God Values ALL the Arts

I’ve been in a serious funk this week. It hit hard as yet another indirect rejection letter  from yet another competition/call-for-scores came the same day I learned some bad news about some students’ auditions (they hadn’t been studying with me long, but I was hopeful) and the same day I learned that an opportunity I thought I was going to have to play my original piano piece at an upcoming Christmas concert was NOT going to happen. Meanwhile, I was already dealing with the overwhelm of being peopled-out from a busy-yet-fun Thanksgiving weekend full of family and long drives to New York in thunderstorms, snow, and traffic. I wasn’t in a good place.

It’s been building up, though. I’ve sent in scores to fifteen-plus calls-for-scores and competitions since the beginning of July. I had one positive response (so far.) I am still anxiously (ANXIOUSLY) awaiting results from most, and I’ve had a few rejections. The impersonal ones that start with “Dear Composer” or “Dear All”. As soon as you read the first two words, you know the result. If I was chosen, I would have received a personal email addressing me by name. Unfortunately, the one positive result was a bit of a surprise – both good and bad. First, I found out just two days before the October conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers that my string quartet piece, White Apples, was going to be performed. I was so excited because the first and only time it had been performed, to that point, it was not executed well, to say the least. I was looking forward to hearing a performance that accurately reflected my ideas! Alas, forty-five minutes before the concert began I learned that only half of it was being performed. Though the group played the first two movements well, the second movement ends with a thunk and the piece really needs movements three and four to make sense. Oh, well.

In the meantime, two of our very old vehicles broke down in two weeks costing us $2,000 in repair. Our old van will not make it through the next inspection and one of the cars just worked on is so old it needs a new clutch. We are holding off as long as we can, but a good amount of car repair and replacement still awaits. And so do the college tuition bills for our kids.

Some days I really wonder if I should be spending hours in my tiny cramped hole-in-the-wall music room/office composing. I have made a grand total of…$47.50 so far, ever, with my composing. Let’s not talk about how much I have spent.

So, honestly, I am pretty discouraged.  I finally lost it. The day I got that last “Dear Composer” email, I crumpled and cried for two days. I complained about not being able to play my piece for that church and get some credit for my efforts, and was gently reminded by a Christian composer I know that my work is for God’s glory and not my own. He is so right. But I am so discouraged. I tried explaining my discouragement on Facebook. It is hard for me to watch my visual artist friends and my writer friends get a lot of support, while I get very little feedback. I was reminded by someone else who, right again, reminded me that Facebook is a visual platform and I should know better than to expect people to pay attention to anything non-visual.

That may be correct, but I don’t think it is right. The truth is that all artists need support.

It is awfully hard to create art and expose your mind, heart, and soul and constantly face rejection and receive almost zero monetary reward for your creative work. I know I am not the only person who sometimes runs low on self-motivation, energy, confidence, and emotional resources. In fact, I would say that being creative can deplete them faster than other things. Plus, I am a pastor’s wife, which also takes a lot from those stores. So, sometimes – maybe a lot of times – I need some refill in the form of people telling me that what I do – what I CREATE – matters to them. Mostly I feel like I am wanted for what I can do – teach or play, and if I can’t do it someone else will replace me.

My art is ME. No one else can write the music I write, so no one can take my place. It is that which seems unappreciated. It hurts. It doesn’t hurt when groups reject me, although it can drain the positive feelings tank. It hurts when friends don’t seem to want to give encouragement or show they care. It hurts when I show pieces to musical friends and they don’t have anything to say. It hurts when I send a book of worship songs to a pastor I know personally and get no response. It hurts when Soundcloud tells me I one hundred thirty people “pressed play” (online I cannot know if anyone actually listens) but I only got two comments. It hurts when almost sixty people “pressed play” on a Youtube video of my piece, but the stats tell me that people quit listening halfway through. It makes me wonder if I put on a concert of my work if anyone would take the time out to come, if they can’t even listen to a five-minute piece.

Yet pictures get liked. I was told that maybe I should make a music video to go with my composition. I guess to many people, music just isn’t enough by itself. My work is deemed not as valuable as something that can be seen.

I am thankful those are not God’s thoughts. In fact, sound was the first thing created. God SAID “let there be light.” His voice began the reverberation of the universe that continues to this day. Before there was light and color and form there was sound. An entire book of the Bible, Psalms, is a book of songs, though all that remains is the text not the tunes. We know some were for choral groups. Others were accompanied by string instruments. Many Psalms encourage the use of percussion instruments and flutes. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul encouraged Christians to sing spiritual songs and hymns to one another.

