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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.

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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.”

Bingo.

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.

How Many Hoops?

I faithfully check the “opportunities” pages at a few websites every couple of weeks to see if there are any new competitions or calls for scores to which I can send a piece. There are far more listed than I can possibly enter, and that is mostly due to the laundry list of entrance requirements. Most of these requirements have nothing to do with music. The other day, I was hopeful about one call for scores until I came to the last requirement on the list: “the piece must have been written less than five years ago.” Seriously? It’s frustrating. Sometimes it seems the world of new music is meant to exclude more than include. I understand that making a call for scores broad can create an overwhelming amount of work for an ensemble, but most of the time all the “ands” in the fine print make it sound like the ensemble already has the composer(s) and the piece(s) picked out…not unlike the way government contracts often work. The bidding is a ruse.

I decided to write a list of requirements I regularly come across. I’ve come up with sixteen so far. If I come across more, I will add them at a later date. As you will see, most of these requirements have nothing to do with the piece itself. Many of them smack of elitism because they require a great deal of privilege: access to capital in resources of either money or people who can help a composer. Other requirements involve things that a composer cannot change about themselves.

In no particular order, here’s the list:

  1. Age: Usually, age restrictions involve an upper limit. Lately, that cut-off has often been age forty, unless the competition is specifically for teenagers. I don’t understand why forty is considered young, but forty-five is not. I personally do not feel any different than I did five years ago other than that I’ve lived through a few more hard knocks.
  2. Gender/Gender Identity/Sexual Orientation: Occasionally, there are competitions open only to those who identify as women, but more and more I have seen competitions open only to those who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. I have not tracked this (and maybe I should), but my guess is that in 2021 I have seen five competitions for the LGBTQIA+ community for each competition for women only.
  3. Race: Some competitions are open only to those who are people of color. Occasionally, these are race-specific. Occasionally, they are culture-specific, a requirement which seems less restricting, but more confusing (to me, anyway.) I saw a call for scores that was focused on the “Mexican-American experience.” I wasn’t sure if that meant that only Mexican-American composers could write about that topic or if it was open to anyone. Yet, if one is not Mexican-American, can one compose authentically about the Mexican-American experience? See, confusing. I didn’t have anything that matched the musical requirements, anyway, so I didn’t bother asking.
  4. Level of Professional Development: Various categories include: “emerging,” “professional,” “amateur,” “student” (with sub-categories of high-school, undergraduate, and graduate.) Some get specific about whether or not you are majoring in music as a college student, or whether your income comes from composing only, music in general with some composing, or not from music.
  5. Specific Experience: I’ve come across competitions that expect the composer to show they can “write for the ensemble.” Sometimes they want the exact same instrumentation. Sure, just last week I wrote a piece for double bass, bassoon, and gong.
  6. Geographical Location: Do you live in the right place? Many competitions and calls for scores are focused on promoting the music of composers from a particular place. That might be a city, a state, a region of the United States, or a country. If I lived in New York City or in Minnesota, I could enter many more competitions and calls for scores. It almost makes me want to move. Almost. But not to NYC.
  7. Age of Piece: When was the piece written? How “old” is it? I have often come across a limit of twenty years, which seems somewhat reasonable to me for something to be considered “new music.” As I mentioned above, I came across a requirement that a piece be less than five years old. Later, I will talk about a competition that requires a piece be less than two years old.
  8. Performance History: Some ensembles want to world-premiere a piece. Others want to premiere a piece in their locale. Premiering pieces gives a boon to the ensemble and increases cred.
  9. Travel to Performance: Many times, the selected composers are required to travel to the performance…at their own expense. Ensembles often try to soften this by saying, “We can provide a letter you can use in applying for travel grants.” I personally have not built up grant-writing skills, and I don’t even know where to find travel grants to apply for. But sure, in my “free time”(haha) I will do that. Until then, if I can’t afford to go to the performance, I can’t afford to win.
  10. Fees. To keep the theme of money going…am I willing and able to pay the fee for the competition or call for scores? Some fees are outrageous, some are modest. Recently, there has been a push to reduce or eliminate entrance fees. Some ensembles are joining this movement, but it is certainly not universal.
  11. Recording: Some competitions require a recording. A real, live recording. Not a MIDI mock-up. A real, live recording. One that requires either 1) a performance, or 2) the capital of people a composer can call on to do a reading as a favor, or 3) the capital of money to hire musicians to do a reading, plus the space and/or money to do such a recording. The larger the piece is, in length or in forces, the more difficult this becomes.
  12. State of Publishing: Is the piece published or unpublished? Or is it self-published? Many times, if that piece is available for sale to the public – even if it has never been performed – it is disqualified.
  13. Length of piece: Most competitions include a time limit. Unfortunately, that excludes any piece that is just a couple of minutes too long and can’t be shortened.
  14. Style: Sometimes competitions call for pieces to be written in a specific manner to honor a past composer, or to use specific world instruments, or incorporate extended techniques.
  15. Difficulty of piece: Sometimes, the difficulty level is specified, depending on who will be playing the piece. This is especially true if a school or youth ensemble will be performing it.
  16. Instrumentation: Do the instruments and/or voices used in the piece match the ensemble that will perform it? This is an obvious question. Occasionally, this is open-ended, but most ensembles also have their own limitations.

