If It Can Happen at the Oscars, It Can Happen to Me.

I’m not a movie buff, and I don’t watch the Oscars. I really don’t care who wins because I’m probably not going to watch any of the movies anyway. But I do know what the Oscars are, and how big a deal they are. I am aware of the planning, precision and attention to detail that is needed to put on such an event, and that millions of people who are watching the awards ceremony on live television.

A lot is at stake to get it right.

So, I was surprised over the weekend to learn that, back in 2017, a wrong winner had been announced on stage, and that the wrongly announced winners were already giving their speeches before the correction was made.

That’s a really big gaffe.

Apparently, in 2015, the wrong winner was announced at The Miss Universe pageant! The crown was placed on the head of the runner-up, then had to be removed and placed on the real winner’s head. In front of millions of people.

At least I wasn’t on stage or on television in front of millions of people.

I got an email and phone call this past Thursday with the announcement that I had won a competition I entered. I was beyond excited, because this was the first competition I had WON. I’ve been a finalist a few times and have come in second before, but for me this was a huge deal. In my excitement, I shared it with my family, my friends, and my social media following (which is not very large.)

This wasn’t a mistake of failing to read the fine print, like the characters in the old Alpert’s Furniture commercials.

(Alpert’s Furniture was a regional family-owned furniture store. If you aren’t familiar with their incredibly funny commercials, here’s the one I’m referencing: Alpert’s Furniture – Lottery TV Commercial – YouTube.)

Unlike the almost-winners at the Oscars and the Miss Universe pageant, I wasn’t misinformed for just a couple of minutes.

Twenty-four hours later I received an email telling me there was a mistake, and I had not actually won. The winner and I both had the same title for our pieces, and they picked up the wrong one. I had come in second.

I was extremely disappointed and embarrassed that I had shared that I won. I didn’t know whether to take down my social media posts, or “come clean” and tell everyone I didn’t win or let them stay up. Two days later, I was still receiving “congratulations.” I know I didn’t lie, but I did unknowingly tell a falsehood and felt bad. I couldn’t bring myself to say “thank you” to those well-wishers (yet.)

An older friend congratulated me yesterday after church, and I told her what happened. She expressed sympathy, but then said, “You’re a winner in MY eyes.” – a sentiment that I found surprisingly touching. She told me not to take down my posts. “Let them think you won,” was her advice.

I shared this news with a composer friend of mine, who agreed it was a real bummer, but a regular part of being a composer.

It is?

If I know a composer who has been wrongly told they were a winner, I don’t know their story. That is why I am writing mine today. Anyone who reads this story and has experienced being wrongly told they are a winner can know they are not the only one.

One of the things that upsets me most about this story is that it’s a private pain: mine. There’s no public apology or announcement of a mistake. When the organization made their public announcement of the winner, they didn’t have to admit they originally screwed up and let another composer think they won for twenty-four hours. I hope there’s a change in their policies to prevent a mistake like this from happening again, but no one is not going to be asked back as an announcer.*

If I mess up my applications to these contests, I’m disqualified. If I accidentally send a broken link or a link to an empty folder, that’s it. I’m out. An overwhelming number of submissions can be difficult to process if something is missing from an application. It can also (accurately or not**) speak to a person’s ability to complete a project. Applicants to universities must have their applications 100% completed before the deadline. That’s the way the world works.

I wrote in a blog post quite a while ago that, while I am applying to Calls for Scores and Competitions, I am also vetting the ensembles and organizations. I pay attention to how they treat composers – what they are offering, how they communicate, what they say in their rejection letters, and how organized they are. They have a team of people. If someone can’t get back to me in a timely manner, or if they go and tell the wrong person they won, I question if that is a group I would want to work with in the future. That level of disorganization, to me, says a commission could be a disaster.

This is the danger of having only one shot at communication. We’ve got to get it right.

*As far as this organization is concerned, second place comes with a small monetary award and a performance next season. Nothing was said about 2nd place on the competition description, so I’m not sure if it always existed or was created for me. They still want to meet over Zoom. I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet, but I will play nice and agree to it.

**Having recently been involved in a Call for Scores and overseeing the collection of entries, I was pretty shocked to see several competent composers (who I know personally) have problems with their links and folders.

