What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

At the end of each season, I am acknowledged by the choruses I accompany. The chair of one of the groups invariably comments on how “unflustered” I am. Truthfully, I always wonder what there is to be stressed out about in rehearsal, or even during a performance. It is a relatively structured and predictable environment. I know my music. Everything else will just roll along. Right?

Last week, he told the group he learned why I am so calm at the piano. He heard a (true) story that when my kids were young, they would often sit on my lap and try to play along when I was practicing Beethoven sonatas. Ah, yes. That was hard. Thankfully I have never performed with kids on my lap.

But many other things have happened. I’ve been at performances where my pages fell on the floor or blew away. I have performed on pianos with keys and pedals that don’t work. I have performed with page turners that missed a page turn so significant that I had to intervene and start flipping madly to the place I needed to be while cobbling together some semblance of the accompaniment with one hand. I have accompanied singers that have missed entire sections of the piece. I once dropped out of playing a few measures to catch up with an instrumental soloist who made a rhythmic mistake. I took the heat so it wouldn’t look like she screwed up, and she actually won her audition.

Then there are my own mistakes, of which there are many. Just one example is this: early on in my life, when I was 9 or 10, I was performing Beethoven’s Fur Elise in a recital by memory. No lie, I sat down at the piano and played the entire first section correctly, but in the WRONG KEY. I had simply started on the wrong note. I didn’t know what I had done until I got to the next section and realized I couldn’t continue like that. I started over again, apparently unfazed because I got through it fine.

I have had so many performance mishaps and embarrassments that I really don’t know how I ever became a musician except for extreme stubbornness, which I suppose in this one case is a good trait to have. I imagine the opportunities for getting flustered might have deterred many.

I even had a first-time occurrence at my concert tonight: the piano key cover fell on my hands during the performance, knocked down accidentally by my page turner! There was nothing to do but keep playing. The audience, and perhaps even my director, didn’t even know something happened. I’m not even sure if I made any noise from the surprise.
Not much bothers me at the piano now.

I suppose the predictability of performance is realizing that anything can happen. The show must go on!

“Key” Considerations

I recently attended the national conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, and during the conference a conversation developed regarding how composers felt about their pieces being transposed to a different key or octave. For example, when a composer writes a song, is it meant for one voice only, such as soprano, or can it be adjusted for another voice part? This is a question I have asked myself, and for me it really depends on the piece.

Earlier this year, I wrote a short song setting the Prayer of St. Francis for voice and piano. I originally wrote it for soprano because my daughter was singing while I played the piano; it was written and performed at a special event celebrating my husband’s 10th anniversary serving as the pastor of our church. However, I later wondered if advertising this as a soprano piece was too limiting. I imagined that perhaps a mezzo soprano, a tenor, or even a high baritone might like to sing this piece. But there was a problem; the original key would be slightly out of range for those with a lower voice range. Was the solution to simply transpose the key down a step or two?

It isn’t that simple. Certain keys cause problems with the piano part. Either the pianist would need to use awkward fingerings on the keys, or the piano part would be pushed too low, sounding muddy, or placed too high, sounding tinkly.  The right range for a low voice part didn’t necessarily work for the piano.

However, I really wanted to make this piece more accessible. It didn’t seem right to me to exclude singers who might want to present this piece during a church service, or even a wedding or funeral, simply because it was slightly out of range. After exploring the possibilities, I decided that one other key would work and be acceptable for both a lower voice part and the piano. Now I present both as an option – but there are only two options.

I do consider suggestions regarding my music. My son recently asked me to transpose a violin piece for double bass. I thought the idea sounded good (besides also feeling quite pleased that my son liked a piece of mine enough to ask this favor), so I agreed to it. As a saxophonist, I have also played quite a few pieces that were originally for violin or cello, so, the idea of using a piece differently than it’s original intent is not foreign to me. However, I do like having the final say.

Regarding “The Prayer of St. Francis,” I was able to be  slightly flexible yet still control the various choices. I would not like to have my piece  transposed into any key the singer chooses, as can be done on some sites with downloadable sheet music. Because of the nature of the piece, it’s uses, and the  broader pool of potential performers, I was willing to make adjustments for various voice ranges, but I am not willing to do so for every piece I write.

