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!

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!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

In the Trenches of Running a Freelance Career

One year ago, I left the world of full-time academia and took the plunge into going freelance. What a crazy/scary/glorious year it has been! I spent the initial months meeting with potential collaborators, contacting performers and music organizations, formulating projects, going to a multitude of concerts, and applying to numerous competitions and grant sources. These strategies have paid off, as I have been quite busy since last December (which is when I went on my completely unintentional hiatus from blog writing). I’m finally coming up for air, and want to share with you a few themes that are shaping my new career and life:

1. Time is equally as important as money, even if time doesn’t pay the bills.

Because of the unpredictable and unstable nature of a freelance career, I have due dates scattered all over my calendar. If I’m not careful, I find myself justifying the need to work non-stop to meet my deadlines. But continually working comes at a price (see #3 below). I’ve learned to value the amount of time it will take me to complete each project equally to what I need to earn to financially stay afloat.

2. Be aware of overlapping due dates when committing to projects, and have a realistic sense of how much time you need to complete each one.

For a composer, this typically refers to commissions you take on. But the same is absolutely true about any grants that you apply for, and any competitions that result in a commission to compose a new piece. While you might not win or receive the majority of what you apply to, what happens if just enough of these come through? Should you get funded, can you really get everything done, and at your highest professional standard? I’ve talked about adding “cushion” zones to projects in other posts, in which I add 2-8 weeks of time to my composing schedule prior to a piece’s deadline. This time gives me a buffer against any unexpected issues that impede my time during the composing process (such as getting sick, taking an unexpected trip, etc.). I’d like to reiterate here how critical these cushion zones are for every single project, no matter how big or how small the project is. Sometimes I end up working through my cushion zone, right up to when a project is due; in these moments, I’m sure glad I put that cushion zone in my schedule!

3. Allow yourself downtime, even when your schedule is packed.

It is incredibly easy to let the pressure of upcoming deadlines get to me, which keep me working well into the night. What do I sacrifice when I get in a time crunch? Relaxation. Does this take a toll? YES. Mentally, physically… we all eventually get exhausted by our work, which can make less imaginative and less efficient the more drained we become. Even if you just schedule an hour or two a day to go running, watch Game of Thrones, take in a concert, or cook yourself a nice dinner, your brain and body need this critical down time to rejuvenate.

4. Outline a daily or weekly to-do list.

Lists help you get organized and keep from trying to retain everything you need to do in your head. Put everything on – pay bills, follow up with people who want to purchase scores, get a particular amount composed or orchestrated per day, update your website, go food shopping, etc. In addition to keeping me on track, I get a nice (albeit small) sense of accomplishment whenever I complete an item and cross it off the list.

5. Remember to dream BIG, and revisit your dreams on a regular basis.

I’ve got big dreams (OPERA!), and while it will take me some time to break into that genre, I find it very helpful every month or two for me to recognize what my long-term goals are, particularly when my short-term goals aren’t yet in line with these. When I look at my long-term goals list, I strategize what steps I can take in the upcoming months to make forward progress on that path.

A year ago, I was filled with trepidation as I stepped away from my full-time teaching position. Now, the trepidation factor has dropped to a low murmur, and the excitement factor is skyrocketing. To be in control of one’s career is exhilarating, despite the challenges of being one’s own boss. Hopefully, my initial experiences in the trenches will help others avoid a few early pitfalls of running a freelance career!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Being Creative in Turbulent Times

On a good day, composing can be a challenge. Whenever I start a new piece, I get awfully fidgety – does the dishwasher need emptying? Don’t I have any business emails to respond to? Have I SEEN the pile of laundry that needs washing? But after some amount of coaxing, I finally get settled in front of my piano and put pencil to paper. In the early stages of a piece, I’m in a precarious state, where the slightest interruption can mess with my process. This leads to a fresh round of distractions before I can settle back down at the piano.