P.S. let me know if there’s anything specific you want me to write about! I would love to hear from you!

Please consider joining my community of supporters! You will receive my blog posts in your inbox when they are published, and you will receive a quarterly newsletter with all the details about the goings-on in my musical journey and ways you can get involved.

It’s All About the View

I started writing blog posts in September 2018. Yes, it really has been that long. Most of my posts have floated off into obscurity, but a few have been more far-reaching. I find it funny to see which posts get the most views and where the readers live. Though my view counts would be far lower than someone writing about other topics, when I say some of my posts have been far-reaching, I mean geographically. Some of my posts have been read around the world.

I expected my posts on music theory to get some action. The whole question of whether or not music theory is racist is controversial. Of course, people will be searching out others’ opinions on the topic. It’s curious that that post gets more hits towards either the beginning or end of college semesters.

My blog post, “The Ugly Chicken Stage” gets a lot of hits. I find this odd. I wonder if it is because I shared some of my feelings about my own pieces while I’m working on them. I wonder, too, if readers get surprised, thinking the word “stage” communicates something related to theater rather than a period of life.

But one blog post has surpassed them all, recently reaching a milestone: 270 views and counting. (I know this is not a lot in the grand space of the internet, but it is still a milestone for me.) The post is “Proprioception, Peripheral Vision, and Playing the Piano.”

In that post, I talk about my difficulties using bifocals. I discuss the need for relying on peripheral vision and proprioception when playing the piano. Bifocals messed with all of it. I only need glasses for reading, but because I need to see the conductor when accompanying choruses, I couldn’t just use reading glasses. Bifocals didn’t help. If I tilted my head the right way to read the music, I couldn’t see the conductor properly.

I had to wait two years before addressing the problem, unless I wanted to pay for a new lens prescription out of pocket. In the meantime, I gave up on wearing glasses except when absolutely necessary. I avoided too much computer time when I knew I had rehearsal in the evening. I learned how to guess well when the staff lines were double. At least I didn’t end up with a permanently kinked neck.

I asked the ophthalmologist if I could get the dividing line on the bifocals raised and have my eyes measured based on looking at a conductor. She was skeptical. “Sure,” she said, “if you want to do it that way. But I don’t think it will work because the line will be right there when you look straight ahead.” She suggested I get the gradual-change lenses with no line which, of course, insurance doesn’t pay for.

I am very happy to say that my idea worked very well! Raising the line on the lenses allows me to see the whole page of music without tilting my head, and I can see the conductor clearly by looking above my music. In fact, the line on the lenses hits right at the top of my binder or music stand, which I am not looking at anyway! Now, I just have to stop moving my head so much when I play!

The glasses still won’t solve the problem of the change in perspective when using peripheral vision to get those notes way off to the left or right, when a pianist has to judge the distance for moving to a whole new area of the keyboard. Not many instrumentalists have this problem because their hands are kept pretty close to their bodies, or they barely have to look at their instruments at all.

Maybe someone will create some wrap-around bifocals, designed like certain sunglasses. I’m sure they would be expensive, and it’s probably too niche a market. If I got some of those, I’d have yet another problem – a fashion one. Maybe I could convince people it’s my superhero look, enhancing my sight-reading superpowers. But I’d have quite a sorry catchphrase: “It’s near! It’s far! It’s blurry!”

While the post that has gotten the most attention is about how well I can see, this post today is also about perspective. The posts that get the most attention are the ones where I share some insight into the struggles I face, like needing bifocals or, in the case of the “Ugly Chicken Stage”, working through the phase of creativity when I don’t like my piece, or when I share my opinion on controversial topics. Four and a half years of writing blog posts and examining metrics is starting to help me understand what keeps bringing people to my posts and connect with my readers.

P.S. let me know if there’s anything specific you want me to write about! I would love to hear from you!

Please consider joining my community of supporters! You will receive my blog posts in your inbox when they are published, and you will receive a quarterly newsletter with all the details about the goings-on in my musical journey and ways you can get involved.

Are You My Advocate?

