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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.

Why Did They Like Those Pieces?

The Baccalaureate Service I played at last week was on a Friday afternoon. Since I was teaching during the day, I decided I would get a little more practice in by playing my selections for my middle-school classes if time allowed. I was able to play for my last period eighth grade class. I performed Frederic Chopin’s Prelude Opus 28, No.15 and Claude Debussy’s Reverie and Arabesque No.1.

I didn’t know how my students would react to the music. Most of them listen to pop and hip-hop. Solo piano music, never mind a classical style, is not part of their normal musical diet. Each piece is about five minutes long, significantly longer than an average pop song, so I wasn’t sure they would pay attention.

After I played the first piece, they were complimentary. “That was really good,” they said. They smiled and seemed agreeable, but I honestly thought they were just being polite. However, after I finished playing the third piece, one boy quickly turned his head toward me and said, emphatically, “That was GREAT!” Another boy responded, “I liked the first one and the third one the best.” Several other students murmured in agreement.

They really were listening.

And they even had opinions.

On the drive over to the service, I contemplated the students’ responses. Their favorite pieces were not my favorite piece. Out of these three, my preference was the Reverie. I am fond of fantasies, impromptus and the like. And a well-placed augmented chord is delightful, though the Arabesque has a couple of those as well.

I didn’t have time to ask the students why they preferred the other pieces, but I have a feeling that the form of the pieces is what made the difference. While the Reverie is a bit more adventurous harmonically, it is very pleasant and the voice-leading is good, so nothing is truly jarring. Besides, Chopin takes his own risks in the Prelude. Almost two minutes on a repeating Ab, anyone? I understand it is called the “raindrop” prelude. I don’t hear raindrops; I hear a death toll.

Anyway…

The most obvious difference between the Prelude and Arabesque, in comparison to the Reverie, is the form. Both the Prelude and Arabesque have a ternary (ABA) form, which means the musical material presented at the beginning of the piece returns at the end.

It’s one thing to think about form as a composer, but what does it mean for a listener?

A listener, hearing a repeated section, can say, “Hey, I know this!” The listener then becomes more engaged with the music by, consciously or not, predicting (and testing their ability to predict) what comes next, based on their memory of what they heard the first time around. The music becomes more satisfying as they recognize when their predictions were “right” and when they are surprised by slight changes in the music, or by a coda extending the repeated section. The ability to comprehend the whole piece can make them feel like they were a good listener, a smart listener. This builds confidence, which in turn, makes the listener open to listening to more.

This has a great deal of importance in reaching audiences.

The kids in my class are used to very predictable music. Pop songs have a standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus form. That chorus has a hook, and every time it comes around the listener can easily sing along. That’s a “win.” The song induced euphoria.

People who have already had a diet of classical music may be ready for the more adventurous music, but we can’t expect people who have a diet of very predictable music to immediately find satisfaction in music that is not predictable, like a wandering Reverie, or a harmonically unstable piece.

It is a matter of “taste,” but not necessarily a matter of “opinion.”

Taste is based on our culture, and what we have been exposed to.

Can you expect someone who hasn’t eaten garlic on a regular basis to like Indian food the first time eating it? I dare say there are better ways to gently stretch the palate.

So, in music, we must consider our audience. When introducing something new, we need to choose something not too different from what our listeners are used to. As they grow in confidence as listeners, we can expand the repertoire.

They might even start to like it.

If you are interested in hearing new music that may stretch your ears, but not overwhelm them, may I suggest the program, Classical Discoveries, hosted by my friend, Marvin Rosen. It airs every Wednesday morning from 7-10AM. You can stream it at wprb.com.

Quick Tips for Choosing a Last-Minute Piece

Last week, I needed to play fifteen minutes of solo classical piano music as a prelude before a university’s Baccalaureate Ceremony. Because of my performance schedule during the last month, along with all my teaching, I had to wait until just a week before to begin preparing. I chose some appropriate music which I knew but hadn’t looked at in twenty-plus years (I’m not kidding.) But since I knew the pieces, they came back quickly. However, the night before I was informed that I also needed to play a postlude.

A postlude is a completely different thing!

Preludes are generally slow and contemplative, helping people to settle and prepare for the coming ceremony. Postludes are usually quick and energetic, motivating people to leave their seats. While I was told that I could just replay something from the prelude, I knew that wouldn’t be the best choice.

I looked through the “wedding music” book I had chosen the other pieces from to look for something more upbeat. I found a piano transcription of a Minuet and Trio from Luigi Boccherini’s string quintet Opus 13, No.5. It was the perfect choice!

Here are two quick tips for choosing a perfect last-minute piece:

First, choose something from the Classical Period. Why? Here’s a description of Classical Period music in a series of two words: Predictable Harmony; Few Accidentals; Alberti Bass; Scale Patterns; Simple Rhythms; Parallel Motion. All of these make Classical Period music the easiest to sight-read.

Second, choose a Minuet and Trio. The form of a Minuet and Trio has a lot of built-in repetition which means there is less to learn. In a postlude setting, it also means you can choose to repeat or not repeat sections, depending on how fast people are leaving their seats.

And here are two quick tips for performing that last-minute Classical Period piece:

First, you don’t have to play something at full tempo. No one in the audience will be paying enough attention to criticize you for bringing the tempo down a few notches, if they even know the piece well enough to notice.

Second, if you must, play only the top notes (along with the bass). All the parallel motion in the Classical Period music means you can get away with playing only the top notes to keep the musical idea flowing without losing your place.

The other day, I followed these two tips. I didn’t play the Boccherini at FULL speed. I could play most of the parallel motion, but I wasn’t going to sight-read sixteenth-note octave runs. So, I played just the top notes in those spots.

I finished just as the last of the attendees were trickling out.

You’ve Got to Work It

Something wonderful happened!!!

My piece White Apples has been chosen by the Lehner String Quartet for performance as part of the Contemporary Quartets series, hosted by Vox Novus and produced by Virtual Concert Halls. The concert will be streamed online on May 28, 2022 at 2PM. (Keep an eye out for a link on my Facebook and Instagram pages!)

I am so excited! It’s a really significant opportunity to partner with these incredible musicians and organizations.

Of course, there’s a story behind it. Behind the piece, and behind getting to this point.

The performance with the Lehner Quartet is not technically a premiere, but it might as well be.

I wrote the piece in 2014 while I was studying through the Continuing Education program at New England Conservatory. In one of my classes, we had the opportunity to work with a string quartet throughout the year to workshop our pieces. We met with the group twice a semester and received some feedback. The students in the group mainly complained that my piece was too difficult but couldn’t tell me how to adjust those sections. There were a couple of places I wasn’t sure how to notate in the best way, but no one could give me a clear answer. Additionally, a different cellist came to every meeting, and even to the final performance.

At the end of the year, we had a composition studio recital. Each of the students’ string quartets was performed. When I arrived, the string quartet was rehearsing with the new cellist. The first violinist was also new. It was clear they had not rehearsed previously. I get it. They were students and very busy; it was the end of the semester; the previous first violinist had already left for a summer internship.

But my piece is not sight-readable, nor is it something that can be put together in an ensemble’s first run-through. Needless to say, the premiere did not go well. I’m not sure the audience noticed, but it definitely interfered with the communication of the piece’s ideas.

It’s a quirky piece. It has four sections, and they are all very different. The cohesive material that holds them together is there, but it’s a bit obscured. The piece will not make sense if the movements are separated. The first movement starts off in atonality, and the piece morphs through different moods and harmonies until it finally arrives solidly in D Major. Our teacher had given us the poem “White Apples” by Donald Hall to consider as inspiration for our pieces. I love poetry and found something in the poem, so I took the bait.

These are my full program notes for the piece, and since this is my blog, I don’t have to worry about word count.

“White Apples” is loosely based on the poem of the same name by Donald Hall, wherein a young boy is awakened in the night by a knocking at his door the week after his father’s death. Like the poem, the composition explores the concepts of sleeping, awakening, death, and change.
Mvt. 1: Incognizance
“White Apples” opens with harmonic and rhythmic ambiguity reflecting the incoherent,
incomprehensible nature of the sleep state. The musical lines roll over and around each other, lulling the listener into an ineffable, yet palpable, experience of oblivion.
Mvt. 2: Awakening
The second movement summons the sleeper to unwelcome wakefulness with an abrupt
sforzando. The following measures capture the struggle between the longing for continued slumber and the acceptance of waking reality.
Mvt. 3: Emergence
The third movement explores the inner changes that occur as we enter a new reality, whether the subtle acclimation to a new morning or the more momentous adjustment to life-crises such as the death of the boy’s father in the poem. We start to transition tenuously but become stronger as time goes on.
Mvt. 4: Resolve
The decidedly tonal final movement brings resolution to the harmonic ambiguity of the
previous movements and finally arrives at its destination: a melancholy D Major. It affirms the decision to move forward and to be present and committed in a new reality – full of yearning and hope – yet also recognizes the lingering sadness of the memories and the life left behind.

I had three pieces performed at that recital, which was the first public performance of any of my compositions. I was very disappointed with the performance of the string quartet. I was discouraged, wondering if it was just plain too difficult. I was discouraged by the dismissal of the piece (and the others) by some musical friends of mine at the time. I had sent recordings to one of the local music teachers I had collaborated with over several years, and he emailed back, “Don’t bother me with this! I don’t have time to listen!” Another could only comment that the strings were out of tune. The general response from my broader social network was one of disinterest. Composing a piece is not a big deal to them, I guess, and it just wasn’t the type of music they were interested in.