On a bad day, say when the Chicago Cubs are slugging it out with the Cleveland Indians in the World Series or the U.S. holds a very tense national election with a surprising outcome, it can be downright difficult to get into a creative headspace at all. I find this to be particularly true if I’m in the early stages of a new piece when turbulence strikes – I can lose hold of my tentative grasp on the delicate tendrils of musical ideas that are just starting to form in my mind.

So, what does an artist do when turbulence strikes one’s creative process? First, realize that it is better not to push your work to happen if you’re not in the headspace for it, for there’s a good chance that you won’t be happy with the results when your head clears (unless you’re under a tight deadline – then you might have to power on through). Instead, try these approaches:

• Switch tracks for a while. 

Work on an unrelated project, start something new, or even do a series of short exercises. Basically, keep your creative juices flowing. Perhaps you’ll even discover an entirely new direction for you to artistically explore while you’re in this “altered” mind frame.

 • Step out of your work zone, both physically and mentally. 

Go out for a long walk, read a book, binge-watch a TV series, seek out a foreign film, make an afternoon of going to an art museum, meet with friends for dinner at a new restaurant you’ve been hankering to try. Basically, give yourself a round of fresh, new experiences. This will help you re-set both your mind and creative process, as well as sort out what you want to say creatively when you return to creating again.

• Consider letting the turbulent event fuel your creativity

We are artists. We can and should interpret the world around us into our art. Many artists have managed to find inspiration in anxious times: singer-songwriter Bob Dylan wrote protest songs in the 1960s in response to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement; John Corigliano wrote his Symphony No. 1: Of Rage and Remembrance (1988) in memory of friends he was losing to the ongoing AIDS crisis; and John Adams composed On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) for orchestra and chorus in remembrance of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. In one of the most profound cases of translating turmoil into transcendent art, French composer Olivier Messaien wrote his extraordinary chamber work Quartet for the End of Time (1941) while imprisoned at a POW camp in Germany during World War II; he and three fellow inmates premiered the piece at the camp for an audience containing both German soldiers and prisoners. Turbulence can help us figure out how we want to use our voices as artists, to discover what kind of statement we wish to make; it can also provide catharsis for us as well as our audiences.

If all else fails, give yourself a break. Take a day or two (or more) off from being creative. You can work on some business aspects of your career instead – catch up on those never-ending business emails, update your website, research possible grants and competitions you wish to enter, and so on. Sooner or later, you’ll be ready to express yourself creatively once again.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

What Do Baseball and Beethoven Have in Common? Tension!

Believe it or not, baseball and Ludwig van Beethoven have something BIG in common. What could that be, you ask? One involves bats and bases, while the other has notes and musical instruments! But scratch just a little below the surface, and they both share a common element: tension.

Let’s start with baseball. When a game begins, there’s anticipation in the air, but not really a lot of tension – people are relaxed, and the athletes are ready to play. As the game progresses, the mood in the stadium becomes increasingly excited and anxious. When exactly is the pitcher going to throw the ball? Can a runner steal 2nd base when the pitcher’s not looking? Will the trailing team come back? Can the team in the lead stay ahead? (And if you’re a Cubs fan, will the Cubbies actually win the World Series for the first time in 108 years?? But I digress.) When I watch a game on TV, I notice the tension on the fan’s faces – people are anxiously clenching their jaws, with their hands placed on their cheeks or planted on top of their heads, and their eyes firmly locked on the field. The tension spikes even higher during pivotal moments of the game, such as when all of the bases are loaded and a slugger walks up to the plate. If a game goes into extra innings, this tension can become draining. While the fans and the players get brief moments of respite during inning breaks and in particular the 7th inning stretch, the only way for this tension to be fully released is for the game to end.
Statue of Hall of Famer
Billy Williams
outside Wrigley Stadium

Now let’s consider Ludwig van Beethoven. I regard him to be a master of controlling tension, which we can hear in his symphonies. Some begin rather peacefully (such as Nos. 4 & 7) while others jump right into the fray (like Nos. 1 & 5). Take his Fifth Symphony. The first movement (click to hear the link on YouTube) starts with a furious “fate knocking at the door” gesture; Beethoven shows that he means to build tension from the outset with this aggressive opening! He finds very creative ways to build up this tension, relax it, and then build it up even higher. By the end of the symphony’s 1st movement, you’re ready for that tension to release. Beethoven coyly does this by delivering a slow and soothing second movement, but he’s right back at building tension in the third movement. He masterfully keeps playing with tension until the very end of the fourth and final movement.