Give the Organist a Solo

Since I am at a conference with my fellow Christian art music composers, I had an opportunity the other night to attend a wonderful choral concert. All the music at this particular concert was sacred, and interspersed throughout the program were some congregational hymns the audience sang together while the choral groups rearranged themselves on stage. The concert was held in a large sanctuary with a wonderful pipe organ, on which a talented young man accompanied our hymns (as well as some of the choral pieces.)

My husband pastors a tiny, 50-person-if-everyone-shows-up church, and I lead the music every week. It is a blessing to me to have the opportunity to sing hymns with a larger group of people and sing my actual part. I am an alto, so singing the melody every week at church often puts me at the top of my range, and that doesn’t always sound good. So, at the concert I happily sang the alto part in the four-part chorale style hymns.

That was until the last verse. In every hymn, the organist, true to being an organist, got creative. He re-harmonized the hymns, even using chords outside the key. I liked the new harmonies, but they ruined my part. I could no longer sing along as an alto and was forced to sing the melody. The same was true for any tenor or bass that was trying to sing along in their nice, in-their-voice-range part. The new harmonies only work if everyone stays on the melody. That defeats the purpose of having something written as a four-part hymn.

I have heard many people complain that churches don’t sing hymns in four parts anymore. Whenever I have the opportunity, I always choose to sing the alto part. But my experience the other night showed me that the organist didn’t expect anyone to sing anything but the melody.

I appreciated the organist’s new harmonies. He was adding a new element, a new approach to the hymn that seemed to reveal something about it. Unfortunately, I could not process that while trying to read the words and feeling slightly disgruntled about being sent to the soprano stratosphere again. I would suggest that when the congregation is singing that the music support four-part singing. The organist should have a solo verse for exploring different harmonies, during which I can contemplate the words and hear the insight the organist is providing.

Art, Math & Philosophy, Oh My!

Do you ever have those moments when you see pieces of your life come together in one place and it just makes sense  – who you are as a person, the things you like, the dreams you’ve had, the things you’ve done? When you realize that all of that had to happen to bring you to now so that now you could be in just the right spot?

This has happened to me numerous times, but the latest took place this past week. I finished reading a book called Temperament by Stuart Isacoff, which explores the development of equal temperament  (dividing the octave into 12 equally-sized half-steps.) What intrigued me most was how many mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers argued over the issue of how to tune instruments, primarily the keyboard instruments such as the organ and piano. As I read to be more informed about things related to composition and all things musical, I realized that all the various interests I have had over the course of my life were being covered in one place.

When I was very young, I wanted to be an artist. I did, however, quickly learn that visual art was not my forte when I designed a clay coin purse to give to my mother. It didn’t quite open and close once it went through the kiln. I can follow directions rather well, but I gave up on the idea of creating any visual art stemming from my own mind. Music alone is where my artistic talent resides.

Throughout elementary school, I was convinced I wanted to be a scientist. I spent hours doing experiments and using my microscope. Then came my interest in math. I was good at it. I wasn’t the whizziest whiz kid in my class, but I had enough skill to seriously consider a STEM-field career. When I was taking AP Calculus in high school, I found it so fun and intriguing that I briefly considered following my dad’s footsteps into majoring in math at college.

Everyone who has ever known me knows I am also deeply philosophical. “Metaphysics” became part of my vocabulary when I was twelve.  I still ask why as much as any three-year-old. I spend much of every day pondering the depths of the universe, and I will talk about it with anyone who has the patience.

In the end, music won my heart.  Now I understand why.  It encompasses everything. Art? Music composition is my creative outlet. Science? Those sound waves are actually really important. Math? I just read words in a book about music that are not usually used outside of trigonometry. For fun. Philosophy? Why does it matter whether or not intervals are equally tuned? Does a universal rule governing the proportions of intervals exist? If so, does humankind have the right to alter it? These are important questions!

Though I have studied music from a very young age, I only dabbled in composition until five years ago when I took my first lesson.  If I had any doubts that it was a good decision to finally get around to seriously composing, reading this book confirmed for me that I am heading in the right direction as it scratched the itch of various interests I have had since childhood.

Stop the Tamboura!

I started listening to a variety of world music when I was a teen. Folk music from Africa, South America, Indonesia, Eastern Europe, and other places was a daily part of my musical diet. I had a cassette of dance music from around the world that I played until it wore out.  Every summer, I would attend the world music-and-dance festival sponsored by the local university.  I listened to as much world music as I did jazz, and perhaps more than I listened to classical music.

