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All In a Day’s Work

I came across a quote on Facebook this past week which said, “The business of theatre demands you have a completely fortified heart to withstand all the rejection, but the craft of theatre demands your heart be wide open so to create vulnerability and truth. And the effort of sustaining both states is….a lot.” I don’t know if Paco Tolson first said this, but his name is on the quote.

That is a true statement, and it is true for all the arts. Whenever someone is creating something, they are taking a risk in being vulnerable by sharing their thoughts, ideas, and perspectives, ultimately their heart. Art that comes from the heart resonates. But not with everyone.

The constant auditioning or submitting to competitions and calls for scores is exhausting. Rejections roll in, but you have to pick yourself up from the dust, shake it off, and keep going. Even when you feel bad; even when you’re exhausted; even when you feel like the wind was kicked out of you. You have to tend your heart and keep it soft and supple, open to the Spirit, willing to share your heart and let it speak in hopes that it resonates with another person out there, somewhere.

Most people who are kind enough to write rejection letters write decent ones. They are polite, though in my opinion the letters are full of empty promises. “We may consider you for a future project.” How many years do I need to wait before I know if this is true? My guess is, in reality, within a year or less my name is forgotten. I have to keep sending in work over and over again to keep my name fresh in anyone’s mind….if that organization even holds another call.

Sometimes, my work feels like riding a roller coaster. The highs are so infrequent that they are really high. It does help temper the lows of rejections when they arrive close together.

I got two rejections and two “acceptances” in a 24-hr period this week.

First, I got an email on Monday morning telling me that my piece, “Three Short Pieces for Unaccompanied Saxophone” will be included in the University Interscholastic League Prescribed Music List in Texas. This is great news! I am hoping this means in the next year and following that many saxophone teachers and their students will find my piece on this list and choose to play it. Shortly after receiving that news, I got an email telling me I was not chosen for a choral commission competition I entered. I had truly sent in my best work relating to the competition. Since it was for chorus and strings, I sent in “Our Dwelling Place” and “Daughter of the Stars”, two pieces I am very proud of. If that doesn’t help me win, I’ve got nothing else. At lunch time, I found out the short pieces for piano based on Satie I sent in weren’t used for the project. Bummer. Then the next morning I found out I was given the place of first Honorable Mention in an Emerging Composer Competition sponsored by Arcady, a choral ensemble in Canada directed by Ronald Beckett! I had submitted my art song, “Mirage.” I was actually surprised by this result, because this very piece had recently been rejected by a publisher and, compared to many art songs I’ve heard recently, is pretty straightforward, lyrical, and not too outrageous, harmonically speaking. Yet, I came in 4th place out of ninety-one entries from twenty-five countries. This is a big “win” for me, especially since the director told me himself that the judges all “loved the interplay between piano and voice and the opportunity that it presented for the singer to really be expressive.”

It sounds to me like they loved the vulnerability in the piece: the communication from my heart and the space given for communication from the singer’s heart.

It’s impossible to know who will like a piece and who will not.

Back when I was running a Multi-level Marketing Business when my kids were little, I learned that I should not decide for other people whether or not they want to purchase something or host a party. If I decided for them they weren’t interested, they definitely weren’t. Instead, I told them all that I was going to ask every person because that was my job. Now, my job is sending in scores. I can’t decide ahead of time that this or that ensemble or organization is not interested in my work.

My husband likes to say, “You cannot know your own impact.” This is true. Most of the time, we do not see the ripple effects from what we say or do, whether positive or negative. The effects ripple as how we treat one person dominoes into how they treat another.

And I can’t know the impact my work will have on another person. One person may find it useless. Another person may find it life-giving. One may find it boring; another may find it inspiring. Who can say? Not me.

So, when the rejections come I have to remind myself that’s only one part of the story and the ripples are only just beginning.

Rejections, acceptances, exhaustion, determination, the tending of my heart, the willingness to be vulnerable, the commitment to create. It’s all in a day’s work.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

The Limits of Musical Notation (And Why It Is Not Racist)

For a while, I have been promising to write a post about music notation. Here it is:

The concept of primary importance is this: the notation is not the music!

A piece of sheet music is no more “music” than a book is a “story.” Both sheet music and books are physical things and contain code that communicates the music or the story, However, the music and story are beyond the physical and can be heard and told without the presence of the physical; they are primordial. The written notation or text may give a map of the music or the story, but it all comes to life in the mind of the performer, reader, story-teller, and audience. Alone, the sheet music and book have no power, because they are not the music or the story but rather lifeless sheets of paper.

We know that stories have been passed down for ages through oral tradition. No written words were needed. Likewise, music was passed down for ages without notation. Notation is only an approximation, a translation so to speak. It’s allows the abstract musical idea to be preserved in a fixed format. (In contrast, a recording preserves a specific performance, like a photograph preserves a specific point in time.)

Notation is a form of written musical language that allows performers who have not yet heard the music to be able to perform it. Even when using notation, each performance will be slightly different due to the nuances individual performers bring to the piece as they interact with the music. This is not unlike how readers will read stories differently out loud or imagine scenes differently in their minds. When I was studying music in college, my saxophone teacher required me to listen to various recordings of the piece I was learning so I could hear different interpretations of the piece. The reason why so many different interpretations exist is because the notation is not the music. It is only a guide to the music. The music is a sculpture of sound that comes into being as it is performed, morphing slightly with each performance. (Pieces that are fixed media are of a different sort of art that does not require notation to tell performers how to play the music.)

There are different systems of music, and if they have a written tradition, the notation will be different. This is not an issue of one being better than another. Is each system exclusionary? Yes. It excludes those people who don’t know how to read that notation. This is because it is a language. I cannot read Japanese; neither can I read koto music. I need to either learn Japanese and Japanese musical notation, or I must have it translated for me into a language or notation I can understand. It may be that in “translating” one system of music into another system’s written notation, some of the nuance of understanding will be lost, not unlike translating a language. It is always best to read the music in the original notation if possible, but many of us are not versed in the notation systems of musics from around the world.