As a composer, controlling the tension is one of the most important things we can do in building an effective piece of music. If I can control when the music gets tense and when this tension is released, then I am able to tell virtually any story I want: I can start a composition as if we’re in the middle of a nighttime thunderstorm on top of a mountain, or I can make it sound like we’re walking slowly through a field of fresh spring flowers at daybreak. Managing tension and relaxation is just as important in non-narrative works too: I might make a piece progress from light, bright sounds with a slow tempo to an increasingly dark sonic world with a blazingly fast tempo. Basically, if a composer doesn’t have a firm grip on how to handle tension and relaxation, the audience will sense it. The resulting piece runs the risk of sounding as if it is aimlessly meandering, and the audience won’t feel the push–pull of the tension–relaxation dynamic.

So the next time you watch a baseball game or listen to a piece of music, see if you can feel the tension, as well as when that tension gets even higher, relaxes, and fades away completely. Now, let’s go Cubbies!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Buffing Up Your Writing Skills

As creative artists, we like to think that we need only to express ourselves through our craft: a well-constructed composition, a beautiful painting, or a stunning performance in a concert hall. While we may be doing fabulous work in expressing ourselves through our artistic media, there are plenty of times outside of our craft that we must be able to articulate ourselves clearly. You will likely need to write a biography for your website, program notes for a concert you’re giving, a cover letter for a job, a grant proposal for project funding, and so on. In all cases, you need writing skills to best express who you are, why you do what you do, and what you want.

I didn’t have formidable writing skills when I left high school, nor by the time I completed my undergraduate training. I had taken all of the required English classes and wrote my fair share of analysis and historical papers, but my understanding and creativity with the written word hadn’t yet materialized. Everything changed when I enrolled at the University of Chicago for my Master’s degree. The university offered a specialized writing class whose only goal was to teach its students how to write cohesive and cogent essays. We wrote a paper a week (this part was no picnic), which was then distributed and critiqued by the class. Slowly but surely, my writing skills improved. I credit this class with helping me successfully navigate the academic papers I wrote throughout my graduate work, as well as all of the writing I’ve done ever since, including these blog posts.

So what did I learn from this course that has made all of the difference? Besides learning how to construct strong opening and closing paragraphs (for which you can find plenty of information on the internet), the element that we practiced the most in the class was how to link our sentences within each paragraph, so that the reader can easily follow our train of thought. A link can be anything – a name, a noun, a verb, a thing, an activity, etc. You don’t have to link every single sentence in a paragraph, but the more sentences that you link, the easier it will be for the reader to follow.

For starters, notice how the word “train” is used to link these two sentences together; the links are in red:
I head out the door to catch a train downtown. The train is running late; I sigh and check email on my phone.
Now, here is a poorly constructed paragraph that is devoid of links:
I head out the door to go downtown. There aren’t any eggs in the fridge. Why is there a broken Q-Tip on the floor of the train? There are so many concerts to attend! The Civitas Ensemble  performed the first piece. The Gaudete Brass Quintet played. They’re stellar! With so many musicians and ensembles to check out at the Ear Taxi Festival, this is a glorious moment for Chicago’s new music scene. I need a cookie.
The above paragraph seems to consist of primarily non-sequiturs, making it appear to be a stream of consciousness. I find it confusing – what is the primary subject? It seems like the Ear Taxi Festival should be the focus, and yet it doesn’t get mentioned until the end. There are other issues as well – did the Civitas Ensemble and Gaudete Brass Quintet perform on the same concert, or on different events? How are the eggs, Q-Tip, and cookie at all relevant?