I am not diminishing the role of other art. In the Old Testament, visual arts and textiles were very important in the making of the items for the Tabernacle, and the Bible contains detailed description of architecture. Additionally, dancing is mentioned several times as a natural response of joy. The poetry of the Psalms, and the fact that the Bible even exists at all testifies to the immense value of the written word.

I know Facebook, other social media, and the internet as a whole is a very “visually-oriented” space. In fact, the entire world is primarily visual. We can look around our houses and take snapshots with our eyes in a split second. Music requires us to stop, sit and experience it in the passage of time. Listening requires a level of commitment beyond a quick glance. That’s the way it is. But if God values music, maybe that tells us that we should stop and listen, too. We should give as much attention to the work of musical artists as we do to those who do visual or written art, despite that it is presented on a visually-oriented platform like life.

I Admit I Overthink, but That’s OK

I have been accused of overthinking many times. I admit, I do overthink. I’ve given it a lot of thought, though, and I’m OK with it. These days, it even seems necessary.

Take, for example, my need for a new blender. Earlier this year, the blade for the blender I had for about a decade broke, and I could not find a replacement blade that fit the blender. It was too outdated. My mother-in-law offered to get me a new blender for Christmas and told me to let her know which one I wanted. I spent over an hour looking at blenders online to decide *which one* I wanted. (Yes, I am one of those women who actually loves receiving appliances as gifts. Very practical, useful, makes my life easier, and can facilitate creativity in the kitchen…)

It’s not so simple. Yes, blenders blend…but what will *I* put in the blender to blend? There lies the problem. How powerful do I need it to be? Am I just making smoothies, or will I make peanut butter? Did you know that some blenders now come with a heating element so you can make smooth soups from start to finish IN the blender? That is really neat! But there’s a catch! The pitcher is smaller than the other version I’m looking at. Hmmm. Can it make enough soup for a whole meal with leftovers? I like leftovers…it reduces the number of times I have to cook (see, practical.) Plus,  the other blender has an option to switch out the big pitcher for a single-serving one, which occasionally comes in handy – a feature the one with the heater does not have. However, the one with the switch-out option only comes with a plastic pitcher, which is not ideal.  Other brands in the same price range have glass pitchers, but the blades are only at the bottom of the pitcher. Experience tells me they clog up, need a lot of fussing, and would not be able to make peanut butter.  This one here has two extra 16oz single-serve cups. One slightly more powerful has four extra single-serve ups, but they are all different sizes. What size single serve cup do I need? I don’t want all these useless sizes taking up room in my cupboard. Is the extra power worth another $75 dollars? Which one do I choose? I *have to* overthink. I *must* overthink in order to get the right one the first time. Someone else can waste their time and money buying a second or third  blender when the first isn’t quite right. Or they can grumble and complain when the item doesn’t do what they want it to. I will put my time and effort in upfront, overthinking about all the questions.

I’ve been consciously overthinking for as long as I can remember. When I was in first grade, I used my overthinking for an assignment in art class and got in trouble for it. We had to make a picture of an apple tree, and I put some of my apples on the ground. The art teacher was upset with me for not “following directions.” (Strange, but true.) Well, my overthinking mind told me that some of the apples dropped. When I was thirteen, my mother used to take me and my sister to get an ice cream cone at Baskin Robbins before my piano lesson some weeks. Let me tell you, it was VERY HARD to choose from 31 flavors! Sometimes it took me fifteen minutes to decide. I distinctly remember that one of the important factors was that certain flavors made me more thirsty than others, and I wasn’t going to have access to water until my lesson was over.

I overthink in composition, too. How can I not? Every single chord comes with a zillion options. Which note should be lowest in pitch? Which note is highest? How many times should I double each note (depending on the size of the group, of course.) Which instrument should play which note? Where those notes are located in each instrument’s range drastically changes the effect! Which combination creates the effect I am hearing in my head? How many pitches are there anyway? How do I want to move into and out of each pitch in every location?  Multiply those questions by the number of notes in a piece.