Some have argued that music notation is racist because it perpetuates the idea that a particular style of music (specifically Western/European classical music) is superior to other forms of music. I completely disagree, because notation does not have the power to do this. A language cannot control the story that is told. Rather, the author who is writing the story chooses the words that best tell it. Likewise, in music, notation is used that best or most easily/clearly communicates the musical ideas. Just because Black music in America, like jazz, has been written down using musical notation that originated in Europe does not make that notation racist. It only means that many who wrote down their jazz charts found the notation system suitable enough for what they were writing.

But there comes a point when the standard notation system breaks down and can no longer contain the musical ideas a composer has. At this point, the composer must invent a new way of writing down the ideas. This should not be a surprise. We have seen this happen throughout time in poetry: new forms, a movement away from strict rhyme, shape poems, and new uses (or a lack of) punctuation and capitalization.

Notation has always been in a state of flux. For example, the staves used to have more lines. Over time, the music changed as many unnamed people over the centuries contributed ideas on how to make the written music easier to decipher. Musicians collectively drifted towards certain notation preferences until a standardized system developed. This is not unlike how new words become part of the lexicon. But that standardization is only good for music that has already been written. Notation is still changing.

Even when standardized symbols exist, the application of them can change, similarly to how definitions of words change over time. Earlier this week, I came across a discussion on a notation forum about how one should indicate that notes be played an octave below what is written. Some answered, “8va with a dotted line below the notes, as opposed to the dotted line above the notes indicating that the notes should be played higher.” Others said the section should be notated with an “8ba” and still others said “8vb.” The last group said that, though they know “8vb” is technically incorrect, it has become so commonly used and understood that it should be accepted as suitable. That’s cool. (I think you know what I mean even though I’m not using “cool” according to the proper, non-slang definition.)

Then there’s that elusive “swing.” Sometimes, the word will be put at the top of the score like a tempo marking, except it’s not one. Sometimes the editor will put in parentheses that two eighth notes should be played like a triplet configured as a quarter note followed by an eighth note. But that doesn’t accurately communicate “swing” either. Swinging eighth notes is not something that can be fully conveyed on the page. The best way to learn how to swing the music is by immersing one’s self in listening to swung music and imitating the feel.

Notation leaves many things to the imagination. When I see the direction “ritard” in the music, exactly how quickly should I slow down? Even adding the qualifiers “poco” (a little) or “molto” (a lot) still leaves the performer to make decisions about how dramatically to play. When I am writing music, when is the term “rallentando” preferable to “ritard”? (Answer: there is no agreement on this.) Exactly how long should I hold a fermata? Should I have a short pause of silence after the fermata or go directly to the next note?

Again, like living languages, music needs new terminology and new spellings to reflect the new concepts that arise. Scientists are constantly reaching the outer limits of knowledge and making up new words to explain what they find there. Likewise, the explorers of the avant garde in music require, and invent, new terminology and symbols to communicate their discoveries. Before Bela Bartok, there was no Bartok pizzicato. Now it has a term and a symbol. There is still no agreement on how to notate a jet whistle produced by a flute. Nowadays, there are musical scores that look nothing like a traditional score. They might be a picture, or a graph, or a large hand-drawn circle. How does one notate an “open score,” a piece which can be performed with any instrumentation? Some modern scores look more like board-game instructions than a traditional piece of music. I have written such a piece myself, though it needs some more work before I make it public. Modern scores now often contain boxes, squiggly lines of all kinds, and markings in seconds rather than beats. New accidentals account for microtonal music, far beyond the familiar flats and sharps. Charts at the beginning of scores act like a map key explaining all the unfamiliar symbols the composer used in the score. It’s fascinating.

Music notation does not inhibit creativity for anyone, and thus it is not exclusionary. If the current standard notation does not satisfy the needs of the composer to communicate their ideas, it’s time for the composer to create a new way of notating. If that method becomes widely accepted, the history of musical notation will have altered, again. Some new ways stick; others don’t. It’s up to progeny to decide.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

Fun and Games

When I decide whether or not to enter a competition or a call for scores, I follow a simple flow-chart in my mind. First, I determine if I already have a piece that fulfills the requirements of the call. If so, unless the fee to enter is exorbitantly high, I will send it in. If I do not already have a piece, I ask myself if I have time to write one before the deadline. If I do, the final question is: would it be fun?

The fun factor is extremely important. In the instance for competitions and calls for scores, I am essentially writing a piece “on spec.” There’s no commission pay, and I must assume I will not get the prize, whether it is a performance, money, recording, or any combination of these. I don’t want to put myself under the stress of meeting a deadline for a project I don’t really connect with. There are many more opportunities than I could possibly write for in a given amount of time, so “fun” becomes the deciding factor.

What makes a project fun for me? I mainly consider the instrumentation and the premise of the project.

In the last week or so, I submitted to two calls that I had chosen for their “fun” factor. One was a call for solo saxophone work. This appealed to me because, as a saxophonist myself, I know the need for more classical saxophone music and want to contribute to the repertoire. The other was a call for piano pieces based on short pieces by Satie. This appealed to me as a pianist who has always been intrigued by Satie’s music and has enjoyed playing some of it.

But both of these calls had another quality that increased the “fun” factor. The pieces needed to be short. VERY short. The saxophone piece could not be longer than one minute. Sixty seconds, max. The Satie-inspired piano piece could not be longer than one page. One 8-1/2×11-inch page.

On one hand, very short pieces generally do not take long to write, so that’s a plus. On the other hand, writing a complete piece within an extremely condensed time limit is quite a challenge.

It’s like writing an essay, or a short story, in one paragraph or one hundred words, complete with an introduction, development, and convincing conclusion.

Writing the saxophone piece required a different way of thinking about planning the piece. I generally have an idea of how long I want a piece to be, and based on the tempo, I multiply the number of beats per minute, to get an estimate of how many beats I need per piece. I often have tempo changes, however, so I must also calculate the number of beats per section. When a piece is only one minute long, those sections are measured in seconds. Using the tempo to determine the number of beats per minute wasn’t sufficient. I needed to know the number of beats per second.