It was really hard to keep composing after that. But I did.

I put away White Apples for a while and focused mostly on putting in the effort to keep trying, keep writing. I also got busier accompanying community choruses and helping my children finish out their last years of high school.

In 2018, I revised White Apples slightly to address some problems with double stops and clean up some notation. I also reworked a section that I felt didn’t have the strength I was looking for. I began sending it out, hoping that someone, somewhere would understand this unusual piece and love it like I do.

In 2019, it was chosen for performance at the national conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers. Unfortunately, that string quartet was also incredibly busy. When I arrived at the concert, I learned that, due to travel constraints and limited rehearsal time, they were only able to perform the first two movements. They performed those two movements well, but as I said the piece makes no sense if it is not complete. The second movement ended with a thud.

At one point, I had created a system to keep track of when and where I submitted each piece, but I lost track. I estimate I’ve sent out White Apples about ten times in the last four years. It finally landed in the right hands.

I faced a lot of frustration along the way. I don’t think anyone would have faulted me for giving up on White Apples. I could have easily let it fall by the wayside while focusing on what I was composing next. But when you believe in something, you’ve got to keep working it.

All in a Name Tag

Back in January, I attended the 2nd annual Online Music Business Summit, hosted by Garrett Hope. I had a great time, learned a tremendous amount, and came away with some very practical, implementable ideas on how to grow my career and business as a freelancing musician.

At a couple of points during the conference, we had a “speed networking” session, where we were randomly paired up with another attendee for five minutes and able to video chat in a private online room about what we do. Each of us had a caption of sorts for our profile that summarized our work. Mine said, “composer, collaborative pianist, teacher.”

To my surprise, about half the people I met with asked me what a collaborative pianist is.

Because of my name tag, I was able to explain this “new term” which has been around for at least twenty years, though I don’t remember hearing it in college. Back then, pianists who accompany were simply called “accompanists.” Now, in the days of updating all sorts of terms to make them more accurate, “accompanist” has become “collaborative pianist.” It is a much better term, for a couple of reasons.

First, collaborative pianists are often expected to be able to coach singers and other soloists. They may also help run rehearsals or sectionals. In a couple of the choruses I work with, the directors have even asked me for input regarding programming or troubleshooting difficult spots in pieces.

Second, the music the pianist plays is often more complicated than playing a single chord over and over again in the background (though some pieces are like that.) In some of the most complicated situations the pianist will play a score reduction of a concerto, in essence taking the place of the entire orchestra, while playing with a soloist. The piano part is absolutely integral to the piece, and the pianist is absolutely integral to the success of the performance.

Another reason I like the term is connected to the root word, collaborate. When I was five years old, I told my parents I would never be a concert pianist. What I meant was I didn’t want to be a soloist. I still don’t. I prefer playing with others, in all sorts of situations: choral or chamber groups, musical theater pits, or improvisational groups, etc. Making music together is what it’s all about.

When I was growing up, a pianist who wasn’t a soloist was just an accompanist. The piano riff on “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” was “those who can are soloists; those who can’t are accompanists.” As if those pianists who aren’t soloists are only able to play at a level on par with those who barely passed their piano proficiency tests in college. This line of thinking doesn’t take into consideration pianists like me who don’t want to be soloists.

The term “collaborative pianist” elevates the work of a non-soloist pianist. It communicates a level of professionalism and musicality, as well as an appreciation for a skill set that goes beyond being able to plunk out the notes in time. It communicates that the collaborative pianist is part of the team, not just an add-on.

Being called an “accompanist” feels a bit like being the nameless “+1” on an invitation.

In explaining the term to the individuals I met at the conference, I was also able to share how this perspective affects my composing. When I write an art song, for example, the parts for both singer and pianist are intertwined. I like to think of them as two characters in dialogue. It is important to me that the piano be an equal voice, not just pushed to the periphery and told to be quiet and supportive. In my pieces, sometimes the “solo” instrument becomes the accompaniment, and the “accompaniment” becomes the prominent part.

I know that piano can easily overpower some instruments, so special care needs to be taken to give each instrument the necessary space to be heard well. How does one write an equal part for piano without it taking over? That is one of the problems for me to solve in a composition.

I recently spoke with a high school string orchestra preparing to premiere my piece Daughter of the Stars in Texas. I added a harp part to that piece back in December at the request of this ensemble. The harp players expressed gratitude for having a part that felt integral to the group. I explained that that came from my perspective as a pianist. Too often, the piano is only an “accompaniment” to string groups, playing the chords to fill out the sound or cover some missing (ie. more important) parts. If I don’t like that as a pianist, I know harpists, who often receive the same fate, don’t either. So, I purposefully gave them an independent part which added a special quality to the piece. (You can read about how I wrote the harp part here.)

I recently came across a competition for flute and piano to enter, and the pieces that were given as examples had repeated chords in the piano part all the way through the entire piece. Boring. I was so bothered by this that I emailed the competition organizer to ask if that was the style of piano part they were looking for. Thankfully, the answer was “no, the pianists will be professionals. You can write whatever you want.”

Seasons of Work

When I first told a composer-friend of mine that I was taking a job as a PreK-8 music teacher, he matter-of-factly said, “You won’t get much composing done this year. But don’t worry, it will get better each year.” He wasn’t warning me as if it was a bad idea to take the job or that it would threaten my composing altogether. He was only speaking from experience. At one point, he also taught music in grades PreK-8.

I didn’t really believe him, though. I thought it would take a couple of months to get used to the routine, and then I would figure out a way to compose on my days off. After all, I’m not teaching full-time.

I was wrong. It has been a much greater struggle than I expected. My days off aren’t full of composing. They are full of lesson planning, grading, and catching up on rest. Various things like getting haircuts and shopping for needed shoes have to happen, too. For a while, I was able to do some compositional research. But once the grading hit at the end of the first quarter it seems there’s always been something urgent that has pushed my opportunity to compose to the wayside.

After the 1st quarter ended, it was time to get ready for the holidays. That meant extra practicing for upcoming performances, plus meal prep since, while my husband does most of the day-to-day cooking these days, I still do the gourmet stuff for big events. I started the New Year well, but during the second week of January I got sick for a few days. (Was it COVID? I don’t know. The test came back negative.) Those sick days put me very behind. I got behind on second-quarter grading, which then put me behind in getting some recordings done for one of the choruses I accompany, which put me behind on another recording I still have to do. That recording isn’t finished because….my two-year-old laptop computer broke. Upon opening it one morning, the hinge literally came apart, and the screen bulged out from the frame.

I immediately had to shift gears and research which new computer I would buy, a time-consuming chore that came much earlier than I expected. While I mostly compose with paper and pencil, I need my computer for a lot of other related work like uploading scores to my website and submitting to competitions, besides the ordinary things like email. Getting a computer immediately became first priority. Instead of composing, I’ve been setting up my new computers and uploading software. (I will share my new choices in an upcoming blog post.)

After I get the recording done (hopefully this week!) I will then start preparing for a trip to California next month where I will be performing and making a presentation at the national conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers. Perhaps in April I will squeeze in some composing amidst Easter, third quarter grades, and practicing for performances taking place in early May.

Several years ago, I had a conversation with my composition teacher about this very topic. Like me, he too is a teacher (college-level), a pianist, and a composer. He talked about the seasons of work. He shared that he didn’t get much composing done during the teaching year or when he was performing a lot, and he didn’t practice much during the times he focused on composing.

I’d prefer to do a little bit of everything every day, but it hasn’t been working out that way this year. That doesn’t mean I have done nothing related to composing. I added a harp part to my piece, Daughter of the Stars. I wrote a short piano piece, Meditation No.4: Be Near Me, Lord Jesus in December. I’ve entered several competitions and calls for scores. I did a bunch of marketing and publishing work. I am currently considering getting a professional recording done.

My frustration is about not being able to work on new or unfinished pieces. The list of ideas for pieces grows every week! Brainstorming is not a weakness of mine (though on the flip side I could win an “overthinking” award.) If I wrote from sun-up to sundown, I would not get through them all. The endless list of pieces I want to write haunts me when I am struggling to find time to work on even one of them.

My therapist tells me to relax instead of worrying about what I’m going to do next, or when, and enjoy the fruits of my labor. That’s hard. But her advice seems to match up with the experience of my composition teacher. Teach when it’s time to teach, perform when it’s time to perform, compose when it’s time to compose.

I wrote most of this blog post in-between giving private lessons and while supervising 8th grade study hall. (It’s a lot easier to write words than music in those brief moments.) I finished it up this morning, and now I’m off to a meeting, then setting up my computer, and working on that recording. The specters of future pieces remain at my door, like a pile of neighborhood kids impatiently asking, “When are you going to be able to come out and play?”

I write a new blog post about once a week. I send out a newsletter once every quarter. Subscribe to get these updates and receive a free download of the recording of Daughter of the Stars performed by the Brno Philharmonic.

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How NOT to Audition for College

It’s now the time of year when prospective college students who wish to major in music start auditioning. Auditioning for college is a major event. For most, it is something that has been planned for at least two years. Auditions at the most competitive music schools require lengthy, challenging pieces from several time periods, at least twenty minutes worth of music – especially for piano majors. This is not something that can be learned in one week, one month, or even one semester. Appropriate music that meets the audition requirements must be chosen well in advance and polished so the potential music students can present their best work.

Auditioning is HARD.

Many times, these potential music students have had experience auditioning on a smaller scale, for statewide ensembles or summer programs. But auditioning for college brings things to a whole new level as young musicians consider leaving home, often for the first time, trying to get into their dream schools, wondering how decisions or mistakes might impact their future. It’s daunting.

