To Cancel, or Not to Cancel

Earlier today, I read a sad and sobering article about a community chorus in Washington State that held a rehearsal on March 10. Approximately 60 people met for rehearsal that day, and later that week 2/3 of the group came down with symptoms of Covid-19. Several cases were confirmed by testing; 2 people died. It appears that rehearsal was a “super-spreader event,” during which one person carrying the virus unknowingly spread it to many others. From all accounts, no one was actively coughing or sneezing at the event. It is possible the virus was spread through aerosol droplets, breathed out strongly and inhaled deeply by singers used to working their lungs.

In early March, the virus had begun to spread in Washington State, but there were no known cases in that particular county. The rehearsal took place a day before the state’s governor banned groups of 250 or more in certain counties, and two days before he closed schools, bars and restaurants. Was it negligent on the part of the leaders of the chorus to hold rehearsal that day? What would an ordinary person decide?

This story really hit home for me because that same week, on the opposite side of the country, I attended the last rehearsals of the three community choruses I accompany before they were suspended for the remainder of the spring. I had begun to wonder about the safety of rehearsals because of how catchy the virus is. But the information coming through the news was mixed. On one hand, President Trump was downplaying the seriousness of the virus; on the other hand the World Health Organization was declaring this a pandemic. No one was in agreement on how to handle the situation, and no health organization warned that the virus could be be suspended in the air as aerosol droplets. That was just an unconfirmed rumor.

As an accompanist who observes how community choruses are run (through a board, not one individual’s decision), I can see how difficult it is to make these decisions. If the the rehearsals and concerts are cancelled prematurely, it can upset many members of the chorus. Several of them paid to participate in the group, and most depend on it for a good deal of their social life. Many consider the music-making an important part of mental health. Canceling rehearsals or concerts is not a decision to be taken lightly. On the other hand, waiting too long could put members at risk for catching such a virus. How does a leader or board of directors know what to do?

Here in Rhode Island, the professional groups took their cues from the governor. Concerts were not canceled until after the governor banned groups of 250 or more. If the professional groups take their cues from the governor, how much more are small community groups dependent on clear advisement from the government? All the community choruses I am involved in are smaller than 250 people. Questions abounded: Do we meet? Do we not meet? Is it safe to be in a smaller group if we maintain social distance? One group acted proactively and canceled the season immediately. Another group waited until the governor limited groups to 50 or less before canceling the season. Another group put rehearsals on hiatus but is holding out hope that we can resume rehearsals in a few weeks and put together some semblance of a concert in late spring.

It’s not the responsibility of the group’s director or board to know the answers. In fact, I don’t think it is even possible. Unless there is a person on the board who specializes in public health, I don’t think it is fair to expect a community chorus to know what the best call to make is, especially when the information is unclear or lacking. It’s not easy to close up shop when so much is at stake. Many groups are unable to pay their professional musicians who were contracted, who suddenly find themselves unemployed when concerts are canceled and months of work vanishes. I am lucky that two of my choruses were financially solvent enough to pay me despite cancelling the season. But one group is dependent on concert ticket sales. I don’t know yet if I will get paid for work I already did. That is a reality for many non-profit arts organizations.

Ultimately, the decisions were taken out of the hands of the choruses, and other large community groups, including churches. As it should be. The experts in public health and the governmental leaders – the people who we have chosen and indirectly hired to make these decisions – are responsible for telling us the best course of action. As sad as the story is in Washington State, I do not hold the director or the board or the chorus members themselves responsible. Perhaps they held out too much hope. Perhaps they were too optimistic. Perhaps they were too trusting by waiting on the governor to take further action. But I don’t think they were negligent.

The Joy of Simple Things

A few years ago, when my “Three Short Pieces for Unaccompanied Saxophone” was performed by Lawrence Gwodz at the 2016 National Conference for the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, a colleague and friend of mine, Walter Saul, described my work as “stunningly resourceful with scant material.” Though it was an unexpected thing to hear, I found it to be a great compliment because, in just five words, Walter summarized so much of my approach – not just to composing, but to life in general.

All my life, I have been drawn to simple things. As a kid, I loved arts and crafts where the same basic materials could make an infinite number of projects. My Spyrograph gave me many hours of enjoyment. I also created many cross-stitching designs. It’s amazing what one can produce making Xs with a needle and some colored thread. I found a lot of enjoyment in nature, too, preferring to play outside rather than with toys. I also had a microscope and a set of slides and covers which went a long way in observing all kinds of things I found around the house or outside.