Today’s post is in response to a great presentation I heard by composer Joseph Sowa at the Ultimate Music Business Summit I attended over the weekend. (If you are a musician, I highly recommend making plans to attend next year.)

On a bell-curve of reactions to our work there is, on the negative side, a very small percentage of people who strongly dislike our art. On the other end, the positive side, are the advocates. Joseph encouraged musicians to look for their advocates. He likened it to the hatchling in the children’s book Are You My Mother? saying that part of the musician’s work is to go around asking listeners, “Are you my advocate?”

It got me thinking: What makes someone an advocate of my music?

I have often heard the adage, “No one cares about your success as an artist as much as you do.”

While that be mostly true, an advocate is someone who does care about my success.

I don’t mean “care” in a “thoughts and prayers” sort of way, as a casual observer who hopes that I will be successful and is glad when I am.

An advocate, by definition, is someone who defends or supports a cause or another person. Synonyms are “champion”, “proponent”, and “backer.” These are very active terms.

Advocates of my work are those people who will actually invest themselves by putting in time, effort, or money, or a combination of these, to advance my cause and help make my success a reality.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to be an advocate of someone’s art.

Often times, I think we imagine advocates to be only those who invest a lot of money in art, who are paying for commissions or supporting artists in ways we have traditionally associated with being a “patron.”

But there are many ways to be an advocate, and some cost no money at all.

So, how can a listener be an advocate for a musician/composer? How does one support the cause?

Here are some ideas:

  • Praise the musician and their work publicly and encourage others to listen – in-person or on social media. Talk about a musician’s work the same way you would talk about a great restaurant you went to.
  • Share links to the musician’s work
  • Buy a recording and encourage others to do so
  • Don’t just attend a concert, but help advertise and sell advance tickets
  • Give money to the musician to help fund projects (it doesn’t have to be a lot, even $5 is appreciated)
  • Perform a piece by a living composer
  • Commission a work

I have had the pleasure of both finding advocates for my music and being an advocate for others’ music.

I know who my advocates are because they are the ones who do something on the list. They may have simply shared a link, but I’ve also received commissions and had ensemble directors recommend my work to other directors.

I’ve also had a chance to be an advocate. This is part of my motivation for starting and hosting my podcast, The Musicking Community. I have also purchased recordings of work done by friends & colleagues and shared links on social media. Yet, there is still more I can do.

Being an advocate does take some initiative and forethought, but the results are worth it. All fans are loved, but musicians depend on their advocates, their VIPs, and have a special connection to them.

Here’s the truth: musicians, and artists in general, can’t make it without advocates. It’s impossible to effectively spread the word about our work, and continue to do the work, without help. Even in the internet world, word-of-mouth is the best advertisement as people look to people they know and trust to cut through the noise.

I know that not all my listeners will be advocates. Are you one of them?

One easy step to being an advocate is joining my community of subscribers. You will receive my blog posts in your inbox when they are published, and you will receive a quarterly newsletter with all the details about the goings-on in my musical journey and ways you can get involved.

The Same, But Different

Back in August, I had the opportunity to be a part of the 2022 Impulse New Music Festival (INMF), which was a wonderful experience. As part of the program, I was commissioned by the festival to write a solo flute piece for Erin McKibben, who premiered it on September 4, 2022. (You can see her performance here.)

In addition to working with Erin, I had the opportunity to take lessons with composers Benjamin J. Rolle, Andrew Tholl, and Vera Ivanova. We discussed all kinds of things, from microtonal music to writing grants to contemporary notation. It’s this last one I will talk a bit about in this post.

Previous to my time at INMF, I was aware of various types of contemporary notation. I had seen it; I had heard music played from scores that used it; I had just never played it myself. None of my musical training, ever, included interpreting scores using contemporary notation. So, though I was aware of it, I was not truly familiar with it. My feeling was “that’s for other people.” Other people to write, other people to play.

To me, it was like reading Beowulf in the original Old English. Sure, it’s important. Sure, a select few would find that interesting. But it’s not my gig, and not something I care to invest time into understanding.

Maybe I had a bad attitude toward contemporary notation. Or maybe it’s just because I have so many other things to do and learn which have taken priority that I couldn’t be bothered.