Here is the paragraph rewritten so that the subject is clearly stated in the first sentence, and with each sentence linked to the next via the words in red. Note that multiple links can occur in a single sentence:
This morning, I am in a rush to get to Ear Taxi Festival, Chicago’s first-ever six-day new music marathon. The lack of eggs in the fridge doesn’t bother me; I grab a cereal bar and head out to catch a train to the festival. While reading over Ear Taxi’s various concerts on the train, a broken Q-Tip on the floor catches my eye – why is it there? But there’s no time to ponder the fate of the Q-Tip – with so many events going on, I have to make a plan! I devise a strategy, arrive downtown, and catch the first concert of the day featuring both the Civitas Ensemble and Gaudete Brass Quintet. Wow, I think, these groups are stellar! As I settle in for a full day of Chicago’s finest ensembles on display, I take a moment to realize what a glorious moment this festival is for Chicago’s new music scene. I discover too late, however, that in my morning rush to make the train, I forgot to bring a cookie for an afternoon snack.
This new paragraph introduces the subject matter of the Ear Taxi Festival in the very first sentence and then steadily keeps the focus on it while occasionally taking quick side trips to other topics. You’ll notice that I’ve substituted some words with similar meanings for these links, such as plan and strategy, to keep the writing from getting too repetitiveNote as well that my final sentence actually links back to earlier in the paragraph where I first mention my train ride. As long as you can link to something introduced earlier in a clear and logical manner, then the reader can navigate your paragraph.

Virtually no creative person will be able to successfully navigate a career without having cultivated a set of writing skills. The more you practice writing, the better you’ll be able to express yourself with the written word.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Procrastination & Perfectionism: Slaying the Two-Headed Dragon

At first glance, procrastination and perfectionism may seem unrelated, or at least at opposite ends of the spectrum. But I suspect that they’re intricately linked, with each directly feeding the other. At best, procrastination and perfectionism can cause a creator (i.e. composer, writer, or artist) to work in fitful, inconsistent bursts of activity; at worst, they can halt a creator temporarily or permanently. So, how do you slay this two-headed dragon?

First, let me explain how procrastination and perfectionism are related. I’ve had numerous composition students show up for their lessons at Roosevelt University with not much music written. If this happens for one week, there’s nothing yet to worry about, but after two or more weeks, a pattern starts emerging that needs to be addressed. Students cite many reasons for their lack of preparation – an upcoming exam, a term paper to write, extra shifts of work for their out-of-school jobs – all of which are valid. But after a few weeks of this, I start to inquire deeper into what exactly is stopping them from composing. Have they scheduled time into each day for composing? Are they holding to this schedule? Do they make a list of daily/weekly composing goals? Then, I ask if they feel the music has to be perfect, either before they can write it down or as they’re notating their first draft. More often than not, we’ve found the two-headed dragon! Self-doubt and fear of being imperfect leads to procrastination, which in turn contributes to increasing amounts of self-doubt.

To slay the dragon, I suggest a few thoughts for you to ponder:

1. No one is perfect.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, our idiosyncrasies, things we do really well, and things we want to improve. Have you ever met someone who does everything perfectly the first time around and never makes any mistakes, even when they’re learning a new skill? Stop putting unrealistic pressure on yourself.

2. The works we create aren’t perfect either.

How many creators have produced their masterpieces in a single sitting? We have evidence of how many artists have sweated out draft after draft of their works (Ludwig van Beethoven covered manuscript pages with ideas that he then struck out), or even made practice pieces in between projects (Leonardo da Vinci filled up sketchbooks with drawings and observations). So why are we holding ourselves to a much higher level of perfection than the masters could when they were developing their craft? Which leads to…

3. Stop comparing finished pieces to your own works-in-progress!

This sort of comparison doesn’t usually end well, and can really take a toll on your confidence and feelings of self-worth. Instead of poring over every “perfect” aspect of a masterpiece, ask yourself what might the original drafts look like? How many ideas did Beethoven have to brainstorm, toss out, then brainstorm again until he finally arrived at the best idea to fit the needs of the piece? Take this line of questioning one step further and ask yourself - what do the composer’s early pieces sound like? Let’s face it, there are very few Mozarts among us for whom everything is innate. The vast majority of us start from some point of not knowing, and through a long process of trial and error, we hone our skills and craft. I suggest finding early works by composers you admire and study them – you’ll see them grappling with learning the craft and discovering their unique “voice,” just like you.

