a collaboration between the School of Fine Arts and the Neag School, it seemed natural to extend collaboration from Puppet Arts to the music department,” Chafouleas says.
“That has been one of my favorite parts of this work,” Wicks says. “A strength of this project has been it developing from an interdisciplinary collaboration at the University. Being able to create partnerships between education, puppetry, music, and even technology has helped to make this project a success.”
Ethan produced the song in his home recording studio adding in a xylophone and marimba electronically. Then came filming it with a trio of puppets.
“They were all crouching below me,” Ethan says of the puppeteers. “I was seated above everyone else, so there was a space below where people could crouch and slide on scooters. It was really interesting to see the process. The puppeteers are very serious about their craft and it’s incredible how they maneuver and create these characters out of nowhere.”
Amazed by the whole process, Ethan says he’d gladly work on another children’s project even though that genre is almost harder to create because the product needs to be accessible, and it needs to be simple.
“It has to be something children can understand, and not just understanding lyrics and words. They need to have an emotional understanding and emotional connection to the music. It needs to be singable. Those melodies are catchy, they get in your brain,” Ethan says.
Chafouleas says she and Wicks have received many positive comments about the theme song: “We have heard everything from ‘what a super cute jingle’ to ‘my co-worker walks around humming it all the time’ to the tune totally gets ‘stuck in my head, like an earworm.’”
And that’s good for Ethan, who expects to study music in college and pursue a career in music composition and production. Already, he’s written hundreds, if not thousands, of songs, he says, at least one a day – even during study hall.
“Recently, I had my first choral piece published and it’s being premiered this March,” Ethan says.
“And where is it being premiered,” his father prompts.
“It’s being premiered at Carnegie Hall with the E.O. Smith Chamber Singers,” Ethan says, proud but reserved. “I’m very excited to have the opportunity to go there not just as a singer, but as a composer and have my piece premiered there. It’s being published by Hal Leonard, which is the largest sheet music publishing company in the world. That’s where I’m focused, vocal arranging and production.”
It’s a profession in which Louis Hanzlik says he has full confidence his son will excel, not just because he’s talented but also because he’s levelheaded and driven.
And in a lot of ways, he’s an example of how to Feel Your Best Self in a human world.