But it doesn’t matter now, because Vera and Erin convinced me (rather easily, once I heard their perspective) that updating some of my notation was a good idea.

They introduced me to terms I had not known, so I was able to figure out how to adapt my score in the notation files. As a performer, Erin explained to me how contemporary notation can allow composers to be even more clear about how notes and phrases should be played, whereas older styles of notation may leave too many decisions up to the performer, leading to drastic differences in performances or even some confusion on the part of the performer on how best to play the piece.

In my piece, Hope Rising, that mostly centered on the rubato inherent to my piece. How much should the beats be stretched or sped up? Exactly where should an accelerando or ritard start? How great is the change in tempo from one end to the other in these spots?

Traditional notation would only say things like “rubato”, “accelerando” or “ritard,” but contemporary notation can get more specific. My piece already communicated some flexibility in the tempo, as I had no bar lines. But I learned to use spacial notation to visually shrink or stretch the length of a beat. I learned to include feather beaming to visually show where accelerandos and ritards begin and end within a phrase.

I was surprised how seamlessly the contemporary notation fit into my already-existing score. The new notation changed absolutely nothing in my piece. I didn’t have to change my style of composition at all to use it.

I did have to make some adjustments in the notation file, which only took a long time because I’m still new to the software and kept making mistakes that caused problems with formatting. The actual contemporary notation was easy to add! And, honestly, it didn’t change much in the look of the score in most places. However, I must agree that in the places where it is used, it does communicate the idea of the music more clearly than the original.

It’s the same piece, but different.

Here are pics of the before and after:

Developing Intuition

I remember one particular composition lesson when I commented to my teacher that I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. He chuckled slightly and said, “Oh, you know what you’re doing.” I protested and said, “You’re saying my work is good, but I don’t know what makes it good, and I don’t know how I got here.” He told me I followed my intuition. “Where did that come from?” I asked, and he responded by saying that it came from all my years of studying piano.

I took that nugget of information home with me and pondered it for a long time. Years, in fact. As my experience as a composer grows and expands, I understand more about the role of intuition.

Through participating in the 2022 Impulse New Music Festival over the last couple of weeks, I now understand that my musical intuition has come from far more than my piano studies. In fact, it is related to almost every musical decision I have made since I was a young child.

One of the exercises suggested in the composer bootcamp is to read a Bach chorale in closed and open score and sing all the voices, one at a time, while playing the other voices on the piano. Then, we are to move back and forth between the voices. My initial thought was, “That’s not too hard. It’ll take a few tries, but not too hard.” The reason I can even think that is because I have been playing and singing four-part chorales since I was six years old. My first exposure to chorale writing was through the hymns at church. Later, I was either singing in or accompanying choruses – at church, at school, and in the community. SATB voicing is in my blood.

Another exercise involved rhythmic modulation and polyrhythms. Again, I was surprised by how easy I found it. Sure, I picked up some of this by playing the music of Frederic Chopin. But my experience in wind ensembles was just as influential because they perform primarily 20th C music and beyond. I played a lot of pieces that employed rhythmic modulation. I might not have known the term at the time, but my ear and my gut became quite familiar with variations in pulse and the way the conductor changed the beat patterns.

Learning jazz piano and playing in the jazz band exposed me to extended chords; playing in the woodwind quintet showed me how chamber music is different than large ensemble music. I learned the qualities of many, many instruments through their entire ranges because I spent time with them day in and day out, just listening to them during rehearsals. I was able to get my hands on many as my friends let me play their instruments; I even learned a scale or two on most of them. Today, while I may still need to look up some practical information like fingering, I can hear, and even feel, all the instruments in my head.

I made a decision my first year of high school to get involved in as many musical ensembles at the school as I possibly could. One of the reasons I did this was because I wanted to learn as much about music as possible. I just didn’t realize how much I had actually learned. I didn’t realize that, though I didn’t take a composition lesson until I was thirty-seven, every musical experience had been, in its own way, training me for composing. All of those experiences were feeding my intuition so I could draw from it later on. It didn’t matter that I didn’t use most of that collected knowledge and intuition for a couple of decades. It was there, waiting, all along.