This ability to be satisfied with few and simple things has been part of my adult life, too. When I got married and had young children, money was tight for a long time. During the years my husband was in seminary, we brought home less than $20,000 a year. The four of us lived on that salary for five years. We struggled, but we made it through, partly because I knew how to stretch a dollar. What is chicken broth but boiled bones and veggie scraps? What is bread but flour, yeast, and water? What is jam but fruit, sugar, and pectin? What is soap but oil and lye? Later when we had goats, I made my own dairy products. What is yogurt and cheese but cultured milk? There may be unique variations in all of these, but the the fundamental concept of each is incredibly simple.

We also knew how to have fun without spending a whole lot. Days out were spent at local festivals with free admission or fishing at the lake or hiking in the national forest. Vacations were visits to family or weekend camping trips in the state park. One time we splurged and spent two nights in St. Louis because we could take advantage of the zoo and museums with no admission fee. We created at-home special dinners instead of going out to eat. Trips to the library were always an adventure. Time socializing with friends in each others’ homes was highly valued. Simple or inexpensive didn’t mean boring.

Sometimes I feel my compositions are simple, too, more like award-winning artisan loaves of bread and wheels of cheese from a rural village store than avant garde creations from a Michelin 3-star urban restaurant. But fancy isn’t necessarily better. Complicated doesn’t mean more profound. What if, because each ingredient is highly exposed, simplicity allows for more intimacy and vulnerability?

In this time of Covid-19 when so much is changing and my teaching and performing work is suspended and some of my income reduced, what am I going to do? I’m going to do what I have always done. I will be stunningly resourceful with scant material. I’ll find joy in simple things: games with the family, a phone call with a friend, a home-cooked meal, an owl hooting in my yard. I will bake bread, make soap, plant a garden, pray. I will continue to compose music that, through its simplicity, comes straight from my heart.

Old Women Need Not Apply

I turn 44 this week. Normally the change in age doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel any older or wiser. It just is. This year feels different even though 44 is not a milestone for anything. I am simply more aware of age because everywhere I turn, I am excluded because of it.

When I began music composition lessons at age 37, I knew I would be competing against younger composers half my age. Though I have some life experience, I still knew that I would be trying to catch up in many ways. Adult life has a lot of responsibilities. I don’t have the time or space to let creative juices flow like a 20-year old. I have kids to worry about, a marriage to nurture, bills to pay, students to teach, choruses to accompany, concerts to play, a house that needs fixing, a yard that needs upkeep, a body that needs attention, friends who need a babysitter. The list goes on. Try fitting learning a new thing into that – a new creative endeavor, no less. But I did. I spent the money, and I spent the time.

Little did I know that I wouldn’t even be *allowed* to compete with those younger, because I am simply too old. Who decided that “emerging” composers, just getting started, are only under a certain age? That age is arbitrary. Some contests are open to those under 25. some 30, some 35, some 40. I have not yet seen one open to those under 45 or 50, however. I guess by 40 one is truly too old or washed out to establish a career as a composer. When I started studying composition, I had already aged out of most of the competitions that are intended to help new composers get their sea legs.

I can hear the silent voices: “You’re too late. You should have made different choices. You shouldn’t have gotten married or had kids young, you shouldn’t have seen your husband through seminary, you shouldn’t have homeschooled your children, you shouldn’t have put so much time into teaching other people’s kids, you shouldn’t have spent so much time serving other people. You simply didn’t put your career first, you simply didn’t put YOU first, and now you’re paying for it. We’re only here for those who make music their first – and only – priority in their 20s.”

I was particularly disappointed when I came across a contest for emerging women composers, open to all who identify as female. Women-only competitions are nice since women have historically had a harder time getting noticed in the world of music, particularly composition. Women still make up only 20-30% of all composers. But when I read the guidelines, I saw that it was only open to those age 35 or under. That was a kick in the gut. I could be trans, but I can’t be “old.” This competition was open to women, but not those who put their family first, or who for one reason or another came to composition “late” in life. I put “old” and “late” in quotations because it is so ridiculous! Since when is 37 old or late in life?

In an attempt to create a contest benefiting those often excluded and overlooked, these contest creators consciously decided to exclude women of a certain age. You can identify as female, but you must still be the right type of female: young. I complained to this group, but they said they had already published the guidelines and “could not” change them this year. No mention was given regarding a commitment to open future contests to women of all ages. (FYI: guidelines, especially deadlines, are extended all the time. Competition guidelines can certainly be expanded, though not restricted. A new announcement is made with the word “updated.” No big deal.)

