Making a Little Magic

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

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

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

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

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

The obvious answer was YES!

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

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

That was a tall order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot is at stake to get it right.

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

That’s a really big gaffe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love Came Down at Christmas

Music is something beyond rhythm and pitch. It is beyond any written notation, no matter the style – or even if it is written at all! The notes, the chords, even the instrumentation are just a medium, an avenue for communicating the message which is transcendent. We must listen beyond, much like we must read between the lines of a poem. Like the notes in music, the words of a poem are only a vessel for the message. Well-placed syllables and vowel sounds, the use of alliteration and onomatopoeia, and various other poetic devices are not the meaning in themselves. They only direct the reader to the meaning.

Back in September and October, I was in quite a slump and did not compose at all. One day in early November, I was contacted by a woman I only knew through Facebook, a friend of a friend, asking if I had any pieces suitable for Advent or Christmas. She was looking for something new to sing for her church’s Christmas Eve service, instead of rehashing the same old standards. At that point I didn’t have such a piece, so I decided to write one for her. I did not want any money for it because I was writing this for my own benefit. It wasn’t just about the wisdom of having such a piece in my portfolio; it was also about my need to get back to composing regularly after about two months of stagnation. The encouragement of being told my work was desired was enough reward and something I needed more than payment at that time. (She and her fellow performers were also willing to give me a copy of their recording, which is very helpful.)

I asked if she had a text in mind.

Finding the right text is the most difficult, and most important, part of writing a vocal piece. I am very picky about the text. The flow of the words, whether syllables are more open or closed, the rhythm of each line, and the pattern of rhyme (if there is one) all contribute to whether or not I will take on the challenge of setting a text.

She suggested “Love Came Down at Christmas” by Christina Rossetti:

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

I’ve got to be honest that, while I enjoy much of Christina Rossetti’s work, this poem is not one of my favorites. The mouthfeel just doesn’t work for me. The changes in the shape of the syllables from line to line seem abrupt and rather square. I don’t like square; I like round. The syllables are short, the words are short, the lines are short, the stanzas are short, and the entire poem is just three stanzas! It takes about twenty seconds to recite the poem out loud, with pauses. It’s impossible to stretch it out further by reading each word slowly. Try it! It sounds silly. It also seems to me to be “unfinished.” I get to the end of the poem and feel a bit like I was left hanging. Is that it? I would not normally have chosen this text myself, but since I did not have the emotional energy to go find one I liked, I accepted the challenge.

One piece of compositional advice I have heard is that a good estimate for the amount of time it will take to set the text in music is about three times the length of reciting the poem. For this poem, that would be about one minute. Adding in accompaniment, I knew I could stretch it out to about one and a half minutes, but this still was not sufficient. I knew immediately I was going to have to do something to change up this text.

When I first began working on the piece, I was unhappy with the sound of it. I was writing for a church service and using a very popular poem, so I wanted to keep the music relatively approachable for the average listener. Yet, I wanted it to be more like a classical-style art song than a popular-style common in much of Contemporary Christian worship music. My piece was heading in the direction I didn’t want.

As I discussed the issue I was having with my twenty-year-old daughter, she encouraged me to try and figure out what the poem was really about. In a “Duh!” moment, I realized I had skipped some very important steps before beginning to write the music. Normally, I jot down words that capture the feelings and ideas that I hope to communicate through the music. I do this for all pieces, vocal or instrumental. But this time, I had forgotten to take the time to do this. I had forgotten to read between the lines of Christina Rossetti’s poem. The words were just a frame. What was she really communicating? So, I went back and spent more time with the poem and wrote down some thoughts.

There’s a difference between setting text and setting context.

I am reminded of the words of one of my English teachers admonishing my class of young writers: “show, don’t tell.” That’s my job as a composer: show, don’t tell. Simply setting text without trying to capture the substance behind the words is simply “telling” or “reciting.” I need to use musical devices to help bring listeners on a journey to encounter the transcendent meaning for themselves.

