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Searching for THE One

I have a dilemma. I need a second baby grand piano.

That might sound extravagant. Who needs two? Well, the situation is a bit complicated. Several years ago, I was gifted a rebuilt Vose piano. Since I didn’t have room in my house at the time for that piano, I put it at my church. Everyone there knows it is my piano, and now that one kid has moved out and I have room in my house for it, I could simply take it home. However, I know the church is better off with the baby grand than the digital we used to use. And, honestly, I would rather play on a baby grand every Sunday.

This brings me to my dilemma. Do I want to bring that piano home, or is it time to buy a better piano? The Vose is great, but it is over one hundred years old, and it has some cracks in the soundboard (the largest had been repaired.) Even though the overall sound is good, the lower end of the piano sounds quite rumbly. It is not good enough to use in recording. The action is decent, but again, it is old and since Vose is out of business it would be hard to find replacement parts when something breaks. I’d love to have something newer.

I’ve needed a baby grand at home since I was thirteen or fourteen. At that time, I began complaining about the Baldwin upright my parents had. After the piano tuner came several times, he discerned that my complaints were related to the fact that the piano was an upright. Though my parent’s had a good-quality upright, the sound and action are just not comparable to a grand piano.

A baby grand piano at home, for me, is not a want. It is a need. It is a need I’ve lived without for a few decades.

When I was in college, I played the pianos at school. After I got married, we lived in a tiny apartment. Then, I was content playing my digital because a baby grand simply would not fit. After the kids came, I knew we needed to put the money towards their needs. As much as I needed a baby grand, braces and music lessons for my kids took priority. Besides, at that time I wasn’t playing professionally. I could get by.

I’ve used the baby grand at the church for several years, but when COVID hit, I realized that arrangement was no longer working. When I was giving in-person lessons, I would get to the church early or stay late, scheduling my practice time along with lessons, sometimes bringing dinner with me and practicing between my last lesson and when I had to leave for rehearsal. When my students stopped in-person lessons, I didn’t get over to the church mid-week for any reason, and it wasn’t easy to plan for practicing.

Composing and piano practicing are extremely different activities. I need a lot of time and space to compose, to clear the air and allow my creative juices to flow. I spent most of my of time composing, which I can do at home. Piano practicing, however, does not require much forethought for me. I can sit down and practice for five minutes at a time sporadically throughout the day and make progress.

The problem is that I can’t take advantage of those “dead” moments of the day when the piano is down the road rather than down the hall. When I was waiting for dinner to finish in the oven, I would end up reading a book or going online instead of going to the piano. If I had my piano at home, I could have practiced then. But I couldn’t leave and practice at the church because dinner was in the oven.

I need a piano at home. I’ve begun looking again.

The budget is limited. I could wait a year and save up ALL my income for a piano, foregoing even necessary work that needs to be done on the house and buy myself a really good piano. Or, I can search for a used piano.

Searching for a good, used piano is a lot of work. There are a lot of pianos listed for sale; most of them are brands I do not recognize. Sometimes I can tell right away from pictures that they are not worth looking at: the keys are uneven or broken or visibly fallen. Or, the seller gives me answers to my questions that signal an automatic “no”: they don’t know when the piano was last tuned, some keys are “stuck” or “off” or “dead”, it has not been regularly played, or “it needs work.” One person wanted $2,000 for such a piano.

Sometimes, the initial answers lead to the next step: going to try out the piano. I like to bring my husband with me because he will crawl under the piano and shine a flashlight up so I can see if there are any tiny cracks in the soundboard. But, in general, this is all a show. I can usually tell if the piano is worth further consideration by playing just one note.

How do I politely tell someone in one second that I don’t want their piano?

I don’t. My husband dutifully crawls under there, shines the flashlight at the soundboard and looks at the pedal mechanisms as I press on them. I dramatically play a chromatic scale up the keyboard and a few block chords. Then I hope that five minutes is enough time to make it look like I gave the piano a good inspection before I, politely as possible, say I’m not interested.

“Is there anything wrong with it?” This question is invariably asked.

How to answer? I can’t say all that is wrong with it. The piano is not worth fixing. I won’t say to a stranger that they just need to burn it and take the metal to a scrapyard (if the scrapyard will take it.)

