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?

How Do I Know When It’s Done?

So many aspects of our life have an objective standard of completion. We know when we are done cooking, we know when we have finished cleaning, we know when we’ve arrived at a travel destination. Even many creative projects have an objective ending. When I follow a pattern to sew a piece of clothing or make a cross-stitch hanging for my wall, I know when it is done. The question then is not whether it is finished, but whether or not I did it well with proper technique.

Even performing music is like this. Usually, a composer already decided what the piece would be and what part each individual instrument would play. All the dynamics, articulations. and phrasing is predetermined. As a performer, I don’t have to think about that. I must concern myself with executing the required notes well. (There is some music where performers are invited into the composition process and put their own fingerprint on the piece. Jazz improvisation is just one example.) But, most of the time, especially for classical musicians, the requirements are to play the notes as written.

Music composition is completely different. The pieces stem from the composer’s own mind and there is no pattern to follow. I don’t discover directions from the universe that say “plug these dots onto these lines in this order and you will get a piece of music.” Even though there are musical forms that can guide a composer when writing a piece, composers still must choose which one will best fit the music they hear in their heads. Besides, form alone cannot tell the composer how long the piece should be.

So, how does a composer know when a piece is done? Perhaps every composer has a different method of figuring this out, but I will explain mine.

First, I decide roughly how long I would like the piece to be, in minutes. This length is often determined by outside circumstances. It may need to conform to a certain length for a competition or for where it will be used in a program. It may be limited by the number of lines in a text. If I took commissions, the desires of the person commissioning the piece would also be a factor. I then determine how fast the piece should go. After that, I multiply the metronome marking by the number of minutes I want the piece to be to get a ballpark figure for the total number of beats that I should have in my piece. That number is somewhat flexible as the piece may be slightly longer or shorter, but it helps me to assess my progress toward the goal. I also decide how many sections I want my piece to have and roughly how long each section should be (and consequently the number of beats I need in each section.) However, since this post is about knowing when something is done, I need to save discussion about choosing form for another post.

Even when I have completed a piece to the length I want, that doesn’t mean I am done. I work mostly with paper and pencil, usually at the piano, sometimes at a table. I have a computer software program (Finale) that I use to enter my notes to make my scores look nice, but I don’t do that until my rough draft is completed. I can only play so many notes at one time on the piano, but the computer can play back everything I wrote out simultaneously. Sometimes that rough draft is quite rough. I am grateful to be able to listen back to my pieces in the privacy of my own headphones.

After listening back to the rough draft, the editing and polishing process begins. Sometimes I realize that I entered a wrong note or rhythm – that’s an easy fix. Sometimes, I decide that I need more (fill in the blank) here or less (fill in the blank) there. Sometimes I need to cut out entire sections and rewrite them.

I get a good idea of what my music will sound like live by listening to the computer playback. There are some significant differences, but my imagination can fill in the gaps between what the computer is capable of doing and what live performers would do. So, as I listen, I ask “does this sound how I imagined it?” That may seem like a simple question, but it isn’t. That question is the ONLY question and guides my decisions about what to do next. If the answer is “no”, I need to rewrite and tweak. If I get stuck during this process and don’t know how to fix a spot, I may need to ask for help from a teacher or a colleague. I may find help in studying musical literature. This can be a very long process.

When I finally come to the point where I feel satisfied with the piece, when it sounds how I imagined it, and when I can no longer think of a way to improve it, it is finished.
That doesn’t mean it is “perfect”. I suppose that someone could go through my score with a fine-tooth comb and find a technical mistake here or there, or disagree with my choices. I leave that to the critics, though I have not yet had enough public attention to get a critic.

Technique helps me to get what I imagined out of my head and down onto paper. It helps me choose notes. It helps me work faster. Theoretical knowledge and familiarity with a wide variety of musical pieces helps me come up with ideas and explore new musical territory. In all these ways I am constantly looking to improve and grow as a composer. But none of these things help me to know when a piece is done.

Only I can say when a piece is finished.

Music Composition is Like a Jigsaw Puzzle

A couple of weeks ago, my composition student asked me at the beginning of her lesson if it was OK that she didn’t have her ideas formed for the immediate next section of her piece, but skipped ahead and worked on a later section. I, of course, said that was quite alright and a normal part of the compositional process.

One of my composition teachers had the class read an essay by Edgar Allen Poe describing his process of writing The Raven. It did not come to him in a linear fashion, but he worked on different sections, moved them around, and eventually connected them together into the famous poem we now know. The process of creating is different for everyone, but rarely does one start with a complete, detailed, ordered idea from start to finish. Instead of having my student read Poe’s essay, which is rather heady, I had her think of a jigsaw puzzle. I consider this one of the best concrete descriptions of what it is like to compose a piece of music.

Not everyone approaches a puzzle the exact same way, but there are some helpful principles. Most find the edge pieces first and lay them out. Likewise in composition, it is good to set the parameters of the piece. What is the instrumentation? What is the length? What is the larger form? What are the main ideas? Once these are in place, one can begin working on the details.

I like to sort my puzzle pieces by color, and I rarely work from one side of the puzzle all the way to the next. I will work on one section or with one color, then get tired of that and go to another section or color. This approach is not “out of order”, but is rather useful because it gives my eyes and mind a rest.  When I constantly look at the same group of pieces, they begin to “blur” and I no longer see the distinctions as clearly. If I were to force myself to stay in one section, I would actually slow down my progress. Switching to another section is refreshing, like getting a new perspective. I will see a new connection that I failed to see before, and I will have immediate quick success. When I get tired, it is time to switch again.

I use this same approach when composing a piece. When I get stuck in a section of a piece, if I cannot solve the problem very quickly, I move on to another section where I have some solid ideas. I rest from the first section and let those ideas ferment a bit longer; I obviously wasn’t ready to work on it. If I did not allow myself to move on until the first problem was solved, my frustration would increase and my confidence would wain, both of which would impede my progress even further.

Sometimes when I am working on a puzzle, I try one piece at a time, turning it in all directions to see if it fits in a spot. This usually happens when there are no color variations to help and the shapes are too similar to immediately see a proper fit. It is tedious. Sometimes music composition is like that, too.  The notes, like puzzles pieces, can be turned this way or that way, and sometimes I have to try out all the combinations to see which one fits. It is not a revelation so much as a discovery.

Music is very abstract, and the ideas and what I hear in my mind are “out there somewhere.” I often feel like I am downloading music from the universe, taking it from the air and putting it on paper. Sometimes it comes quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes it freezes for a while. It is like doing a puzzle without having the box cover for guidance. I have a general sense of the idea, I know how big it is, I know what colors I am working with, and I get hints along the way of what it will be. But until it is completely finished, I don’t have the whole picture in front of me.

Playing Piano in a Large Ensemble

Over the years, I’ve heard various comments about pianists and their connection to conductors. One person told me that, as a pianist, she was required to make percussion her instrument in college as a music education major because “pianists do not make good conductors.” I have heard other people who belong to orchestras complain about the pianists who come in to play in just a piece or two, “they make up their own tempo and don’t follow the conductor!” I once heard a professional orchestra perform a piece using a piano as part of the ensemble (not a soloist.) During the piece there was a long accelerando, and the pianist was in his own world. Half the group was trying to stay with the pianist, and the other half was trying to stay with the conductor.  It almost fell apart. I told someone I knew in the group that I laid the blame completely at the feet of the pianist. He wasn’t watching.

In some ways, this is completely understandable. Pianos, unlike most instruments, are their own ensemble providing melody, harmony, and multiple voices at the same time. Pianists are self-accompanying and we don’t need another musician to play with. Other instruments do have solo works, but they are rare. For pianists, solo works are the norm. Even when pianists play with other instruments, it is often in a chamber group that doesn’t have a conductor. To have experience in a large ensemble, pianists usually must  learn another instrument or sing in a chorus. This is the only way most will get the experience of working under a conductor.

I have been playing piano since the age of three, but when I was eight I wanted to join the school band, so I began learning clarinet. Although I am a primarily a pianist, my musical background includes a significant amount of large ensemble experience. I have played in multiple bands and wind ensembles and have sung in multiple choruses. Because of this, following a conductor is second nature.

Still, most of my large ensemble work as a pianist has been of just one kind – working with choral groups. In that work, I am the lead instrument and I am always playing. So, when I began playing  piano with the Rhode Island Wind Ensemble for an upcoming performance, I found myself in a completely different situation.

