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The Problem with Digital Technology

It all started with Instagram.

As my youngest started college, I decided it was now time for me to branch out more and try to build my career further, in part through an increased online presence. I had known about Instagram for years, and I decided to finally join. When I asked my daughter for help, she laughed. “Just go into your phone, click on the Instagram app and make an account.” I turned my refurbished iPhone 4s sideways and upside down and searched all the screens, but still could not find this “Instagram app” anywhere. I decided to try going directly to the site using my online browser. I made an account. Success!

Not really. It was then I found out I could only *use* Instagram if I had the proper app, which needed to be downloaded. After multiple confusing attempts, I realized that my Dell computer was not of the appropriate technology. But if I went into the Apple store on my phone, I could download the iOS version of the app.

I needed help. Again, my daughter laughed. She helped me set up an Apple account, and together we found the right Instagram app and downloaded it…only to find out that my IPhone 4s was too old and would not support the app. My phone was useless when it came to Instagram.

I gave up using my phone, but I tried again on my computer. I found an Instagram app in the Microsoft store and began using it. I figured out how to upload pictures, though it was a real pain taking pics with my phone, emailing them to myself, downloading them, moving them to the cameral roll, then uploading into Instagram. I began to wonder if this effort was worth it.

I sat down with a young friend of mine to discuss how I could increase my online presence. He really knows his stuff. The first thing he brought up was Instagram. “You really need an Instagram account,” he said. He was very pleased to learn I already had one, and then started to explain to me IGTV and how I could upload videos to Instagram. Huh?  He told me to use my phone. I explained the problem with the phone. He laughed. He told me where to look in the app on my computer. But, no, I couldn’t find it. I could *make* videos there but I had no uploading capability. It is just NOT THERE.

I am too busy for all this social media stuff. Don’t you know? I need Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, and the list goes on. Some things I have never heard of. I was starting to get frustrated about the amount of time it was taking me just to upload a pic to Instagram and again wondered if it was worth it. But everywhere I look, I learn this is the way to build a business. Like it or not, I am my own business. (It is hard to think of creative work as business, but it is what it is.)

My computer was so sluggish, and my husband was concerned about how well it was working. The computer technician, instead of fixing it up with more memory, suggested that I get a more powerful computer instead. So I did. And I went through the process of downloading an Instagram app to the new computer. Except this time, it didn’t work! I mean, I could look at everyone else’s posts, and I could do some things with video, but now I couldn’t even upload a picture.

In the meantime, I learned about some social media management sites that could save me some time. So I signed up for a couple of free trials. Both had problems with Instagram on my computer. I tried downloading the app for the first company onto my phone, but it didn’t work. The second company let me log into everything easily, and I could even send pics to Instagram through the management site. BUT, I first had to switch my Instagram account to a business account. How do I do that? Through my PHONE. I guess I will try borrowing my daughter’s phone later so I can sign into my account using her technology.

The problem is not just Instagram. Every new update of operating systems renders some software obsolete. I have lost many family recipes because I had them stored digitally in a program two computers ago that could not be accessed in my new computer. I am constantly having to buy software upgrades to match the new operating system. And then when I buy a new computer, I am at risk that the printer will no longer work. More than once, we have had to change EVERYTHING when one part changes. New computer, new printer, new modem and router. And that’s just when one family member gets a new laptop!

Why do the tech companies get to do this? Imagine if, when the government declared that no more incandescent lightbulbs could be made, the manufacturers changed the ends and how they attached to lights. Then, not only would you be forced to buy the new light bulbs, but you would be forced to buy new lamps to hold those lightbulbs. Now, imagine that all the new lights had different plugs. Now you have to get all new outlets for the walls. Or what if all the lights now required a different voltage? Now you have to hire an electrician to come in and change your wiring, and you have to get a building inspector to come and approve it. That is what the changes in technology are like.

My husband and I are not poor, but it is important to us to pinch our pennies. For financial and environmental reasons, we buy used as often as possible. When our very old phones died, we upgraded to the refurbished iPhone 4s. Two phones and all the accoutrements set us back $100. I don’t need anything fancy and don’t have any problems except for Instagram. But the networks constantly change and may render  more of my phone capabilities obsolete. Then, I would be forced once again to spend money to upgrade to a phone that will do what I need it to.

I work completely independently as a freelancer. I contract individually with ensembles and musicians. I teach privately and not through an academic institution. I need an online presence to connect with people outside my immediate circles. The internet is supposed to help me build my business, right? However, it seems  the only ones who can truly benefit are the businesses big enough to pay to constantly upgrade.

 

 

Too Old to Be Emerging, Too Young to Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better Gear Won’t Make You Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wearing All the Hats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composing is the Easy Part

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

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

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

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

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

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!