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Laying Dreams to Rest

I climbed Mt. Liberty in the White Mountains National Forest this past week. It was the first 4,000 ft mountain there I had climbed. It will likely be my last.

I’ve always been an outdoorsy person, from the time I was a little girl. In fact, when I was seven I wanted to quit piano because practicing took away from my time to play outside. (I am thankful my Mom didn’t let me quit.) I was fascinated, and still am, by the natural world. It has always been a source of wonder and enjoyment.

Weirdly, aside from canoeing with my Dad, I really didn’t grow up in an outdoorsy family. I remember going hiking only three times as a kid, nature walks aside. When I was six or so, a group from my church hiked in the Blue Hills south of Boston, MA. I was fifteen the first time I hiked in the mountains of New Hampshire, when we were visiting friends. When I was a senior in high school, I took a friend along a challenging trail near where we lived in Rhode Island and found the way back to the car by intuition.

My junior high youth group did a one-overnight camping trip in our local state park. The next time I camped was a few months after I got married, when a college friend and I went up to New Hampshire for a weekend and set up camp off-trail near the base of Mt. Moosilauke. We attempted to hike up the Beaver River Trail that weekend but didn’t make it to the summit. The beauty of the river and the challenge of the hike caused my jaw to drop, and ever since I have wanted to go back and try it again after more practice. Now I don’t think it will ever happen.

My husband was born-and-raised a city boy, but I convinced him to try outdoor activities. He fell in love with it as well, and all our camping and hiking experience is what we have gained as adults, including some bloopers. One time, I took my daughter up Mt. Monadnock; the clear day turned to rain as soon as we got to the summit. It is very rocky there, and concerned about my balance, I decided to slide down some rock ledges on my behind, tearing a hole through both my hiking pants and my underwear. I was truly em-bare-assed. Thankfully I had a jacket to provide some cover! A friend of mine then said he learned lessons like that when he was a kid. That’s great – if one grows up in a family that provides those opportunities. But I’ve had to learn, make mistakes, and collect proper gear as an adult.

Those opportunities have been slow to come. For five years, my husband was in seminary in Louisville, KY. While we did hike in the area and included short trips to locales a few hours away, such as the Shawnee Hills in southern Illinois and Mammoth Caves in southern Kentucky, our trips back home to visit family were short and didn’t include enough time to get up to the mountains.

Then, in the spring of 2011 while walking our dog, my back got twisted. I was in excruciating pain 24/7 for six months because the doctor believed that physical therapy would help the “bulging disc” return to place. I was treated like I was seeking drugs until finally in October, after taking the maximum amount of Ibuprofen, Prednisone, Gabapentin, and Vicodin I could one morning, I ended up in the ER with pain so intense I could not cope. After giving me yet more pain medicine, the nurses watched as my leg buckled under me as soon as I felt better enough to get up to use the restroom. No, I wasn’t faking; surgery was scheduled for two days later. The surgeon went in thinking she was taking care of a bulging disc, but discovered that she was actually going to have to cut out bone and also remove a cyst that had been hidden in the MRI. She later admitted she was nervous as she saw my sciatic nerve squashed flat. Thankfully, it began to reinflate immediately as soon as the pressure was relieved.

I am so thankful to God that I no longer have pain. In fact, on a normal day I have less pain now than when I was a teenager. (I used to think all that pain was normal.) However, that doesn’t mean all is well. In the course of treatment, my physical therapist discovered that I have a loose sacroiliac joint. She warned me to stay away from certain activities that would aggravate the problem, which includes basically anything that causes one side of my pelvis to be higher than the other. Unfortunately, even walking down the stairs can cause my joint to go out, if one foot hits the floor too hard.

I wasn’t sure how I would do hiking. Having been laid up for so long, then having my mobility restored and being pain-free like never before really motivated me to be proactive about pursuing more hiking. For the most part, I was fine. Hiking is a comparatively slow activity compared to running, so I could carefully consider how to place my feet. I was doing great, and every time we went hiking we progressively tried something more difficult.

Mt. Liberty did me in.

I didn’t have a problem with the ascent. The only break my husband and I had to take on the way up was to eat lunch because we just couldn’t wait to reach the top before addressing our dropping blood sugar. The problem was not the steepness alone; we had hiked a steeper trail in Grand Teton National Park. The problem was the combination of steepness and rocks, particularly on the way down. Yes, the rocks form a sort of “staircase.” Yes, there is a lot of sure footing. But it is extremely uneven, and that unevenness is what my loose SI joint can’t handle.

When my SI joint goes out,the left side of my pelvis drops several inches lower than the right, twisting my lower back and putting pressure on my sciatic nerve. It causes a lot of pain, but not just pain. It also reduces movement and lowers response time. It becomes harder to lift my leg, so it’s easier to trip. It’s harder to twist my leg to maneuver around obstacles. And I definitely cannot go fast. It took me as long, or longer, to go down the mountain than to go up. My physical therapist had showed my husband and I how to push my SI joint back into place when it goes out, but there’s no flat spot on the trail for me to lay down on the ground to do that. Even if I had borrowed a tent platform for a couple of minutes at the campground, my SI joint probably would have been out again fifty feet down the trail. At points, I was very nervous. What would have happened if my sciatic nerve got so irritated that my leg wouldn’t hold me up any longer? The fear of going back to that place is always there.

