Seasons of Work

When I first told a composer-friend of mine that I was taking a job as a PreK-8 music teacher, he matter-of-factly said, “You won’t get much composing done this year. But don’t worry, it will get better each year.” He wasn’t warning me as if it was a bad idea to take the job or that it would threaten my composing altogether. He was only speaking from experience. At one point, he also taught music in grades PreK-8.

I didn’t really believe him, though. I thought it would take a couple of months to get used to the routine, and then I would figure out a way to compose on my days off. After all, I’m not teaching full-time.

I was wrong. It has been a much greater struggle than I expected. My days off aren’t full of composing. They are full of lesson planning, grading, and catching up on rest. Various things like getting haircuts and shopping for needed shoes have to happen, too. For a while, I was able to do some compositional research. But once the grading hit at the end of the first quarter it seems there’s always been something urgent that has pushed my opportunity to compose to the wayside.

After the 1st quarter ended, it was time to get ready for the holidays. That meant extra practicing for upcoming performances, plus meal prep since, while my husband does most of the day-to-day cooking these days, I still do the gourmet stuff for big events. I started the New Year well, but during the second week of January I got sick for a few days. (Was it COVID? I don’t know. The test came back negative.) Those sick days put me very behind. I got behind on second-quarter grading, which then put me behind in getting some recordings done for one of the choruses I accompany, which put me behind on another recording I still have to do. That recording isn’t finished because….my two-year-old laptop computer broke. Upon opening it one morning, the hinge literally came apart, and the screen bulged out from the frame.

I immediately had to shift gears and research which new computer I would buy, a time-consuming chore that came much earlier than I expected. While I mostly compose with paper and pencil, I need my computer for a lot of other related work like uploading scores to my website and submitting to competitions, besides the ordinary things like email. Getting a computer immediately became first priority. Instead of composing, I’ve been setting up my new computers and uploading software. (I will share my new choices in an upcoming blog post.)

After I get the recording done (hopefully this week!) I will then start preparing for a trip to California next month where I will be performing and making a presentation at the national conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers. Perhaps in April I will squeeze in some composing amidst Easter, third quarter grades, and practicing for performances taking place in early May.

Several years ago, I had a conversation with my composition teacher about this very topic. Like me, he too is a teacher (college-level), a pianist, and a composer. He talked about the seasons of work. He shared that he didn’t get much composing done during the teaching year or when he was performing a lot, and he didn’t practice much during the times he focused on composing.

I’d prefer to do a little bit of everything every day, but it hasn’t been working out that way this year. That doesn’t mean I have done nothing related to composing. I added a harp part to my piece, Daughter of the Stars. I wrote a short piano piece, Meditation No.4: Be Near Me, Lord Jesus in December. I’ve entered several competitions and calls for scores. I did a bunch of marketing and publishing work. I am currently considering getting a professional recording done.

My frustration is about not being able to work on new or unfinished pieces. The list of ideas for pieces grows every week! Brainstorming is not a weakness of mine (though on the flip side I could win an “overthinking” award.) If I wrote from sun-up to sundown, I would not get through them all. The endless list of pieces I want to write haunts me when I am struggling to find time to work on even one of them.

My therapist tells me to relax instead of worrying about what I’m going to do next, or when, and enjoy the fruits of my labor. That’s hard. But her advice seems to match up with the experience of my composition teacher. Teach when it’s time to teach, perform when it’s time to perform, compose when it’s time to compose.

I wrote most of this blog post in-between giving private lessons and while supervising 8th grade study hall. (It’s a lot easier to write words than music in those brief moments.) I finished it up this morning, and now I’m off to a meeting, then setting up my computer, and working on that recording. The specters of future pieces remain at my door, like a pile of neighborhood kids impatiently asking, “When are you going to be able to come out and play?”

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