Intuition isn’t just in-born; it can be developed. I can add to it through listening to a wider variety of music, and more exposure (preferably in-person and hands-on) to new-to-me instruments, though I must say that I think it is immensely more valuable to actually be playing and actively participating in making music. Intuition is something anyone can develop or help their kids to develop. All it involves is encouraging curiosity and allowing exploration as far as one can take it. Then, let it bubble up into creativity in its own time.

The Trouble with My Two Brains

Yesterday morning I left the house to go teach piano. Without my phone or wallet. I also left behind my water bottle and any snacks, despite the fact that it was a hot day and I was going to be gone for over four hours. I did, however, remember a pad of music notation paper, a pencil, and an eraser. And, because of how naturally organized I am (sarcasm), there was a random VISA gift card in the car. I was very grateful that my husband filled the gas tank the previous day.

Why does this happen?

Well, in short, it’s because I’ve been doing a lot of composition work this week.

Composition activates a completely different part of my brain than less creative work. And when I’m spending a good chunk of my time in “composition mode” I become totally aloof and absent-minded. The details of normal life escape me. I might forget to plan ahead for meals. I will lose track of items. Some days, I forget to brush my hair. I live in an abstract world in my head.

But when I am focused on very concrete tasks or trying to stay organized, my creativity suffers.

Every time.

It’s one part of the brain, or the other. Switching back and forth or working them at the same time is extremely difficult. Actually, it really doesn’t happen. Thus, if I am in “composing mode” you will enter a house full of unfinished chores.

This is one reason I stopped teaching at the school. I was so focused on the daily schedule and the constant lesson prep and grading that I couldn’t be creative, even on my days off. Even my blogging slowed way down. My brain couldn’t switch from “practical” to “not so practical” easily enough.

I need to do my organizing when I am in “organize mode.” So, I started a new thing called a Kanban board, an organizational system was invented by people at Toyota. It’s great. It’s like a giant brain-dump that (in my case) is put down on post-it notes organized by “to do”, “working on” and “completed.” I have different colors for my different major project categories: Teaching, Composing/Publishing, Podcast, Home/Health/Herbs. I have to get them hung up on the wall, but here’s a pic:

(You’ll notice that some of the boards have an odd color mixed in. That’s because I spilled coffee everywhere and ruined most of my post-its. That aloofness and absent-mindedness also makes me clumsier…)

The board is designed to cover the next NINETY days, so I don’t have to try and remember everything I have to do or make sure I read every line on a to-do list (or keep from losing the list…It’s kind of hard to lose a big board!) I only have to be in “deep organizing mode” for a short time while planning the board, then the items on the board keep me grounded – with literal physical pieces of sticky paper I can move around – while I spend more time in “creative mode.”

Unfortunately, I can’t keep ALL the nitty-gritty daily details on the Kanban board, like remembering to use a hair scrunchy that actually matches my outfit. But, for the big stuff – the important stuff – it seems to be helping me keep my head on straight.

When Is It Too Much?

My mother has told me many times, “You thrive under pressure. You like stress.”

Then I went to therapy. It turns out, that’s not true.

I don’t thrive. I’m just competent. I can handle it. I have a lot of brain power and a lot of physical energy. I’m not bragging; I’m just saying what’s true.

But being able to manage a tremendous amount of activity and stress does not mean that I am at my best or giving my best to the world. I might be moving, but I’m not grooving.

Thinking that I “thrive” under stress has resulted in perpetually taking on too much, which happened this past year. Back in September, my choruses were starting back up after an eighteen-month hiatus. I only had two private students. I need extra income to make up for the work I lost during the COVID shutdowns.

I took a job at a private school teaching general music. During the school year, I ended up picking up a lot more private students and a third chorus.

Did I manage? Yes!

Somehow, I managed to teach at a school twenty-one hours a week, plus prep lessons, grade, encourage students, organize concerts and recordings, and plan a couple of end-of-year parties. And, I had seven and a half hours of choral rehearsals a week, plus practicing. And, I taught twenty-five students privately. I also drove twelve hours a week. And, I continued to send in pieces to calls for scores, attend a couple of conferences, and fulfill my duties (though less well) as secretary of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers.

Sure, I did all that. Does that mean I thrived?