Listening to world music grew out of an overall interest in and appreciation for world cultures that began when I was very young. In elementary school, I devoured as much as I could of each issue of National Geographic that came with my parents’ subscription. Every few years, the church I attended held a missions conference during which missionaries would come and speak about the work they were doing in various places. I went to as many sessions as I could, sitting in a room full of adults, fascinated by all the pictures and stories of far-off places and people. I was so obsessed with geography my parents bought me games published by National Geographic, but my family got tired of playing them with me. I always won. (As a side note, those games are now completely outdated since the map of the world has changed so extensively.)

My husband and I recently learned about the world music department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, and have been attending several concerts there over the past couple of years. The other night, we attended a concert of South Indian vocal music. I knew what to expect. I understood the level of improvisation, I knew what instruments would be there, I knew how long some of the pieces can be. I was not surprised there was no intermission. Despite all my experience, I found myself miserable halfway through the concert. I wanted to leave, but I hadn’t heard what I knew my reward for staying would be – a drum solo and some really cool singing where the singer utters syllables used in Indian dancing faster than a trumpeter can double-tongue.

That drum solo didn’t come until two hours into the concert. TWO HOURS. Two hours of constant, unrelenting tamboura drone. (Click here to see a picture of a tamboura; click here to hear a sample.) It didn’t even stop between pieces. I so wanted to get up and shout, “Stop the tamboura! Just stop it! Stop it for two seconds and let me get a breath!” I wasn’t having a problem with the music, overall. But I had never before put myself in a position of listening to Indian music for two hours straight with no break. In essence, I had never practiced going to an Indian concert, and even for me it was too much all at once.

I looked around and wondered if I was the only one who was having trouble. It seemed so. My husband was all into it, but truthfully he has a higher tolerance for annoyance than I do. (When we were first dating, I would often complain about being annoyed about something, so he decided he would point at me and tell me I was a noid. It was timely, given that Dominos pizza was using a marketing campaign with the slogan “Avoid the Noid.”) I looked around some more. No one else seemed antsy and uncomfortable. But they were all grown-up hippies (women with their natural, uncolored white and grey hair and their companions) who had probably been to a Ravi Shankar concert or two in  their younger years. Some of them may have attended many concerts at the school since, as we learned, Wesleyan University has a long-standing department specializing in Indian music. In other words, they had practiced attending these concerts.

However, I am not sure that I can really get used to the drone of a Tamboura. I am one of those people who can’t handle the buzz of fluorescent lights. When I was in school, I noticed it. All. Day. Long. Discussion in class. bzzzz. Test day. bzzzz. Band rehearsal. bzzzz. When I took some classes at New England Conservatory, I noticed that the fluorescent lights there did NOT buzz! I wondered if they invested in better lights because the incessant noise would drive the students and faculty batty. In addition, my limit for sitting in one place is about an hour-and-a-half. After that, my body literally starts to hurt. I really enjoy the ability to watch movies at home. I almost always take a break mid-movie. I get up and stretch my legs, use the restroom, get a snack, and invariably ask a question or two to make sure I understand what is going on. It is especially helpful when the movie is really intense. I can take a quick break then get back to it.

It didn’t matter how much I appreciate South Indian music. I enjoyed the last half hour of the concert, but I still left with my brain scrambled as if I had plugged myself into an electrical socket all night. The sensory overload put me in a daze in which I could not comprehend conversation. The ride home was quiet as I tried to decompress. The experience made me realize that someone can have difficulty enjoying a concert while still liking the music. If I could give the performers advice, I would say “lay off a little on the tamboura. Stop it between songs. Give my ears a rest for a few moments. Add an intermission.” It would have helped.

 

 

Declaring One’s Self

The term “declaring one’s self” often refers to making a pledge of commitment and support. It can also mean stating strongly one’s opinion or revealing one’s true character or identity.  In short, it’s about owning up to a position, saying “this is where I stand.”

Composition is an exercise of “declaring one’s self.” During the writing phase, I sort out my ideas, clarify and refine them. But once a piece is completed, I own it. I chose all the notes, all the voicing, all the instrumentation. I have declared myself to this piece. I stand behind it, taking full responsibility for it. I have said, in no uncertain terms, “this is what I want.”

It is at once empowering and terrifying. I feel like this every time I get on a roller coaster or when I am halfway through a mountain trail and find myself in a difficult spot. On the one hand, I am quite satisfied with myself for having the guts to get on the ride or start the hike. I didn’t chicken out. But once in the midst of it, I sometimes wonder what I have gotten myself into. There’s no getting off the ride, there’s no going back. There is only one way to go, and it is forward, come what may.