Even though I am good at math, I made a mistake here. When I entered the rough draft of my piece into my notation software, I discovered it barely made thirty seconds of material. I had flipped the seconds and beats! Rather than thinking I needed one and a half beats per second, I thought I needed one and a half seconds per beat. That was a big oops! It was a happy mistake, though, because I had time to add more material and write a more complete and compelling piece. I even had time to add a contrasting section, which ended up being twenty seconds at a different tempo. Honestly, keeping track of the beats in a one-minute piece was trickier than I thought. It had to be exact.

The next challenge was creating the MIDI rendition of the piece. I was having trouble getting my software to return to the original, faster tempo at the end of the piece. This was causing the piece to play almost ten seconds longer than it should. I finally figured out a solution, but when I exported the audio, I saw that the software had added about four seconds of silence after the last note. The time stamp on the file was over one minute. I didn’t want the judges of the competition to automatically look at the time stamp and disqualify my piece without listening and knowing that the sound actually ended before the minute was up. So, I used my audio editing software to cut off the extraneous seconds at the end so the file would show fifty-eight seconds.

The number of measures or pages in a piece has little to do with it’s length. The saxophone piece, though only one minute, had many more measures than either of the two one-page pieces I submitted to the Satie competition. Ultimately, I had fewer total beats available to get across my ideas in the Satie-inspired pieces, though they ended up longer than the saxophone piece.

One page for piano sheet music is not much room at all. I suppose that I could have written a piece to be played with one hand, using just one staff, but that wasn’t the direction my ideas took. Most piano music is written on a grand staff, so every measure takes double the amount of space on a page than a measure for a single-stave instrument. I admit I played with the font size and margins to (neatly) cram my pieces into an 8-1/2×11-inch paper format! One of the pieces has a slow tempo and fewer notes, so I was able to fit forty-one measures on the page. The other piece, however, is faster and has many more notes. It is only twenty-nine measures long, but I had a harder time fitting it on the page.

The Satie competition also gave me ideas for another project, which I am eager to finish on my own deadline.

When I was a kid, I enjoyed playing with brain-teaser games like Tangrams and other shape-based puzzles. Though the Tangrams were limited to seven specifically-shaped pieces, they could be used to represent all sorts of things. In another game, the box was the constraint, but the shapes could be arranged in multiple ways so long as they all fit. The short pieces I wrote presented a fun challenge similar to those puzzles. How can I make an interesting and coherent pattern limited by these shapes or this container? Or, how can I write an interesting and coherent piece confined to this amount of time or page space?

Taking on these challenges was fun, just like doing brain-teasers as a kid was fun. It’s just a different kind of play.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

Their Turn Has Been Long Enough. It’s Time to Share

When my children were young, like most (all?) children, there were times they would start fighting over toys. The usual disagreement involved an accusation that one was hogging a toy and not letting the other play with it. When I got involved as the arbitrator, I would consider the situation. Sometimes, the child playing with the toy had not been playing very long or was in the middle of a scenario or project, and I would tell the other child to be patient for a little while longer. Other times, however, I would tell the child playing with the toy, “Your turn has been long enough. Now it’s time to share.”

I believe in sharing.

So, the other day when I read this article about professors at the University of Oxford reducing the number of white, male, classical composers students will study to make room for lesser-known composers of different races, genders, and cultures, I was very pleased. They are committing to sharing the musical space. I was not, however, pleased with the inflammatory tone of the author, Manual Brug. (I suggest reading Mr. Brug’s post before continuing this one.)

Let me take on Mr. Brug’s post one point at a time.

First, no one is canceling Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, or any other white-male-composer. Reducing the number of white-male composers studied to make room for under-recognized composers of the past who were skilled in their own right or non-western music that is valid in it’s own right does not “cancel” the more well-known composers. All those guys have had their turn. It’s time to share the spotlight.

Second, adding to is not cutting. If I add more side dishes to my Thanksgiving menu, there will be more to eat. Each diner may only get a taste of each dish, but often that is enough to get a sense of the flavor. Then each person can go back for seconds from the dishes they like best. If music schools make room in their programs for non-western music and non-white, non-male composers, that is more. More music, more composers, more variety, more experiences, more diversity.

Mr. Brug claims that “Western classical music is one of the few art forms that spread across the world without any link to oppression or slavery” yet provides no documentation! My daughter is, right now, working on a paper about how western classical music was used in colonial Latin America and how the indigenous people “revolted” by incorporating their own traditional melodies and rhythms, creating unique hybrids. (This paper provides some insight.) Saying that local composers “embraced the Baroque style” is Mr. Brug’s spin.

In fact, we cannot separate Western classical music from slavery because it is the black slaves in America who were exposed to western music and hybridized it with their African musical traditions to create spirituals which subsequently gave birth to blues, ragtime, jazz, and beyond. Without the tie to slavery, we wouldn’t have this uniquely American music. The wonderful music that came out of such oppression is a silver lining, but we must understand that it was born in pain and suffering. We need to honor that, and the musicians who made this music.

Just because countries like China, Japan, and Korea appreciate western classical music does not mean there is no tie to oppression. I find it amusing that Mr. Brug claims that Japan has had a “long” devotion to western classical music for over one hundred years. One hundred years is not a long time; World War I ended just over one hundred years ago. J.S. Bach died almost three hundred years ago. Let’s put this “long” devotion into perspective.

Mr. Brug also sarcastically addresses the topic of music notation, despite the fact that the professors at the University of Oxford already said that they are not ditching sheet music. The fact is that notation is always changing, much like spelling and grammar (perhaps you have heard the debate about the Oxford comma.) There are difficulties with musical notation, which I plan to discuss in another post, and new ways of notating are always being explored. Yes, we do have a standardized system in the West, but that system has already required updating and new approaches in order to accommodate late-twentieth and twenty-first century music, even that written by white males. Calling music notation racist is silly, but so is the idea that we must hold to the Western standardized system only, without exploring other systems of notation. Limiting music students to a single tradition of music notation could seriously impair creativity and future musical developments.

It is not “ridiculous” to include composers such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Tan Dun, and others mentioned in Mr. Brug’s article in a music curriculum, all of whom have contributed significantly to the development of Western classical music! It seems that Mr. Brug is not familiar enough with contemporary western classical music to recognize this fact. Contemporary composers are simply seeking out the works of these non-white composers on their own, rather than having the opportunity to study them with the approval of a common music school curriculum.