Well, here’s what I didn’t do: I barely composed. I’ve written only about three minutes of very simple music since January. I didn’t exercise at all from January to May, including any hiking which I love to do. I didn’t make any meals or do any housework. My husband took care of it all, and good thing! I didn’t write any poetry. I barely read.

I thought that I was going to get composing done the mornings I didn’t go in to school, before my afternoon lessons. But it didn’t happen. I was so tired, and my brain was mush. I didn’t have the mental space I needed for creativity.

I think it can be hard for high-achieving people to know where the limit is, especially when they have been encouraged and told they “thrive” under stress, when they are used to extremely high expectations and being heaped upon at school or at work with more, more, more. “You’re smart, you’re capable, you can handle it.” Until you can’t.

First-borns, too, are also often taught we’re responsible to and for other people, sometimes legitimately and sometimes not, and we can end up feeling like we owe it to other people to continue on in positions where we serve, even when our energy is sapped. It can be hard to say no, especially when we are successful, especially when we care.

So, how do I know when it is too much?

I am glad to say that my limit became clear to me: it is too much when the poetry stops.

Before I started the school year, I could take a walk and poems would float into my head. I could write descriptive program notes about my pieces. Poetry was a frame of mind.

That all stopped like the flow of water from a kinked hose. The pressure has to come off for the poetry to percolate again.

I’ve decided not to return to the school. I am improving my private studio so I can work smarter, not harder, and increase my income without overtaxing myself.

If I’m going to be a composer, a poet, a creative person, and give my best to the world, to my family and friends, and to God, I need to stop living under so much pressure.

Creativity does not thrive under pressure, and neither do I.

Why Did They Like Those Pieces?

The Baccalaureate Service I played at last week was on a Friday afternoon. Since I was teaching during the day, I decided I would get a little more practice in by playing my selections for my middle-school classes if time allowed. I was able to play for my last period eighth grade class. I performed Frederic Chopin’s Prelude Opus 28, No.15 and Claude Debussy’s Reverie and Arabesque No.1.

I didn’t know how my students would react to the music. Most of them listen to pop and hip-hop. Solo piano music, never mind a classical style, is not part of their normal musical diet. Each piece is about five minutes long, significantly longer than an average pop song, so I wasn’t sure they would pay attention.

After I played the first piece, they were complimentary. “That was really good,” they said. They smiled and seemed agreeable, but I honestly thought they were just being polite. However, after I finished playing the third piece, one boy quickly turned his head toward me and said, emphatically, “That was GREAT!” Another boy responded, “I liked the first one and the third one the best.” Several other students murmured in agreement.

They really were listening.

And they even had opinions.

On the drive over to the service, I contemplated the students’ responses. Their favorite pieces were not my favorite piece. Out of these three, my preference was the Reverie. I am fond of fantasies, impromptus and the like. And a well-placed augmented chord is delightful, though the Arabesque has a couple of those as well.

I didn’t have time to ask the students why they preferred the other pieces, but I have a feeling that the form of the pieces is what made the difference. While the Reverie is a bit more adventurous harmonically, it is very pleasant and the voice-leading is good, so nothing is truly jarring. Besides, Chopin takes his own risks in the Prelude. Almost two minutes on a repeating Ab, anyone? I understand it is called the “raindrop” prelude. I don’t hear raindrops; I hear a death toll.


The most obvious difference between the Prelude and Arabesque, in comparison to the Reverie, is the form. Both the Prelude and Arabesque have a ternary (ABA) form, which means the musical material presented at the beginning of the piece returns at the end.

It’s one thing to think about form as a composer, but what does it mean for a listener?

A listener, hearing a repeated section, can say, “Hey, I know this!” The listener then becomes more engaged with the music by, consciously or not, predicting (and testing their ability to predict) what comes next, based on their memory of what they heard the first time around. The music becomes more satisfying as they recognize when their predictions were “right” and when they are surprised by slight changes in the music, or by a coda extending the repeated section. The ability to comprehend the whole piece can make them feel like they were a good listener, a smart listener. This builds confidence, which in turn, makes the listener open to listening to more.

This has a great deal of importance in reaching audiences.