I don’t really know how other composer do their work. I suspect everyone’s approach is unique. When I was taking lessons, my teacher once commented that I didn’t seem too used to editing my work. I wasn’t sure what he meant because I edit all the time. I just edit at a different stage in the process. When I’m ready to present something to someone, it’s pretty much done. If I made mistakes, most likely it was because I didn’t know better. Occasionally, it might be that I got fed up with my project, became impatient, was running out of time. and did a half-assed job.  (Though that is an embarrassing truth, I am sure that I am not alone in the artistic world. All you authors who write amazing novels until the last 50 pages, I’m looking at you.)

Overthinking slows me down some, though as I am increasingly familiar with materials and options and their impacts, I will be able to move through the checklists more quickly. I try to remind myself that I can go back and fix my work later. Sometimes I set challenges for myself, like writing for the next 15 minutes without stopping or erasing anything. I have to train myself not to overthink *too* much. (If that isn’t an oxymoron…) But the truth is that overthinking usually gets me results that make me happy, so instead of trying to be like someone else I’m going to use my overthinking to my advantage. I mulled it over. It’s a good choice.



A Pianist’s Perspective on Why a Real Bass is Better

The other day, I was asked to be a last-minute substitute in a musical theater production of All Shook Up. I laughed when asked if I could handle the job because all I needed to do was play the bass part on a keyboard. That meant I was reading just one note at a time for most of the show (there was only one double-stop I needed to play.) Since I am an excellent sight-reader, reading one note at a time is ridiculously easy. I could almost do it with my eyes closed (that’s a joke.) I did find it odd that there was no bass player. Why use a keyboard instead of a real bass? But the show was in full-swing; opening night had gone by, and it was not my place to ask questions, so I took the job.

The part was not difficult, note- or rhythm-wise. I got just about every note and rhythm correct. However, I was surprised at how tired my left hand became. The notes were easy, but the part was not idiomatic to the piano. I have never really played a bass part on a keyboard, though I play piano-y things in the bass section of a piano all the time. The two are quite different. The real bass part required me to play too many fast repeated notes. Some keyboards and pianos literally cannot keep up with fast repeated notes due to the time it takes for the key to bounce back up to be played again – something that is not an obstacle on a real bass. I also had to turn my hand in strange ways and make uncomfortable jumps which were not as smooth as they needed to be for the music. This put a greater strain on my hand than would usually be felt playing a left hand part written for the piano.

My son is a bassist, and I have played a little bit on his bass. Additionally I have some, though limited, experience playing other string instruments. I understand how the strings work and the general location of notes on the strings. As I played through the show, I thought to myself, “This surely would have been much easier for a bassist to play than it is for me.” Again, the part wasn’t hard – it just was a bit uncomfortable.

I never did ask why they didn’t use a bassist. Perhaps since many of the pit members were students at the school, they didn’t have one to ask and got a pianist to fill in the part instead. The keyboard and stand with my seat and the amplifier took up more space than an electric bass and amp set-up would have. The sound quality of the keyboard didn’t compare to the real thing. I was glad to get the job and have the opportunity to show off my ninja sight-reading skills, but in truth the part would have been better on bass.


Not a Silent Night

Most people would probably associate the word “meditation” with something quiet, subdued, and useful for relaxation. Music for such meditations would likely be rather repetitive, without a whole lot of motion or energy. My piece for solo piano, “Meditation No. 2: The Invisible, Now Revealed” is certainly not that.

Why do I call my piece a “Meditation” if it is not quiet and subdued? It has to do with how I am using the word “meditation.” Most people probably associate meditation with the idea of bringing the body to stillness and emptying the mind, but this is not biblical mediation. Biblical meditation is active – it is a deep and focused contemplation of Scripture. Imagine chewing your food for a very long time to get every last bit of flavor and juice from each morsel. This is biblical meditation: Scripture is the food and contemplation the chewing. In my solo piano meditations, I aim to express some of the ideas born from that contemplation.

In 2018, I purposed to write a Piano Meditation for Christmas. Each year my church has a Christmas Eve Collage Concert. We’re a small church and don’t have a large choir, so instead of something big like a cantata, we do a few smaller pieces along with other solos, duets, and trios performed by various members of the church. We have a variety of singers and instrumentalists that participate, and I wanted to add an original solo piano piece to the concert. Since it was for the Christmas Eve service, I chose to base it on a segment of Scripture about the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, chapter two.