Mr. Brug asks, “Where are all of the composers of color, or female composers, to replace these old, white men?” Many are easy to find on IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project.) Interestingly, several music publishers found them worthy. Why don’t the music schools? Mr. Brug asks, “Which prodigies will be rescued from the dusty archives, simply because they fulfill today’s politically correct criteria?” Any that we can find. If they wrote something of quality and they are not white and male, they count. They may be a token model, but even one is better than none. (Interestingly, there are so many Latin American composers I was able to take two semesters on The History of Latin American music when I returned to school in my late thirties, and many of the composers were not white or male.) I know that studying the work of female composers would have benefited me when I was young. Unfortunately, they were only mentioned in passing, without looking at their music as a model, if they were mentioned at all. This only communicated that their work was “lesser than” and not up to par with the work of the males.

This, of course, is not true. In recent years, I have played several pieces by female composers of the Romantic Period that were of comparative quality to the traditional repertoire I’ve played. Perhaps these under-recognized composers wrote fewer pieces, or focused on smaller-scale works. It is important to ask, “Why?” Women, for example, were traditionally expected to keep the home and care for the children. Music was “just” a hobby. How many non-white composers were composing outside of working other jobs because they didn’t have the privilege to devote their entire day to music? In light of various constraints and obstacles, isn’t it even more remarkable that their work exists at all?

Mr. Brug says, “You could hold seminars about how for centuries female and non-European composers were ignored and had little chance of breaking into the classical canon. But it isn’t always possible to correct the mistakes of the past in this way, and searching for lost scores from unrecognized geniuses with the right skin color won’t bring them out of the woodwork.” He also says, “In America, institutions are desperate to give grants and commissions to women and people of color, but that doesn’t automatically improve the quality of results.” Correcting mistakes completely is impossible. This is about making room so that more diverse voices can be heard. Searching for lost scores does, in fact, bring unrecognized composers out of the woodwork; it just requires time and effort. Those who care will do it. And no one is trying to improve the “quality of results.” Rather, they are giving a turn to those who have been patiently waiting. Besides, what do the results matter, and who judges? By talking about “improving results”, is Mr. Brug setting up the work of white males as the appropriate standard?

One thing I can agree with Mr. Brug about is that students must learn the basics before they push the boundaries. And, in this, I feel that most college music students are entering college woefully ignorant. They need to be well-versed in their own culture’s musical heritage so that when they get to college they are ready to explore the larger world. A college music program should not be where students are learning their major scales and four-part chorale-style harmony. It should not be where Western students are studying Beethoven symphonies for the first time. We don’t put up with this in other fields of study. Imagine if a student entered college as an English major without ever studying the work of William Shakespeare! Music students entering college should be as ready for a rigorous music program as engineering students are ready for theirs. I understand that is a tall order since so many public schools are not equipped to provide that knowledge. But non-white, non-male composers should not be left out of the curriculum because students come in ill-prepared. That is too high a price to pay.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

Do you have an idea for a topic for me to cover in my blog? Contact me and make a suggestion!

Fudging, Artistic Discretion, and Deception: The Story of a Gig

Getting to my latest gig did, in fact, involve a form of deception, however innocent the reason (and I’ll get to it) but that’s not really the point of this story. This post is ultimately about perfectionism.

I call myself a recovering perfectionist, and, like any person beating back any “ism” in their life, it’s something I have to work on regularly.

These days, the perfectionist monster stays mostly quiet, but sometimes it appears seemingly out of nowhere and roars loudly, trying to convince me that I must be perfect if I’m going to be worth anything. And by perfect, I mean perfect. The right clothes that fit properly; the house in perfect order; the healthful meals planned and made on time; no wrong words said wrongly; no conflict unresolved; the proper amount of water and exercise; the completed to-do list; and certainly no wrong notes! Everything done as it should be.

The last one – wrong notes – often seems a bit easier for me to control than the others, with enough practice. If I just practice enough I can play perfectly. This is what I fooled myself into thinking for many years. One oft-head adage is “practice until you can’t play it wrong.” The problem is that all the practicing in the world cannot prevent an unexpected disaster. Charles Rosen, in his book, Piano Notes: the World of the Pianist, told of seeing a performance in which a renowned, world-famous pianist’s finger tripped on a note, triggering an avalanche of wrong notes. If world-famous pianists can screw up a performance, I know I certainly have that capability.

Can we get to the point where we can’t make a mistake? No, it’s not possible. Believing that somehow we can achieve perfection if we only try harder is the road to madness.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t attempt to excel. But there is a point where we must admit that we have done all we can do. We have gone as far as we can. We have reached our limit of achievement, at least for a time.

It’s not just a matter of personal effort; sometimes the environment and circumstances prevent perfection. I know many people who expect others to always do the right thing in all situations. But the reality is sometimes that’s just not possible.

My recent gig is such a situation.

Last Wednesday, I got asked at 4PM to play a gig. Two hours later I was at a tech rehearsal for a production of The Addams Family being put on at a local college. That’s a tough show: lots of Latin rhythms, and like all musicals, full of changes – key changes, time signature changes, quick mood changes, and so on. Fortunately, I played the show four years ago and was familiar with the music. But, this time I was playing a different part. I was asked to play keyboard, not piano. This meant I needed to switch sounds AND switch books – sometimes two or three times in one song!

This is where the “fudging” comes in.

I have never played keyboard in a show before, not like this. Not “synthesizer keyboard.” I have always read off the conductor’s score, and I have never been asked to play anything but piano. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into when I was first asked to take the gig. All I knew was 1) I was recommended by one of the choral directors I work with because I sight-read very well, which is true, 2) I was desperate to play somewhere and this was my first gig in over a year, 3) I was getting paid. After that I realized I was supposed to bring my own keyboard because I knew the sounds on it. Well, my digital piano does have a zillion good sounds on it. I had just never used them. It didn’t matter. The music director was desperate, and so was I.

Off I went, being a “keyboardist” who had never previously looked at some of the screens on the not-designed-to-be-portable digital piano I lugged to the gig and got help bringing in on a dolly.

I fudged my way through some of the music.

I couldn’t possibly play all the notes correctly, given that I had two days to learn my part before the first performance (the complication increased by the nature of piano music – two hands, many notes!) Over the years, I have learned how to skip notes rather than hit wrong notes, so I used this strategy a lot. I couldn’t hear myself much of the time, so I hoped the wrong notes I did play would also not be heard by the audience. I made mistakes switching the sounds, playing the wrong sounds in the wrong spot. Sometimes, when looking at the screen to switch sounds, I would lose my place in the music. Occasionally, I played by myself in a spot where I shouldn’t have. (Thankfully, mistakes like these, while noticeable, are quickly forgotten in such a setting.) I completely skipped a short piece because I wasn’t able to complete a switch in time to begin it. After the opening show on Friday night, I went home and told my husband it was the worst public performance I have ever given as an adult.

I also used Artistic Discretion.

The artistic decisions weren’t just what type of accordion or organ I should use when the score requested “accordion” or “organ.” I also had to choose how I would substitute sounds. The nylon classical guitar sound on my digital piano was terrible, so I used harp instead. I came across a request in the music for “bandoneon.” I asked the music director what kind of instrument this is so I could look on the correct screen page to see if my keyboard had it; he didn’t know, either. I just kept playing strings. I didn’t bother using “glass harmonica” or “baritone saxophone.” Sometimes, I used the kalimba sound and sometimes I used pizzicato strings, depending on what was easiest to get to. I didn’t have time to find “space pad” or learn how to program my keyboard split into two sounds.

Some sound requests were completely mind-boggling. A request for theramin? Seriously? They wanted me to play theramin on a synthesizer? This was a cognitive dissonance I did not even try to resolve. I skipped “theramin.”

It has been important for me to regularly fight my perfectionistic tendencies to prepare for situations like this. I have learned to ignore those inner voices that try to guilt me for not using a clarinet sound in the spot where the book said to! “Artistic discretion” is a legitimate term I can use for breaking the rules.

So what about that deception?

Well, I had to lie to get to the gig, but it wasn’t my fault.

Before the first rehearsal, I was supposed to download the school’s COVID app and “check in,” attesting to having no COVID symptoms. I would get a “green check” which I would then show to the security officer at the gate to the entrance of campus. I couldn’t get on to campus without it.

The problem is my phone, which works fine otherwise, is too old to download newer apps. I couldn’t download the app! On such short notice, the only thing that could be done was to practice deception. The music director texted me a screen shot of his green check with his name on it. If the security officer had taken a closer look, the mismatched name and the phone number revealing a text would have been obvious! Lucky for me and the music director, I nonchalantly passed through security five days in a row without a hitch.

Getting caught up in perfection would have ruined this gig. I probably wouldn’t have taken it if I felt I needed to be perfect at being a “keyboardist.” I probably would have been too afraid to come in two days before opening night and sight-read a part. I would have felt cripplingly embarrassed and guilty about all the wrong notes.

Instead, I knowingly broke the rules. I fudged. I played wrong notes. I skipped notes. I used different sounds than the ones called for. I even deceived security! I got the music director out of a jam, I met new people, I had fun (even though the work was hard), and I earned some money.

Everyone was happy.

Reviews and Rejections: The Same Piece!

Part of my work as a composer involves preparing my scores and submitting them to calls for scores in hopes of securing ensembles to perform my pieces. This means I am not only the composer, but also the primary cheer-leader, of my pieces. I work to bring attention to them and get them performed so I can earn royalties from the performances. Last summer, I entered a call for scores hoping to snag a West Coast premiere of Daughter of the Stars, my piece for string orchestra.

Daughter of the Stars had already done well, taking second place in the 2020 American Prize for Composition (pops/light music division), and I was able to include that information when I sent it in to the call for scores. Yet, it didn’t even make the first cut. In fact, based on the information given to everyone who submitted, Daughter of the Stars didn’t receive even the ONE vote necessary to move to the next round.

I was so flabbergasted I wrote back to ask if I was understanding correctly that my piece didn’t get even one vote. The piece that came in second in The 2020 American Prize, the same piece that was chosen by Ablaze Records on their Orchestral Masters Volume 7. Yeah, that piece. Not one vote.

Obviously both The American Prize and Ablaze found my piece worth listening to – more than once. And since Ablaze is trying to actually make some money from album sales, they thought my piece would be something many people would want to listen to again and again. Yet, the ensemble I sent it to didn’t want it, which meant no West Coast premiere and no performance royalties for this piece for the foreseeable future.

The ensemble in question turned it down, but I got notice on Friday that the Society of Composers, Inc. has chosen my recording of Daughter of the Stars for inclusion in the national conference, which will be streamed online this year, due to COVID-19, in May!

No members of the ensemble in question gave my piece a thumbs up, but Colin Clarke, who reviewed Orchestral Masters Volume 7 in the March/April issue of Fanfare Magazine, had nothing but glowing remarks for my piece! His review was the first review of any of my works in a formal publication, and I had tears in my eyes reading it. This is what he had to say:

Moving from orientalism [in the album’s previous piece] to the warmth of Heather Niemi Savage’s Daughter of the Stars is like stepping into a welcoming bath. Second prize winner in the 2020 American Prize in Composition, Daughter of the Stars includes a setting of “Shenandoah” (which word itself alludes to “daughter of the stars”). As the well-known theme emerges naturally from the texture, that sense of warmth is at least doubled (if not squared). The piece is less than five minutes in duration, but makes its point well; and the Czech players [Brno Philharmonic] make a convincing case in their delivery of Americana.

I have to admit I am a bit bewildered. How is it that my piece can get such high praise from national organizations and music reviewers yet get rejected in a call for scores? I don’t have an answer for that.

I don’t think it is a matter of taste, since the ensemble in question said all aesthetic styles were acceptable. There were also no thematic guidelines or regulations against previous performances or awards. I don’t think it is a matter of difficulty because David Katz of The American Prize said it was well within the reach of many ensembles. I have made mistakes in pieces before that I later discovered after a rejection, but in this case I know with certainty there’s nothing wrong with the piece. In fact, it has been deemed excellent several times.

All I can do is shrug my shoulders. A lot. I think that ensemble, and it’s audience, are missing out on presenting the West Coast premiere of a great piece. That’s really too bad.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

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Why I Volunteer With Hope’s Harvest

Music could take up my entire life if I let it. Time for composing, publishing my scores, practicing, and rehearsing (once the choruses get back to meeting again) could justify my doing nothing else. I could easily get away without seeing anyone but my family and other musicians. I just don’t want to live that way.

I want to be an active member in the larger community, not just the music community.

I had long thought about how I might volunteer in a way that would be suited to me. There is a food pantry near me, within biking distance, and I considered helping there. But volunteering every single week at a regular time is more than I can commit to.

Someone in a group I’m in on Facebook once mentioned “gleaning groups” so I decided to find out if Rhode Island has such a group. I was very excited to find out it does!

In the fall of 2019, I discovered Hope’s Harvest, an organization that connects local farmers and food banks. Farmers will donate extra crop they can’t sell – or even that they grow specifically to donate! – and Hope’s Harvest coordinates teams of volunteers to pick the crop and transport it to the local food banks so this burden is not carried by the farmers. It is a creative way to solve two problems: what to do with produce the farmer can’t sell, and how to get nutritious fresh produce to those who can’t afford it.

I knew right away that working with Hope’s Harvest was something I wanted to do.

In the fall of 2019, the harvest season was just finishing up so I didn’t get out on any gleaning trips then. But in the spring of 2020, I did the brief training and attended my first gleaning trips.

Let me tell you why Hope’s Harvest is a perfect fit for me.

  1. The people are wonderful. The team leaders from Hope’s Harvest are extremely helpful and knowledgeable. They tell you exactly what you need to know to pick properly. No experience is needed. The trip is very well-organized, and the other gleaners are super-friendly. We are able to chat while we work. It’s a great feeling to work with like-minded people.
  2. Most of the harvesting is during the summer. Summer is my down-time. The choruses I accompany follow a school-year schedule, so I don’t have rehearsals during the summer. Most of my students also take fewer lessons during the summer. This all makes me more available to go on gleaning trips.
  3. The way the gleaning trips are organized, I don’t have to commit to the same time and day every week. I don’t even have to let them know if I will be away. I simply don’t sign up for trips I can’t attend. If I can only volunteer once during a harvest season, that’s OK! Hope’s Harvest is grateful for all helpers! I also only sign up for trips that I want to drive to. Hope’s Harvest works with farmers all over Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts. Some of those farms are over an hour away from me! I probably will not go to those. I only sign up for gleaning trips that are within the distance I am willing to drive. In short, my volunteer work is customizable. If I really only wanted to pick kale, I could.
  4. I like the variety. Each gleaning trip focuses on one, maybe two, different crops. I have picked kale, corn, butternut squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes. (I might be forgetting something.) Other trips offered the opportunity to pick tomatoes, peppers, peas, apples, and the list goes on. Also, every farm is different. I am always interested in how the farms are set up, as well as the local scenery around them. One farm was tucked away, hidden within a state park!
  5. I get outside. I love being outdoors, and this is an excuse to get outside. I wouldn’t be as happy volunteering inside. I also get some exercise. Let me tell you, carrying buckets of butternut squash is a workout!
  6. I get to meet the farmers. Occasionally, we even work with the farmers, depending on their schedule. I have even been able to ask a few questions on how to better grow things in my own vegetable garden, and they have been generous with their tips!
  7. Isn’t the name Hope’s Harvest just PERFECT? I will not bother explaining this because it would take a book. I will just say this one thing: what a way to incorporate the motto of Rhode Island!

The last reason I feel so connected to the mission of Hope’s Harvest is more personal and deserves it’s own paragraph.

I was once in a position where I would have benefited from an organization like this. When my husband was in seminary, we had a very difficult time making ends meet. Our children were not yet school-age, so I worked from home as a piano teacher and running a small MLM business. We were new to a very tiny town, and I wasn’t well-connected, so I didn’t have many students. My husband worked full time, but the pay wasn’t great because he needed a job that conformed to his school schedule. Despite both of us working, our little family of four lived beneath the poverty line for five years. It was very hard. Inexpensive food is not healthy food. I know from personal experience how hard it can be for low-income people to afford, and even access, fresh produce. It gives me joy to be able to lend a hand in getting fresh, nutritious, and tasty produce into the hands of those who need it.

This year, when Hope’s Harvest sent out a request for “peer to peer” fundraisers, I immediately accepted the opportunity. I knew that with my blog, a following on my professional Facebook page, and my connections with choruses, I might be able to bring a decent amount of attention to Hope’s Harvest.

Today is “401Gives” day. 401 to go with the Rhode Island area code and also 4/01, the first day of April. 401Gives is an organization that assists other organizations in Rhode Island raise money. The link below is my page for raising money for Hope’s Harvest. I hope you will join me in supporting this worthy organization.

These are some of the ways Hope’s Harvest can use your donation:

⭐️ $25 – 1 tote filled with fresh produce delivered to people in need.⭐️ $65 – 1 week’s worth of gas for gleaning trips with Harvey, the Hope’s Harvest refrigerated truck.⭐️ $125 – 1 week’s worth of food safe bin liners for our fresh produce.⭐️ $500 – 300 lbs of produce from a small, local farmer for hunger relief purposes.

If you are local, I would also love to see you on a gleaning trip this upcoming season!

https://www.401gives.org/p2p/183725/heather-savage

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I Deserve a Proper Rejection

It happened again. I entered a publisher’s call for scores and didn’t hear back.

I was particularly excited about this call for scores because I thought I sent in appropriate, well-done pieces that fit the request. Unfortunately, I learned that I was not accepted via Facebook, when a composer I know posted that he had a piece chosen for the project. When I read this, I thought, “Oh, have they made their final decisions?” I went to the website to check for an update, but there was none. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and waited another day or so to see if they were catching up on contacting all the composers. After hearing nothing, I emailed and asked if they had finished their process. After that, I finally got an official rejection letter.

This is happening more and more often. I have not heard back directly from at least fifty percent of the contests and calls for scores I have entered in the last year. Some let entrants know at the time of entry to find the results on the website; that’s fine. I know when and where to look. But many just leave us dangling. There’s no answer at all.

I’ve heard the argument that these people are just too busy to get back in touch with everyone who entered. This is simply baloney. I heard back directly from an organization whose call for scores this past summer resulted in seven thousand submissions. If that organization could get back to the composers, so can any organization. Most submissions are done digitally now, and they have all the email addresses. All it takes is some willingness, a little bit of organization, and a blind-copied form letter.

The problem is obviously the willingness.

I have something to say to these groups: it’s your job to get back in touch with composers.

This isn’t the same as job seekers sending an impersonal resume into a large company. This is artists sending a piece of their work to an ensemble or a small publisher (usually.) The relationship is already more personal. That level of intimacy deserves direct contact.

It took me, and the other composers, more effort and time to write our pieces than it will take you to compile all the email addresses and write a form letter. I don’t care if you have hundreds, or even thousands, of pieces to go through. If you have too many and are overwhelmed, then your call for scores was too broad. That’s your problem. You should plan for someone to act as secretary and get the communication done.

I know it is hard to say no. I know you feel bad to have to tell someone you don’t want to use their work. Get over it.

The composers have the courage to send you the workings of their inner minds and have opened themselves up for scrutiny. That is a very vulnerable position. Most of us are ready to brace for the rejections that come; we know it is part of our job. Decide to have the same courage to say no; it is simply part of your job.

Most of the time, my entry is potentially contributing to you making or saving money (by not having to buy or rent scores and parts), even if I don’t pay an entry fee. If I do pay an entry fee, I assume my money is helping to cover the cost of perusing all the scores, and I do so willingly. But I expect that my entry fee will also cover the cost of someone doing the work of getting back to me about the results. When my work is considered for inclusion in a publication that will help make money for the publisher, you bet that I am expecting a professional rejection.

I had several emails back and forth over the summer with one particular ensemble only to find out at the very end over Facebook that my piece was not one of the ones chosen for performance. That stung. It would have been proper for me to receive a personal email, especially when the size of the group of finalists I was in was only ten. That communicated to me that they just couldn’t find it within themselves to contact me personally that they weren’t going to use my piece. I also had several emails with the publisher I mentioned in the first paragraph. After I asked about the results, the rejection letter “encouraged” me to send in a piece to the next call for scores.

No, no thank you.

You’ve communicated to me that my effort and work is not worth the respect of a proper rejection. You’ve shown that you are not willing to do the hard work of saying no, of communicating personally (even as a form letter) to the composers who contributed to your project. I deserve a rejection and a thank you.

I’ve been told as a composer to enter everything I can because it puts my work in front of more people. The ensembles and publishers “get to know me” through my entries. The reverse is also true. I get to know the ensembles and publishers in the way they communicate – or don’t – with me. The lack of a proper rejection leaves a very sour taste in my mouth.

Perhaps other composers will continue to send in scores to ensembles and publishers who treat them this way, but not me. You will have at least one less submission to your next call for scores. Maybe that will make your work easier. But, if other composers share my mindset, you may find it harder and harder to get your project off the ground.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

The Necessity of Hardship

My high school AP Calculus teacher was a great teacher and a very nice person. She even had my small class over for dinner at the end of the year to celebrate all the hard work we did together. But, when it came to tests, she was a bit of a sadist. You see, she didn’t give us the regular tests in the math book. She thought they were too easy because they only tested what we had been taught. She preferred to make up her own tests which required us to make inferences from what we learned and apply them to problems we weren’t so familiar with. She also graded us on a bell curve. We weren’t just trying to beat the test; we were forced into a competition against each other. I thought she was crazy. A nice crazy lady, but nuts all the same.

But I understood why she pushed us so hard.

The truth is, we don’t know what we can do until we are pushed to our limits. If we don’t reach beyond our comfort zones, we don’t know our capacity. Competitive athletes know this very well. They are always trying to beat their scores, run faster, or lift more. Records are broken, and figure skaters and gymnasts are always showing us moves that no one has ever been able to do before. They don’t say, “it can’t be done.” They ask themselves, “Can I do it?” And then they try. Again and again.

But it’s hard. And it’s painful.

Life often brings us hardships we don’t choose. They are also painful, often exceedingly so. But, even though we might not like those trials, they do show us what we are made of. That’s important information. We might learn we are stronger than we think; we might learn that our faith is not on a solid foundation; we might find we have reached our limit and need help.

Sought out or not, hardship gives us an assessment of our abilities which is necessary for making adjustments. Do we push harder or slow down? Do we keep going or take a break? (Sometimes this assessment comes from someone else speaking into our life.)

In my composing, I’ve had to create my own hardships. I don’t have many demands on my compositional output in the form of commissions or requirements for professional output like a professor might. I could easily mosey along committing to composing most days, but maybe not pushing myself and putting in as much time or writing as much material as I could. The question is: what can I do? I can only find out by testing my limits.

I am trying to find the edge of failure. I don’t want to fail, but there’s a risk.

Can I do it? I don’t know. Let me try.

Right now, I am pushing myself to write faster. I induce hardship on myself as a composer by creating deadlines for myself. Sometimes these come in the form of competitions I want to enter; sometimes they are arbitrary. These are not hard deadlines because they are self-imposed, and not meeting them only results in some disappointment. Yet, the accountability is very useful and tells me how fast I can work. I will need this information later on when I do start getting more commissions. I need an idea of how long it will take me to write a piece of a certain length for a certain sized ensemble so that I can meet a deadline when it counts. It will also help me to know how much time to allot to commissions and estimate how many I can commit to within a certain time period.

Just about two weeks ago I decided I wanted to write a piece for saxophone and marimba. I had been encouraged to play more (in life, not necessarily in music and composition), and I decided to look at competitions and calls for scores that I thought were just plain fun. Unfortunately, this particular call for scores had a deadline of March 7, which meant I had two weeks to get a piece completed, from start to finish. I had just bought a new notation and publishing software, Dorico, and this would be the first piece I would complete using this program. I had to get acquainted with it fast! I also had never written for marimba before. So, new instrument, new software, two weeks. Go!