I hope that in this season, I can offer a little advice and levity as I tell you about my first-ever audition, which happened to take place at my first-choice school, Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. This is actually a 2-in-1, since I auditioned on both saxophone and piano the same day.

So, here are some tips on how NOT to audition for college:

  1. DO NOT Go with Your Scales Unprepared. I really have no idea how this happened. I know that I was preparing a classical piano audition, but my private teacher was a jazzer. He didn’t tell me to practice my scales, or require them in lessons (just don’t ask.) I could spell them forwards and backwards in a split second. I guess I arrogantly thought that meant I could play them. So, I showed up at my piano audition and was asked to play an Eb Major Scale. I screwed it up. Badly. Like beginner piano student fingers twisted over fingers bad. The professor auditioning me even asked with exasperation, “How do you expect to play any repertoire when you have no technique!” I was humiliated. I felt like I was wasting his time. I was a bit angry, too. I responded by playing Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu faster than I ever had. The good man paused afterwards and said, “Well, you’ve proved me wrong.” Still, practice your scales!
  2. DO NOT Go When it is Not Audition Season. I was so confident I wanted to attend Wheaton College, I applied for early acceptance (my parents claim it was early decision.) However, because college is such an enormous life decision, I wanted to attend the “meet Wheaton College” weekend in November, before I sent in my application in December. As most music students know, regardless of when applications are due, auditions normally take place after the application deadline. The early application was due December 1. The audition days were scheduled for January, February, and March. My parents would not attend the “meet Wheaton” weekend. They told me if I went to that, they would not take me out to audition in the spring semester, and I had to audition when I went out in November. There were a few problems with this. The first was that not all the music faculty was around like at a regularly-scheduled audition day. That meant I auditioned in front of one person instead of a group (all my other college auditions were in front of groups.) I also auditioned on saxophone in front of another woodwind teacher; the saxophone teacher, who was also the jazz director, was away with the jazz ensemble that weekend. I also had two months less of preparation compared to other music students also auditioning that year. Lesson learned: if at all possible, audition on a regularly-scheduled audition day.
  3. Do NOT Go Without Your Own Instrument. Before you think I forgot my saxophone, let me make it clear that is not so! I didn’t have a good, sturdy case for my saxophone. I wanted a flight case, a molded one with a strap I could put across my shoulders that would be smaller for the plane and easier to carry while handling my luggage. My parents refused to help me get one. They also refused to let me take my saxophone on the plane and told me I had to use a school’s instrument when I got there. Yup, I auditioned on a school saxophone. To this day, I have no idea how this ridiculous scenario even transpired. As a 16yr old kid, I walked into the music department office and explained why I needed to borrow a saxophone. I was simply visiting the school, no parents present, no collateral, no money, no legal way to be held responsible for damage. The people in the office were either incredibly naive, or I was more than obviously pathetic. I practiced on it for about two hours before auditioning with it. At least I brought my own mouthpiece, reeds, and ligature. Thankfully, the saxophone was in decent working order unlike the school instruments I used in high school.
  4. Don’t Go Alone. I traveled from Rhode Island to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, my second trip on a plane. After navigating the airport and finding my shuttle to the school, I found my way to the dorm to spend the weekend sleeping on the floor in a room with girls I didn’t know. (As far as I knew, I was the only visitor that weekend without parents along. The dorm room situation was unusual.) On the day of my audition, I found my way to the music department, talked to the people I needed to talk to, made my way to a practice room, and auditioned all by my lonesome. I didn’t have a parent with me to help navigate the unfamiliar campus. And since I was auditioning at an odd time of year, my schedule for that weekend was quite different from the average visitor, so I couldn’t even roam with another visiting potential music major. Definitely do not do stressful things – very stressful – right before you audition. Auditioning students also need moral support. Not just to get through the pre-audition jitters, but to process how it went. Going alone sucks.

That’s it for my “Do Nots.”

Amazingly, despite this bizarre and harrowing audition story, I was accepted to the Wheaton College music department (and the school) for piano, saxophone, and composition. However, according to my parents the scholarships I was offered weren’t high enough, and I ended up attending my state university. I have often wondered how much more scholarship I might have been offered if the audition had gone better.

I wish all of you auditioning this season an excellent audition! Drink plenty of water and make sure to rest to keep yourself healthy. Breathe slowly and deeply. Give yourself plenty of time to find your way around. Try to schedule a trial lesson with your potential teacher. Godspeed!

Adding Sparkle and Sting

I’ve mentioned in past posts that I was asked back in November to add a harp part to my piece, Daughter of the Stars, for string orchestra. It’s time to write about it. I waited because I needed to update my website, get all the new scores and parts linked to the right download sales options and rewrite the piece description. It took longer to reformat the scores and parts and update the website than to actually write the part. But I had to get all that finished before I could announce to the world that my “all new” Daughter of the Stars now has a harp part!

I had never written anything for harp before. Frankly, I was intimidated. Not by the fingerings or note spacings. That comes to me fairly easily through one of those “freak skills” I have. I call them “freak” because I didn’t get them from practicing. One is my ability to sight-read; the other is my ability to visualize spaces. As a pianist I understand very well the shape of the hands and how that affects what I can play; for harp, I just needed to flip the right hand in my mind.

The pedals were what I found daunting. How quickly can a harpist change the pedals and how much notice in the music does a harpist need? What does a harp pedal chart look like, and how do I make one? I thought about all this and said to myself, “I’ll figure it out later.”

That was, until I was asked to write a part for harp.

When I got the order for a set of score and parts for Daughter of the Stars from Neal Springer, a high school orchestra director in Texas, he asked if he could commission me to add a harp part to the piece because their school has a growing harp program. Of course, I said yes. It was time to figure it out. Thankfully, DotS has simple keys and key changes, though there is a section that goes through quite a bit of modulation. For that portion of the piece, I was able to give the harp notes that avoided a lot of pedal changes. If there was a piece that would allow me to tiptoe into writing for harp, this was it.

Previously, I hadn’t even considered adding harp to DotS. I had originally written it to send into a competition for a high-school level All-State Orchestra piece. I had to abide by very specific guidelines, and the instrument list did not include harp. The piece was finished, and had already earned some accolades. What was there to add?

I didn’t want to write a part that was only arpeggiating chords, simply
added on as an afterthought to an existing piece. As a pianist, I am well aware that approach is often a default, especially in simpler music. Playing only chords is boring. I wanted to write a harp part with it’s own line intertwined with the other voices that equally contributes to the overall contrapuntal quality of the piece.

This required listening to the piece for what was missing. What could harp bring to the music and breathe new life into it?

The answer, in two words, is sparkle and sting.

Daughter of the Stars is inspired by the American folk tune, Shenandoah. The narrator in the song is pining for his love, as he must travel “across the wide Missouri,” or ” ‘cross this w’rld o’ mis’r’y” depending on whether you think it originated with a French fur trader or a slave. (I’ve crossed the Missouri River. It’s not that wide, at least not on Interstate 80. Not wide enough to mention it in lyrics, in my opinion. Given that slaves were taken from both Africa and portions of the U.K., one could argue that this song has both Celtic and slave origin. I digress.) Whether the traveler is crossing a river or the wide world (possibly an ocean?) water is involved, and the travel is difficult. In writing the piece, I wanted to musically depict beautiful landscape as well as stormy water, maybe even a waterfall, just as life is a journey full of both delight and hardship.

In a Native American tale, long before the Europeans arrived the Indians in the Virginia area visited a lake of sparkling blue water hidden in the mountains. It was a wide, long lake, and very peaceful. They camped there while hunting. The water was so clear and serene that, at night, the surface of the water danced with the light reflecting the stars above. They named the lake, “Daughter of the Stars” – Shenandoah. One day, the mountain broke with a loud crash. The lake drained and formed what is now the Shenandoah river. Out of the loss of the lake, a new river bringing life to the valley was formed.

Water sparkles. The sunlight glints off the surface revealing minute ripples from a faint breeze or a jumping bug. It catches sprays of water, forming miniature prisms and casting momentary rainbows. It glistens on wet skin. It reflects the stars. Water can also string. A hard splash turns water droplets into diminutive darts.

So what does this have to do with harp?

No other instrument could add that sparkle and sting to Daughter of the Stars.

The timbre of the harp is unique and brilliant and, though relatively quiet, pierces through various textures. In one setting, a glissando or arpeggio might be a relaxing shimmer, but in another setting accented plucked strings add punch to the music. I use both in Daughter of the Stars.

I had reasons for not initially including harp in the composition, but I am very glad that Neal Springer asked me to add a harp part for his students. The harp adds another layer of depth to the meaning I was intending for this piece all along.

Now, I can present to you the “new and updated” version of Daughter of the Stars. You can find the score and parts here. Only thing is, I now need a new recording!

I write a new blog post about once a week. I send out a newsletter once every quarter. Subscribe to get these updates and receive a free download of the recording of Daughter of the Stars performed by the Brno Philharmonic.

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2021 Wrap-Up

I decided this year to write a blog post summarizing the musical work I did during 2021. In writing this, I am reminding myself of the effort I put in, but I also hope that it can inspire, encourage, or give insight to my readers.

On January 1, 2021 my piece Daughter of the Stars was released on Ablaze Records’ Orchestral Masters Volume 7. It had been recorded by the Brno Philharmonic. In this agreement, I paid for the recording, but Ablaze Records’ took care of everything else from hiring the musicians to recording and mastering the track to packaging. I own the master. I signed the agreement with Ablaze in April 2018, so it had been a long wait. The cost of the track was steep (but not as much as it could have been) and paying for it wiped out our savings at the time. It was worth doing.

During the first week of January, my piece Meditation No.1: Sustenance and Praise was included in the online Psalm Gallery of 2021 Calvin Symposium of Worship. I was also voted in as VP of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers (CFAMC) and added that to my work as the secretary.

Since I was still out of work in January 2021 (my accompanying work had dried up and the number of students I had dropped from thirteen pre-pandemic down to two) and my schedule was quite open, I continued what I had started during the summer of 2020, taking various online courses and attending online conferences whenever I could.

During the second week of January, I attended the Online Music Business Summit, founded and organized by Garrett Hope. It is an online conference, full of many pre-made videos by speakers on various topics, and a few live Zoom sessions. Some topics were specific to music; others were more general about starting and building a small business. There were so many speakers and good ideas that I have been able to implement very few. Thankfully, I purchased the “lifetime access” so I can revisit them at any time. I’ve already signed up for the next one. I won’t be able to attend this coming January since I am teaching, so I bought the lifetime access to watch later in my free time (whenever that might be.)

I also took an online course called The Entrepreneurial Composer with Jamie Leigh Sampson. We had class online once a week for eight or ten weeks. I learned a tremendous amount and have been able to put much of this course into practice. I refined the look of my published scores and made some decisions about how to run my self-publishing business, Every Generation Music. I had come to the conclusion that dealing with printers, ink, and paper cutters was too much for me since I don’t have loads of space, and a baby grand takes priority in the space I have. However, due to a recent snag just this last week showing me that I may have difficulty getting something printed by the local print shop, due to staffing shortages and other issues, I’ve decided it’s worth making the space to print at home. Stuff more in! (When you see the piano pic below you will see that I am cramming necessary things into my house.)

During January and February, I was feeling pretty down and overwhelmed. I skipped entering a number of competitions and calls for scores, and missed the deadlines for the few I did want to enter. The Online Music Summit and Jamie’s class helped me to get q re-focused and re-motivated.

Jamie’s class, in particular, helped me to understand that my experience of constant rejections was totally normal and that a 3% success rate, or even a 1% success rate, was actually good. This isn’t like school where one needs to achieve a score of 90 or above to receive an “A.” Jamie told a story about a writer she knows who was trying to get one hundred rejections a year. One can only do that by entering at least one hundred competitions. It’s impossible for me to enter one hundred competitions. Maybe someday, when my catalog of scores is large enough, I might be able to. (But that means there has to be enough competitions where I qualify age, race, and gender-wise. Not likely.) I set a goal of entering fifty competitions/calls in one year. I made it to thirty-five.

A review of the Ablaze Records’ Album, and Daughter of the Stars, came out in the Fanfare Magazine April issue. Also in April, DotS was featured on Classical Discoveries, a radio program hosted by Marvin Rosen on WPRB in New Jersey.

In May, DotS was included in the (online, this year) national conference of the Society of Composers, Inc. Also in May, my piece Mirage for soprano and piano received the first honorable mention in Canadian vocal ensemble Arcady’s international art song competition for emerging composers.

In June, the Encontro Internacional de Cordas in Brazil, where my Impromptu No.1 for Solo Double Bass was supposed to be performed, was postponed. I’m not sure if my piece will get performed when the festival does take place. These postponements change many things.

In July I received news that my piece for TTBB chorus Let Us Sing, which I had written in the spring, was among the top four finalists in Cantus Vocal Ensemble’s 2021 competition for young and emerging composers.

At some point, I was informed that my Three Short Pieces for Unaccompanied Saxophone was accepted for inclusion in the Texas “Prescribed Music List” which is used by music educators and students to find level-appropriate pieces for performances and auditions. I had sent a few pieces in fall 2020, hoping to be included. This inclusion has resulted in a very significant increase in searches and views of my piece on Youtube. Hopefully, it will also lead to score sales and performances!

Over the summer, we were stressed and burnt-out by politics, by the pandemic, by the lack of my income, by the work that needs to be done around the house, and by other more personal things. Staying where we are without my income wasn’t sustainable long-term, so we were trying to figure out how to make changes to our living situation. In the end, we decided to stay put in our house and hope that things would improve quickly enough.

I got very little composing done over the summer, because we were focused on trying to get our house ready to sell. I didn’t get my garden going, either. I looked harder for additional work. Another problem we had to overcome was making room for a very small baby grand piano. Leaving the house and going to the church to practice wasn’t working for me anymore. Since one of our grown kids moved out in the spring we had an extra bedroom, but we had to rearrange three rooms in order to turn a first-floor room into my music room.

