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.

A Piano Meditation for a Time of Crisis

I had just finished composing a piece a week or so before the social distancing orders from the Governor were put in place. I usually take a week off from composing after finishing a piece because I feel like I’m in limbo-land, still ruminating on what I just completed and unsure what I am going to work on next. But in this time of world crisis the feeling of limbo-land lasted much longer. I, like everyone, am concerned about health and safety – not just my own, but of my family, my friends, my church, my colleagues, pretty much everyone I know, and am also wondering what the world is going to look like when this is all over – economically, politically, culturally. I wonder when my work, which was all cancelled except for a few online private lessons, will resume; I wonder if restrictions on gatherings will be lifted in time for me to hold a concert I had planned to have this summer featuring my own compositions. I picked up my son from college two months early, and I’ve been helping both my kids adjust to online classes and navigate through having to plan and apply for summer programs which may or may not take place. The future is rife with uncertainty.

It’s hard to compose in these times. I find it hard to compose when I am under stress, anyway. Being frazzled is the opposite of having plenty of mental space and relaxation for ideas to flow. I know that there are many composers who can use their composition to express the angst of difficult situations, but I am not one them, at least not now. I find myself more motivated by things I love.

But just because I am finding it hard to compose doesn’t mean I’m going to hang it up and take a break until it’s all over. When will that be, exactly? Though my collaborative piano work is over for the time being, and my teaching work is lessened, my composition work can continue. I do have the time. So, I got to work, hobbling along. I spoke a few times with one of my best friends, a writer, who asked me, “Are you getting any composing done?” “No,” I answered. The first time, I just wasn’t in the mental and emotional place to do it. The next time I said, “Well, I’m composing. But I’m not making progress.” You know those times when you set out to read a book and your eyes just see a blur of letters, unable to focus on a word? That’s what my work felt like. I was doing the compositional version of doodling, but no picture was emerging.

It’s not that I didn’t have an idea. I did. A few years ago, I began composing “Meditations” for solo piano, which I often work on in-between other projects. They are sacred pieces written as reflections on certain Scripture passages, and I incorporate some of my favorite hymns. For a while I have known that I wanted to write one using the hymn, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”, which is itself a setting of Psalm 23. What better time is there to write on Psalm 23, a well-known and beloved Psalm that many find comforting in a time of loss and confusion? I love this Psalm and I love this hymn, but I still found it hard to compose.

Eventually, fragments formed into something usable. But, try as I might, I felt confined to a very square box of mostly traditional harmony and four-measure phrases. In places, I succumbed to using parallel fifths and octaves. I couldn’t get rid of hammering chords in root position. In the middle section, I couldn’t avoid the pedaling B and the glaring augmented 2nd and raised 7th of the harmonic minor. I tried. All other harmonies sounded not just out of place or unusual, but garish. I tried lessening the octaves and using inversions. I tried getting rid of the parallel fifths. The music sounded too delicate and anemic. I spent a lot of time fighting with this piece and myself, asking “Why won’t you do something else?”

I talk a lot with writers. My husband’s work as a pastor involves a lot of writing. My best friend is a writer. One thing that we have all experienced is that sometimes we have to “let go” and allow the work tell us how its going to be. I do think I have to go through a process of figuring out whether the problem with a piece is me not taking enough risks in my composing, or if it is the piece trying to tell me something. I don’t want to give up too soon if I need to stretch my own creativity. But in this case, I needed to ask “why must the piece be this way?”

This is why: In a time of so much tumult, we crave stability. Those traditional harmonies are soothing. Those four measure phrases are predictable. Those fifths and octaves are strong like pilings. The middle section explores the uncertainty of the time by only hinting at the original melody through the use of the dark qualities of the harmonic minor and rhythmic ambiguity. The pedal B provides a constant foundation while the upper voice swirls about. The constant repetition of notes in the transitional sections express the persistence in hope and faith. The form of the piece brings us back to where we began, in peace and contentment. And so the piece communicates the message of Psalm 23. I encourage you to read the original, but as this piece incorporates the hymn, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” I include the lyrics below which are a beautiful paraphrase of this psalm and a few other Scriptures.

The King of Love My Shepherd Is 
Lyrics by Henry Williams Baker Original music by John Bacchus Dyker 

The King of love my Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am His,
And He is mine forever.

Where streams of living water flow
My ransomed soul He leadeth,
And, where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home rejoicing brought me.

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With Thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy Cross before to guide me.

Thou spread’st a table in my sight;
Thy unction grace bestoweth;
And oh, what transport of delight
From Thy pure chalice floweth!

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house forever.

To see the score, click here.

To Cancel, or Not to Cancel

Earlier today, I read a sad and sobering article about a community chorus in Washington State that held a rehearsal on March 10. Approximately 60 people met for rehearsal that day, and later that week 2/3 of the group came down with symptoms of Covid-19. Several cases were confirmed by testing; 2 people died. It appears that rehearsal was a “super-spreader event,” during which one person carrying the virus unknowingly spread it to many others. From all accounts, no one was actively coughing or sneezing at the event. It is possible the virus was spread through aerosol droplets, breathed out strongly and inhaled deeply by singers used to working their lungs.

In early March, the virus had begun to spread in Washington State, but there were no known cases in that particular county. The rehearsal took place a day before the state’s governor banned groups of 250 or more in certain counties, and two days before he closed schools, bars and restaurants. Was it negligent on the part of the leaders of the chorus to hold rehearsal that day? What would an ordinary person decide?

This story really hit home for me because that same week, on the opposite side of the country, I attended the last rehearsals of the three community choruses I accompany before they were suspended for the remainder of the spring. I had begun to wonder about the safety of rehearsals because of how catchy the virus is. But the information coming through the news was mixed. On one hand, President Trump was downplaying the seriousness of the virus; on the other hand the World Health Organization was declaring this a pandemic. No one was in agreement on how to handle the situation, and no health organization warned that the virus could be be suspended in the air as aerosol droplets. That was just an unconfirmed rumor.

As an accompanist who observes how community choruses are run (through a board, not one individual’s decision), I can see how difficult it is to make these decisions. If the the rehearsals and concerts are cancelled prematurely, it can upset many members of the chorus. Several of them paid to participate in the group, and most depend on it for a good deal of their social life. Many consider the music-making an important part of mental health. Canceling rehearsals or concerts is not a decision to be taken lightly. On the other hand, waiting too long could put members at risk for catching such a virus. How does a leader or board of directors know what to do?

Here in Rhode Island, the professional groups took their cues from the governor. Concerts were not canceled until after the governor banned groups of 250 or more. If the professional groups take their cues from the governor, how much more are small community groups dependent on clear advisement from the government? All the community choruses I am involved in are smaller than 250 people. Questions abounded: Do we meet? Do we not meet? Is it safe to be in a smaller group if we maintain social distance? One group acted proactively and canceled the season immediately. Another group waited until the governor limited groups to 50 or less before canceling the season. Another group put rehearsals on hiatus but is holding out hope that we can resume rehearsals in a few weeks and put together some semblance of a concert in late spring.

It’s not the responsibility of the group’s director or board to know the answers. In fact, I don’t think it is even possible. Unless there is a person on the board who specializes in public health, I don’t think it is fair to expect a community chorus to know what the best call to make is, especially when the information is unclear or lacking. It’s not easy to close up shop when so much is at stake. Many groups are unable to pay their professional musicians who were contracted, who suddenly find themselves unemployed when concerts are canceled and months of work vanishes. I am lucky that two of my choruses were financially solvent enough to pay me despite cancelling the season. But one group is dependent on concert ticket sales. I don’t know yet if I will get paid for work I already did. That is a reality for many non-profit arts organizations.

Ultimately, the decisions were taken out of the hands of the choruses, and other large community groups, including churches. As it should be. The experts in public health and the governmental leaders – the people who we have chosen and indirectly hired to make these decisions – are responsible for telling us the best course of action. As sad as the story is in Washington State, I do not hold the director or the board or the chorus members themselves responsible. Perhaps they held out too much hope. Perhaps they were too optimistic. Perhaps they were too trusting by waiting on the governor to take further action. But I don’t think they were negligent.

The Joy of Simple Things

A few years ago, when my “Three Short Pieces for Unaccompanied Saxophone” was performed by Lawrence Gwodz at the 2016 National Conference for the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, a colleague and friend of mine, Walter Saul, described my work as “stunningly resourceful with scant material.” Though it was an unexpected thing to hear, I found it to be a great compliment because, in just five words, Walter summarized so much of my approach – not just to composing, but to life in general.

All my life, I have been drawn to simple things. As a kid, I loved arts and crafts where the same basic materials could make an infinite number of projects. My Spyrograph gave me many hours of enjoyment. I also created many cross-stitching designs. It’s amazing what one can produce making Xs with a needle and some colored thread. I found a lot of enjoyment in nature, too, preferring to play outside rather than with toys. I also had a microscope and a set of slides and covers which went a long way in observing all kinds of things I found around the house or outside.

This ability to be satisfied with few and simple things has been part of my adult life, too. When I got married and had young children, money was tight for a long time. During the years my husband was in seminary, we brought home less than $20,000 a year. The four of us lived on that salary for five years. We struggled, but we made it through, partly because I knew how to stretch a dollar. What is chicken broth but boiled bones and veggie scraps? What is bread but flour, yeast, and water? What is jam but fruit, sugar, and pectin? What is soap but oil and lye? Later when we had goats, I made my own dairy products. What is yogurt and cheese but cultured milk? There may be unique variations in all of these, but the the fundamental concept of each is incredibly simple.

We also knew how to have fun without spending a whole lot. Days out were spent at local festivals with free admission or fishing at the lake or hiking in the national forest. Vacations were visits to family or weekend camping trips in the state park. One time we splurged and spent two nights in St. Louis because we could take advantage of the zoo and museums with no admission fee. We created at-home special dinners instead of going out to eat. Trips to the library were always an adventure. Time socializing with friends in each others’ homes was highly valued. Simple or inexpensive didn’t mean boring.

Sometimes I feel my compositions are simple, too, more like award-winning artisan loaves of bread and wheels of cheese from a rural village store than avant garde creations from a Michelin 3-star urban restaurant. But fancy isn’t necessarily better. Complicated doesn’t mean more profound. What if, because each ingredient is highly exposed, simplicity allows for more intimacy and vulnerability?

In this time of Covid-19 when so much is changing and my teaching and performing work is suspended and some of my income reduced, what am I going to do? I’m going to do what I have always done. I will be stunningly resourceful with scant material. I’ll find joy in simple things: games with the family, a phone call with a friend, a home-cooked meal, an owl hooting in my yard. I will bake bread, make soap, plant a garden, pray. I will continue to compose music that, through its simplicity, comes straight from my heart.

Old Women Need Not Apply

I turn 44 this week. Normally the change in age doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel any older or wiser. It just is. This year feels different even though 44 is not a milestone for anything. I am simply more aware of age because everywhere I turn, I am excluded because of it.

When I began music composition lessons at age 37, I knew I would be competing against younger composers half my age. Though I have some life experience, I still knew that I would be trying to catch up in many ways. Adult life has a lot of responsibilities. I don’t have the time or space to let creative juices flow like a 20-year old. I have kids to worry about, a marriage to nurture, bills to pay, students to teach, choruses to accompany, concerts to play, a house that needs fixing, a yard that needs upkeep, a body that needs attention, friends who need a babysitter. The list goes on. Try fitting learning a new thing into that – a new creative endeavor, no less. But I did. I spent the money, and I spent the time.

Little did I know that I wouldn’t even be *allowed* to compete with those younger, because I am simply too old. Who decided that “emerging” composers, just getting started, are only under a certain age? That age is arbitrary. Some contests are open to those under 25. some 30, some 35, some 40. I have not yet seen one open to those under 45 or 50, however. I guess by 40 one is truly too old or washed out to establish a career as a composer. When I started studying composition, I had already aged out of most of the competitions that are intended to help new composers get their sea legs.

I can hear the silent voices: “You’re too late. You should have made different choices. You shouldn’t have gotten married or had kids young, you shouldn’t have seen your husband through seminary, you shouldn’t have homeschooled your children, you shouldn’t have put so much time into teaching other people’s kids, you shouldn’t have spent so much time serving other people. You simply didn’t put your career first, you simply didn’t put YOU first, and now you’re paying for it. We’re only here for those who make music their first – and only – priority in their 20s.”

I was particularly disappointed when I came across a contest for emerging women composers, open to all who identify as female. Women-only competitions are nice since women have historically had a harder time getting noticed in the world of music, particularly composition. Women still make up only 20-30% of all composers. But when I read the guidelines, I saw that it was only open to those age 35 or under. That was a kick in the gut. I could be trans, but I can’t be “old.” This competition was open to women, but not those who put their family first, or who for one reason or another came to composition “late” in life. I put “old” and “late” in quotations because it is so ridiculous! Since when is 37 old or late in life?

In an attempt to create a contest benefiting those often excluded and overlooked, these contest creators consciously decided to exclude women of a certain age. You can identify as female, but you must still be the right type of female: young. I complained to this group, but they said they had already published the guidelines and “could not” change them this year. No mention was given regarding a commitment to open future contests to women of all ages. (FYI: guidelines, especially deadlines, are extended all the time. Competition guidelines can certainly be expanded, though not restricted. A new announcement is made with the word “updated.” No big deal.)

A Facebook friend told me I should identify as young. I could get away with it if an internet search would not prove I was lying. I got carded at a restaurant last week. The pic on my homepage was from two years ago. I still have no gray hairs, save a pesky white one that grows out of my chin sometimes. But that’s it. A hand injury two years ago required an x-ray which revealed I have zero signs of arthritis. After forty years of playing the piano, that is remarkable. I have no aches and pains. I have no health problems. I am still active, and I still have plenty of energy. I still argue with those in authority if I feel the need, I still have a streak of rebelliousness, and I still don’t know when to keep my mouth shut. Let’s hope I never grow up.

We Reserve the Right to Define “Emerging”

A little while back, I got the results from a contest for emerging composers that I had entered. It did not have an age limit, and I had work that met the guidelines, so of course I had to take advantage of the opportunity. The rejection email I received was the worst I have ever received. Most of these rejection emails I get are impersonal form letters that begin with “Dear Composer,” but this one didn’t even include a greeting. “You are receiving this email because you entered the emerging composer’s competition”, it said, and then went on to say that the winner had recently been announced and the people receiving the email did not win. “We want to recognize your effort and interest in making an application to the competition” (note, we recognize your application, not your work), and “it was a privilege to choose a winner from the many extraordinary works submitted” (am I the only one that finds this wording strange?)

The first thing that puzzled me was that the winner had already been announced…and was not named in the email. Most competition results are sent with the email, or recipients are told where and when to be able to find the results. This email contained neither. My skeptic alarm went off immediately, and I went to work sleuthing on the internet to find out who won. I first went to the organization’s website. For such a big competition with a nice $$ tag connected to a commission, I expected this announcement to make the front page. It didn’t. Huh. I poked around on every page and every link on that website, even on pages I knew had no real chance of containing the information, such as the personnel page. I could not find anything about this competition. Since I designed and manage my own website, I know how easy it is to make a new page and where to put it, especially when such a large organization would have a webmaster devoted to managing the site. Huh.

The next strategy was a Google search. Bingo. I found the page, but the page was not linked to any other page of the organization’s website. There was no big announcement. Rather, the first paragraph explained that the competition was over and that scores were no longer being accepted. Embedded within the second paragraph was the winner’s name. If I was the winner, I’d be wondering why the organization wasn’t highlighting this exciting news. So I looked him up.

The organization had said they reserved the right to define emerging. I understood that, especially when age is not the limiting factor. It would be difficult to know in advance which competing composer’s background would best be defined as “emerging.” This was their definition: the winner was young (25), but seemingly a prodigy since his work has already been performed all over the world. He has earned ASCAP awards, collaborated with the New York City Ballet, and has even been featured on National Geographic. His bio goes on from there. I guess age ended up being the determining factor, after all, since his experience doesn’t sound like “emerging” to me. Huh.

No wonder they appreciated my “effort and interest in applying.” It seems that my effort (and that of others who entered) was necessary for this organization to jump through the hoops of setting up a competition in order to make it look like they fairly chose someone they already knew they wanted to work with. This is not unlike universities that create job descriptions that fit only the person they want to hire, or government proposals designed for only one contractor. This group got around that, and around age discrimination, by saying “we reserve the right to define the term ’emerging.'”

I knew all along that my $20 donation/entry fee would help fund the commission. They got about $2,000 out the almost-100 poor emerging composers who never had a chance. Today I returned to the webpage which contained the announcement. It was blocked to all but members of the organization.

My Piano is Not for Stimming

Please read this first paragraph carefully. I am writing about an experience I had giving a first lesson with a young autistic boy, but I am *in no way* criticizing autistic people, their parents, or trying to diminish or ridicule their struggles. I have successfully taught several autistic students and even earned the title of their “favorite teacher.” I know many autistic individuals personally, some in my own family, and I believe that if I was a kid there’s a good chance I would be diagnosed. I have absolutely nothing against autistic people.

A mother contacted me to have a first, trial lesson with her 9-year old son who is autistic. He was interested in piano, but she anticipated that things would go probably need to go very slow. I agreed to give it a shot. I’ve taught several autistic children successfully, though I am not a specialist nor do I have specific training in teaching children with special needs. I wasn’t particularly concerned. After teaching for over 25 years and raising my own children, I am confident I know when a child has had enough, autistic or not.

Looking back, I didn’t ask enough questions, nor did the mother offer me enough information. I should have asked for the definition of “slow”. I had assumed slow to be a matter of comprehension, but I think it should have been defined as “how much lesson he can take at once.” Perhaps the first lesson needed to be a 5-minute meet-and-greet, see the teacher, learn her name. Maybe during the second lesson we’d spend ten minutes together, and gradually build up the length of time over a period of weeks or months. We should also have agreed on how and when to cut lessons short and discussed payment for a short lesson.

When I first met this boy, I introduced myself and asked him his name. He balked, so I asked him, “Do you not want to tell me your name?” He shook his head, and I said, “That’s OK.” I brought him over to the piano and did what I normally do, showing what the insides of the piano look like and some general things about how the piano works. He responded well, explored the pedal and even asked some questions. I was already wondering what “slow” meant since the first five minutes (at least) went just about the same as most other first lessons I have ever given.

After a bit, we sat down at the keyboard and I explained the groupings of black and white keys and had him find them. At this point, I did need to adjust my explanations and questions a bit so he could understand, but things went pretty well. He played what I asked and seemed to comprehend. Again, I was wondering what “slow” meant. So far, things were not going slow.

That is when we began to have problems. The boy began lifting the keys on the piano. Every kid lifts the keys of the piano. I have another student, a six year old boy, who recently did this during a lesson. I remember well lifting the keys myself as a kid. There is something interesting about it – look, the keys do this! It is weird and curious, and the keys make a thumping sound when you lift and release them quickly. In ignorance, it is fun to keep doing. It is just bad for the piano.

When I asked the six year old to stop because he could damage the piano, he immediately stopped. He may need a reminder from time to time, as all kids do, but he stopped. Unfortunately, the autistic boy did not. I asked him about six or seven times to stop lifting the keys and told him he could break the piano. He just looked at me and then kept doing it. Inside, I started to panic a little. On one hand, I get it. I remember being a kid, and I understand the fascination and the repetition. *I really do.* I knew a lot of this was normal. Lifting the keys is normal for all kids, and the repetition is normal for autistic people. BUT – and this is a big but – I couldn’t allow it to continue because it could damage the piano – MY piano!

At that point, I closed the lid down over the keys. I knew a battle of wills was coming, so I held the lid down with my arm. I was right. The boy immediately began trying to pull the lid up off the keys so he could could go back to lifting them. I told him that I could not allow him to lift the keys and hurt my piano, and that I was not going to raise the lid until he was ready to not lift the keys. After a few minutes, he must have realized I wasn’t going to budge and seemed to settle down. So, I raised the cover so we could try again to proceed in the lesson, but he went right back to lifting the keys. At this point, I decided the lesson was over even though there were ten minutes remaining in the allotted time. I couldn’t risk damage to my piano.

I called over his mother, who had been in the room. I went over things the boy could do at home, but also explained that he cannot lift the keys and why. She said she heard everything. I wondered to myself why she hadn’t intervened. At that point, I felt a bit like I had been set up or at least stranded. We scheduled a lesson for the following week, but she later emailed me to say she didn’t think her son should take lessons.

That’s too bad. After a couple of days of thinking, I had come up with some ideas. The first was to limit lessons to 15 minutes for a while. The second was, that if she was willing to pay the extra cost, I could give the lessons at their home. Perhaps the boy would have felt more comfortable there, and if any damage was done it would be to their piano, not mine. The third was to make sure he had some kind of stim toy that he could use instead of using the piano. However, I didn’t get a chance to present my ideas.

I have taught students with all kinds of special needs: some with autism, some with ADHD, some with dyslexia, some with crippling anxiety. Sometimes parents don’t tell me about these difficulties ahead of time, and that never goes well. In every one of these situations, students need some modifications, either in the way material is presented or in the way “performance” is assessed, or both. Not only is it helpful to know ahead of time that a student has special needs, it is also important to be told what is already known to be helpful. I did not ask the mother of this boy enough questions, nor did she provide enough information. I believe that had these things been discussed in greater detail, we would have had a better plan for a first lesson and a more successful outcome.