Saturday, July 7, 2018

Advice to Young Composers on Selecting a College

In the past few years, I’ve received a number of emails from high school students who are looking for advice on finding a music composition program at a college or university. In this column, I offer the advice that I pass along to these inquiries, in hopes that my insights that will help both high school and undergraduate composers discover for themselves what schools are most suitable for their unique path and personal growth, both at the undergraduate and graduate level.

• Start by researching the composition faculty at a wide assortment of universities and conservatories. 

Study their works – at the very least with audio, and with scores if possible. Which composers’ works resonate with you? Which school’s faculty has an intriguing assortment of genres and musical voices among its teachers? Each student is looking for something different, so find the composer(s) that fascinate you.


• Next, finding a particular composition teacher or two that you’ll work well with is important. 

In most cases, students switch up teachers on an annual basis in order to gain exposure to a range of teaching styles and compositional techniques. But not every student-teacher pairing will be successful, so it can be helpful to try to get a sense of how you and a teacher communicate prior to deciding on a school. If you are interested in working with a particular composition instructor, see if that teacher can meet with you for a few minutes either in person (if you visit the school on a non-audition day), on Skype, or by phone, and find out what his/her teaching style and philosophy is like. What are the expectations for weekly lessons? Might the instructor be inquisitive about your background and what you want to learn while in school? Can he/she offer you a few pointers on what types of works you should submit in your application for the school? Remember that you are interviewing the teacher just as much as the teacher is interviewing you. If the faculty member’s time is limited (which is understandable – people have hectic schedules), then at the very least, see if you can observe the teacher in a class if you visit the school. The goal is for you to choose a school with one or more teachers that you find you have a rapport.

• Consider if you wish to be in a university or conservatory setting. 

In general, a university experience will likely give you a broader college experience than a conservatory, since you’ll be required to take a certain percentage courses outside of music. I personally found that the extra courses that I took while at the University of Michigan helped fuel my interest in directions I wouldn’t have encountered if I had attended a conservatory as an undergraduate…but the choice between a university and conservatory just depends on what kind of experience you want. Take a look at a 4-year class schedule for the undergraduate composition program (or 2-year class schedule for the master’s composition program) for each school on your short list. These should be on each school’s website; if you can’t find them, ask the composition faculty to email you a copy. What sorts of classes do the schools have in common? Which classes are specific to a particular school? Which schools do you find yourself drawn to?

• The same applies when choosing a graduate program at a performance-based school versus a research-based school. 

You have the extra consideration that most research-based schools do not typically have multitudes of performers practicing at the school as you would find in a university or conservatory setting. Research-based schools tend to offer degrees in music composition, theory, history, and ethnomusicology. If the research-based school is in a major city, you can make connections with local performers so that you give yourself the opportunity to work with instrumentalists and singers while in school.

• While the composition faculty is an important factor in choosing a school, so are the opportunities a composition program has available to its students outside of classes and lessons. 

See if the composition program offers particular opportunities that you are interested in, such as writing and staging opera scenes, performances or reading sessions of new orchestra or wind ensemble works, in- or out-of-school performance opportunities with local professional musicians or ensembles, music entrepreneurship training workshops, etc. If this information isn’t on the school’s website, then contact the composition faculty directly to inquire.

• Also important is location. 

Consider the city that the school is in. Do you feel comfortable in it? People who grow up in big cities can struggle in very small towns, and vice versa. What about transportation – can you easily get around without a car? How close or far is the dormitory from the music school? Are there other musical or non-musical activities going on either at the school or within the city that you’d be interested in? What’s the weather like in the middle of winter? You’re going to be spending the next several years of your life in this community, so make sure you will thrive in its atmosphere.

• One last consideration for graduate students is if you’d like to incorporate teaching experience as part of your degree program. 

If you want to teach composition in a university or college setting, then you will not only need a doctorate, but you will also need to prove that you know what to do in both a classroom and studio lessons. Consider schools that offer teaching assistantships. Most composers gravitate towards assistantships in composition or music theory, but you can also try to secure an assistantship on the primary instrument you play, or in music history, or as an orchestral librarian, or anything else the school offers. If possible, gain experience from two different types of assistantships during your graduate years - the more experience you have when starting the academic job search, the better.

While the above pointers may seem like a lot of work for you to do, once you get through the list, you’ll have a much stronger idea of what is important to you about your music, your schooling, and your future. With this understanding, you can choose a school that best suits your unique goals. Best wishes with your college search!

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Exploring Creativity at the Danville Correctional Center

Visit at

Are you anxious?

“Are you anxious?” asked one of the participants during a break in our 2-hour session. It was an understandable question – I was sitting in a classroom at the Danville Correctional Center in Danville, Illinois, giving a workshop on creativity to seven incarcerated men. I was there under the auspices of the University of Illinois’ Education Justice Project, running one of two sessions that I’ll be giving at the prison as part of my Composer-in-Residence position with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra. It certainly was a new situation for me, from passing though the several security checkpoints while carrying only a clear plastic bag with my belongings, to finding myself completely surrounded by male inmates and guards. It was also a warm and humid day in late June, and the air conditioner was temporarily out in the Vocational Building, which made for balmy conditions inside the classroom. So yes, I was certainly feeling the uniqueness of the situation. But I was also experiencing quite an adrenaline rush, the type I used to get from classroom teaching when I formerly taught at Roosevelt University and that I’ve not felt in quite awhile. It was exhilarating! I had walked into the prison, not knowing how the participants would respond to my workshop; halfway through it, they were energetically taking part in my lesson plan, and I was felt a sense of community building as we delved into the creative process together.

Some statistics...

My interest in bringing creativity into prisons has been growing for years. Music has the power to inspire and to empower, and learning to tap into one’s creativity can help people discover their potential in both musical and non-musical aspects of their lives. Why is this important? Because the United States, on average, incarcerates its population at five times the rate of most other countries throughout the world. According to, we incarcerate 698 people for every 100,000; in comparison, England incarcerates 141 people per 100,000, Canada stands at 114 per 100,000 and Norway at 74 per 100,000. When we compare our numbers to those in countries with authoritarian or communist rule, civil unrest, or varying amounts of government instability, the U.S. is well ahead in the numbers too, with Cuba at 510 per 100,000, Rwanda at 434 per 100,000, and China at 118 per 100,000 (see these statistics and more at In addition to our high incarceration numbers, we have another issue of how the prison population is being prepared for re-entry to society, and whether we are giving them needed skills and help so that they won’t end up back in the prison system. I’m a beginner in learning how learning how our country can tackle these issues, and as such, I am very interested in exploring what role I can serve in helping incarcerated men and women explore their fullest potential and successfully re-integrate back into society upon release.

Workshop, Part I

In the first hour, I led the participants through a discussion of how a composer composes. We started with the non-musical aspects, which involve using both subjectivity and objectivity to inform one’s choices, as well as making a steady stream of small decisions to ward off what I call the “two-headed dragon” of procrastination and perfectionism (I explore this concept in Blog 52: Procrastination & Perfectionism: Slaying theTwo-Headed Dragon).

Next, I introduced basic music vocabulary that we used throughout the rest of the workshop: formal structure, tension/relaxation, pitch, rhythm, silence, color/timbre, dynamics, and so on. The participants immediately caught on to the idea of formal structure when I demonstrated how the tune Happy Birthday is constructed. We then applied our newly learned terminology by analyzing the text and formal structure of my choral piece Give Me Hunger (we listened to Chanticleer’s rendition of the piece). By the end of the first hour, the participants were grasping the concepts we had discussed thus far and asking great questions to further their understanding.

Workshop, Part II

The second hour proved to be very inspirational. I informed the group that we were going to create a piece using graphic notation, which we’d then perform ourselves. At that moment, they transformed into students you’d find in any classroom anywhere in the world – first, they were concerned and unsure of taking part, then they progressively warmed up to the idea, and eventually took ownership of the exercise. On the chalkboard, I drew a graph of a piece that started with relatively high tension and lots of chaos. About two-thirds of the way through the graph, there was a silence, followed by a quiet, orderly ending in which the participants could choose to whistle or hum. While the participants started off reserved in their vocal realizations of the piece, they eventually began making suggestions for improvements: what would happen if we start with the highest tension found in the piece? What does it sound like if you whistle and hum at the same time? What if the tension slowly winds down from chaos to order instead of having an instant drop in the tension level? We experimented, analyzed our results, loosened up, experimented some more, and made quite a boisterous commotion in the process.

Homework for next visit

The final order of business was the assigning of homework for my next visit. I’ll be returning to the Danville Correctional Center on September 26th, where we will have a 3-hour event called “Messages to Gaia.” The movements of my String Quartet No. 3: Gaia will performed (hopefully by live musicians if we can secure permission; otherwise, we will play a recording), as well as my solo woodwind piece Phoenix Rising. Between movements of these works, the participants will be reading texts from my oratorio Terra Nostra penned by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wendell Berry, and Walt Whitman, among others. For the first part of the homework assignment, the participants each chose what readings they’d like to give at the September concert. For the second part, I informed them that everyone is to create something for our concert. This can be a piece of art, a poem or short story, their own graphic notation piece that they will teach the audience, or anything else they would like to do. The participants were a bit unsure of the assignment, so we talked about various options they could explore. They have a few months to work on their projects, and I am excited to see what they produce!

Thank you!

Thank you Rebecca Ginsburg, Director of the Education Justice Project, and René Francisco Poitevin, Director of EJP’s Academic Programs, for making arrangements for me to visit the prison, as well as David Sharpe, the Co-Coordinator of the Mindfulness EJP discussion group, and Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra’s Executive Director Gerri Kirchner for both accompanying me to the prison. Special thanks to David Sharpe for asking me in September 2017 if I’d be interested in doing some workshops within EJP as part of my orchestral residence; his inquiry has resulted in a meaningful experience for us all.

This was originally posted at as part of my Composer-in-Residence position with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Stephen Paulus: The Legacy of Paying it Forward

What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.
-Alexander Hamilton, from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

If you asked me five years ago if I ever intended on running a blog, my answer would have been no. But now I’m celebrating the start of my third year as a blogger. What changed my mind? Stephen Paulus, and his lifelong penchant for helping composers achieve their fullest potential.

Photo credits:
Sharolyn Hagen Photography
Stephen’s advocacy for living composers made an indelible mark on my career and trajectory. I first met Stephen in 2001 at the Dale Warland Singers’ New Choral Music Program. Along with University of Minnesota choral director Kathy Romey and Augsburg Publishing’s Lynette Johnson (who has since left the company), Stephen led a career development workshop the composer participants on the business aspects of running a composing career. This workshop was such a revelation! I had earned degrees from three fine institutions without having taken a single class or seminar on the entrepreneurial aspects of how to launch and maintain a successful composing career. (To be fair, it wasn’t common to have classes or seminars of this sort back in the 1980s and 90s.) Stephen, Kathy, and Lynette laid out for us a number of topics that composers need to master: writing letters for “cold calls” (i.e. when a composer sends a piece of music to a music organization unsolicited, in hopes of securing a performance), negotiating commissions and writing commission contracts, marketing one’s works, navigating the publishing industry, and so on. I walked out of the workshop with a strong sense of direction and a newfound confidence that a composer can not only survive, but indeed thrive in the music world. Stephen became my role model of how to successfully run a career as a freelance composer, and I followed his career over the years that followed.

We would occasionally run into each other, at American Composers Forum activities (the organization that he and fellow composer Libby Larsen co-founded as students in 1973 to help composers find opportunities outside of academia), as well as various concerts and music conferences. Stephen always had a warm, friendly smile, a genuine interest in what I was up to, and plenty of patience to answer my pestering music business questions. Stephen’s generosity in helping other composers was known and treasured by many others beside myself. In addition to the work he did for the American Composers Forum, he was also on the board of ASCAP in the classical music division from 1990 until his death, where he served the interests of composers nationwide.

I’ll never forget the last time I saw him. In early May of 2013, the Apollo Chorus of Chicago gave an all-Paulus concert at Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston. I remember walking into the church; audience members and choristers were filing in. When Stephen came into view, he looked larger than life. His hair was a bit longer than I remembered, and it flared around his face like a lion’s mane. He had that big, warm smile on his face. He moved energetically about the church, greeting people as they took their seats. Here, I thought, is a composer in his prime. The highlight of the concert happened near the end, when choristers from the audience were invited to join the Apollo Chorus in the singing of Stephen’s Pilgrim’s Hymn. It is a beautiful, simple, and serene piece that is one of Stephen’s best-known works. Sung from hundreds of choristers’ throats that day, the piece powerfully resonated around the church. Post-concert, Stephen Alltop (the conductor of Apollo) invited me to dinner at a local restaurant with his wife Josefien Stoppelenburg and Stephen Paulus. We had a wonderful time catching up over Italian food. The sun was setting as we left the restaurant; we said our goodbyes and I headed home. Barely two months later, I was devastated to learn that Stephen had experienced a stroke and was in a coma, from which he never fully recovered. Stephen passed away on October 19, 2014 at the age of 65.

A few months after learning of his coma, I pondered - how could I thank someone who played a crucial role in my development? Someone whose willingness to share his knowledge with others was as vital to me as the music he created? By October of 2013, I realized the answer was to follow his lead. I purchased and began my blog to share what I’ve learned with others. I’m paying it forward. This blog is as much my legacy as the catalog of works I’m composing.

Rest in peace, Stephen. Thank you for having helped so many of us, for carving out a path as a freelance composer, and for generously sharing how to navigate that path with your fellow composers. Thank you for your constant willingness to pay it forward. The seeds of your legacy are sprouting everywhere, and the world is a richer place because of it.

To read about Stephen Paulus and explore his works, please visit his webpage at:

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Three Audience Questions Answered!

This was originally posted at as part of my Composer-in-Residence position with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra.

After our Sept. 6th Champaign-UrbanaSymphony Orchestra’s “Legends” concert, in which I was officially welcomed to the Champaign-Urbana community in my new role as Composer-in-Residence of the orchestra, several inquisitive audience members asked me an assortment of questions. I realized shortly afterward that three particular questions came up quite frequently over the course of the evening. Actually, I often get asked these questions at other musical events too, enough so that I’m devoting today’s blog to supplying answers.

Audience Question #1: What instrument do you play?

I started taking piano lessons at the age of five. In high school, I wanted to join the marching band, and the director convinced me to play “marching bells” with the percussion section (think of a glockenspiel with straps that cross on your back and hold the instrument parallel to the ground). But the bells were so darn heavy that, after one season, I picked up an alto saxophone and marched with the woodwinds instead. I also sang in choirs from elementary school more or less through my masters degree. By the time I began an undergraduate degree as a music composition major, I realized that while I was doing well in understanding how to write music for piano, voice, and saxophone, I had no idea how string or brass instruments worked, and that this lack of understanding was hampering my ability to write effectively for these instrumental families. So I took a semester of lessons on the French horn and another semester on the cello. I also took a class that taught rudimentary percussion (this was technically a class for music education majors, who would eventually need to teach youngsters how to play percussion), and managed to get a few lessons on harp too.

In other words, I can play a little of a lot of instruments. While I don’t sound particularly great on any of them, having a firm understanding of each instrument’s characteristics - how it produces sound, how the tone of the instrument changes over its range, what special colors and sonic attributes the instrument possesses, how easy or difficult it is for a performer to play at the instrument’s extreme ranges – has immensely helped me to compose more effectively.

Audience Question #2: How do you know what the music is going to sound like? 

