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.

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

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!

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The Scandal of Silent Night

What Silent Night scandal? You are probably wondering what I could possibly be talking about? How could the most-recorded, most well-recognized Christmas carol, labeled an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO, be a problem? How dare I make such an accusation?!

Let me explain.

My husband has been preparing Advent sermons using various Christmas carols as springboards. A couple of weeks ago, during his preparation for his sermon using Silent Night, he came across a new English translation of the hymn. The information was too important to ignore. He didn’t have time in his sermon to address it, but I said I could write about it in my blog. And so I am.

The original lyrics to Silent Night were written in 1816 by Josef Mohr, a Catholic priest in Austria. In 1818, he asked his friend Franz Gruber to set the text to music, and this became the tune we know today. The original version has six verses. In 1859, the song was translated into English by John F. Young, an Episcopal priest, who was serving at Trinity Church in New York City at the time. He translated only three verses: 1, 2, and 6.

In 1998, the Silent Night Museum in Austria asked Bettina Klein to make a new English translation of the original text – all six verses. It’s interesting (and somewhat shocking) to see the differences between her translation and the one by John Young.

The first glaring difference is that John Young changed the words in the first verse from “Round yon godly, tender pair/ Holy infant with curly hair” to “Round yon virgin, mother and child/ Holy infant so tender and mild.” I don’t believe this is an instance of wanting to use better syntax or better sounding words. He also changed words in verse 2 (in the English, verse 6 in the German) from “Of angels singing alleluia/ Calling clearly near and far” to “Glories stream from heaven afar/ Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia.” This creates a change in meaning. Instead of the angels calling out to those near and far, they are calling from afar. The three verses that John F. Young left untranslated support the idea that he was translating according to his own convictions and theological bias. The remaining three verses in the German reiterate that Jesus came for the entire world, an idea that John F. Young seems to have avoided. (You can find Bettina Klein’s translation here, and this website provides the original German and additional translations. You can find John F. Young’s translation alongside the original German here.)

I hesitate to make judgments about people I have not met and cannot question, but there is a lot of evidence that John F. Young was choosing to align himself with racism against Black people.

To give a little background, John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, was an abolitionist. In 1784, the Methodist-Episcopal church (MEC) was founded. Due to the MEC’s anti-slavery stance (prior to the split and formation of the MEC-south), by 1790 20% of the membership was made up of free and enslaved Black people. The MEC established Wesleyan University, named after John Wesley, in Middletown, CT. John F. Young attended this school, but dropped out after his freshman year.

After leaving Wesleyan University, John F. Young attended Virginia Theological Seminary, part of the Episcopal Church. Unlike the MEC, the Episcopal Church did not question the institution of slavery in the United States. In fact, the Episcopal Church was the only denomination in America that did not split over the issue of slavery prior to the Civil War. When the Civil War broke out, the southern dioceses formed the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States and celebrated having thrown off the “hateful and infidel pestilence” of abolitionism. After the war ended, the Episcopal Church did not question legalized segregation and discrimination toward Black people. Even after Black people were finally allowed to form their own Episcopal churches and have their own clergy, these congregations were disallowed from voting in the diocesan conventions. Nor were Black students accepted into the Episcopalian seminaries until the mid-20th century. Understandably, a large number of Black people left the Episcopal Church for other denominations, especially in the South. (You can read more of the Episcopal Church’s own words on this facet of its history here.)

This was the community John F. Young chose to join after leaving the anti-slavery MEC.

After graduating from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1845, John F. Young ministered throughout the South, including Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. He eventually was elected second bishop of Florida and taught in the Department of Liturgy and Ecclesiastical Music at the University of the South.

I can’t say for sure what John F. Young’s motivation was for translating Silent Night the way he did, but I dare say it would not have been socially acceptable for John F. Young to describe the holy infant as having “curly hair.” Leaving out the verse that references Jesus as a “brother [to] all nations on earth” is another way to avoid upsetting the social balance. Translating the hymn as it was originally written would likely have risked giving legitimacy to Black Christians, something the Episcopal Church was not willing to do at that time.