Only the last four requirements have anything to do with the piece itself, and only the last two have anything to do with the actual ability of the ensemble to execute a performance.

I had hoped to enter a call for scores coming up in December, but for various reasons I was not able to finish my project in time. That means I’m out of luck. I will never be able to enter my piece in the annual competition because, after this year, the first song in my song cycle will have been written prior to the two-year age limit for the piece. In addition to the two-year limit, this competition also requires a live recording. This is why I can’t enter it – I cannot finish it in a reasonable time to give it to performers to learn, then record, then polish a recording if needed before the deadline. The competition also has an entrance fee. The time, expense, and effort involved in such a project is immense. Maybe this competition is not really worth it.

I have long wanted to form an ensemble myself, in part to address some of these hurdles to composers. I would love to have a competition that is tailor-made for people like me. How about a competition for moms over the age of thirty-five?

I can certainly understand why an ensemble might want to promote the music of certain composers, and I understand that ensembles might want to focus on specific styles of music. I understand that time limits allow ensembles to include more pieces, and feature more composers, in their concerts. (However, these time limits could affect the overall development of music – I mean in a historical fashion!)

Perhaps ensembles should explain why they must have a premiere, why they have chosen an arbitrary age limit, why they require composers to attend performances at their own expense, why a piece must not have been published, or why a piece needs to be less than two years old. Needless requirements that have nothing to do with music narrow the search for good new music too much and may cause quality pieces to fall through the cracks.

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.

Why Are You Teaching Math in Music Class?

As I was teaching rhythm this week to my 5th grade class, specifically a lesson on 8th notes, I asked if they had learned fractions yet in math. As I went on to explain that an 8th note has the duration of half of a beat, one student asked, somewhat antagonistically, why I was teaching math during music class. After all, they were there for music.

The short answer is that music relates to every other aspect of life.

I’m not exaggerating.

I’m not going to try to prove that studying music will improve a student’s academic performance, even though studies show it does. I will argue that studying music changes the way a person views the world.

It is easy to see a relationship between music and math. This relationship is probably the most discussed, a thread that goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks who believed that music was a “mathematical and philosophical description of how the universe was perceived to be constructed.”

Ratios, rhythm, patterns, measuring intervals, inversions, chord structures, harmonics, the overtone series, the structure of instruments and how they produce sound, frequencies and intonation – it’s all math.

And science, too.

How much one learns in each of these areas depends on how deeply one studies music and what specific area of music one focuses on. While a performer may have a general idea of harmonics and how to produce them on their instrument, the sine and cosine of a sound wave is much more important to an instrument maker or someone who composes electronic music.

Music relates to math, and science.

And language, too.

I told my students that I would not be talking about just math and science in class, but also English and language in general.

How does music relate to language?

Many pieces of music throughout the ages have been inspired by story. Composers such as Joseph Haydn and Darius Milhaud wrote pieces inspired by stories of the creation of the world. Richard Strauss wrote a piece based on Don Quixote. Many operas and musicals are settings of plays. Leonard Bernstein’s musical, “West Side Story,” is a re-imagination of Shakespeare’s play, “Romeo and Juliet.” Many poems are set to music, and that involves consideration of rhyme, accent, and speech cadence. Word painting can become tone painting. Onomatopoeia in a poem may be demonstrated with an instrument. Music is a living form of communication, as notation develops and shifts the same way that new words, spellings, and grammatical conventions change in a language, a topic I address in my blog post, The Limits of Musical Notation.

Music also relates to history and culture. Obviously, there is the history of music itself. But the music written in any given time period is deeply influenced by the culture in which the composer lives: the philosophy of the day, the instruments available, the economy, the level of nationalistic sentiment, and various shared significant experiences (in our day, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the COVID-19 pandemic are examples.)

Music also involves psychology. It is directly connected to our sense of perception, especially hearing and kinesthesia. Music helps us identify and express emotion. It can help build self-confidence and manage depression and other mental illness. It can help soothe pain and even aid those with dementia.

When one studies music all these things are addressed, in one way or another, sooner or later.

But there is one more thing I want to mention: social cohesion.

I have always considered music a social activity, but since I have been teaching general music to grades PreK-8 in a school, I have seen the value of music in developing social connection more than ever before.

When making music, all participants are moving in the same direction, at the same time, at the same speed. Each person may have something different to do at any one point. One person may be resting while another person is playing fast notes, but the beat continues on the same for all. Music helps a group work together as one. It’s not just about having a shared goal, like a sports team in which each person on the field fulfills a role while some may sit on the bench. It’s about moving together. There’s a reason why music, including chanting, is used during marches, even by the military. There’s a reason why work songs were used on ships or in the fields. There’s a reason music normally accompanies dance. That steady beat unites us all, like the heartbeat of a collective organism.

Moving together is not a natural skill. If it was, my second-graders would be able to pass a bean bag around a circle in time with the beat. But they can’t, not yet. It is something they will learn, along with math, science, language, and social studies.

In music class.

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.

Searching for THE One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But sometimes my fingers just won’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

But the reasons don’t matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Pay or Not to Pay Entry Fees

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

I can understand both sides of the issue.

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

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

Again, both sides have good points.

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

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

Here are some things I consider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern Agriculture and New Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does this have to do with music?

Well, a lot.

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

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

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

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

Any music written NOW is new!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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