Last week, I looked at a somewhat decent piano, an older Yamaha. It had a great sound. The soundboard was speaking back to me, resonating with aliveness, responsive like we were in conversation, as it should be with a good friend. I spent a good bit of time with that piano. But it only had two pedals. The three-pedaled piano is “new” after all, not becoming standard until the 20th century. A lot of older piano repertoire does not need the third pedal, but I am composer of new music, so I really want a third pedal. Also, the piano had some sticky keys and some seriously out-of-tune notes. I couldn’t calculate how much repairs would run. That, and the lack of the third pedal made me hesitate.

I have come across pianos being sold by other musicians. I am always hopeful those pianos will be better specimens. Often, they are not. One thing that separates these pianos from the others is that all the keys and the sustain pedal work. That’s it. Otherwise, it’s the same sad soundboard and twinge-y tone. I’ve realized that many non-pianist musicians do not hear pianos the same way I do. Pianists who have good pianos keep them! And they’ve probably already made arrangements for where the piano will go after they die.

So, I’m on the hunt. Slowly but surely, I’m saving up and searching for THE one, the piano that will last me the rest of my life. I hope to look at one more locally, but after that I will head to some actual piano shops out of state and more than double what I will be willing 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.

A Musician’s Thoughts on Simone Biles’ Withdrawal from Olympic Competition

No one would call me a sports fan. I don’t follow teams. I don’t care which final competitions are happening. I’ve hosted anti-Super Bowl parties where we play board games instead of turning on the football game. However, I’ve always enjoyed watching the Olympics, especially the individual sports. While I am not an athlete myself, I did learn all the swimming strokes as a kid – even the butterfly – though I never had the chance to swim competitively. I never lost interest in the sport, so I suppose watching the Olympics scratches that itch a bit. During the off-years, if an article about Olympians, well-known or up-and-coming, catches my eye, I read it. I follow the Olympics and Olympians, but loosely.

I have kept up with the news about USA gymnastics and the abuse many young women suffered at the hands of Larry Nasser and those who enabled him. I’ve read quite a few articles about Simone Biles over the years, and I’ve probably read ten just in the past week. I have been horrified at the vile things said about her withdrawing from Olympic competition, calling her a quitter and saying she has let down her team, failed as a gymnast, and is giving into fear!

Before I get into my response to those kinds of comments, I want to talk about the pressure of performing. This is something I know about, and I think it is one of the reasons I am drawn to watching these amazing athletes competing in their individual sports. In some ways, competing in the Olympics is a bit like auditioning or performing solo, though the audience size is drastically different.

The amount of pressure one feels is going to be unique person to person, and situation to situation, based on various factors. But the commonality is that years of preparation lead up to one point in time. And that point in time is the critical moment, the succeed-or-fail, the win-or-lose, the land-well-or-fall-on-your-face, literally or figuratively, moment. One hopes that the years of practice, the constant drill, the neural pathways that have been forged from brain to muscles, will all execute with precision leading to the desired goal.

But there’s always a chance something will go wrong.

We are not machines. We can’t simply replace a frayed wire or patch up something with duct tape.

I feel tension in my gut and in my shoulders, neck and head. In my senior year of high school, I had a major (to me) audition for the All-State Concert Band on my tenor saxophone. There were only two spots available, and it was really important to me to be chosen. For the three days leading up to the audition, and during the audition, I could not move my neck and had a splitting headache. If the mind is telling the body to tense up, no amount of Advil or shoulder rubs can undo that.

I know what it’s like to race to the bathroom before an audition, to perform with hands, arms, and shoulders that are incredibly tight, to play the piano with sweaty palms and shaking fingers, to fight to stay upright while feeling dizzy during a saxophone performance. And those were “normal” days when, musically, the pathways were working well and the only thing I had to deal with was my mental state.

But sometimes my fingers just won’t work.

And I mean they just won’t work. At those times, somehow, those neural pathways I’ve forged are just not firing correctly. The brain or the hands are out to lunch, and perhaps they went together. The experience is sometimes unpredictable. Other times it happens because my mind is preoccupied by a life situation that’s bothering me, and I just can’t get my head together. I try to play, but everything comes out wrong. It’s like my musical skills have gone on strike. After a half-hour or so of failing to improve the situation, I hang up practicing for the day. It’s detrimental to drill mistakes.

This doesn’t happen often, and thankfully it has never happened to me on a performance or audition day. But it happens.

If it did happen on performance or audition day, the results would not be good. I’d lose a potential job, I’d be terribly embarrassed, I’d likely make an ensemble angry if I ruined their performance, I might even lose a job I had.

I might lose face, but I wouldn’t lose my life. I would not end up seriously injured or paralyzed.

I imagine this disconnection between mind and body, the neural pathways misfiring, is a factor in what Simone Biles is facing right now. It’s more than just performance anxiety. She has plenty of reason for that mental space to be disturbed. Perhaps it is the weight of expectations; perhaps all the turmoil regarding Larry Nasser got in her head. This is the first Olympics since all that hit the news.

But the reasons don’t matter.

If the neural pathways are misfiring, that puts her in great danger if she were to continue to try to force her body to do the incredibly difficult gymnastic feats she is known for.

Anyone who says she has failed as a gymnast is simply wrong. Never mind all the medals she has won which have proved her excellence, her experience is what tells her not to compete right now. I am sure she has faced these moments of disconnect before, in practice, when she knew things weren’t working and it was better to cease for the day before she incurred an injury. She has to already be a great gymnast with years of practice to be able to recognize an off day. She is not failing her team. She knew that if she went out there not being her best, a disastrous mistake would cause her team to lose more points than if she bowed out and let someone who was at 100% take her place. She is not selfish, as bowing out gives room for others to shine. She is not giving into fear. She is submitting to wisdom and setting aside her pride, refusing to try to “prove” herself (needlessly, I might add) while knowing the amount of misunderstanding and criticism she would face.

How many people have a “bad day at work”, making a serious mistake costing their company a lot of time and money, despite ten years of experience? Yet they don’t depend on their bodies functioning at superhuman levels to do their job. How many people expect Simone Biles to perform like a machine but have more grace for their computer crashing?

I suppose the best way to explain the disconnect between mind and body is to say it is an issue of “mental health.” Those of us who depend on our bodies to function correctly in order to do our jobs know that these times when the neural pathways misfire happen. It’s terrible when it takes place at the most inopportune time: performance. But, in Simone Biles case, it is just plain too dangerous to attempt to forge ahead.

I, too, am disappointed that I won’t get to watch her flip and twirl, executing her amazing feats. However, I am more happy to watch her future career develop, whatever she does, than to speak of her in tragic terms.

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.

To Pay or Not to Pay Entry Fees

One of the hot topics that comes up quite often among composers is the question of whether or not to pay entry fees for competitions and calls for scores (from here on, CFS). I know some people who never enter competitions and CFS which require entry fees, while others consider those who don’t pay fees to be not acting like adults. The opinions are strong!

I can understand both sides of the issue.

On the one hand, running a competition or CFS of any kind costs money. It takes time for submitted scores to be evaluated and recordings to be listened to. One small ensemble I sent a score to received seven hundred submissions; a larger ensemble received seven thousand. Even the smaller number is an overwhelming number of submissions to consider. In both these cases, an entry fee was not required. Of course these groups received an incredible number of submissions! (And how many of them were not of high enough quality to be worth consideration?) A submission fee can help pay judges for their time and help cover the cost of administrating the competition/CFS. A fee can also limit the entries to a more manageable number. One thought is that entry fees will attract more serious composers.

This isn’t necessarily the case, however. Many of the composers I know who refuse to enter competitions with fees are excellent, creative composers. Their problem with fees is one of principle (and perhaps also necessity – I cannot speak to their financial situation.) They believe that entry fees are unfair because they keep out composers who cannot pay the fee. This, of course, limits the pool of potential winners to those with enough money to enter, disproportionately affecting minorities and continuing the cycle of keeping classical music within the realm of the rich and mostly white. Some also hold the opinion that asking for entry fees indicates that the ensemble is not serious enough about their project to do the necessary work without pay, or that there is too little funding for the project or ensemble to be sustainable. I also want to add that by sending in scores (and parts for the pieces that are chosen), composers are already supporting the ensemble, entry fee or not, by providing music for the ensemble to play free of charge. Most of the time, performers need to buy or rent sheet music. Free scores are already saving them quite a bit of money!

Again, both sides have good points.