In August, I took a job at a private Catholic school teaching general music to grades PreK-8. The work itself is something I have mostly done before, but the schedule is quite different. I am now teaching three full days a week at the school. It took about six weeks just to not crash at the end of the day.

In September, my work with the North Kingstown and Greater Tiverton community choruses started back up again. I was so thankful!

I can’t come home from a day of teaching and expect to compose; I have to do that when I am “fresh.” But teaching privately doesn’t take as much effort, so I decided to spend the after school hours giving lessons and earning a little extra money.

A few students who had taken time off during all the chaos of 2020 started taking piano lessons with me again. I attended a meeting of the Rhode Island Music Educators Association and ran into an acquaintance who convinced me to start teaching with her at a local place that offers lessons, where I had taught back in college. I had become weary of trying to find my own students, so I contacted the owner and had seven more students within a month. My income from lessons is going into my “music account” which will fund future performances and/or recordings of my work.

In August and September, I missed several deadlines for competitions/calls because I was a bit overwhelmed adjusting to my new schedule. I also missed a few online meetings and put a wrench in other people’s schedules. Whoops!

I finally found a piano and brought it home in late September. It’s 4’9″. See how it is stuffed in there?

Around this time, I also got a check in the mail for a small amount of royalties – just enough to keep my publishing business in the black!

In October, I attended the 2nd annual CFAMC virtual conference, which I helped to organize.

In November, I received my first-ever order for a set of score and parts. A high-school orchestra director ordered DotS and then hired me to write a harp part for it. This was my first commission from someone I’ve never met! I finished the harp part in November, amidst preparing for upcoming concerts. The piano was also finally tuned, and the humidifier was installed.

In November and December, I learned my piece Nocturne No.1 for Double Bass and Piano reached the finals for two other competitions, but ultimately was not chosen for performance.

In November, I bought more gear: a new, portable Yamaha digital piano, a good “table” stand (I need one more stable than the regular “X” stands), an upgraded pedal, and a hard case. Every dollar I made teaching at the school during the fall went into buying instruments and various equipment. The shocking part isn’t in how much money I spent, but in how much I needed and how long I waited to get it. I am thankful I finally could.

In December, I had two school concerts and three chorus concerts, plus all the dress rehearsals that go with them. I thought during the first week of the winter break from school I would decorate my house for Christmas. I didn’t. Instead, I wrote a piece: Meditation No.4: Be Near Me, Lord Jesus, inspired by Away in a Manger. I performed it at my church’s Christmas Eve Service. DotS was also included in a Classical Discoveries year-end twenty-four hour music marathon featuring 21st Century music, hosted by Marvin Rosen. What a nice surprise! I also wrote a short article for Deus ex musica and another for Charlotte New Music. I finished preparing the updated DotS score for the school in Texas and got that sent out.

The biggest news is that The Greater Tiverton Community Chorus premiered the piece they commissioned from me in 2020, O Holy Night, O Glorious Light. They performed it beautifully, along with Robbie LePage on trumpet, and myself on piano. COVID had made the wait long, and there was some nail-biting wondering if it would actually take place. I was also nervous about how it would be received by the audience. The piece isn’t “out there” harmonically, but I did take some risks. I wasn’t sure how effective those spots would be in real life. The audience gave me a standing ovation the first night, so apparently they liked it! The director and chorus members loved it, and that is most important.

All-in-all, in 2021 I entered thirty-five competitions/calls. My work was presented in one (not a performance, but a streamed recording.) I also got word last week that one of my pieces was accepted for an upcoming performance in March 2022. That makes an almost-six percent “success rate.” I made the finals and/or top four in at least four other competitions. A commissioned piece was premiered. I wrote thirty-one blog posts (including this one) and had almost 1,400 visitors and over 2,200 views on my website. Two of my blog posts had over one hundred views this year, even though I wrote them in 2020! I had one sale on my website. I completed four small pieces. I now have fifteen private students, and I have my work at the school and with the choruses. Things are definitely moving in the right direction.

My time for teaching and accompanying is close to maxed-out given my current schedule. Next year, I hope to finish at least six pieces that have been fermenting in my mind. I am resetting my goal to enter fifty competitions/calls. I expect to have at least two performances of my work and travel to those, and I hope to get at least one more. I am also considering setting up my own concert for next summer.

My main concern is making sure I have sufficient time to compose on the days I am not teaching, now that I am better adjusted to the schedule. It’s a good sign that I was able to write quickly in the days right before Christmas. Perhaps there is a level of desperation in the need to compose that will help it to flow more easily when those precious moments are available.

What are your goals for the next year? Tell me below, if you’d like.

Here’s to looking forward to what 2022 brings! Have a Happy New Year!

I write a new blog post about once a week. I send out a newsletter once every quarter. Subscribe to get these updates and receive a free download of the recording of Daughter of the Stars performed by the Brno Philharmonic.

If you would like to support my work, please consider making a donation.