A Facebook friend told me I should identify as young. I could get away with it if an internet search would not prove I was lying. I got carded at a restaurant last week. The pic on my homepage was from two years ago. I still have no gray hairs, save a pesky white one that grows out of my chin sometimes. But that’s it. A hand injury two years ago required an x-ray which revealed I have zero signs of arthritis. After forty years of playing the piano, that is remarkable. I have no aches and pains. I have no health problems. I am still active, and I still have plenty of energy. I still argue with those in authority if I feel the need, I still have a streak of rebelliousness, and I still don’t know when to keep my mouth shut. Let’s hope I never grow up.

We Reserve the Right to Define “Emerging”

A little while back, I got the results from a contest for emerging composers that I had entered. It did not have an age limit, and I had work that met the guidelines, so of course I had to take advantage of the opportunity. The rejection email I received was the worst I have ever received. Most of these rejection emails I get are impersonal form letters that begin with “Dear Composer,” but this one didn’t even include a greeting. “You are receiving this email because you entered the emerging composer’s competition”, it said, and then went on to say that the winner had recently been announced and the people receiving the email did not win. “We want to recognize your effort and interest in making an application to the competition” (note, we recognize your application, not your work), and “it was a privilege to choose a winner from the many extraordinary works submitted” (am I the only one that finds this wording strange?)

The first thing that puzzled me was that the winner had already been announced…and was not named in the email. Most competition results are sent with the email, or recipients are told where and when to be able to find the results. This email contained neither. My skeptic alarm went off immediately, and I went to work sleuthing on the internet to find out who won. I first went to the organization’s website. For such a big competition with a nice $$ tag connected to a commission, I expected this announcement to make the front page. It didn’t. Huh. I poked around on every page and every link on that website, even on pages I knew had no real chance of containing the information, such as the personnel page. I could not find anything about this competition. Since I designed and manage my own website, I know how easy it is to make a new page and where to put it, especially when such a large organization would have a webmaster devoted to managing the site. Huh.

The next strategy was a Google search. Bingo. I found the page, but the page was not linked to any other page of the organization’s website. There was no big announcement. Rather, the first paragraph explained that the competition was over and that scores were no longer being accepted. Embedded within the second paragraph was the winner’s name. If I was the winner, I’d be wondering why the organization wasn’t highlighting this exciting news. So I looked him up.

The organization had said they reserved the right to define emerging. I understood that, especially when age is not the limiting factor. It would be difficult to know in advance which competing composer’s background would best be defined as “emerging.” This was their definition: the winner was young (25), but seemingly a prodigy since his work has already been performed all over the world. He has earned ASCAP awards, collaborated with the New York City Ballet, and has even been featured on National Geographic. His bio goes on from there. I guess age ended up being the determining factor, after all, since his experience doesn’t sound like “emerging” to me. Huh.

No wonder they appreciated my “effort and interest in applying.” It seems that my effort (and that of others who entered) was necessary for this organization to jump through the hoops of setting up a competition in order to make it look like they fairly chose someone they already knew they wanted to work with. This is not unlike universities that create job descriptions that fit only the person they want to hire, or government proposals designed for only one contractor. This group got around that, and around age discrimination, by saying “we reserve the right to define the term ’emerging.'”

I knew all along that my $20 donation/entry fee would help fund the commission. They got about $2,000 out the almost-100 poor emerging composers who never had a chance. Today I returned to the webpage which contained the announcement. It was blocked to all but members of the organization.

My Piano is Not for Stimming

Please read this first paragraph carefully. I am writing about an experience I had giving a first lesson with a young autistic boy, but I am *in no way* criticizing autistic people, their parents, or trying to diminish or ridicule their struggles. I have successfully taught several autistic students and even earned the title of their “favorite teacher.” I know many autistic individuals personally, some in my own family, and I believe that if I was a kid there’s a good chance I would be diagnosed. I have absolutely nothing against autistic people.

A mother contacted me to have a first, trial lesson with her 9-year old son who is autistic. He was interested in piano, but she anticipated that things would go probably need to go very slow. I agreed to give it a shot. I’ve taught several autistic children successfully, though I am not a specialist nor do I have specific training in teaching children with special needs. I wasn’t particularly concerned. After teaching for over 25 years and raising my own children, I am confident I know when a child has had enough, autistic or not.

Looking back, I didn’t ask enough questions, nor did the mother offer me enough information. I should have asked for the definition of “slow”. I had assumed slow to be a matter of comprehension, but I think it should have been defined as “how much lesson he can take at once.” Perhaps the first lesson needed to be a 5-minute meet-and-greet, see the teacher, learn her name. Maybe during the second lesson we’d spend ten minutes together, and gradually build up the length of time over a period of weeks or months. We should also have agreed on how and when to cut lessons short and discussed payment for a short lesson.

When I first met this boy, I introduced myself and asked him his name. He balked, so I asked him, “Do you not want to tell me your name?” He shook his head, and I said, “That’s OK.” I brought him over to the piano and did what I normally do, showing what the insides of the piano look like and some general things about how the piano works. He responded well, explored the pedal and even asked some questions. I was already wondering what “slow” meant since the first five minutes (at least) went just about the same as most other first lessons I have ever given.

After a bit, we sat down at the keyboard and I explained the groupings of black and white keys and had him find them. At this point, I did need to adjust my explanations and questions a bit so he could understand, but things went pretty well. He played what I asked and seemed to comprehend. Again, I was wondering what “slow” meant. So far, things were not going slow.

That is when we began to have problems. The boy began lifting the keys on the piano. Every kid lifts the keys of the piano. I have another student, a six year old boy, who recently did this during a lesson. I remember well lifting the keys myself as a kid. There is something interesting about it – look, the keys do this! It is weird and curious, and the keys make a thumping sound when you lift and release them quickly. In ignorance, it is fun to keep doing. It is just bad for the piano.

When I asked the six year old to stop because he could damage the piano, he immediately stopped. He may need a reminder from time to time, as all kids do, but he stopped. Unfortunately, the autistic boy did not. I asked him about six or seven times to stop lifting the keys and told him he could break the piano. He just looked at me and then kept doing it. Inside, I started to panic a little. On one hand, I get it. I remember being a kid, and I understand the fascination and the repetition. *I really do.* I knew a lot of this was normal. Lifting the keys is normal for all kids, and the repetition is normal for autistic people. BUT – and this is a big but – I couldn’t allow it to continue because it could damage the piano – MY piano!

At that point, I closed the lid down over the keys. I knew a battle of wills was coming, so I held the lid down with my arm. I was right. The boy immediately began trying to pull the lid up off the keys so he could could go back to lifting them. I told him that I could not allow him to lift the keys and hurt my piano, and that I was not going to raise the lid until he was ready to not lift the keys. After a few minutes, he must have realized I wasn’t going to budge and seemed to settle down. So, I raised the cover so we could try again to proceed in the lesson, but he went right back to lifting the keys. At this point, I decided the lesson was over even though there were ten minutes remaining in the allotted time. I couldn’t risk damage to my piano.

I called over his mother, who had been in the room. I went over things the boy could do at home, but also explained that he cannot lift the keys and why. She said she heard everything. I wondered to myself why she hadn’t intervened. At that point, I felt a bit like I had been set up or at least stranded. We scheduled a lesson for the following week, but she later emailed me to say she didn’t think her son should take lessons.

That’s too bad. After a couple of days of thinking, I had come up with some ideas. The first was to limit lessons to 15 minutes for a while. The second was, that if she was willing to pay the extra cost, I could give the lessons at their home. Perhaps the boy would have felt more comfortable there, and if any damage was done it would be to their piano, not mine. The third was to make sure he had some kind of stim toy that he could use instead of using the piano. However, I didn’t get a chance to present my ideas.

I have taught students with all kinds of special needs: some with autism, some with ADHD, some with dyslexia, some with crippling anxiety. Sometimes parents don’t tell me about these difficulties ahead of time, and that never goes well. In every one of these situations, students need some modifications, either in the way material is presented or in the way “performance” is assessed, or both. Not only is it helpful to know ahead of time that a student has special needs, it is also important to be told what is already known to be helpful. I did not ask the mother of this boy enough questions, nor did she provide enough information. I believe that had these things been discussed in greater detail, we would have had a better plan for a first lesson and a more successful outcome.

Sorry, You Must Pay for That Recording

Twice in one week I was asked by individuals in different choruses to create an accompaniment track so they could rehearse a solo. The first expected it would cost something, but was shocked at the price I quoted for a 40-minute piece. The second seemed shocked I would charge anything at all. Both asked, “Can’t you just press record on your phone while practicing?”

Well, yes, I could. But I won’t. Not for free, anyway. And here’s the reason: this is my work, and this is my product. Like any service provider or shop owner, I don’t give my service or product away unless it is for a charitable purpose.

First of all, if the piece is not in public domain, making a recording of it is not legal and I’d be taking a big risk. If I know you personally, I would probably trust that you are not going to start passing it out to all your friends. But, it is not something I would be able to make commercially available without incurring many fees due to royalties and the like which I would owe. It automatically becomes a custom (and risky) job.

Even if a piece is in public domain, asking for a personal copy of an accompaniment that is not commercially available is a custom job. If I want to make an accompaniment track of a relatively popular piece of music and put it up for sale for digital download, I can charge less because I can expect more people to purchase it. But I have to charge a custom price for recording an uncommon piece of music that is for a single individual’s use.

The work I do is expensive; there’s no way around it. I may be an excellent sight-reader and learn music quickly, but that’s because I have been playing the piano for forty years. I still need to practice pieces to ensure I play them 100% accurately and smoothly. I can’t just “sit down and record while I practice” and expect it to come out good. At minimum, I would need a page turner or I would need to go back and edit a recording to eliminate those pauses, requiring more of my time. If you are depending on my recording for your own success, then I need to make it excellent, without idiosyncrasies that could trip up a performer .

I sometimes do recordings for the organizations that hire me, if it is part of my contract. But when it comes to individuals or time outside my contract, I have to charge. The ease of digital recording nowadays does not eliminate the need to pay for it.

You Want Me To Do WHAT?

My husband asked me to do a scary thing. Back in late November he commissioned me to write a piece for solo classical guitar.  Every year, he performs in a concert at a local church which benefits The Loving Hands Orphanage in Turbe, Haiti. He said, “wouldn’t it be a great idea if you wrote a piece for me to play at the concert, and I could record it and we could sell the recording to raise more money for the orphanage?”

I agreed to try, but I made it clear I wasn’t sure I could do it.

The thought of writing for classical guitar terrified me. This unassuming quiet instrument is a beast. It is tremendously intimidating. As a pianist, I know how hard it is to play multiple voices with two hands. Classical guitarists play at least two voices at once with ONE hand! I’ve looked at guitar music.  As a pianist, I can read vocal pieces in open score, yet I find guitar music terribly difficult to read. I have deep respect for good classical guitarists. There are six strings! (And, yes, that is a lot more than the four found on standard orchestral strings!) Unlike on a piano keyboard, certain pitches can be played in multiple places on the neck of the guitar. It is more than a little tricky to keep track of the location of the notes and make sure that each combination of notes fits within a fret span that is playable. It is also important to remember not to ask a guitarist to play an open string and a stopped note on the same string at the same time – utterly impossible.

I sat down with John and our daughter, who also plays classical guitar, to seek advice. I peppered them with questions: what intervals of stopped notes are comfortable or uncomfortable to play, what is the span of frets that can be covered at once, how many notes can be stopped at once? I got information about how high in the neck I could use chords and at what point I needed to resort to single notes. They talked with me about the difficulties of making large leaps and how to make it easier for guitarists to find their place on the neck. I made a chart for myself showing the location of every pitch on the guitar’s neck and marked important locations.

Before I got to work on the piece I decided that, since this piece was intended to benefit the children in the orphanage in Haiti, I wanted to use a song that they would know as inspiration. The woman we know who works with the orphanage sent a Youtube link to a Benediction (prayer of blessing) set to a melody which the children at the orphanage sing before their meals. The translation is, “Bless this food, Bless the hands that prepared it, Bless everyone, Bless the ones who have no food.” In a nice surprise, the melody was perfect for translation into guitar. The piece opens with this melody. Additionally, I incorporated the rhythm of the Haitian meringue because I believe that God loves all the peoples of the world. I also wanted to convey the idea that prayer is not always something formal. We can talk with God at any time, about anything, and I wanted to capture a variety of emotions in the piece – thankfulness, joy, sadness, and hope. God is always near to His people.

I was in a hurry to write the piece. I knew I was going to need to give John time to learn the piece and record it before February 9, the date of the concert. I didn’t have much time, especially since we were going out of town the week after Christmas. I had a month to get it done amidst ten concerts, multiple rehearsals, and holiday festivities.

When I brought the rough draft to him it was, well, rough. I had made a number of errors (especially of the stopped note/open string variety), but John was able to help me work out some simple solutions. It turned out not to be as problematic as it appeared on first glance. After a few minor edits, it was finished.

Then came the most nerve-wracking part for me: waiting for him to learn the piece! I do not know any musician who likes to have anyone listen to them practice. I know I avoid it if at all possible. Listening to John practice my piece was worse! I knew he was learning it and I had to be patient, but I was constantly nervous. Did I make it too hard? Is it going to be ready for the concert? I was constantly biting my tongue trying not to say, “no, not like that.”  I tried to be somewhere else in the house if he was practicing, and I hoped he would practice while I was out. I am thrilled to say it is now ready and recorded!

