The Hardest Decision I’ve Ever Made

People I know in real life know I have made a massive decision recently, but it is not something I have talked about much publicly until now.

I moved.

Almost 1,000 miles, from Rhode Island to Western North Carolina.

My husband and I sold our house on July 20, 2023 and we have now been in NC for just over two weeks at the time of this posting. We both agree that this was the most difficult decision we have ever made.

The reason it was difficult was because we were established in Rhode Island. We knew what life was like in Rhode Island, and we were used to it. Life wasn’t easy. In fact, for a number of reasons it was incredibly stressful. But my friend Kristen’s philosophy is, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”

We were at a church where John had been the pastor for fifteen years. It was very difficult to uproot from those relationships. We experienced feelings of guilt for leaving people we felt responsible to.

I was accompanying two community choruses – work I enjoyed tremendously. One chorus had even commissioned a work from me. It was hard to say goodbye to people who have been so supportive.

If we had stayed in RI, my private studio would have continued to grow. I had about fifteen students I enjoyed teaching tremendously and word was getting around. In the last month or two before we left, I had at least five inquiries from parents looking for lessons for their kids.

John was also performing often at nursing homes, memory care units, and other senior venues. He especially enjoyed performing with his good friend, Judy Hall Gray (Songbird Judy.) He was having so much fun, and the idea of starting over and making brand-new musical connections was daunting.

So why would we leave?


One day, an announcement came across email through one of the composer groups I belong to about a master’s program in music composition. These types of emails come through fairly often, but most of the time I am not interested.

I had been told by several people that either I didn’t need a graduate degree in composition or that a graduate degree in composition was not worth the investment in time or money.

Despite this, I still held onto the idea of pursuing a master’s degree. Not so much for the degree itself and possible work in academia, but for the time it would afford me to focus on composition, further develop my compositional skills, and – most of all – connect and collaborate with many other highly skilled musicians congregated in one place. While it is possible for me to get those things outside of school, it will take longer. Pursuing a degree will speed things up.

But in order for me to be interested, a program had to check two boxes: 1) It had to offer a fellowship providing a full-tuition scholarship and a stipend, and 2) it had to be in a location where I would want to live.

I couldn’t attend grad school in RI because a stipend wouldn’t cover the amount of money I earned with my other work, it was too expensive to live in RI without the work I was doing, and I didn’t have time to add grad school onto all that work.

Several schools that offer fellowships were not appealing to me because of their location.

However, that day the name of the school caught my eye: Appalachian State University. I was intrigued because the school is located in the mountains of Western North Carolina, one of the places I have long dreamed of living.

I have wanted to live in the mountains since I was about fifteen years old. Even in my “senior will” in my high school yearbook, I named my favorite place as a cabin in the mountains with me and my music.

For decades, my husband and I have traveled up to New Hampshire to camp and hike. The mountains have always been our “go to” place. But when we lived in RI it was a 4+ hour drive, and when you work at a church, you can’t just take off for a weekend. Nor could we go during the week because of my work. The mountains were a once-a-year, twice if we were lucky, brief visit. Too often it rained the entire week we camped. We certainly didn’t get our fill of the mountains – ever.

But even New Hampshire didn’t offer what Western North Carolina was offering.

Here in NC, we are only an hour from the mountains, an hour from the school, and an hour from Asheville, the next music city destination. We are also only an hour from Charlotte and Winston-Salem, both of which also have several music festivals including the Southern Guitar Festival, which is perfect for my husband.

We could have decided that, at ages forty-seven and fifty, we were established and well past the time for taking the risk of moving several states away and starting over in our careers. A few people advised us against the move.

Opportunity is just that – opportunity. It is not a guarantee.

But nothing is a guarantee, really.

Appalachian State University was the only school I applied to. I was accepted and offered the fellowship.

It was now or never.

Yes, we are old enough to be established, but we are also still young enough to do something new. So, we decided to take the leap and put all our effort into expanding both our musical careers!

It turns out we were in a more precarious financial position in RI than we thought. We already knew our house needed a tremendous amount of work and was going to take every cent we made. But during the sales process we learned our septic system failed inspection and needed replacement. This was a major expenses we would not have been able to manage but were able to take care of through the proceeds from the sale.

For that reason alone, the move turned out to be a good decision.

We’ve been in NC for two weeks now. I started work as a church pianist. School begins in two weeks. John has already booked a few gigs and has been hired as a session guitarist at a local recording studio.

Time to choose a trail for our first hike!