In chapter two of Luke, starting in verse eight, the shepherds on the hillsides outside Bethlehem are suddenly confronted one night with a large number of angels in the sky making a birth announcement about a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, one who is the Messiah, the Christ. As the narrative continues, the shepherds leave the sheep, run into town and find the baby. Verse nineteen says that Mary, the mother of Jesus, “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

This is not a silent night.

Perhaps it began quietly. I live in a rural town. Nothing much happens at night. It’s pretty dark, too, especially if it is cloudy and the stars are hidden. I can imagine what it might have been like for the shepherds on a hillside, the sheep sleeping nearby. I’m sure their night started off pretty uneventfully. They probably had a fire going to keep away predators. Perhaps they were taking shifts staying awake and resting. The sudden appearance of a host of angels was a major shock. A dark sky, perhaps with some twinkling stars, was suddenly riven with a host of angels shouting, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those on whom his favor rests.” A host is not a small number. It is an army. A huge number of angels filled the sky.

Imagine hearing this. Imagine seeing this. This is not a tap-on-the-shoulder-can-I-get-your-attention-please. This is not subtle. This is not quiet. And so my piano meditation is not quiet. Or, at least it doesn’t stay quiet.

The beginning of the piece is mysterious and perhaps a little spooky. I chose some very low notes, strong dissonances and slow movement to depict what it might have been like to be in the countryside at night in the chilly air on the lookout for predators. I incorporated “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”, an ancient chant often found harmonized in the Christmas section of church hymnals, into this first section. It is my favorite “Christmas” melody, and I thought it fit well with my ideas for the quiet and contemplative beginning.  But suddenly, like the angels’ appearance, a sforzando of high notes pierces the music. The music becomes more forceful with a steadier beat, running fast notes, and louder dynamics. Throughout the middle section, I used the melody from “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” another ancient plainsong chant, as the cantus firmus, found at times in both the high and low voice. The other voice dips and rises and swirls around it, as I imagined the frenzy of a host of angels appearing in the sky.  The use of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is slightly ironic, since it is normally sung very slowly and reverently and admonishes mortal flesh to be silent. Yet, I have made it very loud and frenetic. According to the hymn, who is to keep silent? Mortal flesh. I imagine that night on the hillside, the shepherds were indeed very quiet, stunned into silence. But the angels are not mortal, and they were not silent. Eventually, the music transitions back to the first idea, once again quieter and more contemplative, but different and punctuated with questions: what does this all mean? Like Mary, I ponder these things in my heart, and I hope listeners will as well.

The title comes from the book of Colossians chapter one, verse fifteen which describes Jesus as the “image of the invisible God.” Jesus made God known. God became flesh and lived among us. The invisible has been revealed.

Listen to the piece below. If you are interested in purchasing the score, it can be found here.


How Did You Like the Piano?

As we were leaving one of the “outreach” concerts the chorus does at area nursing homes and assisted living centers, one of the men asked me how I liked the piano. I understand why he asked this. At these concerts I am often playing on an inexpensive portable keyboard (with weighted keys, to be fair.) But this facility had a baby grand, and he assumed I was excited about it. On one hand, I was. Playing on a baby grand usually is preferable to playing on a electric keyboard. But, nonetheless, I struggled to answer his question. I ultimately said, “it was fine.”

Yes, just fine. Was it more in tune than a digital instrument? No. Did it feel better? Sort of. The action was a little fast and loud. The sound was tinny. (It’s debatable whether the sound was better than a keyboard.) The bench was more comfortable than the usual folding chair or high stool. The pedals stayed in place, and I didn’t have to use my feet to fish for a pedal that was sliding away on the floor. Overall, it was fine.

How did I like the piano? I really didn’t. That’s the truth. I usually don’t like any of the pianos I play upon. It’s just that I have no choice. When I play a so-so piano, I often say “I’ve played worse.” And I have. I’ve played pianos with broken pedals and pianos where 5 of the white keys in the middle two octaves of the piano (the section played most frequently) are not working. I’ve played digital pianos with broken speakers. I’ve played horribly out of tune pianos. I’ve played uprights with subpar action, and my fingers were moving faster than the keys could respond.  All these were actual performance settings. No, they weren’t concert hall settings. They might have been churches, schools, nursing homes, or some other community center. But it was a performance, nonetheless.

I don’t even really like my own piano. It is what I could afford. It is a rebuilt pre-1930s (not exactly sure of the year) Vose piano that was given to me. In many ways, it is wonderful. Given its age and the fact that the soundboard is cracked and repaired, it sounds amazing. But there is a limit to what it can do, and it’s not ideal for many things I want to do, like record. It will never sound like a concert grand, even if I put the money into some more technical repair and adjustment. The truth is that when I have the money to put aside for such projects, it would be better for me to buy a better piano.

Even if I have a beautiful piano at home, though, it will not solve the problem that everywhere I go I have to contend with an instrument that just doesn’t sound or work great and is something I would never *choose* to use. I simply don’t have a choice. I have had a handful of opportunities to play on a Steinway concert grand, and I loved those. I also have the chance to play every fall and spring on a good Yamaha grand at the chorus concerts. Normally, I am at the mercy of playing what is put before me.

I understand that people with large instruments like harps, double bass, tubas, and various percussion have difficulty transporting their instruments. At least they get to. If I were to take my favorite piano with me, it would cost almost a thousand dollars or more, depending on the distance, and several hours preparing the piano for a move, loading it into a suitable moving truck and setting up and tuning it once it has arrived at its destination. According to Charles Rosen, in his book, Piano Notes, concert pianists visit a piano showroom in the city where they will perform and pick out a piano to use on stage. That piano is brought to the concert hall and adjusted to their liking. The pianist will have a few days to practice on that piano to get used to it.

I have no such luck in my work in community music. I get what I get, and I have almost no time to adjust. I’d like all my string-playing readers to imagine being handed an instrument that has a slipping tuning peg or being forced to perform with a new-to-you bow that maybe doesn’t tighten correctly. Or, for my woodwind and brass playing readers, a new-to-you mouthpiece that you must try out for the first time five minutes before a performance. How about a sticky key or valve, or a funky out-of-tune note in an unusual place? Or, for my percussion playing friends, being forced to play with the wrong mallets or a broken stick. This isn’t like playing a student model instrument. This is like playing something that has been stashed away in the attic for the last thirty years.

Being introduced to a piano in a new location goes something like this: “Here is the piano. It’s a ‘little’ out of tune, but it plays. Well, all except the F# key. But you’re playing in Db you said, right? No sharps in that – you should be fine.”

Making Time for Inspiration

Everyone who has seriously tried to do original creative work of any kind has certainly heard a version of Picasso’s quote, “Inspiration shows up, but it must find you working.” In other words, books and pieces of art don’t come about by just sitting there waiting for the world to glow strangely and the angels to sing, handing you a feather pen to take dictation. Creative work is WORK. Sometimes that work is not very productive, and sometimes it flows so well it seems the muses are real beings that guide your hand. Either way, one has to be at work, purposefully trying to make something, regardless of whether that day’s work seems to succeed or fail.

The problem for me has been “finding” that time to work. I put that in quotations because it is really about MAKING time to work. But what is the right time to work? My composition doesn’t bring me any money. If I tie work to income, I do plenty of that already, teaching and accompanying. It can take a long time to complete a composition project. If I tie the idea of work to getting things done, I have plenty of that to do, too.  Any number of chores are always calling to me, trying to convince me that whatever-it-is is the highest priority on the to-do list. It’s practical, you know, to do something that is objectively completed, for the time being at least.

Relationships are valuable, too. Should I talk to my mom or my sister? Should I have a coffee date with my husband? Should I spend the evening playing a game with my daughter? Should I go see my son’s concert three hours away? Should I chat with my best friend late on a Friday night? Should I help someone move? Or should I compose?

It is easy to fill up the day with important things: things that are real, immediate, and practical. Everything is important, and that is the problem. Which do I let go of in order to make time to compose? I find it even trickier because I essentially work second-shift. Most of my teaching is done in the after school hours, and most of my accompanying is done in the evenings.  While most people rest after work in the evenings, my only downtime is before I go to work.

Add into the mix the fact that my husband is a pastor. There is a slight rhythm to the week, but no day from one to the next is the same. A few weeks ago I suddenly had a funeral to attend. Attend is not the right word. I was there from setting up for the service to cleaning up after the collation, and it took up most of a Wednesday. I was glad to be of service, but it is things like this that make it very difficult to schedule a set time to compose. WHEN should I compose? I need to make that time because it will not be found, hidden among the ever-pressing needs of the day.