The world premiere is this coming Sunday. Here’s a sneak peek. If you can’t make it to the concert or if you want your own copy of the recording, you can get a link to download it. All proceeds from purchased downloads go to The Loving Hands Orphanage in Turbe, Haiti.

To purchase a recording, click here.

To view the score, click here.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

The rejections keep rolling in.

They have become a measure of how hard I have been working. I started sending in earnest scores to various competitions and calls for scores in August (prior to this, I had been sending in scores, just less frequently.) Since the start of October when the results started coming in, I have received a rejection email every week. Every single week. Well, except for the week of Christmas, how nice. Last week, I didn’t get one, but then I got three rejection emails in five days, so now I am more than caught up. I’m up to about twenty. That doesn’t include the competitions/calls for scores in which the organizers didn’t have the guts to tell me “no” themselves, and I just assumed I wasn’t selected because I never heard back.

There have been a couple of bright spots. My piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, was premiered in Manhattan by the North-South Consonance in May and performed in Massachusetts in August by the Great Woods Symphony. The first two movements of my string quartet were performed at the conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers in October. Surprisingly, Daughter of the Stars was selected as a semi-finalist in the orchestral pops division of the American Prize. (Also surprising is that it hasn’t yet resulted in any traffic to my website or to the video of the piece on Youtube. Maybe a month-and-a-half is not long enough to see a single hit?)

In the midst of all this, I have had some serious technological problems. One time, our internet connection failed on the provider end the day something was due. I was unable to avoid procrastinating because of other technological difficulties as well as having to drive my son back to school. I found myself rushing to my parent’s house at 11PM so I could get an internet connection and meet the midnight deadline.

My Finale program, which I upgraded in January 2019, stopped working every two months all year long, essentially halting my progress on polishing pieces for a week while I waited for customer support to “fix” it. At one point, I had to go to a friend’s house – the only local person I personally know who has a full version of Finale – and use her computer to work on a piece when my software stopped working the week I had to fix up something for North-South Consonance! She has a Mac and I have a PC, so in the process I was also having to orient myself to a different operating system. (If I hadn’t gotten that done, there would have been no premiere in Manhattan, no performance in Massachusetts, no selection for the American Prize!) The Finale “fixes” lasted another two months until the problem resurfaced again and the efforts to overcome the problem became more complicated and took longer. The problem was finally resolved when I bought a new computer.

However, setting up a new computer is not easy because I just don’t have time to do it. In the process of getting my files moved from my old computer I made a mistake in how I backed them up, accidentally moving them onto an external hard drive instead of copying them from the old computer. Then last week my hard drive, which contained ALL my pieces and publishing files and other professional materials in addition to lots of personal stuff, fell on the floor and stopped working. Thankfully, a local shop is able to retrieve my files for *only* $500.00.  In the meantime, I’ve made use of some hard copies I have lying around so I can scan them and make new PDFs to send into competitions I probably won’t win. I am thankful White Out is still made since I had to remove my name.

Is it a coincidence that the hard drive problem happened the same week I had relief from email rejections? It seems whichever way I turn I am facing either more rejection or technology problems that are hampering my work. It’s a lot of painful frustration. And in my vulnerable state, the negative things people have said force themselves into my mind, things I fight so hard to keep out. I have wondered if I don’t have the personality to handle all the rejection and if I lack the technological prowess to manage the work. I have wondered if I should just quit composing.

I have had to ask myself: Why am I even doing this?

I talked about this with my husband, my best friend, my kids, and some of my composition colleagues in the CFAMC. They have all been very supportive and encouraging. My husband continually assures me that my investment in composition is not a problem (as much as I work at composition, many people put a great deal more  time and money into their hobbies.) My kids assure me that the rejections don’t reflect on my ability as a composer (They are correct. It may be that a group didn’t like my ideas or style, or that someone else had *just the right piece* for that performance. My technique is good.) My colleagues assure me that these things happen to everyone, and suggest that if this is a calling, it is worth the sacrifice. The problem is that when everything goes wrong I wonder if it is a calling or if it is a sign to go do something else. My best friend asked, “but don’t you love it?”

Do I?

I am thrilled hearing my pieces come to life in performance. But that is usually dependent on the willingness of others to help make that happen. If other people don’t want to perform the music I can’t perform myself, it just sits there, lifeless dots on lines that only sound in my imagination. That’s no fun. So my reason for composing has to be something unrelated to the willingness of others to participate with me in making music. The days when my ideas flow easily and I get a lot written are great, but the days when I am feeling grumpy or have to expend extra energy to fight negative thoughts are not. Composing is hard work, and sometimes I just don’t feel like doing hard work. (I have yet to meet a person who enjoys *every single day* of their work, regardless of how enjoyable it is overall.)