The short answer is…years of practice! Actually, that’s the long answer too. But what does “practice” mean? Several meanings and methodologies apply:

Score study. One of the best ways to understand how various instruments sound when played alone or when combined with other instruments is to study musical scores. I have spent countless hours poring over scores written by a wide range of composers, sometimes with a recording to hear the work out loud, and sometimes without. One effective score-study exercise is to concentrate on a small section of a piece without the recording to see if I can internally imagine what it will sound like, then follow this up by listening to a recording of it. I view score study as a lifelong activity – composers can perpetually work on developing our “inner ear” as well as increasing our overall knowledge base.

• Going to rehearsals. Nothing else quite compares with seeing how the sausage gets made! As a composer, I can hear what parts of a piece the musicians sound glorious, as well as what parts they struggle with, what precisely is creating issues for the performers, and how they solve these issues. This is particularly useful when the rehearsal is of one of my own works, and the musicians and I work to problem-solve issues together. The more I understand what works well and what doesn’t (and why), the more I can avoid issues in future pieces.

• Experimentation with performers. Every now and then, I’ll purposely include something in a piece that I may not be sure how it will work – such as a percussionist rolling an upside-down suspended cymbal on top of a timpani while activating the drum’s foot pedal to change the pitch – just to see what happens. I try to run these experiments with performers outside of rehearsal time – perhaps by Skype, or meeting a musician prior to the rehearsal to test things out – in order to expand my knowledge base. Sometimes these experiments work, sometimes they don’t; if they don’t, then I rewrite the music to something that will work. But if we composers don’t tinker, we won’t expand our sound palette.

Computer playback. I’m probably among the last generation of composers who were composing strictly by pencil and paper when I first began, due to the fact that music notation programs hadn’t been invented yet (we’re talking mid-1980s). Somewhere during my college years, notation programs became commercially available; several are thriving on the market today. These programs not only help a composer create a beautifully engraved finished score, but can also play back the material as we write it. This is both a blessing and a curse, for while these programs can correctly play back our pitches, rhythms, and tempi to give us an overall sense of how the piece will function, they can never truly capture what the music will actually sound like. For instance, when I use a notation program’s playback to listen to an orchestra piece through my speakers, the flute is magically balanced with the tuba! Sonically, this is just not possible. So, while playback can be helpful, a composer has to be mindful of where the differences lie between the capabilities and limitations of a computer program, and what musicians will actually produce.

All of these activities help me to add information to my mind’s “database,” which I can subsequently draw upon when working on a new piece. The more information I learn, the more my database grows.

Audience Question #3: What does a Composer-in-Residence mean? Are you living in Champaign-Urbana for the next two years?

In the broadest sense of the term, a Composer-in-Residence refers to a composer who is associated with an organization for a specified period of time. My residence with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra is sponsored by the Music Alive Program (which is funded by the organizations New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras) and is for a total of three years. Technically, we’re already in the second year of the residence, as the first year was a planning phase, whereas the second and third years are when we carry out our residence activities. I won’t be living full-time in Champaign-Urbana during these two years, but will be making 7-8 trips a year and staying for several days at a time while I carry out residence activities.

But what does a Composer-in-Residence do? My CUSO activities cover a wide range, all with the goal of increasing the community’s access to new music and to me: workshops (i.e. orchestral reading sessions), rehearsals, and performances of my works with the orchestra; mentoring college composers in the craft of composing via composition lessons, as well as giving seminars on my music and the business of being a composer; and offering educational outreach programs at local organizations and elementary, middle, and high schools to help students learn about what composers do. We have launched the Overture Composition Competition for composers between the ages of 8 and 108 who live within a 200-mile radius of Champaign-Urbana. We’ll also hold a Composer Institute for college students next year; students will have their pieces workshopped, and they will attend a number of seminars run by Maestro Stephen Alltop and myself. Additionally, I am planning on working with the community in creating a Green Living Project, which will bring the farming and music communities together. Many of these activities will be open for the general public to attend. Ultimately, the goal of this Music Alive Program is for the composer to feel fully “embedded” with the orchestra and its surrounding community. From the amount and variety of activities we are planning, I am feeling very embedded already!