I had the privilege to attend the 2019 National Conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers this past weekend.  Amidst several concerts of wonderful new music written by my colleagues, and including a piece of my own, we had the privilege of attending several workshops. One particular workshop that spoke to me especially was the one on “Finding Your Voice,” presented by my friend Glenn Pickett. He spoke about the need to be at work composing, and through doing the work your voice will come out. As he spoke, he mentioned that he writes from 5-7AM each morning because he knows that once the day begins with his teaching responsibilities at the university he will not be able to do any more work. He did not intend it, but that statement was the little kick-in-the-pants I needed. If he can set aside time to write from 5-7 in the morning, I can write from 6-8. Everyday except Sunday, I have uninterrupted time during those hours. On most days, I can work until 9AM before needing to start taking care of my other responsibilities. On a special day, I could possibly even work until 10 if my stomach doesn’t growl too much for breakfast.

The feedback I received from my colleagues, most of whom are professors with PhDs in composition, greatly encouraged me to do more: compose more, take more risks. The weekend confirmed for me that I must commit to making composition a high priority. So this morning, I got up at 5:30AM and made myself coffee. I got to work and composed until 8:30. Already, I have found benefits from doing so. I have no guilt. No nagging voices in the back of my mind are hounding me asking, “Do you really think you ought to be doing this right now? Are you choosing the best use of your time?” I didn’t have to worry about finding time to do my composition because I already did. This gave me permission to do all the other things I have done with my day. I also discovered that while I’ve been puttering around doing chores or even sitting here typing this blog the back of my mind has been processing what I worked on early this morning, expanding the effort I put in. I will be back at it again bright and early tomorrow.


Too Old to Be Emerging, Too Young to Die

A woman just lost her husband to cancer. She needs to get back into the workforce to pay the bills. She has some administrative skills, but her resume is slim after caring for her children at home while they were young and caring for her husband while he was sick. She knows she will only be able to land an entry-level position, but she applies for work anyway. Unfortunately, the job postings say “only those under thirty-five are eligible to apply.” As a forty-three year old woman, she can only apply for positions that are more advanced and require experience she has not been able to build.

A career-military man put his twenty-plus years in and has retired, but he wants to continue to work. The Navy gave him many skills and a lot of experience, but the kind of work he did took its toll, and he needs a change. He decided to return to school and prepare for a new career. After graduating, he finds out that he is now too old to apply for entry-level jobs in his new field even though he is only forty.

After twenty years in the practice, a doctor decides she has had enough of doctoring and decides she wants to become a high school science teacher. It turns out, the age limit for new teachers is thirty. She’s out of luck.

Thankfully, in reality, none of these people will have aged out of being able to apply for an entry-level position anywhere. The government has made it against the law to discriminate against someone based on age. That allows individuals to try a new career and reinvent themselves at any age. No one is imprisoned by the career choices they made at the age of eighteen or twenty.

So why is it different in music composition competitions? As a new composer, I have found that almost 100% of composition competitions geared toward “emerging composers” have an age limit. The most generous one I found this past year allowed people under the age of forty to apply, but I have already aged out at forty-three. Most set an age limit of thirty or thirty-five. In fact, I recently saw a music school advertise a scholarship for their graduate program, but the age limit for applying was thirty. (I’m pretty sure that is illegal if the school participates in federal financial aid programs.)

Competitions for emerging composers are very helpful to those composers. Emerging composers don’t have as much experience. They are entry-level composers. Winning a competition helps them build a resume/CV. It increases the chance that the composer’s music will be played by a greater number of groups in a wider geographical area. It helps get their name known, which could lead to commissions. Winning competitions also helps composers apply for teaching positions at schools. It is a way to “prove” to others that one’s composing skills are legitimate, as subjective as the process is. A competition for “emerging composers only” protects the still-learning group from having to compete against those whose skills are well-polished.

But somehow, the organizers of these competitions usually assume that the still-learning are young. Why is that? Do they think only young people have new ideas? Do they think all “older” people must have been composing for decades, and if they haven’t hit success yet it means they are no good? It seems in the world of composition, one must either have a career well-established by the age of thirty-five, or it’s time to give up. There is little place for people who want to enter the field later in life. (Forty is late?!?!)

Although I have been a musician for all my life, I took my first composition lesson at age thirty-seven. I waited for a number of reasons, but the primary one is that I was focused on my family. First, my husband was in graduate school for seven years. Second, I was homeschooling my kids. Third, the money and the time were not there until my youngest was thirteen. Yes, I could have made different choices, but my husband and I made the choices that were best for us at the time. In the situations I described above, the characters could have made different choices. If they are allowed to apply for entry-level positions, why can’t I apply for entry-level competitions?