So what is it? Why should I continue composing? What is the fuel that will burn through hindrances which threaten to extinguish it? That is the question I have been contemplating for days. I figured out the answer by asking myself about each piece, “Self, why did you write that piece?”

For love.

But it’s not love for the process, not love for the finished product, not love for a performance, not love for accolades, all of which do not provide the sustaining power to continue to create. It is about love for the subject that inspired the piece. It is having so much love for that story, concept, person, folk song, piece of art, poem, sunrise, or instrument that it is worth the commitment and exertion to birth a piece of music and to seek its fulfillment in a performance. It is a love that cannot be expressed another way.

I knew my music needed to be born of love, but I lost my way in the midst of the trouble I had this year with all the technology problems and constant rejections. I wish they didn’t bother me, but they do because I am sensitive. I reject stoic philosophy, so that’s not likely to change. Besides, if I didn’t feel deeply, I doubt I would have enough passion to see a project through to the end; there are too many obstacles ready to kill the desire. Love must burn brighter and hotter, and I believe it is the only thing that can.

 

 

I Don’t Read All the Notes!

As an accompanist, I put my sight-reading skills to the test. I am constantly given new music that I must learn in a short amount of time. So, what exactly is sight-reading? In musical terms, it means being able to comprehend and play (or sing, if a vocalist) the music the first time ever seeing it. The more skilled one is at sight-reading, the more accurate the first time through the music will be.

Sight-reading takes a lot of practice. When I was about six years old, my piano teacher started making me sight-read. She would put music up in front of me, often four-part hymns, and tell me to start playing the music without looking where I was placing my hands on the keyboard. The first few times were very scary! I eventually recognized that I had a knack for sight-reading and put it to use. For a time when I was thirteen I didn’t practice my classical piano pieces at home and only sight-read them during my lessons. (I was playing plenty of piano then, just not what I was assigned!) After several weeks of this, when I wasn’t progressing at my usual rate, my teacher caught on… I call sight-reading my super-power, but it is really just a skill that I have honed. In this post, I will share three strategies I believe will help improve one’s sight-reading skills.

The big takeaway is that I don’t read all the notes. It is impossible, especially when playing complicated pieces! Piano music has a lot of notes. A LOT. One piece I played averaged about forty notes per measure! There’s no way I could quickly learn a piece of music like that if I had to determine the name and location of every single note! In this way, sight-reading is a little bit like reading words. Fluent readers do not phonetically spell out every sound. The sounds are ingrained and most words are memorized. Likewise, I primarily read music using shapes, lines, and memorized rhythmic patterns.

The first step to learning to sight-read is learning the instrument. That may sound obvious, but I am not talking about just learning some technique or fingering. It is important to become intimately acquainted with the instrument. The location of every single note needs to be something we feel automatically in our body, using proprioception. When I sit down at the piano, I can find a note with my eyes shut because I know where my hands and arms are located in relation to my body. I can feel the distance between notes even without the piano present and have sometimes annoyed people by practicing on a table. It needs to become as automatic as being able to touch the tip of one’s nose without using a mirror.

This takes a lot of time. Just like we can’t get to know other people without conversation and time together, we can’t know our instruments without it. We need to put in the practice time, and we need to have the right conversation: scales and chords. I can hear the groans. I know my students don’t like having to constantly practice scales and arpeggios over and over, even if they have known them for years.  Learning only individual pieces will not be sufficient. One will only memorize the physical locations of the patterns of that piece. Scales and chords, however, help one memorize *the instrument”: the physical size of intervals, the distance between octaves, and what it feels like to move in whole steps and half-steps from various starting points and using various fingerings. There is no short cut. It takes a bit of faith, really. Faith that all these scales and chords really do make a difference. They do. But it takes time. This is the musical version of “wax on, wax off.”

The second step to improving sight-reading skills is memorizing rhythmic patterns.   Rhythms in classical music tend to be quite different from Latin styles like samba or bossa nova; however, the lines are increasingly blurring in newer music. The more rhythmic patterns one becomes familiar with, the greater one’s ability to sight-read music in a variety of genres will be. This is probably the easiest step, since there are only so many ways a beat or a measure can be divided, unless we’re talking about avant-garde music, which isn’t really meant to be sight-readable anyway.

