Making a Little Magic

When you get down to it, there are only two basic approaches to composition: writing for oneself or writing for someone else.

This is obviously not a matter of style. Any style can fit under either of these broad categories. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, though the second can be more lucrative if you have enough people who want you to write for them and can pay well.

As an emerging composer, most of my work has born out of me writing for myself. I am still developing connections with people who might want to commission me. But I have had the privilege of composing a couple of commissioned pieces, including one I worked on over this past summer.

The story begins in 2020, when I was commissioned by the Greater Tiverton Community Chorus to write a Christmas piece in celebration of the ensemble’s fortieth birthday.

Beth Armstrong, who was directing the group at the time, must have really liked my work because I got a surprise email from her at the end of May 2023 asking if I would be interested in a commission for her other chorus, The Chorus of East Providence.

The obvious answer was YES!

But there was a major snag: I was moving. We had just put our house on the market.

Could I write a choral piece AND pack up my house AND finish an orchestra piece I was in the middle of AND seal up the sale of the house AND move one thousand miles AND settle in before the work was needed to start rehearsals, with an eye to performing it in December 2023? Given the timeline, I’d probably even start school before I finished the piece.

That was a tall order.

My interest in the commission wasn’t just about the money. In fact, I got creative in negotiations because of the ensemble’s budget constraints. I wanted to write it for Beth and help her dream come to life.

Beth has been one of my biggest cheerleaders since I met her in January 2020 when I started accompanying the Tiverton chorus. She knew I was a composer and when the pandemic hit, she was the driving force behind the first commission with the Tiverton chorus, providing me with some work while everything was shut down, despite only knowing me for a couple of months. When we all got back together as things improved, she championed my work. She entrusted me with the ensemble in her absence. She changed my title from “accompanist” to “collaborative pianist” and always said she felt we truly collaborated together, solving problems and making decisions about the music we helped the chorus prepare.

Beth’s idea for the new commission was unique. She had written Christmas songs a while back and wanted them arranged for SATB chorus with piano and oboe.

Now, she was entrusting me with her musical babies to help them grow into something bigger and fuller. This was an honor I could not say no to. I didn’t want to say no.

So, I determined that, despite all the obstacles, it was going to happen. I would write the piece, and I would give it my all.

The funny thing about this commission is that it really wasn’t my “style.” I wrote a piece in a style I probably would have never chosen if I was writing for myself only.

But I see music as a bit like acting – taking on a character and telling a story. I always compose in service to the non-musical idea and consider what will best communicate it.

In this piece, I was writing to serve Beth and composing to help her style be brought out in the piece. Her songs provided plenty of inspiration, and listening to her melodies gave me with everything I needed to capture the essence of her music. I found it fun to creatively think of ways to bring out the best in Beth’s songs; for me this was the epitome of collaboration.

It didn’t matter that the idea – or even the melodies – didn’t start with me. In fact, many of the sometimes-overwhelming steps of composing were either eliminated or reduced because my choices were already decided for me.

I ended up writing a 7-minute choral song cycle of four songs I titled Magic & Merriment. Knowing Beth, I felt the title suited her and captured the full spectrum of Christmas themes in her songs: the magic of wonder, and the merriment of celebration. It also harkens back to Christmases of yore, matching some of the age-old poetry Beth used for texts. The oboe added a hint of the Renaissance, and I couldn’t refrain from adding a tambourine to round out the festivity.

I believe that “composing for oneself” and “composing for someone else” should overlap. If I can’t connect with the project on a personal level, I won’t be able to capture the essence of the idea and the music will not come alive. While I wrote in a different style than I usually do, I found the part of me that resonated with the project – and in this case, it was a love for Charles Dickens’ writing.

Magic & Merriment will be premiered by the Chorus of East Providence at their concerts on December 9&10, 2023. Information about tickets can be found here.

If you are interested in collaborating on a project, contact me here.

Thankful for New Trails

In North Carolina, 2023 is “The Year of the Trail.” These trails could be hiking trails, antique trails, cheese trails, wine trails, historical trails, any kind of “trail” that helps people to connect with what is good to find in North Carolina.

I find it interesting that my personal trail led to North Carolina in 2023, and I am finding a lot of good here.

So, in today’s blog, in honor of Thanksgiving this week, I’m going to share ten things that I am especially thankful for right now, and how that is impacting my music.