To me, writing a piece of music and presenting it is a bit like laying out my heart in front of the entire world. I painstakingly ripped it out of my soul and laid it bare.  It cannot  return to the depths from which it came. It has seen light and has been exposed, all of it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. At that point, all I can do is see what happens. Will it get performed? Will it be well received? Will it be found lacking? Will my friends encourage me or will even they have nothing to say, finding nothing to praise? I feel accomplished, having finished a project. But I also feel extremely vulnerable. My inner thoughts, shown in the choices I made to create the piece, are on public display.

Declaring one’s self can be a dangerous activity. Some people will not like what you have to say or who you are. The practice of saying “this is what I want” clearly and firmly is an important discipline. So many times we are hesitant to reveal our inner desires out of fear they will be rejected or scorned. But pretending that our own desires don’t exist or are unimportant is a refusal to stand by our own selves and a form of self-rejection that says we are worthy of being dismissed or ignored. I’m not saying that every single desire we have is a good one that should be “published”, but too many times we hide ourselves for no reason other than simply being afraid.

However, the skill of declaring one’s self can be developed with practice. It does get easier. The first hill on the roller coaster is the scariest. One hike up a mountain gives confidence to do the next one.  As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. What is the worst that can happen? A rejection? Someone gets angry? I am embarrassed? Those things will not destroy me. I may get knocked back a little. I may hesitate. I may need to recover. But I pick myself up and write again, with a little more strength, confidence, and determination.

 

 

 

Look! See My Progress?

I have a friend who is a visual artist. Occasionally, she posts her work on Facebook when she starts a new watercolor.  As she goes along, we can see the progress she makes in her painting. First, the sketch, then some colors. Later, more colors, more detail. Finally, we see the finished product.  I am both amused and a little envious that she posts her “progress pictures” on Facebook. Some people really get into following her process. It is easy for them to SEE the progress that she is making. It is almost “proof” that she is working on a project, not that she needs to provide it.

As a composer, I have no such opportunity. The best I could do is take a picture of  light pencil on music paper with a background of things scratched out or the remains of something once written now erased. I would provide one here, but you wouldn’t be able to see anything but some squiggles, dots, and smudges. Even if I provided a photo of my composition sketches every few hours or days as I made progress, it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone besides myself.  It wouldn’t even mean anything to another musician,  not even to another composer, unless we were having an actual conversation about it.  My husband studied classical guitar performance in college, and even he can’t follow along with me anymore. I tell him all about my ideas, and he says, “I need to hear it.”

He is absolutely right. The only one who knows how the piece sounds before it comes to fruition is me. As much as I can excitedly explain how the horns will come in here or how I will use this altered chord in such a fashion there, no one can follow along with what I say because it is all in my head. No one else can hear the orchestra. Not many can imagine that the piano is actually a choral group. Even a MIDI mock-up of the piece does no justice to it because the computer plays back so rigidly. (Yes, I know there are some who can make a computerized version of an orchestra sound like the real thing, but those skills go beyond composition.) Neither would I want to share a MIDI version of my partially-finished piece with the world.  While I am working, some things are out of place or missing and it just sounds BAD. I really don’t want to create distaste for my work before it is done. If someone doesn’t like my piece, I’d rather they decide that after it is finished. Besides, I write with pencil and paper, and taking time away from composition to enter it into my computer software program is not worth it before I am at the “completed rough draft” stage of my process, which is pretty far along.

Even when my score is complete, I can’t present it as a finished product. Sure, I can show it to people, and I do have preview scores up on my website. But, a piece is not really finished until it is performed. Not until then are the abstract ideas in my head put into a concrete form with which the listener can interact. How many hours are spent translating my imagination into that special code of dots and squiggles called music notation which will explain to performers how to play the piece in such a way that will bring to life the sounds which have existed only in my mind! Yet, unperformed, the piece lays lifeless like a dormant volcano, giving no indication of the energy held within.

Day after day, I spend time in the back room, my tiny office crammed with my digital piano, my computer, and several bookshelves of sheet music, theory books, and biographies of composers, and I sit with my pencil, my paper, and my eraser (white ones are the best, by the way!) After a while I come out, and my husband asks me, “how’s it going?” I usually answer according to my level of feeling pleased or frustrated, or I will state that I finished a certain section of my piece.  I always get *something* done. Trust me, I made progress.  See?