I don’t have a strict “yay or nay” when it comes to fees. In fact, I have benefited from paying fees. My piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, won second place in the 2020 American Prize for Composition (pops/light music division.) That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t paid fees. I paid a fee to enter the CFS put on the ensemble that originally performed the piece. That performance, and the recording generated by it, was necessary for entrance to The American Prize competition. I also paid a fee to enter that competition.

Sometimes, I am willing to pay a fee, and sometimes I am not. Of course, I am always happier and relieved when no fee is required.

Here are some things I consider.

  1. If it is a CFS, how many pieces will be chosen for performance? The more pieces that are chosen, the more willing I am to pay a fee. If my piece is chosen, I will get performance royalties, perhaps enough to cover the entry fee.
  2. If it is a competition, what do I get if I win? Money, a quality recording, the possibility of publishing, or performance by an ensemble with a recognizable name are all benefits that may motivate me to pay the fee.

Either way, it is important to carefully consider what the ensemble is asking for, and who the ensemble is. I have come across competitions that, after doing some “vetting” by searching the ensemble on the internet, I’ve come to suspect are scams.

At the same time, I’ve seen legitimate ensembles ask for fees that I consider illegitimate. Recently, I came across a CFS (not even a competition!) in which a student ensemble at a well-known university asked for a $10 entry fee from each composer. At first glance, $10 is not a lot of money. But, on a second look this fee wasn’t even going to the CFS. The student ensemble (which, of course, had some funding from the university) was going to take $5 of the fee and donate it to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.) The other $5 was going to support their efforts to perform works by Asian composers. Well, I’m not paying that fee! I have nothing against the ACLU or Asian composers, but that’s not the purpose of an entry fee. I appreciate the transparency of the ensemble.

I have felt at other times that ensembles have not been so forthcoming and that a fee was just a front to help them cover the cost of paying an already-chosen winner. I have heard from other composers further down the road than I am that this happens from time to time. This, of course, cannot be proven, but I do speculate when the announced winner and their piece doesn’t quite seem to fit the description of what the ensemble was looking for. Unfortunately, this cannot be known ahead of time, and it’s a risk I take when paying entry fees.

Increasingly, I have come across ensembles asking for a modest fee to cover expenses related to running a competition or CFS, but also saying that they do not want the fee to be an obstacle for anyone entering. In these cases, composers who cannot pay the fee are asked to contact them privately, and the fee will be waived. It does take some humility on the part of the composer to say “I can’t pay the fee,” but I think this is the best of both worlds.

When I come across these ensembles, I happily pay the fee because I can, and I know that this will help offset the cost to the ensemble for those composers who can’t. If I was running a new music ensemble promoting the work of living composers, this is the approach I would take. It acknowledges the cost to the ensemble of running such a project, yet also recognizes that being able to afford an entry fee is a privilege not all composers have.

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.

Modern Agriculture and New Music

Several years ago, a popular farm near me lost its main building to a fire. This building was used for baking homemade pies, selling produce, and making other sales to customers. I believe the farm also suffered the loss of a couple of greenhouses in the fire. It was devastating and the farm never rebuilt. The land has been sitting, mostly unused, for many years. Just in the last couple of weeks, the news broke, as well as the ground, for the construction of a new building on the site.

This new building will be a state-of-the-art greenhouse for growing tomatoes in an aquaponics system which recycles the water fed to the plants. The pumps will be powered by solar panels in the field. Of course, the tomatoes will receive light through the greenhouse panels, but any supplementary heat during the winter will be powered by the solar panels, as well as lighting for offices.

I’ve read many complaints online. Some are complaining about losing the view of the open field. Others are claiming that growing food in the ground is “real” farming. Others say that tomatoes grown in the ground taste better. (I’d like to see a study on that.)

But I am fascinated. This greenhouse is a self-contained masterpiece of modern agriculture making use of all kinds of technology now available and affordable enough to be applied to growing food!

However, it would be wrong to hold up this aquaponics greenhouse as the epitome of modern agriculture, since it is only one example of the myriad of current-day approaches to growing food on a large or small farm, or even in one’s own backyard.

Whether or not you use or avoid them, genetically modified organisms are an example of modern agriculture. Permaculture is a modern theory of growing based on setting up an ecological system. Many backyard gardeners are growing in raised beds rather than in rows; that is fairly new. Community Supported Agriculture is a new way of doing business. Some “new ways” are actually a return to the “old ways” of organic farming and raising livestock on pasture, in reaction against the damaging effects giant agribusiness methods have had on human health and the environment.

What is “modern agriculture?” It’s not just one thing.

We can’t say that a solar-powered aquaculture greenhouse is “modern” because it uses the latest technology, but organic gardening in beds is “old fashioned” because it doesn’t use factory-made fertilizer and the crops are grown in soil.

Any farmer farming today is a modern farmer. They are not all taking the same approach. Their methods will be different, depending on their personalities, their philosophies, their land, their labor, their financial resources, what they are growing, where their market is, and so forth. But they all are trying to produce food in an effective and efficient way, to provide for their own family and their customers near and far. Most are reading up on trends, seeing what others are exploring and figuring out what new techniques they might be able to implement on their own farms.

It’s all modern! It’s all happening NOW.

So what does this have to do with music?

Well, a lot.

I recently read an article in which the author used the term “new music” to refer to “newly composed contemporary classical music made by living composers that seems to uproot and defy so many labels” which is “strange, erratic, and harsh,” lacking “attractive sounds and traditionally ordered melodies and rhythms.” The author then went on to explain all the benefits of this “new music” which, among other things, included being “exciting and challenging,” “the ‘future’ of classical music,” “uniquely relevant to today,” “impactful on culture,” and “powerful.”

The author did admit the definition was oversimplified, but I think it goes beyond that. To limit the term “new music” to this oversimplified definition is to communicate, intentionally or not, that any newly-composed music that doesn’t fit this definition is out of touch and old-fashioned.

This is like saying that aquaponics is the future of agriculture, but organic farming is not.

I expect to hear that argument from a salesperson selling me an aquaponics system. But I would not be pleased if a agriculture trade magazine singled it out as the only relevant modern agricultural technique. Yes, an article explaining all the benefits of aquaponics is fitting. But if the author says “I’m going to talk about modern agriculture and by “modern agriculture” I mean “aquaponics,” I’d take issue.

Any music written NOW is new!

Yes, genres are different. Approaches are different. Just like with farming, these approaches are going to be based on differences in personality, philosophy, labor and finances, as well as the types of ensembles a composer is composing for.

One size does not fit all! And if there is anything most wonderful about new music, it is THIS!

I label my music “contemporary classical” to differentiate it from jazz, musical theater, pop/rock, etc. If I were to be more specific, I would add “acoustic” to the description. I am not interested in pursuing electronic music or even combining it with acoustic music, and I have reasons for that which I may explain in a later post. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading up on or listening to electronic music. But writing it is just not for me. I’m going to leave that niche for someone else to fill.

There are techniques I would like to explore that I haven’t gotten around to yet. I read and listen, as I would a trade magazine, and see what I can tuck away for later.

But for now, my music tends to be more tonal/modal, and it has a more familiar sound to many listeners. But that doesn’t mean it is old-fashioned. Yes, some of my techniques harken back to the “old ways,” as I absolutely love Baroque music. I’m a pianist and have been playing works by Johann Sebastian Bach since I was five. I have absorbed the rules of counterpoint into my soul, so I figure I should use what I’ve got. But, despite the “old fashioned” tonal centers and the counterpoint, I eschew traditional harmonic movement, and I incorporate all the extended chords I picked up from many years of playing jazz. I care very little for the “proper” use of inversions and, rather, try to give individual voices as much independent, melodic movement as possible, even within a chorale style piece. I also very much enjoy pedal notes in the bass. Is that “old-fashioned,” coming from the days when the organ ruled, or is that “modern,” influenced by rock-and-roll?

Speaking of organs, last week I went to an organ recital presented by my friend, Robert Potterton III. He finished the concert with an amazing improvisation based on the theme from the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, otherwise known as Ode to Joy (or “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” if you only know it as the hymn tune.) Talk about old meets new! An old theme, on an old-but-new instrument, a digital organ, with a brand-new take filled with unexpected harmonies, by a contemporary composer. It was truly new music and quite relevant!

Modern is modern, and new is new, whether in agriculture or in music. It’s what is happening NOW. To narrow it down further leaves out too much. Each approach brings something different to the understanding of the field, and they all are relevant. They all impact culture. And they all will inform the future.

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.

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.

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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.

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