(I don’t think pushing myself to work super hard to get a fun piece finished under a tight deadline was what was meant by encouraging me to “play”, but it is what it is.)

Coming from Finale, the notation software I was previously using, the learning curve using Dorico is pretty steep. While everything I needed is extremely easy to access on-screen, if I didn’t hit the key commands in the correct order, chaos ensued. At one point, for user errors unknown to me, I lost the entire first movement, albeit a very short one. That day, I just about cried and gave up. But, thankfully, I had printed out a draft and was able to salvage it. I woke up the next day feeling more hopeful and determined to try. I completed the piece on time, formatted correctly and all, and submitted it.

While I did accomplish what I set out to do, I think I have reached my current limit. I did nothing but compose this week. The house didn’t get cleaned. I barely got meals prepared. Voicemails were left unanswered. I talked to no one outside my family except for an online class, a previously-scheduled board meeting I couldn’t miss, and two piano lessons. I skipped weekly meetings I normally attend. I didn’t sleep well and I ended the week with some heartburn and a headache. My body literally hurt from not moving enough. This level of work might be OK for a stretch of a week or two, but it is not sustainable.

That said, my self-induced hardship reaped benefits. Diving into the deep end forced me to learn to use Dorico much faster than I thought I could. I also learned some about my work habits and how much time I can expect to productively compose each day. There are more calls for scores and competitions I want to enter, so I am better able to plan out my time for entering them. The process of composing always teaches me something, in the way I think about the timbre of the instruments or the interaction of the lines of music. I will bring those insights with me into the next project.

One of my composer friends, Frank Felice, teaches at Butler University where they periodically do a 24-hour concert. Each composer gets teamed up with an ensemble and spends about eighteen hours composing a piece. The ensembles rehearse the pieces for about two hours, then put on a concert. The thought of that absolutely boggles my mind. I cannot imagine writing a piece in just eighteen hours! But maybe, with enough practice and pushing my limits, I’ll get there.

I guess it’s time to take a break now and clean the house.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

The Practice of Empathy

Recently, I came across a claim that listening to music can help people develop empathy. Wow. If true, that gives music a tremendous amount of power to impact lives and society. More and more, we are learning that emotional intelligence is just as important, if not more so, as hard skills in the workplace. In these days of so much division, listening to music may help heal relationships. Can listening to music really do this?

If you read my post, “Is Music Your Job or Your Passion?”, you know that I went through a period when I asked myself about the usefulness of music. In college, I was told that I was selfish for being a musician. I believe many artists have felt that the world communicates to them that their pursuit of beauty and transcendental meaning is frivolous. Artists argue back, “but the arts make us more human!” I agree, but until recently that defense has not been easy to prove. In the last decade, many psychological studies have shown that music, and the arts in general, can help develop empathy. (I will leave you to do your own research; many articles need to be read to get a good picture, and I cannot link to them all.)

I immediately wondered what it was about listening to music that developed empathy? Did listening to any kind of music help? Did the music need to contain lyrics? After reading a few articles and abstracts, one including a study of children listening to music from another culture, I began to make connections. (I am not a psychologist; these are just my own personal musings on what I read.)

Casually listening to music isn’t enough to develop empathy. This is why I have titled my post, “The Practice of Empathy.” Developing empathy takes and practice, and we can help ourselves grow in this area by being purposeful about it. Music, and the other arts, can help us along this path.

If you listen to a piece of music and tune it out after ten seconds, you haven’t listened. You have dismissed it. If you read a chapter of a book or a paragraph of an essay and then toss it aside, you haven’t given the author a chance to speak. If you pass by a painting or sculpture without really looking, you have already decided that artist has nothing to say. It is not possible to listen to, read or view everything. It takes intention to make the time to take in art with an open heart. Not to like it, necessarily, but to hear or see what the artist is trying to say, to make an attempt at understanding.

I don’t like the definition of the word empathy, the ability to feel what another feels. Let’s just be honest. It is not possible for anyone to fully understand what things are like for another person. We are all unique individuals with unique experiences and unique responses. It’s like looking at the sky. We all agree that the sky is blue. But I cannot get inside your head and use your eyes and your brain and see the shade you see, compared to the shade I see. We all may see something different! When you tell me that the sky is a beautiful blue today, I can agree only because I, too, am familiar with a blue sky.

So it is with empathy. We cannot feel what another feels. But what we can do is listen without interruption, hear another person’s perspective, appreciate what we are told, and take it in without judgment. We can come alongside and treat another with dignity. We can give others a place where their voices will be heard and believe their stories. We can have compassion. We can learn and imagine what we might feel if we faced the same situations.

Giving someone pat answers is not empathy. Trying to solve someone’s problems for them is not empathy. Telling someone their problems aren’t that bad or that they are overthinking is not empathy. Telling someone they see the world wrongly is not empathy. Dismissing someone is not empathy.

If I could change the definition a bit, empathy is letting someone speak.

This is why music, and art in general, helps people develop empathy. Whenever we intentionally take in art, we are letting the artist speak. We are practicing giving another our undivided attention. We are submitting ourselves to the artist’s perspective for a while.

Of course, it’s easier to do this when we are familiar with the artist, the genre, or the culture. However, we gain much more from getting out of our comfort zones and taking in that which we don’t know and even that which makes us uncomfortable. We practice letting the other speak about things that we don’t understand; we allow ourselves to sit in confusion. We learn to say “I don’t understand” rather than “this is junk” or “this person is an idiot.” Perhaps upon reflection and processing what we’ve taken in, understanding will come. Even if it continues to evade us, it doesn’t matter. Either way, we have practiced empathy; we have opened ourselves to what the other person has to say. In so doing, we may begin to identify with how they think and feel.

This is what artists do. Their works call, even demand, “Listen to me! Read me! View me! Hear what I have to say!” Art is not a selfish frivolity. It provides an opportunity to practice and develop that which makes us human, that which is the oil lubricating relationships and society. It helps us to grow in empathy.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.