I’d love to hear from you! Please comment or send me a message telling me about yourself!

Am I Still a Mother?

Last week, I read a fantastic article by Jessica Rudman, a fellow composer and new friend I met at the International Festival of Music by Women last March. In her article It’s Time to Drop the Word “Emerging” from Composer Opportunities, Jessica describes the pitfalls of using the word “emerging” as a way for ensembles and organizations to support developing and unknown composers whose careers are not yet on solid ground, many of whom come from backgrounds and circumstances that have limited their access to compositional opportunities. In summary, Jessica explains how opportunities need more descriptions of eligibility in order to narrow down the entries to those types of composers the organization wishes to support.

Rather than rehashing the whole of Jessica’s article (which you can read here), I want to highlight one point that specifically pertains to an experience I recently had.

Jessica encourages ensembles and organizations to write their eligibility requirements in such a way that potential composers know for certain they are eligible.

Anyone who has been reading this blog knows that I got started in composing later in life. In fact, before I even took my first composition lesson, I had already aged out of most “emerging composer” competitions. (It’s interesting how, as time goes on, that age limit keeps increasing. When I started composing ten years ago, that number was up to 35. Now, it is 40 – and occasionally I see 45. But at age 47, I am still too old.)

There are many reasons I got started late in composition, but I’m not going to go into all of them now. Today’s post will focus on motherhood.

I have a few composer friends who are mothers. Jessica is one of them. In fact, being both a mother and a composer is one of the things we talked about over lunch at the conference.

Being creative and being a mother is very difficult.


I’m not talking about being crafty. I am not against crafts. In fact, as a young mom I made a lot of crafts. But most of the time, crafts involve following a pattern.

When I mean creative, I mean making something from your own imagination.

This is very hard to do when the constant demands of taking care of another’s needs are of primary importance. When does the mother of an infant, toddler or young child who needs constant attention get the mental space to imagine, let alone time to do the work of bringing a creative work into existence? Any break is a grasp for rest and rejuvenation.

Of course, it’s not just mothers of young children who face this – all caregivers do, whether they are caring for a family member who is elderly, has special needs, or has a serious illness.

Given the cost of childcare, it’s likely to be the “emerging” composer who is going to become the primary caregiver. They certainly can’t afford to pay for childcare on an “emerging” composer’s income! Another option is pursuing different work, paying for childcare, and pursuing composition later on.

Any of these things could stop a composition career in its tracks before it starts, even if the desire and passion are there buried under exhaustion.

I had my kids at a relatively early age and homeschooled them, so the delay to getting into composition was even longer than if I had sent them to school at age six. But, when my youngest was thirteen, I felt it was OK to turn my focus more to composition.

I was still a mother.

But instead of trying to compose between diaper changes, spoon-feedings, reading picture books several times in a row, and keeping toddlers from escaping the house, my compositional efforts were squeezed between driving teens to music lessons, rehearsals, and concerts and other activities – some of which were two hours away! (When your kids are gifted and you want to help them achieve all they can, you do what needs to be done.)

Several years ago, I came across a competition open to women composers, but it had an age limit! Of course, I was too old. I was angry and sent an email telling the organizers I felt sidelined because the age limit communicated that I was not the right type of woman composer. My choices as a mom ultimately disqualified me.

Recently, I came across a unique call for scores from Boston New Music Initiative. Many kudos to this group for making a call for scores that specifically included a category for mothers/caregivers. It was the first time I had seen such a call, and I found it very thoughtful and empathetic.

But I had a question: Did I count? Was I eligible?

I am still a mother. I always will be. But at this point in my life, I don’t consider myself a caregiver. My children are grown, but not out of college. I’m still on call when they need help, even from a distance. I’m still traveling hours to attend their concerts and recitals. A significant portion of my income is still going to their tuition, living expenses and car repairs – money that could go toward recordings, equipment, travel and conference fees, all of which would make my work easier or help me with networking.

In all transparency, I’ve put my musical pursuits above retirement savings or work that needs to be done on the house, in hopes that by the time I am of “retirement age” my music career will sustain us. (I don’t plan to retire.) Is that wise? Time will tell. How ever the money is spent, the reality is this: an unestablished composer with children has a very thin budget, especially if their spouse (assuming they have one) is not in a high-paying career. Something has to give. And, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be the kids.

The BNMI call was not clear. Once a mother, always a mother. That’s true. However, the same is not true for caregiver status. Did BNMI only want submissions from composers who were currently in a caregiver role? Either way, there is a period of time – often several years – when a caregiving composer’s emotional, physical, and intellectual energy and monetary resources are diverted away from composition in order to properly care for someone else. As valuable as this work is, it puts the caregiving composer at a disadvantage even after that period ends, as they must make up for that time.