The kids in my class are used to very predictable music. Pop songs have a standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus form. That chorus has a hook, and every time it comes around the listener can easily sing along. That’s a “win.” The song induced euphoria.

People who have already had a diet of classical music may be ready for the more adventurous music, but we can’t expect people who have a diet of very predictable music to immediately find satisfaction in music that is not predictable, like a wandering Reverie, or a harmonically unstable piece.

It is a matter of “taste,” but not necessarily a matter of “opinion.”

Taste is based on our culture, and what we have been exposed to.

Can you expect someone who hasn’t eaten garlic on a regular basis to like Indian food the first time eating it? I dare say there are better ways to gently stretch the palate.

So, in music, we must consider our audience. When introducing something new, we need to choose something not too different from what our listeners are used to. As they grow in confidence as listeners, we can expand the repertoire.

They might even start to like it.

If you are interested in hearing new music that may stretch your ears, but not overwhelm them, may I suggest the program, Classical Discoveries, hosted by my friend, Marvin Rosen. It airs every Wednesday morning from 7-10AM. You can stream it at wprb.com.

Quick Tips for Choosing a Last-Minute Piece

Last week, I needed to play fifteen minutes of solo classical piano music as a prelude before a university’s Baccalaureate Ceremony. Because of my performance schedule during the last month, along with all my teaching, I had to wait until just a week before to begin preparing. I chose some appropriate music which I knew but hadn’t looked at in twenty-plus years (I’m not kidding.) But since I knew the pieces, they came back quickly. However, the night before I was informed that I also needed to play a postlude.

A postlude is a completely different thing!

Preludes are generally slow and contemplative, helping people to settle and prepare for the coming ceremony. Postludes are usually quick and energetic, motivating people to leave their seats. While I was told that I could just replay something from the prelude, I knew that wouldn’t be the best choice.

I looked through the “wedding music” book I had chosen the other pieces from to look for something more upbeat. I found a piano transcription of a Minuet and Trio from Luigi Boccherini’s string quintet Opus 13, No.5. It was the perfect choice!

Here are two quick tips for choosing a perfect last-minute piece:

First, choose something from the Classical Period. Why? Here’s a description of Classical Period music in a series of two words: Predictable Harmony; Few Accidentals; Alberti Bass; Scale Patterns; Simple Rhythms; Parallel Motion. All of these make Classical Period music the easiest to sight-read.

Second, choose a Minuet and Trio. The form of a Minuet and Trio has a lot of built-in repetition which means there is less to learn. In a postlude setting, it also means you can choose to repeat or not repeat sections, depending on how fast people are leaving their seats.

And here are two quick tips for performing that last-minute Classical Period piece:

First, you don’t have to play something at full tempo. No one in the audience will be paying enough attention to criticize you for bringing the tempo down a few notches, if they even know the piece well enough to notice.

Second, if you must, play only the top notes (along with the bass). All the parallel motion in the Classical Period music means you can get away with playing only the top notes to keep the musical idea flowing without losing your place.

The other day, I followed these two tips. I didn’t play the Boccherini at FULL speed. I could play most of the parallel motion, but I wasn’t going to sight-read sixteenth-note octave runs. So, I played just the top notes in those spots.

I finished just as the last of the attendees were trickling out.

You’ve Got to Work It

Something wonderful happened!!!

My piece White Apples has been chosen by the Lehner String Quartet for performance as part of the Contemporary Quartets series, hosted by Vox Novus and produced by Virtual Concert Halls. The concert will be streamed online on May 28, 2022 at 2PM. (Keep an eye out for a link on my Facebook and Instagram pages!)

I am so excited! It’s a really significant opportunity to partner with these incredible musicians and organizations.

Of course, there’s a story behind it. Behind the piece, and behind getting to this point.

The performance with the Lehner Quartet is not technically a premiere, but it might as well be.

I wrote the piece in 2014 while I was studying through the Continuing Education program at New England Conservatory. In one of my classes, we had the opportunity to work with a string quartet throughout the year to workshop our pieces. We met with the group twice a semester and received some feedback. The students in the group mainly complained that my piece was too difficult but couldn’t tell me how to adjust those sections. There were a couple of places I wasn’t sure how to notate in the best way, but no one could give me a clear answer. Additionally, a different cellist came to every meeting, and even to the final performance.

At the end of the year, we had a composition studio recital. Each of the students’ string quartets was performed. When I arrived, the string quartet was rehearsing with the new cellist. The first violinist was also new. It was clear they had not rehearsed previously. I get it. They were students and very busy; it was the end of the semester; the previous first violinist had already left for a summer internship.

But my piece is not sight-readable, nor is it something that can be put together in an ensemble’s first run-through. Needless to say, the premiere did not go well. I’m not sure the audience noticed, but it definitely interfered with the communication of the piece’s ideas.

It’s a quirky piece. It has four sections, and they are all very different. The cohesive material that holds them together is there, but it’s a bit obscured. The piece will not make sense if the movements are separated. The first movement starts off in atonality, and the piece morphs through different moods and harmonies until it finally arrives solidly in D Major. Our teacher had given us the poem “White Apples” by Donald Hall to consider as inspiration for our pieces. I love poetry and found something in the poem, so I took the bait.

These are my full program notes for the piece, and since this is my blog, I don’t have to worry about word count.

“White Apples” is loosely based on the poem of the same name by Donald Hall, wherein a young boy is awakened in the night by a knocking at his door the week after his father’s death. Like the poem, the composition explores the concepts of sleeping, awakening, death, and change.
Mvt. 1: Incognizance
“White Apples” opens with harmonic and rhythmic ambiguity reflecting the incoherent,
incomprehensible nature of the sleep state. The musical lines roll over and around each other, lulling the listener into an ineffable, yet palpable, experience of oblivion.
Mvt. 2: Awakening
The second movement summons the sleeper to unwelcome wakefulness with an abrupt
sforzando. The following measures capture the struggle between the longing for continued slumber and the acceptance of waking reality.
Mvt. 3: Emergence
The third movement explores the inner changes that occur as we enter a new reality, whether the subtle acclimation to a new morning or the more momentous adjustment to life-crises such as the death of the boy’s father in the poem. We start to transition tenuously but become stronger as time goes on.
Mvt. 4: Resolve
The decidedly tonal final movement brings resolution to the harmonic ambiguity of the
previous movements and finally arrives at its destination: a melancholy D Major. It affirms the decision to move forward and to be present and committed in a new reality – full of yearning and hope – yet also recognizes the lingering sadness of the memories and the life left behind.

I had three pieces performed at that recital, which was the first public performance of any of my compositions. I was very disappointed with the performance of the string quartet. I was discouraged, wondering if it was just plain too difficult. I was discouraged by the dismissal of the piece (and the others) by some musical friends of mine at the time. I had sent recordings to one of the local music teachers I had collaborated with over several years, and he emailed back, “Don’t bother me with this! I don’t have time to listen!” Another could only comment that the strings were out of tune. The general response from my broader social network was one of disinterest. Composing a piece is not a big deal to them, I guess, and it just wasn’t the type of music they were interested in.

It was really hard to keep composing after that. But I did.

I put away White Apples for a while and focused mostly on putting in the effort to keep trying, keep writing. I also got busier accompanying community choruses and helping my children finish out their last years of high school.

In 2018, I revised White Apples slightly to address some problems with double stops and clean up some notation. I also reworked a section that I felt didn’t have the strength I was looking for. I began sending it out, hoping that someone, somewhere would understand this unusual piece and love it like I do.

In 2019, it was chosen for performance at the national conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers. Unfortunately, that string quartet was also incredibly busy. When I arrived at the concert, I learned that, due to travel constraints and limited rehearsal time, they were only able to perform the first two movements. They performed those two movements well, but as I said the piece makes no sense if it is not complete. The second movement ended with a thud.

At one point, I had created a system to keep track of when and where I submitted each piece, but I lost track. I estimate I’ve sent out White Apples about ten times in the last four years. It finally landed in the right hands.

I faced a lot of frustration along the way. I don’t think anyone would have faulted me for giving up on White Apples. I could have easily let it fall by the wayside while focusing on what I was composing next. But when you believe in something, you’ve got to keep working it.