Instead of being a lead instrument, I am only adding color and depth in places. I have gone from playing almost every single measure to having to count for fifty-plus measures of rest. It’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when my part doesn’t clearly mark the ritardandos and fermatas that the rest of the ensemble has at one point or another, and the music is full of constantly-changing time signatures. I have found myself having to ask numerous questions about what is supposed to be happening in a certain measure so I can better keep track of where I am in the music. Another problem is that, because my part is more about sound effect than pianistic technique, the notes are not always close by and “under the fingers” as my composition teacher would say. I might have only a few notes at a time, but sometimes I have to jump octaves between them pretty quickly. Looking down at the keyboard to ensure I play the right notes and looking up at the conductor at the same time is hard to do! I have found myself developing a little compassion for the pianist who botched that orchestral performance.

The piano has a different feel in an ensemble like this. Normally when I let a chord ring while holding down the pedal, I know when the sound ends and I can lift my foot. Now, though, my foot feels vibrations through the pedal long after my note ends, resonating with the low brass.  The conductor and the other musicians in the group are pleased with how the piano sounds, and I am glad to have this new musical opportunity. It has broadened my understanding both as a player and a composer.

How to Talk to a Composer

I premiered my first pieces just four and a half years ago at a studio recital of my teacher’s students. My work, done over the previous 8 months, made up 30 minutes of the program. I had worked hard, my teacher was very pleased with my work, and I was feeling proud of my accomplishment. None of my friends attended, only family. I understood. I had gone back to school as an adult, was not studying in a traditional program, and all my friends had adult lives with adult responsibilities. They couldn’t take time out to attend a weeknight recital an hour away. But I had recordings which I shared with quite a few people – friends, church members, parents of my students, colleagues.

I did get some positive comments from a few people, but most did not seem to care what I was doing. One parent of a student told me she listened to about 30 seconds of a piece. “Not my thing,” she said. OK. I certainly do not expect everyone to be interested in my music, or even classical music in general. I respected her honesty. A colleague wrote back when I sent him links to recordings, “I don’t have time for this!” OK. That stung, since I had worked with him long enough to think he might be interested. But, yes, he was very busy. Again, I respected his honesty.  The winner of all comments, though, was the one from a professional musician I used to be friends with, who after listening to my unaccompanied saxophone piece said that it “needed more cowbell.” At the time, I blew that off as a poorly chosen attempt at a joke, but I later learned it was indicative of his disregard for me.

Most of the time I was met with silence. Silence is deafening, as they say.  There is an old rule, “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Silence seems to follow this rule, or at least communicates disinterest.  I will never speak to most people who listen to my music. But when I personally know listeners, getting silence from them is painful.  After spending a great deal of time and effort, and often money, into writing a piece of music and getting it performed, it feels to me like a thoughtful comment or question from someone I personally know is a legitimate request.

In rare cases, perhaps someone felt so moved by the piece that they don’t want to share their inner feelings.  But for those whose silence comes from not knowing what to say, here are some tips:

Most composers will not expect you to come up with anything intelligent to say about their work. Even professional performers often do not know much about composition, and the technical aspects of our work are beyond their understanding. If you want to say anything at all, stick to your own personal reactions. If you liked it, say so. If you found it moving, say so. If you found it exciting, or surprising, or if you were wowed by a particular moment in the violin part, say so.

But what if you didn’t like the piece, or if you really don’t have enough experience with music to make any comments at all? In this case show your interest in the composer by asking questions. The composer may not be willing to answer some of these questions, but asking shows you are interested. Here are some ideas for questions: Why did you choose this instrumentation (and text if it is a vocal piece)? What inspired you to write it? When did you write it? How long did it take you? What kind of process do you use for writing music? What kinds of tools do you use for your composing? If you have more musical knowledge, you could ask more technical questions  about the piece’s tonality or lack of, or how the composer created a certain effect you noticed.

I don’t care if you like my piece. Liking is so subjective. There are pieces by famous composers throughout history that I don’t care too much for. If I don’t like Beethoven’s 9th, then how could I expect everyone to like my work? I don’t. But silence and comments in poor taste are not what I want from people I know. I will have plenty of critics outside of my personal circles.



What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Key” Considerations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give the Organist a Solo

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

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

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

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

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

Art, Math & Philosophy, Oh My!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop the Tamboura!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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