Time, energy, and money are precious resources. I will never regret spending them on my children.

But I do wish I had submitted a score in that category.

I’d love to hear from you! Please comment or send me a message telling me about yourself!

A Tale of Two Critiques

I recently submitted my piece Hope Rising, for solo flute, to a competition. Surprisingly, I received feedback! Normally, I am lucky if I get notification of the results of a competition or call for scores.

Unfortunately, I didn’t even get past the preliminary round!

Frankly, I was surprised as this piece has already been performed three times and has been well received by the performers and the audiences! That is one of the reasons I submitted it in the first place. It has already been proven. How could it not have even gotten past the first round?

In an effort to be objective, the judges were given a rubric to assess the piece. I will share my results and comment on the judging.

Here is my score from Judge 1, a score of 58 points out of a possible total of 65. That equals 89%, for those of you who don’t like math. That’s a pretty good score!

This judge feels that my piece is pretty solid. The scores on extended techniques and how idiomatic the piece is for the flute tell me that I still have things to learn and improve, but I am well along the right track. This judge also feels that my piece is “very effective”, contains “a lot of contrast through the various sections”, and is suitable for advanced high schoolers or undergraduate flute players who are exploring extended technique and non-traditional notation. (I knew my piece was of this difficulty level; more on that later.) The scores about how much the judge enjoyed listening to the piece or desires to play it are very subjective, so I take those with a grain of salt. Overall, the scores and comments made sense together. I get the vibe of “good job, you’re almost there.”

Now, from Judge 2:

I was given a score of 44 out of a possible 65 points, which rounds up to 68%. That’s quite a difference – 21%! If I were given letter grades, one judge gave me a B+ and the other gave me a D.

I can count on one hand the number of times I have ever received a score that low in all my years of school, from elementary to college. OK, maybe not just one hand, but definitely not more than two. I just don’t receive scores like this. I knew something was wrong.

So, let me point it out.

In both critiques I circled the two sections about notation in red. The first judge gave me a 4 on extended techniques, and a 5 on score legibility, indications, and information needed. The second judge gave me a score of 3 on extended techniques, a 4 on legibility, and 3s on score indications and information needed.

In this section alone, I lost 10% more points from Judge 2 than Judge 1.

I would try to see what I could learn from this except MY PIECE HAS ALREADY BEEN PERFORMED THREE TIMES! It has passed through selection committees and has been performed by three different flutists who had no questions for me!

Not only that, but in the comments section, Judge 2 remarked, “clearly notated.

Well, which is it?

Is it unclear, with insufficient information and score indicators, worth me losing 10% of my score, or is it clearly notated?

And if it isn’t clearly notated, give me some suggestions of how I could improve it.

But don’t take off points for something you tell me I did well!

Judge 1 and 2 also disagreed quite a bit on the variety within my piece. Judge 1 heard “a lot of variety through the various sections” and Judge 2 didn’t hear enough variety. While I think this is somewhat subjective, I do wonder how many motives Judge 2 thinks I need in a 6-minute piece.

One more comment… the question about difficulty is a bit confusing. According to the rubric, a lower number is easier, and a higher number is more difficult. So, “easier” pieces get fewer points and more “difficult” pieces get higher points. It appears that I lost 5% of my score from Judge 2 for writing a piece that was perceived to be too easy. Or maybe the judge interpreted it oppositely and took off points because it was too difficult to prepare.

Should a piece’s quality be judged on difficulty, anyway?

I had not seen a difficulty rating in the requirements for the competition, so I emailed the coordinator to ask about this. It turns out this is a flaw in the rubric.

Talk about unclear!

(I suggested that they change that line, instead asking if the difficulty level is appropriate to the piece.)

Hope Rising is fine the way it is, even if it wasn’t deemed worthy to pass a preliminary round in competition.

It has already received three performances in its first year and is well on its way to more. Ultimately, connecting with performers and audiences is the real win!

I’d love to hear from you! Please comment or send me a message telling me about yourself!

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

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

A lot is at stake to get it right.

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

That’s a really big gaffe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s All About the View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You My Advocate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some ideas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Same, But Different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the same piece, but different.

Here are pics of the before and after:

Developing Intuition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trouble with My Two Brains

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

Why does this happen?

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

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

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

Every time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Is It Too Much?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I manage? Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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