So, Mt. Liberty showed me my limits. In an ironic twist, Mt. Liberty liberated me from a daydream of ever trekking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. Backpacking at all is completely out. The question remains what day hiking I can manage. Even though exercises can help stabilize the SI joint, I can’t risk getting stuck on a mountain somewhere because my legs quit working. It’s hard to judge what a trail is really like based on a short description in a book. I know I won’t be able to hike “difficult” trails in the White Mountains, but what about places I have not yet been? How will I be able to know what I can do? “Rocky and steep” is such a subjective description.

I don’t care that I can’t run; I’ve never been a runner. I don’t care that roller skating bothers my hips; roller skating was out of style years ago. I can’t go bowling. I did that once months after my back surgery and ended up in pain for three days. But it isn’t a major loss in my life to not do something I only did once in a great while. Hiking is a different story. It is an activity I have enjoyed and intentionally pursued. It is tied up with the types of vacations my family has taken for the last twenty years: we camp and we hike.

Driving through Franconia Notch on the way home, I sadly looked up and knew my one brief taste of the ridge was the only one I would ever get. I won’t get to any other ridges. I will probably never hike up Mt. Washington. A congenital skeletal condition that puts me at risk for getting seriously injured makes it unwise to make any more attempts at difficult trails. I have to be glad I got off Mt. Liberty without incident.

I usually write about music in my blog posts, and while this post is mainly about hiking, it does tie into advice I have given my kids. Success in music is not guaranteed. A person can be the most talented, skilled, and devoted musician and still have their career derailed by things outside their control. An illness or an injury can end the pursuit of a musical career, like it did for my husband whose desire to pursue classical guitar performance was thwarted by severe tendonitis in his arms that, to this day, is aggravated by overuse. Perhaps the need to care for a loved one will cause musical dreams to die. A lack of the kinds of success one desires is not always (often?) a reflection of how hard one works. I’ve heard and read more times than I can count that the main thing that separates a successful artist from an unsuccessful one is stick-to-it-ive-ness. “The one who keeps going is the one who makes it.” Well, sometimes you can’t keep going, and that’s not a character flaw. In those cases, one must learn to satisfy one’s love for one’s art in ways that are different than one originally intended, the same way I need to learn to enjoy hiking only on easy and moderately difficult trails. No amount of exercise, preparation, stamina, perseverance, guts, or determination is going to make it safe for me to take a difficult trail that could get me stranded on a mountain or worse. Like many others who have had to put dreams to rest, I have to learn to not feel “less than” because I can’t do what others can do.

Whether it is personal or professional, laying dreams to rest is hard and depressing. If you have faced these kinds of disappointments, you have my sympathies. A lost dream does not make one a loser. I know well that enormous amounts of desire and effort don’t mean things will work out the way we hoped, and I know how much it hurts when our dreams don’t come true. It’s not the ones who try and succeed who have the most courage. It is those who try and “fail” and learn to live in a new reality amidst disappointments who I admire the most.

Is Music Theory Racist?

I was shocked earlier this week when music theory hit the news! It doesn’t happen every day that the world gets a small peek into a very obscure field. Apparently, a controversy erupted between music theorists Philip Ewell and Timothy Jackson over whether or not the theorist Heinrich Schenker’s personal racist views were inherent in his philosophy of musical analysis. (Schenker analysis is part of standard music theory study for college-level music students; among musicians this is definitely a hot topic. If you would like to read up on this controversy, you can find articles at these links, all of which offer different perspectives and details: Dallas Observer; Denton Record-Chronicle; NPR; National Review. If you look deep enough into an online search, you can also find the actual writings involved in this controversy, those of Philip Ewell and The Journal of Schenkarian Studies run by Timothy Jackson at the University of North Texas.)

I have not yet taken the time to read Philip Ewell’s writings, nor the recent issue (or any issue) of The Journal of Schenkarian Studies. I will likely get to it eventually because I am a nerd about these things.

But my post isn’t really about this particular controversy. Instead, I am writing about one of the questions that has been brought up by the controversy: Is music theory racist? In my opinion, the short answer is: No. Now for the long answer.

It is important to understand what music theory is and is not.

Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. That means, one can only analyze music that is already completed. Theoretical analysis is only an effort to describe how the music of a composer takes shape. Taken too far, as is often done in analysis class, it can suck the life out of a piece of art. Theorists then take analysis of music that was popular in a period of time and come up with a theory about “how music works.” Really, it should be “how music worked” – in that time, in that place. Different music theorists will come up with different processes of analysis and reasons as to why their analysis is better than another theorist’s, and they “argue” about it in the form of books and journals. Or, they might argue about the rightness or wrongness of a previous generation’s favorite theorist, as in the case I mentioned above.

Any particular theory should not then become a limiting factor in the creation of new music. It teaches what can be done and what has been done, but it should not dictate what must be done. Some composers may find the old styles to be a springboard for their own work; others reject the old styles completely. Arnold Schoenberg disdained music theorists and even said they couldn’t be real composers because of their ties to the past. (His own book, Theory of Harmony, was not an analysis of past music, but a justification for his own then-new music.)

Music theory is also limited; it is not universal. Music theory can only explain music that takes place in a certain time and in a certain place. As music evolves, new theories develop to explain what is happening in the new music (after it is new, of course.) Music from different parts of the world also use different music systems. Schenker’s musical analysis only pertains to European music. And even then, it only pertains to some European music. The folk and dance music of various European cultures indicate different approaches to music that the standard classical analysis simply skips over.