Christina Rossetti’s works are in public domain; I do not need to get permission to make changes. So I did. Musically, I stretched out the words and made the single-syllable word “love” last an entire measure in some places. I repeated words and parts of phrases. I rearranged the lines of the first stanza so I could make the musical ideas more cohesive.I made the first stanza into it’s own musical section. I combined stanzas two and three into one section because the third stanza answers the question that ends the second stanza, and in my mind, there was interior rhythmic consistency that brought them together. I then repeated the first stanza/section again to address the unfinished feeling I got from reading the poem and to reiterate the answer to the question of “why?” inherent in the second and third stanzas. All in all, I made this short, pithy poem last four-and-a-half minutes.

Earlier this week, I made the mistake of listening to other settings of this text. I did so in response to a strong sense that I needed to modify my own piece slightly, which I wrote about in “When Music Wakes You at 4am.” I came away feeling insecure. I complained to my husband that my setting, comparatively, seemed to come out of left field. “It’s just so different. All these other settings are so pretty and in major and mine is in minor and, well, it’s just so angsty.” He responded, “Of course it’s angsty. It’s 2020. Times are tough, and you’re a product of your time. The angst of these days is going to show up in your work.” Each artist interacts with their sources differently due to different personalities and experiences. My own self, mingled with the uneasiness of 2020, influenced how I interacted with the meaning in the poem and combined to create the meaning in the piece.

The idea of a poem or a piece of music being only the container for a message relates very much to the Christmas story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh. The body was the container – one that we, as humans, can recognize and interact with, much like how poets use words that we understand or composers use notes we can hear and comprehend. But Jesus was much more than an ordinary person; he was God, incarnate. The acts he did in the body – the way he lived, taught, performed miracles, died, and rose again – all those things point to something much greater: the message that mankind can be at peace in relationship with God and each other, the message that Love came down at Christmas. In becoming a person, Jesus didn’t just communicate God’s love for the world; he also experienced life from a human perspective and became familiar with our suffering. During this topsy-turvy year full of illness, death, unrest, injustice, distress, chaos, and uncertainty all around us, the Incarnation takes on even more significance, at least for me.

So, I present my setting of “Love Came Down at Christmas”, by Christina Rossetti, written during November 2020 and premiered by Michelle Marinelli Prindle, soprano, Dan Prindle, cello, and David Kidwell, piano. In these times, they needed to make a recording for their church’s virtual Christmas Eve service, and they chose to do so by recording individually and then making a video. This creates challenges that don’t exist in a live situation where everyone is performing together in one place! The piece and the recording, both, are a reflection of our time. I am grateful for their beautiful performance, hard work, and willingness to perform this piece. I hope you enjoy it and that it contributes to a deeper understanding of the words “Love Came Down at Christmas.”

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

When Music Wakes You at 4am

Sometimes I can’t sleep for the music swirling in my head. Despite my body happily resting, my mind is a whir, playing and replaying pieces. Not even whole pieces. Segments of pieces. One line. One phrase. Over and over. This commonly happens when I’m in the middle of a musical production. One season, Charlie Brown and Linus just would not leave me alone!

I have heard that some composers dream up new compositions. I usually only dream of compositions already written. If it’s someone else’s piece, I can continue to “sleep”, somehow resting despite the conscious awareness that my mind’s playlist is on repeat. I often have my own pieces churning in my head for days or even weeks after finishing them, my mind still digesting the work. It’s annoying, but I can deal with it.

When I’m in the middle of composing a piece, I relish the fact that my mind works on it while I am sleeping. Sometimes I wake up with solutions to a problem I’ve been trying to solve, or I wake up with ideas for a new direction. In fact, I often look over my work right before bed to give my subconscious something to do. It’s a way of making good use of my natural tendency to overthink.

But this week, I had a different experience. I had recently finished an art song for a virtual Christmas Eve Mass and even turned it in to my performers a few weeks ago. Yet, I woke up at 4am with the intense feeling that it needed fixing. This one I couldn’t shake off. I was too stressed out to fall back asleep and got out of bed. I spent part of that day listening again to my own piece, as well as a couple of other settings of the same text I had used, trying to figure out what about the piece was bugging me, and if it was worth the effort of making any changes. After all, Christmas Eve was one week away (yikes!) Did I really want to inconvenience the performers, who were making a recording (in other words, it involved more time and effort and starting work on the project sooner) on such short notice?

I didn’t act on my feelings that day.

But like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, who ignored the warnings of the first ghost, I was visited again in my sleep by the nagging sensation that I needed to FIX MY PIECE – the dang piano part! Two measures needed a little more movement to push into the following measures, and I needed to make the notation in another measure clearer. Minor changes, but still…

The anxiety of making these last-minute changes spawned more thoughts: My performers are giving me a recording. I’m going to try to sell this score. Don’t I want the recording people will hear to match the changes I know I need to make in the score? What if this is my only shot at a good recording? Time is ticking away. The longer I wait, the more I will inconvenience the performers. But these are minor changes. Surely they won’t mind. But what if they have already recorded? I don’t want to put them out and make them re-record. After all, this is for their church service and I’m getting a copy of the recording for free. I don’t want to be a pest.

Once again I got myself out of bed at 4am, unable to fall back asleep. It took me all day (until about 8PM) to gather up the courage to contact my performers, ask politely if they could possibly accommodate the very minor changes, and send the updated score. At that moment, I was very, very grateful for digital technology! All turned out well, and they agreed to the changes.

Now I know that if I am wakened at 4am by thoughts that plague me about alterations I need to make to a piece that I thought was already finished, I just might have to listen the first time, especially if I already have people lined up to perform the piece. It is not worth waiting, because I will only be haunted again the next night, and perhaps every night, until I obey the spirit.

Resolving this issue has brought great relief, and I slept much better last night. Now I eagerly await the recording. I am very excited to hear my piece performed by real musicians instead of the computerized mock-up. Stay tuned! I will release “Love Came Down at Christmas”, my setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem, as well as more thoughts on the compositional process, on Christmas Day.

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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.

Declaring One’s Self

The term “declaring one’s self” often refers to making a pledge of commitment and support. It can also mean stating strongly one’s opinion or revealing one’s true character or identity.  In short, it’s about owning up to a position, saying “this is where I stand.”

Composition is an exercise of “declaring one’s self.” During the writing phase, I sort out my ideas, clarify and refine them. But once a piece is completed, I own it. I chose all the notes, all the voicing, all the instrumentation. I have declared myself to this piece. I stand behind it, taking full responsibility for it. I have said, in no uncertain terms, “this is what I want.”

It is at once empowering and terrifying. I feel like this every time I get on a roller coaster or when I am halfway through a mountain trail and find myself in a difficult spot. On the one hand, I am quite satisfied with myself for having the guts to get on the ride or start the hike. I didn’t chicken out. But once in the midst of it, I sometimes wonder what I have gotten myself into. There’s no getting off the ride, there’s no going back. There is only one way to go, and it is forward, come what may.

To me, writing a piece of music and presenting it is a bit like laying out my heart in front of the entire world. I painstakingly ripped it out of my soul and laid it bare.  It cannot  return to the depths from which it came. It has seen light and has been exposed, all of it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. At that point, all I can do is see what happens. Will it get performed? Will it be well received? Will it be found lacking? Will my friends encourage me or will even they have nothing to say, finding nothing to praise? I feel accomplished, having finished a project. But I also feel extremely vulnerable. My inner thoughts, shown in the choices I made to create the piece, are on public display.

Declaring one’s self can be a dangerous activity. Some people will not like what you have to say or who you are. The practice of saying “this is what I want” clearly and firmly is an important discipline. So many times we are hesitant to reveal our inner desires out of fear they will be rejected or scorned. But pretending that our own desires don’t exist or are unimportant is a refusal to stand by our own selves and a form of self-rejection that says we are worthy of being dismissed or ignored. I’m not saying that every single desire we have is a good one that should be “published”, but too many times we hide ourselves for no reason other than simply being afraid.

However, the skill of declaring one’s self can be developed with practice. It does get easier. The first hill on the roller coaster is the scariest. One hike up a mountain gives confidence to do the next one.  As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. What is the worst that can happen? A rejection? Someone gets angry? I am embarrassed? Those things will not destroy me. I may get knocked back a little. I may hesitate. I may need to recover. But I pick myself up and write again, with a little more strength, confidence, and determination.