I occasionally come across “emerging composer” competitions that do not have age limits, but they are few and far-between. I respect these organizers who say that they will determine who qualifies as “emerging”. As a gardener, I know how I would describe an emerging plant. It is one where the tiniest bit of stem has poked through the soil, up until the plant has grown it’s first two sets of true leaves. After that, it is well on its way to growing into a full plant. I don’t know how that translates into composition, but I can say for certain that if a Google search of a composer’s name shows awards, competitions won, works published by a well-known established publisher, performances by symphonies and multiple nationally-known groups, or a teaching position at a place of higher education, the composer is NOT emerging.

A composer of any age, and who has been composing for any length of time, could be emerging because they have not had this kind of success. Expanding the parameters for “emerging” beyond age will promote creativity, over all. It will encourage those who start later in life to compose, and it will encourage those who perhaps compose in the evenings after work, like Charles Ives did, and who have not yet met success.

Forcing beginning composers like me, who have aged out of emerging composer competitions, to compete solely against those who are often already well-established, is very discouraging. It’s like learning how to drive and immediately having to go from zero to 60 merging onto a highway filled with big rigs. It is intimidating. Frankly, I think I deserve points for courage. And I’m not the only one. I know other composers who started later. Some are women, who like me, who raised their children first. Some are men in their sixties. But who cares? Anyone of any age can be an “emerging” composer. It’s time to open up the competitions to people of any age and make the criteria for qualifying as “emerging” based on experience alone.

Better Gear Won’t Make You Better

The other day I had my first clarinet lesson with a new private student. During the course of the lesson, he told me about what he was learning in band at school. During one session, the clarinetists were encouraged to get better reeds and ligatures, which hold the reed to the mouthpiece. I, of course, told him that those kinds of decisions needed to be made by him and his parents, not the band director. Some families cannot afford to spend $50 or more for a good quality ligature. Besides. while better gear is better, it doesn’t necessarily translate into making a player better.

A professional instrumentalist can make a lesser-quality instrument sound good, but a beginning student cannot make a professional-quality instrument sound good. Better gear is a reward. It is something to look forward to after one has put in the hours of grueling practice to get good enough to deserve it.

There is a difference between adequate and broken. Most kids can successfully learn on an instrument that is simply “adequate.” I learned on an adequate clarinet. When I started playing in 1983, it was already 20+ years old. I played that old plastic clarinet until I was an adult. When I was in high school, I made first-chair clarinet in my school band using that adequate instrument. At some point in high school, I spent my own money on a better mouthpiece and started investing in high quality reeds. But in a lot of ways that was putting lipstick on a pig because my old clarinet was not wooden.

Broken instruments, on the other hand, can interfere with a student’s learning and need to be repaired or replaced. But even then, students can sometimes overcome that. I may not have been a very beginning music student, but when I was in high school starting on the tenor saxophone, I played the school instrument. It was TERRIBLE. Keys were literally held shut with rubber bands. But I still played lead tenor in the jazz band. The kid whose parents had a lot of money had several professional-level saxophones. He did not play first chair. It wasn’t the instrument that made the musician.

Sure, better gear helps. By the time I auditioned for all-state my senior year, I owned my own semi-professional tenor saxophone. I wouldn’t have gotten into All-State with an instrument held together with rubber bands. I am sure the instrument would not have been able to handle the demand of the audition piece.

I think an instrument that is a little challenging (though not unusable) can test a student’s mettle. Do they *really* want to learn to play? If the answer is yes, then they will struggle through the time where they must put up with something of lesser-quality until they can finally get that better mouthpiece, ligature, or instrument.

If there is too much pressure too soon to get what is better or best, my fear is that students (and parents, perhaps) will have the impression that these better quality materials will magically turn the kids into fantastic musicians. It won’t happen. Better gear does not take away or even lessen the amount of time needed in practice.  A couple of times I have recommended better gear, thinking that a student was having difficulty due to the ligature or mouthpiece. In the long run, it didn’t help.

In fact, better gear too soon could have a negative impact. I remember having the opportunity to try my saxophone teacher’s Keilwerth saxophone. It was amazing! That is the best saxophone I have ever played to date. Getting a sound out was SO easy, like cutting butter with a hot knife, as they say. The saying is cliche, but perfect for describing how effortlessly I could play a note. I wonder if getting a note out so easily might develop bad habits in young players who don’t yet know how to control their air support and pressure.