The third step is to learn music theory. The more theory one knows, the more one’s sight-reading improves. This is due to several factors. Understanding the building blocks of music helps one to recognize the shapes and patterns of intervals and chords, including triads and seventh chords in all inversions, as they are seen in the notation, both stacked and separated. Again I do not read the individual notes. I use certain notes as “anchors”, but then use my knowledge of intervals, scales, and chords to find my way from there. I have memorized combinations of notes I learned through studying theory. Understanding keys allows a musician to identify the most-used notes in a piece and quickly recognize notes that are unusual. In my own experience, an understanding of harmonic structure helps me to aurally predict what is coming next, which helps guide my fingers to the right notes. Even though this is not necessary for sight-reading, it helps a lot! This is similar to the way understanding the grammatical structure of a language helps one to anticipate words and ready smoothly.

These steps all take time, but working on any one of them will bring about improvement in sight-reading. Of course, more is better! These approaches have been the foundation to my own sight-reading development, and I believe they will work for anyone who wants to become a better sight-reader.

 

Accompanying = Only One Part of My Music Life

Last month, I interviewed for a position as the accompanist with The Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. (I am happy to say I got the job!) The panel asked me some great questions, and I thought it would be beneficial to write out expanded answers in a series of blog posts.

I first started accompanying when I was around eight years old, when I started playing with my church’s children’s choir and a young violin player at church who was a couple of years older than me. Since then, I have accompanied church choirs, school choruses, community choruses, and vocal and instrumental soloists. I’ve had a long time to think about my answers!

The third question was: What do you hope to be doing in five years?

My answer is: more of all I am doing now. That is, accompanying, teaching, and composing. I would like to increase the amount of classical chamber music I play as a collaborative pianist, I would like to increase the number of students I teach, and I hope that my composing career takes off. For clarification, I was asked if I was teaching and composing *until* my composition career takes off, and the answer is no. I need the balance of all three parts of my musical self.

The collaborative piano work gives me music and motivation to practice, which helps me maintain my piano and sight-reading skills. It gives me some social interaction. It is also fun to perform. And, while I told my parents when I was five years old that I would never be a concert pianist (soloist) and my personality is not really bent toward performing, I really enjoy being on stage in a group with other people. I don’t like the limelight, but I like bringing pieces to life with other people. Concerts bring together the community, and pleasing the people I play with and pleasing the audience brings me joy.

I have always felt that it is important for those of us who are ahead on the path to share our experience and wisdom with those who are coming behind us. We all have something to teach. I find teaching music especially important because it is a creative activity that develops diligence and focus while boosting good feelings. It can be a healthful option for bored or aimless kids who might otherwise be drawn into negative, self-destructive behaviors. Music lifts the spirits in mood and purpose and makes the world a better place in many ways. I believe teaching music, which betters both the lives of students and the community, is very important – so much so that I have at times even taught for free kids who otherwise would not have had the opportunity. I started teaching privately when I was 15, and I haven’t stopped. Even when I moved halfway across the country and back, even when my kids were babies. It’s not just a form of income, it is a calling.

Music composition is something I showed interest in from a very young age. I wrote my first piece when I was five or six (my mother says five.) It wasn’t anything spectacular, but I did write the notes on the correct lines and spaces and used the right number of beats in the measure for the time signature I used. I did originally go to college for music composition, but ultimately my anxiety and timid personality at the time kept me from pursuing it. I put it on hold for a long time until my youngest child was thirteen. By then, I was ready to try it and took lessons for the first time in 2013. Why then? Because I was bored. Very bored. I like accompanying, but reading off scores feels like reproduction work and I needed to do something more inventive. I like teaching, but I found that I needed to do something for myself and escape from the world of beginner books, simple solos, and correcting technique and rhythm.

I need all three of these aspects of my musical life. In many ways, they feed one another. Composing scratches the itch I have for making something new and working with performers on a different level of conversation. It gives me a place for personal growth and self-expression, and because I have that outlet I am renewed and can continue in my work as an accompanist and teacher. But composing is very hard. Even as I grow in skill, I don’t think this will change because it is emotionally exhausting. I put myself into my pieces, and I take a lot of emotional risk sending them “out there” and getting rejection emails at least once a week. I can get very discouraged. Enter accompanying. It provides some instantly gratifying good feelings when I get complimented for my work and am reminded that I am actually a decent musician who knows some things. It boosts my confidence and gives me strength to continue composing. It introduces me to a lot of new-to-me music – some old, some contemporary. The social part of rehearsal also prevents me from becoming a hermit who lives in the back room of my house. Teaching reminds me that music is not all about me. I am connected to something larger, which was passed on to me from my teachers, and I pass on to my students. Teaching is the only way to develop more accompanists and composers and continue the tradition of creating music and making the world a better place through beauty and art. As the tagline for my website says, I am a “composer, teacher, collaborative pianist.” I am all three.