I understand why that happens. There’s only so much time to teach theory and analysis, so we stick to what is most common in much of the west – white, European music. And if we are teaching classical music, we are by definition avoiding folk music. We just need to make this clear.

The problem comes not in the theory, but in the teaching. There may only be time to teach analysis of classical, European-style music, but there’s a problem if it is presented as the only legitimate style of music. There’s a problem if the music is presented as the only music that was written during that time. It does not take but a minute to run through scales that are not major or minor and say, as I did to my high-school students, “we are focusing on major and minor scales in this class, but here are some other scales that exist.” As we went through part-writing, I made it clear that we were discussing “basic tonal harmony” and that newer music and non-European music doesn’t necessarily follow these rules. Pique the students’ interest. Let them know there is a world of music that exists beyond the one class. Perhaps they will be inspired to learn more on their own, or perhaps they will make the time to take a music class that does focus on something that is not white, European classical music. More and more music schools are including jazz programs and even ethnomusicology programs.

What if European classical music *is* presented as the only legitimate form of music? Is that racist? Hmmm…. Well, I don’t know if it is racist or not. I would say it is ethnocentric and highly irresponsible. I believe there’s a fine line between ethnocentrism and racism, sort of like the difference between manslaughter and murder – it is about intention. I can’t know a person’s intention. But whether ethnocentrism is fueled by ignorance or by outright racism, it is still irresponsible. At the college level, I believe music students should at least be made aware that other musical systems exist, even if there is not time during standard analysis class to address them in detail. Every music school theory department is certainly aware of the existence of other musics and systems, and to withhold that information from students would make me ask, “why aren’t you letting them know?”

Ideally, college-level music schools would offer more theory classes that go beyond European classical music. They waste so much time starting with the basics of music theory. Perhaps this deserves another post, but why do we not expect a certain basic level of theoretical competence from incoming students? Even at conservatories, prospective students can perform dazzling auditions, but seriously lack in music theory and ear training. I know that high school students who are gifted in music can learn Freshman college-level theory because I taught them. How about we expect incoming students to know how music works as well as they know how to play, so schools can get beyond the trap of European classical music?

No, I don’t think that music theory is inherently racist. To even think that it is is a misunderstanding of music theory. There is no one music, and no one music theory, so how can the entire subject be racist? Schenker may provide a solid analytical structure for much of classical European music, but there’s a lot more out there – a whole world of music to explore.

Check out my post, “We’re Having a Music Theory Issue in This House”.

A Song for Social Justice

Have you ever forgotten you wrote a piece? Obviously, this doesn’t apply to you if you don’t write music to begin with. But perhaps you’ve forgotten something else fairly significant that you did. Well, I have.

A couple of weeks ago, my mother said to me, “You know, given everything that is going on in the world these days, I think you should share that piece you did.” “What piece?” “You know, that one about the homeless girl.” Instantly, images of rehearsing with my husband and a few people from church entered my mind. I could not believe I had forgotten we had done that! And then the thoughts: How long ago was that? 2008? That was six computers ago! I think I have a copy of the CD somewhere, but my computer doesn’t have a CD drive. I think John’s external CD drive still works. You want me to do what? Put this up online? What was the NAME of it? And as usual, when I can’t figure out the word for something I start rotating through the alphabet to see if something triggers it. A, ab, ac, ad, ae, af, ag, ah, ai, aj, ak, al, am, an, ao, ap, aq, ar, as, at, au, av, aw, ax, ay, az. Nope. B, ba, bb, bc…. and so on until I get to S. Right! S… Say a Little Prayer, I think it was?

“You mean ‘Say a Little Prayer’?” “Yes, that’s the one. I think you should put it up on your website and all the things you do.” “Really?” “Yes, I think it would be meaningful right now.” “OK, I’ll see if I can find it.”

So, I did. The history behind the song goes like this:

Back in 2007, my family and I moved back to Rhode Island. My husband had just finished his required in-person classes in seminary and was looking for a church to pastor in New England. We moved in with my parents for what turned about to be about 6 months. In that time, he did find a church – just 15 minutes away – a tiny church in a tiny corner of southern Rhode Island that no one can find without the specific correct address. About 2 weeks after we moved back to RI, before he was hired by the church, I got a letter in the mail, addressed to me using my maiden name and my parents’ address, from someone I went to school with during my undergrad years. She was doing a project to raise money for Habitat for Humanity, creating a collective CD of song with themes addressing homelessness. Did I want to submit a song?

Of course I did! But, I didn’t have a song to submit. I quickly wrote one and put together a demo to meet the deadline for consideration. They liked the song, but I needed to make a better recording, which they gave me time to do.

In the meantime, we started at the church we are now at, and lo! Behold! This tiny church was amazingly and surprisingly gifted with a number of skilled musicians. I spoke to them and asked if they would like to partner with me in making this song and getting it onto the CD. They eagerly agreed.

I wrote the lyrics and the music and played the piano. Joining me in my ad-hoc band are: my husband, John, on guitar; Michelle Cole, on vocals; Everett Brown, on violin; Mary Audette, on flute. Believe it or not, Everett and Mary were also on the New England Christmastide albums which I had on cassette and wore out playing them so much in high school. And here they were, in this tiny church tucked in a tiny corner of southern Rhode Island no one can find without the specific proper address!

Putting this song together was one of those “God-incidences.” I am not one to believe in coincidence. There are just some things that taken too many twists in order for the right moment to happen, and this is one of them.

If I had still been living in Indiana, even if I had gotten word from my parents about what came in the mail, and even if I had written a song, I wouldn’t have had access to the musicians I needed to make it happen. Remember, I got this letter just a few weeks after we moved back to RI. I was almost still in Indiana.

If my husband had not yet found a church to pastor, or if we had ended up at a different church, there’s a good chance I would not have been able to make a good recording. There’s no guarantee a church would have musicians skilled and ready to do a project, and I wasn’t yet connected to a musical community in Rhode Island.

Back in 2002 when my husband was working on his own music, he bought a mixer and recording machine. We brought that back to RI with us. If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t have had the technology or knowledge to do the recording ourselves, nor the money to hire a professional to do it.

The day we did the final recording, one of the band members had a kidney infection and didn’t know it. If the recording had been delayed, it wouldn’t have been finished in time for the deadline.

I’ve been asked if the song is autobiographical. No, it is not. I had a nice, financially comfortable, solidly middle-class upbringing. However, the lyrics about a 13yr-old homeless girl praying to God about her troubles, are based on bits of stories I have personally heard, along with my imagination.

If you would like a copy to download, there are two choices: You can get it by becoming a patron here. Or you can purchase a download here. Either way, in keeping with the original purpose of writing the song, $1 will be donated to my local chapter of Habitat for Humanity for each new patron who joins my Patreon community and each purchased download.

Twelve years later, I’m still happy with how it turned out. I hope you find it as meaningful as I did writing and recording it. Without further ado, here is “Say a Little Prayer.”

Become One With Your Instrument

Back when I was taking saxophone lessons in high school, I remember talking with my teacher about a problem I was having playing. I can’t remember what the issue was, but his advice included an explanation of the need to become “one” with my instrument. He told me I needed to know the instrument so well that it became an extension of myself. Whatever note I wanted to play, my fingers should go right there without question about where the note was. Whatever kind of sound I wanted to create, all the parts of my mouth should form the correct shape, and the instrument would respond immediately. I should know the instrument so well that it becomes part of my body, like another arm or leg. Of course, this takes practice. Practice does two things: it helps us learn the music, and it helps us learn the instrument.

I think about this advice almost every day, and have for years.

A while back, someone criticized me for not having a piece memorized and said I must not know it very well. (I have a lot of difficulty memorizing, but that’s for another post.) After feeling the sting for a bit, I realized, “I may not have that piece memorized, but I have the piano memorized.” In fact, when I am able to memorize a piece, I can play it with my eyes shut, even a piece by Bach, because I know the piano so well. The piano has become an extension of myself; I know the feel of all the keys and the distances between them.

I thought about this when my church got back to having in-person services and had to practice playing with a mask. That really interferes with some downward looking, and I could not see my hands at the keyboard the usual way. I had to rely much more on my physical familiarity with the piano while playing the hymns.

I think about this when I am teaching and making my students practice scales, chords, and arpeggios. I know they probably find it drudgery; I did when I was young. I do my best to explain how scales, chords, and arpeggios are beneficial, but it’s not really something you can fully understand until that day you come across them in a piece of music and your fingers fly across the keys in automation because you have practiced them thousands of times. It’s much easier to learn individual pieces when you’ve already mastered the building blocks.

I think about this in terms of composing, though it is only partly related to knowing the piano. It is even more about being attuned to my inner hearing, pitch and imagination, and be able to write that down. It is also being so familiar with technique that executing it can be done quickly. One time I was teaching on part-writing and going over an assignment with a student. It took him a couple of hours to do the assignment, and it took me five minutes to correct all his mistakes. I’ve done a lot of part-writing, so it has become automatic; it helps that I read it all the time playing hymns for church. I almost don’t have to think about it.

My family and I were discussing Bach yesterday and his incredible ability to improvise toccatas and fugues at the organ. That didn’t happen overnight. He wrote so much contrapuntal music that the understanding of how the notes interacted became intuitive and oozed out of him.

It’s all really a matter of practicing and drilling skills more than a stroke of genius. Inspiration does not guarantee those ideas will be well executed.

I thought about this the other day as I tried out my new-to-me keyboard accordion for the first time. I am not anywhere near close to “one” with the instrument, despite having some knowledge about how it works. I cognitively know where the notes are, and I know well the theory behind the organization of the left hand buttons, but before I can make use of that knowledge, I need to become intimately familiar with the feel of the instrument. My hands must know the location of each button – what my mind knows means nothing right now.

Time must be put in, there’s no way around it. If you want your music to ooze out, through your instrument, or through your composition, you must drill skills. Scales, chords, arpeggios, and compositional exercises are the musician’s version of “wax on, wax off.” Despite knowing well the benefits of all this drilling, I still find it’s always good to be reminded to keep at it.

(If you’d like to see a video of me trying out the accordion for the first time, click here.)

Getting My Learning On

I got official word this week from one of the choruses I accompany that we will not be having a fall season. This was not unexpected. I won’t be surprised if the other choruses make the same decision. I’ve been preparing for it – as best I can, anyway.

Summer is a slow time for me, as it is. While some musicians normally have summer festivals, I have nothing. My groups follow the school-year calendar, so I only have a trickle of private students during the summer months. Normally I focus on my garden. Last year, I music directed a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. This year, taking a side job at a local community theater wasn’t an option.

Amazingly, however, though the virus has forced many musical events to be canceled or restricted to smaller groups, several composition workshops have gone online and opened up their programs to more attendees! I am exceedingly grateful for this.

The Young Women Composers Camp had to cancel all in-person activities but made a way for presenters to give online workshops. They opened registration to everyone – for FREE. Obviously, I am not a young woman composer, but I am still “young” in my career. I am still emerging, and I feel I can glean a lot from listening to what presenters have to say, so I’ve been taking time out on Mondays and Thursdays to tune into a Zoom meeting. I am curious; I am learning.

National Sawdust created a Digital Discovery Festival full of videos and podcasts of performances, interviews, and masterclasses with composers and performers of new music. Also FREE! I haven’t gotten to these yet – there are so many!

Later on this month and into August, I am “attending” the Lake George Composition Institute and another Composers Conference. The Lake George program was originally meant to be only for young composers. Now, they have expanded the online offerings, and composers of all ages can benefit. The Composers Conference is offering several workshops online which I am very excited about. For example, I will have the opportunity to hear from performers about writing for various instruments, which is very beneficial for someone like me who doesn’t have easy access to performers at a university.

Even though I am not young, I am still learning. I started composing later in life, but I still benefit from a lot of the same things as “young” composers do. It would be difficult for me to get to many of these programs in-person, besides having aged out of them. Being older also gives me grown-up bills, like college for my kids, which can preclude me from traveling to a week-long workshop. I am thankful that these groups have re-imagined their programs and opened them up to online presentations and a wider audience. I am thankful that all of them were either free or offered at a very reasonable price. An older emerging composer like me often falls through the gaps, but these groups found some cracks and filled them.

It turns out I’m working all summer, after all. I’m working on learning and improving my skills. I will be able to take what I learn this summer and keep on working at it throughout the fall. Some forced “time off” is more like “time redirected.”

Meanwhile, I’ve decided to also work on getting what I *do* know out there to others in internetland. I’ve started a Patreon community in which I will share behind-the-scenes insights into my compositional processes and decisions, interviews with other musicians I know, and lessons on music theory and form, etc. Patreon is a place where people can directly support artists. However, I want my Patreon supporters to feel that they are not just supporting my work, but that joining is a benefit to them. I want it to be a place where they can learn and enrich their own understanding of music.

A summer (and now fall) that is normally a down-time for me in regards to work has become an opportunity to be able to focus on things I would not have otherwise been able to do. On one hand, my income is diminished. On the other hand, I cannot predict how the work I am doing now may pay off down the road. Even if it doesn’t show up monetarily, I am investing in myself by getting my learning on.

(If you are interested in checking out my Patreon community, follow this link: https://www.patreon.com/heatherniemisavage)

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

Last summer around this time I completed my first song cycle.

This song cycle was years in the making, first coming to my mind in 2014 when my composition teacher at the time suggested I write some songs for voice and string quartet. I decided to set love poems written by women and began scouring public domain poems on the internet, copying and pasting ones I liked into a document file. At that time, I wrote one song, wrote the melody for another, and sketched one or two others. But then I put it away.

In the fall of 2018 I decided I wanted to submit it to a song cycle competition which was for voice and piano. I reworked the first song for piano instead of string quartet, used the second melody to finish another song, and wrote four more. It was an 18-month long project. I finished the last song in June 2019 and gave it to a singer. We rehearsed and recorded in the fall, and I submitted the project to the competition in December 2019. (I didn’t win, but that is neither here nor there for this story.)

Last June, I began planning the first official concert of my own music. I originally wanted to premiere the song cycle on Valentine’s Day; they are love songs, after all, and Valentine’s Day was a Friday in 2020 – perfect! However, my husband convinced me to wait until summer when I wouldn’t have to risk canceling the concert due to snow. Plus, I also discovered that one of my closest friends who I only see every few years would be in the states then. She has an amazing voice and was willing to sing.

I chose pieces to fill out the concert program, gathered musicians I know to perform, found a venue, set a date for July, and was about to put down a deposit. Who would have thought that we would have no snow during February 2020 and something much worse than a snowstorm was heading our way? In March, Covid-19 hit and canceled everything.

As much as I have missed attending rehearsals and performing in concerts, having my own project and premiere put on hold indefinitely is a far greater disappointment.

A month or so ago I learned that New England Conservatory and Harvard University were closing their big auditoriums, Jordan Hall and Sanders Theater, respectively, to outside groups during the 2020/2021 school year. My first reaction was to ask, “What are all those groups going to do?” These halls are constantly being used, multiple times a day, just about every day of the year, by the school ensembles as well as outside ensembles that rent the spaces for performances. Performance spaces that can fit a sizeable group and a sizeable audience are hard to find. Performance spaces are difficult to get even for smaller ensembles. Many smaller community performance spaces, like churches and especially libraries, lack good pianos or have restrictions such as disallowing tickets to be sold.

I didn’t think that I’d face the same problem in my small town where concert venues are used relatively infrequently. When I learned that the governor of Rhode Island was going to begin allowing concert venues to have audiences equal to 66% of the capacity starting in July, I was hopeful. Maybe I could have this summer concert after all! I only have seven performers, including myself, and a maximum of four would perform at any one time, so social distancing wouldn’t be a problem. I never expected an enormous crowd, anyway. The audience could easily stay within the 66% of capacity limit, and I plan to live stream as well. So I reached out to the venue to ask if I could reserve a date. I expected to hear a “yes.” I figured an organization with a hall like that sitting empty all this time could use some money. I figured that musicians all over would be eager for some live music, and my little concert would be a baby step in that direction.

Instead, I learned that they are not renting the hall for the remainder of 2020 and possibly longer. The secretary said, “I am so sorry we cannot host your concert.” I appreciate her sentiment, but she has no idea.

A Time to Speak?

The last few weeks have weighed on my heart. Seeing yet another black man killed by a cop on one hand, and on the other hearing from many people how more white people are killed by police and this isn’t really a problem. Yet almost every single person of color I know has personal stories of things that have happened to them or immediate family members – of teen boys being followed by police for taking a walk in their own neighborhoods because someone new thought they looked suspicious, or black members of a band my husband was in tell each other to take care while driving home because everyone knows you don’t get caught DWB (driving while black) in Indiana. I heard a neighbor anxiously question why “those people” were in our neighborhood when a black family visited another neighbor. With my own ears I’ve heard many people make assumptions that a black person was “probably” guilty of a crime.

So I don’t buy the idea that there is no longer much racism, and I don’t buy the idea that there are no problems with a system which allow racist and violent cops to remain on the force.

I’m told that I have to speak up.

Many have said that if individuals are not speaking up then they are racist. Even people I consider to be reasonable thinkers have posted things online that say if people don’t participate in protests then they are complicit in racism. Well, I’m not going to go to a protest. I’m just not that person. I went to a March for Life once, when I was 13, and determined to never go to another rally of any kind. I don’t even like crowds when I’m having fun. And right now, it is personally disheartening to see thousands of people permitted to gather for a protest, regardless of any legitimacy of their complaints, when all my work has been cut off for who knows how long because of the ban on large groups (and the increased virus risk that still remains from those gatherings!)

I’ve heard from many in the music world that we need to use our art to make a difference. On one hand, I get it. Art can be very powerful in communicating a message. On the other hand, it could sound trite if everyone decides that racism is the topic du jour. Will it really make a difference if I write about what is happening *now* when it takes so long to complete a piece and then get it performed? By the time that day comes it may be stale. Perhaps only those who can authentically write about such topics using electronic music and digital media, or chamber groups that meet social distancing standards, and get it out quickly should do so. I am all for addressing topics like injustice – ideas that are timeless – in art. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be done NOW.

Besides, I already wrote a piece; it just hasn’t been performed yet, and I don’t know when it will be. Back in very early 2020 the focus of the year was celebrating the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Ensembles all around the country were making music written by or about women the theme for their concerts. In response to a call for scores, I wrote a choral piece I titled, “The Truth Will Prevail” which uses quotes of Sojourner Truth for the text, combined with a line from the traditional spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine.”

The text goes like this:

"Life is a hard battle anyway,
But if we laugh and sing a little
As we fight the good fight of freedom
It makes it all go easier."
"I will not let my life's light 
Be determined by the darkness around me."
"I feel safe in the midst of my enemies
For the truth is all-powerful
And it will prevail." (Sojourner Truth)
"I will not hide it under a bushel, no!
I'm gonna let it shine!" (This Little Light of Mine)

Whether Sojourner Truth’s words were solely about women’s rights or also anti-slavery sentiments, they were a response to oppression. The piece includes some blue notes and ostinati as one might expect in a piece partly inspired by African-American music. It is a heart-felt piece, one that I really connected to on many levels. I have listened to ragtime, blues, jazz, Negro spirituals, Black Gospel music and other “Black” music from the time I was a little girl. I studied jazz piano, played saxophone in the jazz band and played piano in the pit for “The Wiz” in high school. “This Little Light of Mine” is just as much a part of my church culture as it is in the Black church, except I didn’t learn about its connection to the Civil Rights movement in Sunday School. I can’t remove all that from my musical heritage even though I am white.

As I sent out the piece I wondered if I would be accused (silently, of course) of cultural appropriation. Who am I, as some white woman, to take Sojourner Truth’s words, African-American musical sounds, and a spiritual for my own artistic use?

It’s a bit difficult to know how to address the issue of racism in my art.

I’ve heard it’s not enough to have non-white friends. Not even the black girls who lived down the street when I was five who taught me how to roller-skate and jump double dutch? (Sorry, it was so long ago I have forgotten their names.) Or Brandy, one of my best friends from elementary school, who was Cherokee? Or Lucia who played four-square with me? Or Preymalitha who was my first friend upon moving to Rhode Island and remained friends with me until we graduated high school, who had such a beautiful Indian name but couldn’t decide if she wanted to use a name no one could correctly spell or pronounce or stick with her English name. I cannot remove those friendships from the formation of who I am today.

Is it not enough that I began listening to music from all over the world in high school – and haven’t stopped? I even introduced my kids to it and still regularly go to concerts sponsored by ethnomusicology departments at local universities. Is it not enough that I brought my kids into as many possible situations as I could where they were interacting with people outside our “demographic” and teaching them that all people must be treated with dignity, regardless of their color or status, simply because they are human beings made in the image of God? Is it not enough that I have modeled an open mind (not perfectly, of course, but with conscientiousness) and have even let myself be influenced by different points of view?

No, it seems I must *say something.* Well, here is my statement: I hate racism, and I hate hate; I hate inequality; I hate injustice; I hate death. But it’s not enough to hold a sign or to march or to speak up or to give or even to make art if our hearts are not softened with love. If I feel stirred to address issues with my art, I aim to have the courage to do so. But most of all I hope to model and inspire love.

A Time to Keep Silence

I’d be shocked if anyone my age or older did not know Pete Seeger’s song, “Turn, turn, turn” which essentially quotes verses 1-8 from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. Yes, there is a time for everything.

Right now, I believe it is a time to keep silence.

Other than teaching, my income comes mainly from accompanying choral groups. I was looking forward to the spring concerts. I was looking forward to a summer choral festival. They were all cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But even worse, as reported by Middle Class Artist, an expert panel compiled by the National Association of the Teachers of Singing, the American Choral Directors Association, Chorus America, the Barbershop Harmony Society, and the Performing Arts Medical Association, agreed there is really no safe public singing until there is a vaccine or effective treatment in place.

More and more reports are coming out telling of events where one individual has infected many others with Covid-19. A combination of time and the number of viral particles in the air contribute to the level of contagion. A rehearsal or church service lasts longer than a trip to the store, and the level of breathing involved in singing causes more potential viral particles to be propelled farther and inhaled deeper into the lungs. Even excessive talking can be a problem in certain situations. I have been following these stories closely. As a church musician and choral accompanist, it pains me to read these reports.

I must admit that I am having a hard time with this. Even if I believe it to be true, it is still difficult to accept. Not only have I been a musician since I was a young child, but I have specifically been listening to or participating in singing all my life. From the time I was an infant, my parents brought me to church where I first heard choral and congregational singing. By six years old I was singing in the children’s choir at church. I accompanied the group when I was eight. I sang in the chorus in elementary school…in middle school…in high school…in college. Wherever I went to church over the years, I either facilitated singing at the piano, or sang with the congregation, or participated in the church choir. Every week, for forty-four years. Singing is as much a part of my heritage as my ethnic makeup.

It is not easy for me to say it is time to keep silence.

Many of the people involved in the groups I accompany are in high-risk groups, whether due to age or health conditions, including a couple of the directors. The same is true of many members of my church’s congregation. Singing would be very risky for them. Why would anyone want to put someone else in their own close-knit group at risk? Because of this, I have advised my church to refrain from group singing during services. I am concerned about the welfare of my church members. I don’t know when I will rehearse or perform again with my choruses. I miss seeing and making music with everyone.

Even so, it is a time to keep silence.

It is hard to keep silent. The voice is the only instrument contained within the human body. Singing and talking are elemental to our existence. It is hard to keep silent in a world where everyone wants their voice heard. To keep silent is a bit stifling. It is a bit humbling.

Yet, this time of silence is here. In a sense, it has been forced upon us.

Ecclesiastes says there is a season for everything. I do pray this time of silence lasts for only a short season. However, as difficult as keeping silence is, it isn’t inherently a bad thing. After all, we have a phrase that says, “silence is golden.” It’s interesting that some of the English translations of Ecclesiastes 3 say “keep silence.” We are silent because we are keeping guard. Silence is a discipline. And while we practice it, we learn how to listen.

It is a time to keep silence. It is crucial. But I do believe it is for our good.

There is No Stagnation

My young piano student was rightly feeling a proud sense of accomplishment for finishing his first lesson book. Eager to start the next one, he told me in his seven-year-old understanding of the world that he had thought piano lessons were going to be over at the end of the book. He was happy they were continuing. I told him there is always more to learn in music, and that I am still learning music. He looked at me with amazement. “Are there pieces you don’t know how to play?” he asked. “Oh, yes,” I told him, “there are so many pieces I couldn’t live long enough to learn them all!”

The vastness of music is one of the things that draws me to it. It is a bottomless well. Even if I could learn to play all the piano pieces written during the last few hundred years, that only begins to scratch the surface of what there is to know. I told my student I don’t just learn new pieces to play. I also read books – lots of them. I read books on music theory, books on orchestration and the development of instruments and ensembles, biographies of composers, and history books that give insight into the cultural conditions of the time which influenced the development and spread of music. I listen to music, old and new. I study scores. I compose.

With all this studying, along with practicing and composing and rehearsing and teaching, I could easily spend 10-12 hours a day doing music-related work and still not even begin exploring it all. It is a bit overwhelming, really. Where to begin? What to look at next? Sometimes I wish I was still in school so I could have someone tell me what to do. But I know whatever I do or whatever I read, it is going to add to my experience and knowledge, ferment in my mind, and inform who I am as a person and a musician who is constantly developing.

Back when I was in high school and decided that I wanted a career in music, I began delving into everything I could possibly learn. I realized that my involvement in music is much like a relationship; I am either tending to it, or I am not. I am becoming more intimately acquainted with my instrument and increasing my general musical understanding, or I am beginning the slide toward atrophy. There is no such thing as stagnation, in music or in relationships. A continual lack of attention eventually leads to its end.

This expanse of knowledge is common to many fields of work, but being a professional musician doesn’t necessarily require one to continue developing. In order to renew licensing a nurse or teacher, for example, must continue to earn professional development credits. This is not so for musicians. In many settings, a musician could do only the minimum of practicing to learn a piece of music without doing anything further to grow in their understanding. A musician could continue to play the same pieces or the same genre and listen to the same music over and over again, satisfied with “arriving” at a certain point and going no further. Musicians can learn only the music for hire without stretching themselves to do anything more challenging. (Often those pieces repeat! In my years of professional collaborative piano work, I’ve played several pieces multiple times and rarely need to play them more than once through in practice.) Musicians don’t have to read books; they don’t have to take lessons from another professional they admire.

A musician’s growth is mainly self-directed. That doesn’t mean we all have control over the career path we are on, but outside of the tasks that earn money, there is plenty of room for expanding one’s understanding of the field. It is mostly a matter of choice, though I know for some individuals their circumstances are more limiting. Some may be lucky enough to have so much work they can’t possibly do anything more than stay on top of their responsibilities. But I venture to guess that most of us have extra time to expand our skill and knowledge, to put in some extra practicing, read a biography, learn composition, explore a different notation systems, listen to or learn new music, or research and write on an aspect of music. Just like members of any other professional field, we always have more to learn.

I have heard stories about professional orchestral musicians counting down the days until they retire; I’ve had a conversation with one such horn player myself. I just don’t see the point. Music is too hard of a career to maintain to be worth it if one doesn’t love it. How can musicians engage the audience if they don’t love what they do? Some musicians who landed a stable consistent gig might say the money is worth staying in a job they don’t like, but I have to wonder if the music they play is as lifeless as a lesson taught by a burned-out teacher. And now, that money is largely gone.

This time of pandemic is horrible for musicians. All my performances are cancelled; I don’t know when rehearsals and concerts will start up again. Only half my students opted to continue lessons online. Even so, musicians who depend on performing as their sole or primary income are in much worse shape than me, especially as social distancing guidelines have cancelled festivals of all sorts through at least July. I imagine this could kill more than a few careers. Many musicians may have to resort to finding other non-music work to make ends meet; some of those may not return to music. Others may be able to get by until musical events start up again in full swing.

But, either way, all of us musicians have more time on our hands. What we do with our extra time will reveal our true desires. Will we keep at practicing, even if it is after working at a store during the day, preparing for a return to a musical career? Will we take extra time to learn a new skill like composition or music production? Will we create original work? Will we dust off the books? Will we decide that now we have time to work on solo repertoire and prepare a recital, even if it must be live-streamed? Or will we let music slide and our love for it grow cold? The decision is completely ours.

Composing is an Act of Faith

Every time I put pencil to paper I am making a statement. It’s not what I produce that is the statement; is it the act of composing which makes the statement. Each day when I begin to work, I am saying to myself, and the whole universe by proxy, that what I am doing matters. Music, emotions, stories, ideas – they all matter. It is also a statement of hope. Hope for a future performance, and hope for an audience that will be affected and see the things that matter from a different perspective.

Composing is always an investment in the future. I am writing now, but the fulfillment of the piece is down the road. The Bible defines faith as having confidence in what is unseen (Hebrews 11:1, paraphrased.) While there is a difference between spiritual faith and the faith it takes to be a composer, this definition applies to my work. Every time I write a piece, I am declaring a conviction that my work about the things that matter deserves to be heard and a strong hope that someday it will be brought to life. If that conviction and that hope aren’t there, why compose? If the things that matter don’t matter, why write about them? If there is no hope for a culminating performance, why even start?

Performances are the most tenuous part of this process and are not guaranteed. Even if one is scheduled, something can derail that plan. Like a pandemic, for example. This pandemic has canceled innumerable concerts across the globe, including several performances of my colleagues’ works. I didn’t have anything definitively scheduled, but ensembles I had sent scores to for consideration had to postpone performances before they could make decisions about my pieces. I just received my first official commission. Will the piece be performed this coming December? The following year? We don’t know yet; we must wait and see what the progress is concerning governmental regulations regarding social distancing.

It is hard to compose amidst a pandemic. Facing illness and death on a large scale causes us to question what really matters. Having so many things cancelled now, and not knowing the future, makes us wonder when, or if, things will ever get back to normal. Some people may find the situation too traumatic to compose. I get that. Individuals need to practice self-care, and some may choose to take a break from composing. (An excellent article on this can be found here.)

But on a philosophical level, composing is more important than ever. What is happening right now matters and deserves to be communicated in music. We need hope more than ever that opportunities for performance will return. Perhaps our composing will change. Maybe we will now write more pieces which we can perform ourselves. Maybe we will write for smaller groups that can rehearse more easily and livestream performances. Maybe some will explore further use of electronic music. Perhaps some will continue to write for large groups in defiance of this virus, looking forward to the day when they will get back together for rehearsals and performances.

What needs to be said? Do the stories of those suffering need to be told? Does the angst of the time need to be expressed? Do we need reminders of beauty and love? Can we express joy about the positive changes in the environment taking place as we stop production for a while? Write it. Declare that it matters. This is a momentous time, and the world deserves a musical record of it. Do we know when the performances of these new pieces will take place? No. Some may be able to happen quickly, others may need to wait. But it doesn’t matter. Write in expectation. Write with hope. Deposit art in the account of the future. Tell the world, both performers and listeners, that when they are ready, we and our pieces will be there waiting for them.