There is a level at which “make do” will form a better musician. The struggle against resistance forces creativity and problem-solving. It develops persistence and perseverance. It develops strength in character, mind, and body.

Wearing All the Hats

I was thinking about my work as a self-publishing composer the other day and how it compares to a manufacturing company, since indeed I am making something: pieces of music.

I am in charge of product development, that is composing the actual pieces.

Then there’s manufacturing, which in my case means using a software program to make nice-looking publishable sheet music. I can’t begin to explain all the rules for formatting that exist for every type of piece, whether a solo piece, choral piece, or orchestral piece. I make two versions: one to be printed out on 8-1/2×11 paper on a home printer and one that is the standard size for the hard copies of the type of music I am making. If I sell a hard-copy, I need to print those. If I sell a digital copy, I need to put my licensing agreement on it before sending out the PDF.

I’m in charge of marketing. I built my website and maintain it. I am slowly building a business presence on various online social media. I work with local musicians to get pieces performed. I am hoping to place hard-copies for sale in local music stores.

I’m in charge of sales and accounting. Whether I sell to a store, an organization, or an individual, all the sales come directly through me.

I do the shipping. I may use a carrier service to get my piece to its location, but the fact is that I’m in charge of making sure everything gets sent out on time, whether digitally or or physically.

I’m also in charge of professional development. I read books, study scores, go to conferences, and get feedback from colleagues and other professional musicians. None of this is planned for me like a professional day at a workplace. No guest speaker comes to me. I have to search it out or take time off work to attend myself.

Someday when I have enough money, I will then be in charge of training new hires and teaching them how to do most of these things so I can spend more time composing.

I could try to get my work published by a regular publishing company instead of doing it myself. Though the publishing companies generally take 50% of the sales, it is completely understandable why. The company would handle all the work except for composing and professional development. But for now, I am sticking with running my own company. The main reason is so that I can pass the company and the rights to my work on to my kids. I hope that it will have some value by the time that day comes.

Composing is the Easy Part

You’d think that writing the music would be the hard part of composition, right? I mean, getting all those notes and rhythms figured out, developing the themes and motifs, deciding how to voice a chord… But, no. For the most part, I know how to answer those questions or at least figure out the answer. It is much harder to register the work with BMI.

In case you don’t know, BMI and ASCAP (you’ve heard of the Grammy Awards, right? Then you know of ASCAP even if you don’t recognize the letters) are organizations that oversee the distribution of royalties to songwriters, composers, performers, and publishers from live performances and air play of recorded works. As a composer and as the self-publisher of my work (my company name is Every Generation Music), I decided to register my works with BMI.

Many times, the process is pretty straight-forward. However, sometimes a piece does not easily fit a category. I recently registered my piece, The Prayer of St. Francis, set for high voice and piano. It is obviously a sacred text, but I had to choose whether it was a classical piece or if it belonged to the category called “all other genres” of music. Well, that’s a conundrum. I know that MOST of the time, this piece will be performed in a church worship setting or private service like a wedding or funeral where I won’t be entitled to earn royalties anyway. But, on the off-chance that someone performs it at a concert, where would it most likely be sung? At a classical recital, or at a non-worship-service concert like some churches have in the evening? It certainly wouldn’t end up being sung in a big hockey-arena-turned-rock-venue. After imagining that the title was more likely to appear on a program made of a folded piece of paper than on a set list turned in by a band, I chose “classical.”

That wasn’t the hardest part. After filling out the section about the instrumentation the piece was written for, I came to the section about text. Is the text in public domain? Yes. When was it written? Uh…. When he was alive??? Actually, in my research I have found that St. Francis of Assisi probably did not even write the prayer at all! It may have been written by a French priest in 1912 (still public domain, phew!) I left the year blank because I got so flustered I forgot to fill it in. I hope that is overlooked. Next part: author’s name: (Last), (First). Uh…. WHOSE NAME? We don’t know for sure who wrote it. My husband suggested I just put “of Assisi” in the last-name section and “Saint Francis” in the first-name section. So I did. It’s wrong, but I hope that is overlooked, too.

Man, this filling out forms is HARD! Can I go back to drawing little dots and squiggly lines now?