4. Focus on your craft every day.

For most of us, the only way to improve is by regular and consistent development of our skills. If you compose only every couple of months, your personal development will be disrupted by these infrequent stops and starts. But if you’re used to composing every day, you can regularly hone your skills (you will also have a much easier time getting into “composing mode” if it is a practiced habit). In other words, compose every day so that it is a comfortable, familiar process. Even if you can only schedule 30 minutes per day, do it – don’t let yourself procrastinate! Hold yourself accountable to sticking with your schedule. Use a reward system if you need to; for instance, if you compose every day for a week, you can watch an episode of Game of Thrones, go to a concert, have a beer – whatever works for you.

5. Embrace imperfection in your pursuit of perfection.

This is the most important point of all. Accept the fact that you will not likely be perfect; when you do, you are free to write whatever you want, no matter how imperfect it may be. Once you have a first draft down on paper, you can now start sculpting the material into something stronger and closer to perfect. But without a first draft, there can be no comparison, and no manner for you to assess what makes something strong or weak.

Ultimately, creators need to be confident in their abilities, and not worry what others think of their works. Somewhere along my path to becoming a composer, I stopped caring what others thought my music should be and focused on what I wanted my music to be. For me, this has made all the difference in accepting my imperfections and slaying the two-headed dragon.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Composer Challenges 3.0: Building a Playlist

When I was in college, I spent a good portion of each week in the music library, pouring over scores and listening to recordings. I wanted to study what composers have already experimented with musically, to see what things worked, what things didn’t, and what I can learn from these pieces. Over the years, I’ve maintained this habit for a variety of reasons: to expand my knowledge base, to challenge my own composing process and sonic world, and to prepare for composing a new piece by saturating my brain with music of similar instrumentation or dimensions (this helps me to figure out what kinds of sounds I like and what I don’t, what I might want to experiment with, and so on). In other words, score study gets the creative juices flowing!

So, as another academic year begins, I’ve created Composer Challenges 3.0 for my composition students at Roosevelt University, where I’m serving as artist faculty this year. I’m sharing the challenges here for anyone to try. Ideally, each challenge is to be done in one week (to match an academic semester), but these can be done over any length of time.

This round of challenges is for students to develop a “playlist” of a wide range of works. The goal of this project is to familiarize students with researching works in different genres/idioms, learning a bit about what repertoire has been created within each genre (and by whom), and then studying works (with scores if possible; definitely with audio). These activities will be beneficial not only while the students are in school, but after graduation as well.

As part of the assignment, I have students focus on a 5-7 minute segment of a piece (since some of these will get quite large), doing careful analysis of any music parameters that they find interesting in the excerpt. These music parameters can be anything – melody, harmony, pitch content, counterpoint, orchestration, texture, form, tension/relaxation – basically whatever the student thinks the composer is utilizing in an interesting manner. Students are welcome to study more or all of a piece if they wish, but as lesson time is limited, we will focus our time on a small segment as to not impede too much on the main focus of their lesson (i.e. the pieces they’re composing).

There’s one stipulation in building their playlist: students can choose composers from any century (unless otherwise indicated), but a composer can only be chosen once. This will help diversify their playlist. Here goes:

1. Solo instrument (not piano)
2. Voice with piano
3. Duo or trio (with or without piano)
4. String quartet
5. Woodwind quintet, reed quintet, saxophone quartet, or brass quintet
6. