It Meanders Like a River

During the fall of 2017, I realized I was having a problem juggling my commitments. I was teaching, performing, and trying to put aside time for composing. I decided to switch up my schedule so that I could have 2-3 days a week when I had a large stretch of time during which I was not beholden to an outside commitment. I could spend those hours as I saw fit, and that primarily meant spending uninterrupted time composing. I am not one of those people who can switch gears easily, so if I am running around doing other things, I can’t just come home, switch off, and get creative. I need sufficient time to get the juices flowing and clear my head of negative self talk. It is a form of mental exercise.

My decision made a few people very upset with me, but my reasoning, which I made clear, was always because I needed to take care of things that were being neglected. It is a really odd thing to make what looks like time for myself as more important than giving someone else lessons. The lessons look more practical and thus valuable. And it is good to give.

But my commitment to composition is not simply a commitment to my own ideas. It was partly a commitment to my husband to not “waste” the time, money, effort, and support he invested to help me along my journey, especially while I was taking lessons and classes up in Boston and making the 4hr round trip two to four times a week. That’s a lot of gas and mileage. He took on a lot more responsibility at home while I furthered my education. I am exceedingly grateful. Most of all, putting aside the time to compose is a commitment to God. Again, I find it hard to explain how sitting in a back room in isolation arranging pitches can be a divine calling, but for me it is. I cannot give you a reason other than to say that by creating I reflect a portion of who God is as the Ultimate Creator. I hope and pray that my efforts will bring glory to God, but I can’t define or predict that. I can only just humbly put in my best effort. That requires times. A lot of it.

At the start of 2018 when I was implementing these changes, I was working on a specific project: a piece for string orchestra which I titled, “Daughter of the Stars.” (If you want to listen to the piece, see the score, or read the program notes, click here.) As the story unfolds, the significance of this will become clear.

“Daughter of the Stars” has a long and windy history which began in the fall of 2013. When I was studying composition with Dr. Larry Bell up in Boston, he used a composition curriculum which he had written. One of the lessons involved taking a popular melody and using it as the springboard for a short piano piece. I chose the tune, “Shenandoah” because it is my favorite American folk song. Interestingly, after showing Dr. Bell my assignment, he told me I got the melody wrong. I had never checked! I only relied on how I had learned it! That aside, I wasn’t really happy with the piano piece and told him that I imagined it for orchestra. The kernel of the idea I had, which was to fractionate the melody at the beginning, transform the melody into minor in the middle, and bring in the recognizable form at the end, stayed with me. I put the project aside: a hard copy of the piano sketch in my office and a digital copy, which I somehow later lost, in my computer. Good thing I kept the hard copy!

In the fall of 2015, Dr. Bell had me begin working on a piece for orchestra, so I pulled out “Daughter of the Stars.”  I like to read American Indian writings and history, and a profound quote from one book stuck with me: one can never step into the same river twice. Since the tune “Shenandoah” references a river, I wanted to incorporate this idea into my piece. It didn’t go well. Dr. Bell criticized my piece for constantly changing keys. I tried to explain that was the point, but I couldn’t make it quite work. So I put the piece aside again, and worked on something different for orchestra. My heart wasn’t in it.

My ideas for the piece laid latent for a while, during all of 2016 and most of 2017. Then towards the end of 2017 I learned about a competition involving the Illinois Music Educator’s Association All-State String Orchestra. For some reason, the mention of string orchestra caused my ideas to suddenly make sense, and I could hear them working.

This is what I had to put aside time to do. I said NO to lessons on certain days so I could say YES to this project, specifically. The competition deadline was mid-March 2017. I didn’t win. I met all the criteria and thought that using an American folk song would be in my favor in an educational setting, but a friend of mine who is a professional cellist and string teacher said it was probably too difficult.

I wasn’t sure what would become of my piece. I wrote it for a high school group. It was hard, but not THAT hard. Would a professional group even be interested in playing it? Was I going to just have a great piece that just “middled”, not fitting into any group’s criteria?

But I believed my piece was a good one, and like usual I submitted it to more calls for scores.  I do so because I follow a rule I learned while running a small multi-level-marketing business: don’t decide for someone else. I would submit my pieces and let other people tell me “no” rather than deciding for them beforehand they are not interested. I can’t say that is easy because I get a lot of rejections. A LOT. In fact, I just got another email notice while writing this that another group is not interested in playing my piece. I can’t even remember which piece I submitted. Funny.

It turned out in my favor that my piece did not win in Illinois. Winning would have put constraints on the performance of my piece for a total of about two years from when I submitted it. Looking back, that could have been disastrous. This is why.

I gathered up the gumption to send the piece in to the North-South Consonance call for scores in summer 2018. To my elated surprise, they accepted it and programmed it for March 17, 2019. I was able to get a non-sanctioned recording which I have shared privately and used for my own purposes but cannot share publicly because I don’t have a contract with the performers for that. However, any good recording is important because I often need them to enter other competitions!

Within a week after the North-South performance, I learned about an opportunity to be considered for inclusion in Ablaze Record’s Orchestral Masters volume 7. The application was due in April! I figured “What’s the worst that can happen? They say no?” I’m kind-of getting used to this. So I sent in the score and recording. It was accepted! It was an amazing deal because, while I had to pay for the recording, they do all the legwork of getting it done, do all the CD inserts and marketing, etc. and I still own the full rights to my piece and the recording. It was an expensive project, but there was no way I’d be able to do this completely on my own, so my husband and I agreed to take the plunge. The CD release is anticipated for Spring 2020.

Immediately after that, I saw that the deadline for The American Prize orchestral composition division was coming up in May. To my surprise, there was now a Pops subdivision for orchestra composition! I had not seen that before. I can’t remember if it was brand new this year or 2018, but it doesn’t matter. It meant I had something to submit. One of the requirements is that the piece had to have been “read” or performed live, and without the North-South Consonance performance, I would not have met that requirement. But since my piece had been performed, I could send it in! It was an outrageously long shot, but again I thought “What is the worst that can happen?”

Time went by. Since May 2019 I have entered at least twenty calls for scores, sending in various of my pieces to different groups and hearing no after no after no. The excitement from the spring wore off, and the wondering if I would get picked for anything again and if the investment I made in the recording would be worth it started seeping into my mind. I continued to work at my composition, but I became more and more discouraged as I heard “no’s” while our old cars broke down. I began to look into other ways of “getting out there” and generally just trying harder. Work more. Try harder. Wait for the “break.”

I got some more piano work, picked up a couple of students, and landed a position as an accompanist for another community chorus – all wonderful things. But my composition seemed to be stagnant. I wrote a blog post about my discouragement here.

Then yesterday I got news that I was selected as a semi-finalist in The American Prize orchestral pops division in composition for my piece, “Daughter of the Stars”! Even though the final results are still months away, I feel like I have already won! This is something that can go permanently on my CV and will give greater value to my recording. The organization claims that those in the know in music follow the competition results and doing well often leads to a lot of performances. I hope that is the case for me!

I have learned a lesson about persevering when it feels like not many really care what I do. The persistence, not giving up on an idea, saying “no” to others in order to set aside time for creative work…it has been validated. There is a saying that the road to success is not a straight line. No, it meanders like a river, and no step into it is ever the same.




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