Sadly, it is John F. Young’s translation that has been used ever since in most English-speaking places. Those of us who do not know German and are unfamiliar with the original text are none the wiser. We have happily sung a favorite hymn not understanding how this translation has limited our view of the scope of the Gospel. We sing, disconnected from Mohr’s words reminding us that redemption is available to all people.

It creates a bit of a cognitive dissonance, loving a favorite hymn while also recognizing its troubled past, tainted by omission.

In 1978, Alfred Schnittke composed an arrangement of Silent Night for violin and piano. With it’s abrasive dissonances that seem at points to be needling, the piece caused a scandal in Austria. Years later, after a performance of the piece in Cambridge, MA, the Boston Globe titled the review, “With ‘Stille Nacht’, Schnittke Couched Protest in Tradition.” It makes me wonder how much Schnittke, himself a late convert to Christianity, might have known about the history of Silent Night. I know the unsettled harmonies he used reflect the cognitive dissonance the hymn now brings to my mind.

It seems to me that couching protest in tradition is the right way to go. Let’s start singing the updated, more accurate translation of Silent Night. Let’s sing all six verses and celebrate that, through Jesus, “all the world is redeemed.” But let’s keep the melody – it’s a good one!

If you wish to hear Schnittke’s version of Silent Night, listen here.

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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It’s More About Purpose than Praise

I get a near-constant stream of rejections. It’s mostly because I am constantly sending in pieces to competitions and calls for scores and, most of the time, my work is not what they’re looking for. I got three rejections this past week. I’ve become used to it.

But sometimes I get a response from someone that cannot be defined as being opposite to rejection. It is a response much deeper and more personal than simply “liking” my music. It’s born out of a profound engagement with my music.

This week, I got a couple of unexpected messages from a friend who lives in another state. In this first, she said that one of my blog posts reminded her that she could listen to my piece Daughter of the Stars on Apple Music. She began listening to it and wrote me to tell me how lovely it was. I appreciated the listens and the praise, but two days later she wrote again with sad news. Her cousin and good friend had suddenly died, and she was grieving. She told me that she was praying and walking to process her feelings, and she had Daughter of the Stars on her playlist to listen while she walked. DotS was bringing her comfort, reminding her that beauty existed in the world even when everything was dark and painful. This was a comment that was more than praise. She wasn’t trying to communicate that I wrote a nice piece. She was telling me that my work has purpose, that it was doing good in the world by lifting her spirits.

This past weekend, the Greater Tiverton Community Chorus premiered my piece O Holy Night, O Glorious Light which I had been commissioned to write in commemoration of the ensemble’s fortieth anniversary. They did a wonderful job! I received plenty of praise for my work. But one particular chorus member’s comment has stayed with me. She told me, “Every season, one of the pieces the chorus performs really speaks to me. This season, that was your piece. I have been having a tough time with things lately, and your piece has encouraged me and brought me a lot of peace.”

Another person telling me my music has a purpose.

Last month, I received an order on my website from an orchestra director at a high school in Texas. He ordered the score and parts for DotS and also hired me to add a harp part to it because his school has some young harpists. He hopes to have his ensemble play it at a competition. This speaks to me much more than “I like your music.” It says, “I believe that your music has educational merit. It will help my students grow as musicians, and it will provide a challenging and engaging opportunity for them.” He didn’t say those words, but he didn’t have to. I knew what he was saying: my music has a purpose.

As a composer, I don’t think there is any higher compliment that I could receive than someone telling me that my music profoundly impacted their life, helped them get through a difficult time, or caused them to view the world differently.

Regular praise dissipates. It just does. It can get lost in the sea of rejections. But when people tell me how my music has impacted them, it connects me to these individuals forever in a very intimate way. My music which is a part of me has become part of them, and part of the relationship we have. These comments stay with me. I can’t stop thinking about them! These are the comments that are strong enough to bust through any self-doubt, fear, or discouragement. I may get a never-ending flow of rejections, but I will still know that my music has made an impact that cannot be undone.

I am grateful that these two women shared their hearts with me; I am grateful to the orchestra director who considers my work something inspiring to young musicians. These are the treasures I collect in my heart.

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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A Return to Performing

You know that feeling you get when you haven’t exercised in a while, when unexpected soreness reminds you of the existence of muscles you forgot you had? Or maybe you know the feeling you get after the first spring afternoon spent outside after a winter of being cooped up inside? The exhilaration of a beautiful day can lead to exhaustion since the fresh air and bright sunlight are so intense all at once. Your stamina just hasn’t built up yet. Even good things like exercise and sunlight are taxing and require an easing into.

That’s what it feels like, coming back to performing after two years off. Yes, I technically did play in two musical theater shows this past year, and yes I did play a single piece at a small, casual concert back in September. But yesterday’s concert was the first of its kind that I’ve performed in since December 2019.

In contrast to playing in the dark or behind the scenes in a pit orchestra, I was on stage. Instead of playing before an audience of forty, I played in front of six-hundred. Instead of playing a part that mostly blended with the other instruments, I played parts that were mostly exposed. Instead of playing a single piece or taking long breaks between pieces, like in a musical, I played seventeen pieces in a row (with a short intermission.)

So many things were different from two years ago. Though I was working with the same director, the group was slightly different. It was smaller. Many people I knew and had looked forward to seeing didn’t come back this season. There were some new people whose names I didn’t know. The venue was different. The piano was different. The set-up was different. I was playing much farther from the chorus and director than before due to the limitations of the new space. Though the piano was fed through the sound system and the ensemble could hear me, I couldn’t hear them very well and I couldn’t tell how loud I was playing in relation to their singing. I had no choice but to completely rely on the sound technician to mix it right. There was a lag time between the sound of the chorus and myself and the rest of the instrumentalists. At times, I had to rely on my own sense of time and hope that the ensemble and I were in sync in the ears of the audience. I could barely see the director as the afternoon sunlight streaming in through unshaded windows backlit her conducting patterns. The angle was all wrong. I had to turn slightly left to read the music and slightly right to look at the conductor. Using my peripheral vision wasn’t even an option. I was very happy I had given up on getting used to my bifocals months ago because they just would have made everything much worse.

All through the concert (and the dress rehearsal the day before) I coached myself: listen to this, don’t listen to that; look at this, don’t look at that. I was tuning in and tuning out at the same time. And, of course, I was also focusing on playing the music correctly.

In short, I was using mental muscles of performance concentration I hadn’t used in a very long time, and perhaps never to that extent.

It was exhausting.

Usually, a good performance produces mixed feelings of being spent and energized at the same time. I know I’ve given my all, but I also normally want to talk about how it went and go out to eat with my family. But last night we picked up a falafel salad and headed straight home. I made such a mess eating because I could barely coordinate getting the fork to my mouth. I felt like I had been hit by a truck.

I should have expected it.

I have long told my students that learning an instrument, learning a piece, auditioning, and performing are all different skills – and they all need practice!

I’ve been out of practice performing. Even my feelings of performance anxiety returned.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with performance anxiety. But in my personal experience, that has lessened the more I have regularly been up in front of people. I got used to it. I “practiced” performing. I became comfortable with being on stage, knowing what to expect, where to go, how to stand, the brightness of the lights, the various physical sensations of performing, and what to do if I started shaking or feeling dizzy. But, in the week leading up to yesterday’s concert, the stomach twisting and the feelings of panic showed up from time to time. Yesterday, while I played one particular piece, my fingers started shaking and I internally yelled at myself, “breathe, Breathe, BREATHE!” until it finally subsided.

As we dragged ourselves into the house after the concert last night, my husband said “What a grueling weekend.” I answered, “But wait, there’s more!” And there is. More new, more firsts, more performing: my first concert at my new school tonight, and my first concert with an ensemble I’ve never performed with before (my first season with them was cut short by COVID) and a premiere next weekend.

Yes, performing has begun again for me, and it is starting with a bang! I hope I limber up quickly!

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

A Composer in the Making

Last week, I had my first lesson with a new 12-year-old piano student. Despite asking a few times, I couldn’t get him to answer what he hoped to learn. Did he have a particular style of music in mind, or a particular piece? Most twelve year old students I’ve taught have had an opinion on this. He didn’t.

He had taken clarinet for a year and learned some piano in a class at school, so I began to decipher what he already knew. I asked him about which clefs he could read. I asked if he knew what intervals are. He didn’t, but his curiosity was peaked.

I began explaining them, and he took off. I didn’t get past explaining a second before he was playing combinations of seconds all over the piano keyboard. I immediately had to explain dissonance, consonance, and stability. As I went through the sizes of intervals, he kept finding them on the piano faster than I could talk. He intuited, on his own, that a minor 2nd and a major 7th are inversions of one another.

Before I knew it, we were discussing chords, what makes a triad, and the different types of triads. When I played an augmented triad for him, he exclaimed, “Ooooh, that sounds ominous!”

“Aaah,” I mused to myself, “this kid doesn’t want to learn piano, he wants to learn music, and he won’t be satisfied until he is writing his own.”

He repeatedly showed me tunes he had tried to figure out by ear. I asked him if he ever tried making up his own songs. “Yes,” he said, “but I got stuck because I couldn’t write them down.”


He didn’t spend the lesson playing the piano; he spent the lesson playing with notes.

This kid exhibits many traits that I believe may “identify” a young composer in the making. What are those traits? In no particular order, these are ones I have seen in students, and remember from my own childhood:

  1. The desire to learn multiple instruments. While some students do become masters at one instrument (or more), the bopping around from instrument to instrument shows a fascination with the larger world of music and the intricacies of how different instruments make sound. Getting one’s hands on actual instruments and learning how to play, even a little bit, is of great value to a composer. It helps later on with orchestration and understanding some of the challenges performers face. The lack of focus on one instrument should not necessarily be seen as a flaw. It might be a signal that a child is a budding composer.
  2. A fascination with music theory. Some students just want to be told what to play, and how. Others want to know why. The endless curiosity signals that composition might be in the student’s future.
  3. Attempting to play songs they like by ear or write down their own songs. This demonstrates an internal drive and self-initiation related to #2 and #5.
  4. Describing music by how the effect is produces, or perhaps how it makes them feel. When my student used the word “ominous” to describe the augmented chord, he was tapping into a different kind of musical engagement than I see with most students.
  5. Experimenting with music and notes. Budding composers might explore how different note or rhythm combinations sound, or they might create “variations” on the music they are learning for lessons. They might also create instruments out of random objects and materials around the house. This may also extend into exploring electronic sounds on a computer or keyboard.
  6. Budding composers may complain that their instrument lessons are “boring.” In other words, they are restrictive. The student wants more; their itch isn’t being scratched. (This last one really only addresses kids that show other traits. Some kids simply find music lessons to be boring.)
  7. Expressing specifically that they want to learn music composition or song writing.

These traits are not age-specific. Some children might show them at a very young age; some might not develop them until much later.

What do you do if you have a child that shows interest in music composition? I believe that the best option is finding a private teacher who can teach both the student’s main instrument and composition, and incorporate those together into lessons. This makes it easier for students to be able to write music that they can play themselves. If you can’t find such a teacher, try to find a composition teacher. Unfortunately, this would add an extra expense to music lessons, because I do not believe instrument-focused lessons should stop. If you do not have a nearby teacher who can work with your student, there are some teachers who can teach over the internet. Online videos may also be helpful, though they are mostly geared towards older students.

Are there any other traits you have noticed in music students particularly interested in composition? Do you have any questions? Leave a comment below!

If you are looking for a composition teacher for your child, I have openings for in-person and online lesson. Contact me for more information.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

Dance, Goblin, Dance

I’ve always considered music to be an essential part of education. It does not get the credit it deserves in forming the mind and character of children when schools simply call it a “special”, an extra activity in addition to the “more important” academic subjects.

I began teaching general music to grades PreK-8 this past August, and I have seen even more how music teaches many things that other subjects cannot do. Many of these things are social, especially in the manner of how people must literally work together, doing the same thing, in the same manner, at the same time as one cohesive unit. This is how sailors and train track layers of old were able to work so efficiently. The songs they sang kept them working systematically and rhythmically, in addition to raising morale and maintaining motivation. (I discuss several other skills learned in music class in my post, Why Are You Teaching Math in Music Class?)

Another way music involves social interaction is through giving students an opportunity to things that are unique. In fact, some of the national standards for music education focus on giving students choices about how to respond to music and opportunities to organically invent their own music and movements in response to music. Since everyone is so different, kids learn how to give space for others to be themselves as well as take appropriate space to be themselves.

One favorite activity of my elementary classes is a singing/dancing activity called “Walk, Daniel, Walk.” In this activity, the students form two lines with an aisle down the middle. The kids in the lines sing “Walk, Daniel, walk, Daniel” then, “the other way, Daniel, the other way, Daniel” while one child walks down the aisle, then turns around at the right time and returns to the starting place.

I quickly adapted this game to allow for more individuality and instruction. Instead of “Daniel”, we used the names of the individual students, which required some rhythmic adjustment. Instead of making each child walk, I allowed them to decide what movement they would make down the aisle. Sometimes we sang something like, “Skip, Veronica, skip, Veronica.”

This week, since Halloween was coming up and the school was making a big deal of it, I decided to adapt this game some more. Another story song we did in one class contained the line “goblins dance”, so I planned to have the students sing “Dance, Goblin, dance!” The kids had another idea. “Mrs. Savage,” they asked, “can we use the names of our costumes?” Great idea! We sang, “Dance, Glinda, dance!”, “Dance, SWAT cop, dance!” and so forth. After giving a turn to all the students who wanted to dance down the aisle, we still had a couple of minutes left in class. I knew giving second turns to some students would make others feel left out because I didn’t have time for all the second turns, so I adapted the game again. I had the kids each dance in their own space while we all sang a general “Dance, Goblin, dance.”

That’s when I saw the miracle take place.

While several students danced independently, a small group of girls and a small group of boys spontaneously joined hands and improvised a circle dance together. This by itself is not too remarkable. However another boy, who has had social difficulties this year, decided he, too, wanted to join the boys’ circle.

Watching him approach the group, I internally geared up for a conflict. The boy was seeking to join the very boys he had not been getting along with; I anticipated they would not let him in, and that this boy, frustrated, would begin to scream, as was his pattern. But they let him in. Not only that, this boy, often overwhelmed in the less-structured environment of music class (compared to the desks-in-rows of the regular classroom), ended up holding hands with the boy that previously had been his arch enemy. In that moment, they became unified, responding together to the music.

The two groups dancing in a small circle gave me an idea for yet another adaptation for the song. I gathered the entire class into a large circle, holding hands. We circled together in one direction and then changed direction when the lyrics reached “the other way,” a difficult skill, especially in a large group. As they joined up to the large circle, the two boys continued to hold hands.

I won’t claim that music class was the sole factor in helping these two boys join together. Their classroom teacher has been working very hard to help these youngsters with their social relationships. I also cannot promise that this newfound peace will last. I can say, though, that music class provided them an opportunity to put those skills into practice as they improvised a response to the music and to each other.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.