  1. My husband: my husband was willing to uproot and move to North Carolina so I could go to school. He is also willing to do almost all of the housework and cooking to give me time for my school and fellowship work. I know how blessed I am, and I thank him every day!
  2. My kids: My kids are grown now, but it is still a challenge for Mom and Dad to move almost 1,000 miles away. They were willing to take it on, and we are keeping in touch. I am also thankful for super-cheap plane tickets so they can come visit at Christmas!
  3. New hiking trails: hiking has always been a hobby I love, and I’ve always preferred the mountains. Now, instead of having to take a weekend (which I didn’t get often) to drive 5 hours and stay overnight (and hope the weather is good on that specific weekend), I can take advantage of nearby trails whenever I have a day off. And if the weather is bad? No sweat. I didn’t lose money on traveling, and I’ll just wait a week. Getting out in nature clears my mind and rejuvenates me.
  4. Mountain Views: It takes an hour to get from my apartment to the school, but I have mountain views each way. No complaints! The mountains are always inspiring, and I love how they look different every single time, depending on the clouds, the amount of sunshine, and how much humidity is in the air.
  5. New Connections: I have made new connections with a few professional musicians in the area, but even more so I am making connections with many of the faculty at school – despite the fact they are not my course professors! All of these connections are the start of some form of collaboration, and I am super excited (and will keep you up to date as things happen!)
  6. Caring Professors: All of my course professors are kind, warm, helpful, and truly care about their students, wanting them to succeed. I feel like I am getting a “small liberal arts college” vibe at a medium-size university, which is perfect for me.
  7. A Private Teacher who knows exactly what I need: I wanted to write a microtonal piece. My teacher has written microtonal pieces. I wanted to get a more thorough understanding of post-tonal theory. It turns out I know more than I thought, but as we go along, my teacher has been able to explain things in such a way to fill in the gaps and bring it all together for me. Most of all, I want to learn how to teach composition, and he is a great model.
  8. My Church Choir Director: It’s a really wonderful experience to work with another professional musician at church who can talk shop at a deep level. This is a new experience. He has even asked me for musical advice a few times!
  9. My Church Choir: I’ve played with community choruses for years, but accompanying a church choir satisfies my soul on an even deeper level. I have also come to really understand how valuable and how much of a ministry a church choir is to a church. And how hard church choir members work! In a 3-month period, we are working on a complete Christmas cantata AND performing a new anthem every Sunday! That is an incredible amount of music! Members’ knowledge of music varies widely, and I can’t believe how well this group of 25-30 volunteer singers (depending on the Sunday) puts it all together! I also love how much fun we have, and how the weird instruction in a piece, telling me to “pedal generously,” has now become an inside joke.
  10. My Church: I grew up Evangelical. I am now at a United Methodist Church. The culture is very different, though here I am going to focus on music. In most of the churches I attended before now, there were very few people, if any, that had an interest in classical music or jazz and attended things like concerts put on by the local symphony, choral society, or chamber music or jazz festival. I felt very alone and unsupported in my pursuit of training, and later work, in music at a professional level. I was even called a musical snob on many occasions, though I tried not to be. (Which meant I basically stopped talking to people about what I do or what music I like.) Another time, I got scolded for playing Bach preludes and was told I need to play “church music.” I don’t have to hold back at this new church. They actually appreciate it if I don’t. This church has demonstrated the value it places on music by putting up serious money towards it. A few examples: a HUGE pipe organ (!!!), a 9ft Kawai concert grand piano (GASP!), at least three Kawai baby grands, including one in the choir room (another gasp that there is such a room as the choir room, plus closets for the choir robes and a music library!), a set of nice (real) handbells, and high-quality sound equipment. I can truly say I’ve never before been at a church that has invested in music like this. I no longer feel like a musical weirdo at church. And, by the way, some members have even shared tickets to the symphony and choral society with me!

Thirty Years Later

In my last blog post, I talked about how moving to begin my master’s degree was the most difficult decision of my life. It is also one of the most important. For me, it’s kind of a re-do of college, not just a continuation. I am making up for lost time.

It’s a significant year, an anniversary. I started my bachelor’s degree thirty years ago. This year I started my master’s degree at Appalachian State University (pic of the music building, below.)

Broyhill Music Center at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC

When I look back on going to college the first time around, it brings up a lot of painful memories. Indulge me in a story as we travel back in time.

When I was sixteen, during the fall semester of my senior year of high school, I began applying to colleges: Wheaton College in Illinois, my top choice: Houghton College in New York, and the University of Rhode Island, my hometown choice – one that my parents required.

Wheaton College was everything I was looking for: it was a Christian school; they offered every aspect of music I wanted to study and experience: saxophone, piano, composition, jazz; it was in a small town but only 45 minutes from Chicago and accessible by train so I didn’t need a car. I was so convinced I wanted to attend Wheaton College, I wanted to go through the early action process. To be super sure of this, I wanted to attend a “prospective students” weekend that November.

My parents refused to come see the school with me.

They also told me if I went to the prospective student weekend, they would not take me in January or February for a (required) in-person audition. I had a choice: apply to the school for early action, sight unseen, or see the school later and apply for regular decision, without the benefits of early action.

I decided to go through with the early action application and visit the school during prospective student weekend. That brought up a second problem. Since my parents refused to go out for the normal audition days, they made me audition early. It was November. Music school auditions are normally in January and February. None of my musical friends had yet taken a college audition and could share their experiences.

I was concerned about bringing my saxophone onto a plane in its flimsy original suitcase-style case, but my parents refused to help me get a flight case for it. They made me borrow a saxophone at the school for my audition. My parents didn’t call the school to help me with this – I had to arrange it myself when I got there. I was a random sixteen-year-old with no adults with me, borrowing an expensive instrument from the school with no collateral. Looking back on this, I don’t know how this was allowed. I didn’t even get to audition with the saxophone professor since he was out of town at a festival – something that would not have happened on a regularly scheduled audition day.

I was entering uncharted territory – my first college visit, my first college auditions (saxophone and piano), and flying in and out of Chicago’s O’Hare airport – alone, at age 16.

Despite the challenges, Wheaton’s beautiful campus only cemented my desire to be there. I was in love with the school, but I had no one to share it with.

Visiting Houghton College was a far different experience. My parents took me this time, mostly because we could drive out and back without staying in a hotel. While I really, really liked Mark Hijleh, who would have been my composition professor, the school did not offer either saxophone studies or a jazz ensemble, which were both very important to me. The school’s location also did not impress my teenage self. There were more cows than people; when the very small school was in session, the population of the town quadrupled. While Houghton is within two hours of Rochester and the Eastman School of Music, there was no public transportation, and I wouldn’t have had a car.

That left my last option: The University of Rhode Island.

The Fine Arts building was the ugliest building on campus, a “modern” cement monstrosity built in the 1960s. It needed fixing from day one. It’s only been in the last three years that the long-overdue renovations have begun.

When I was applying to the school, the hallway between the practice rooms and the recital hall flooded when it rained, and you could hear rain from the leaking roof dripping onto the stage. Classes were sometimes canceled because too much rain would short out the electricity in the building. Sound ricocheted off the cement-block walls at deafening decibels, softened in the practice rooms with this impossible-to-clean coiled I-don’t-know-what hung on the walls which collected all the grime and germs from every person who ever walked into that room over the years. The bathrooms were atrocious. Some of the faculty were rumored to be creepy, and none of the faculty offices had windows in the doors.

I was accepted at all three schools. I was offered partial scholarships at Wheaton and Houghton; URI’s terribly underfunded music department had no money to hand out except a couple hundred dollars to cover my private lessons.

My parents made too much money for me to qualify for financial aid.

My parents outright refused to help me attend Wheaton because of the cost. They never did bother to see for themselves why it was my first choice.

That left a choice between cows and a car.

When my parents asked for advice about what to do about my education, they heard what affirmed their desires: “You get out of it (school) what you put into it.”

Well, that’s not exactly true.

There’s only so much juice in an orange; you can’t get more just because you squeeze harder.

I was expected to adapt and make do; the toxically-positive phrase “bloom where you’re planted” comes to mind. What I needed to really thrive was not the main concern.

I ended up choosing URI and found that my classes were full of students who didn’t like to practice or study. (URI had recently been named the #1 party school in the nation, and there was reason for that. Things were so bad that to combat the problem, the Greek system was essentially shut down for a time, and the campus was declared a dry campus.)

I also didn’t jive with my saxophone teacher and thought his saxophone always sounded like it was stuffed with socks. For this, and other reasons, URI just wasn’t the right school for ME.

Choosing a school is a very personal decision and one that can greatly impact your future trajectory. Students transfer all the time, when they discover partway through their degree that their current school situation is not working for them.

I got to that place. I got to a point where I was such an emotional wreck and wondering why I was even studying music that I wanted to take time off from school and figure things out.

However, my parents threatened that if I took time off, their help with any future schooling would be reneged. I had to make a decision amidst the turmoil: switch schools (Houghton being the only immediate option) or switch majors.

To sum up a story for another day, I switched majors and ended up graduating with a BA in elementary education and music, which did indeed change the trajectory and timeline of my life.

I don’t know what I should have done differently thirty years ago. Should I have resisted my parents and attended Wheaton, taking on student loans in order to be where I wanted to be, studying what I wanted to study? Should I have given up on jazz and saxophone and been cloistered with the cows at Houghton? Should I have stuck it out at URI with a saxophone teacher I didn’t like?

I can’t answer that question; it’s like trying to prove a negative.

What I can say is that I have learned that I need to do what is best for me. I have learned that being in a place where I can thrive is not selfish.

So, what does that have to do with NOW, thirty years later?

Well, after thirty years, my children are now grown. My super-supportive husband was willing to uproot and start over in a new place so I could go to school, working in a fellowship that I am particularly suited for, learning from a teacher who knows just what I need for the projects I’m pursuing, in a place I love.

Appalachian State was the only school I applied to, because I knew it was the right fit. It was all, or nothing.

It’s not just about a getting a degree. It’s also about closing wounds, meeting my own needs, and finishing what was started.

The Hardest Decision I’ve Ever Made

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

I moved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why would we leave?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But nothing is a guarantee, really.

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

It was now or never.

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

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

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

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

Time to choose a trail for our first hike!

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

Am I Still a Mother?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being creative and being a mother is very difficult.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was still a mother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Critiques

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, from Judge 2:

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

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

So, let me point it out.

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

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

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

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

Well, which is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about unclear!

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot is at stake to get it right.

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

That’s a really big gaffe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s All About the View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You My Advocate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some ideas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Same, But Different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the same piece, but different.

Here are pics of the before and after: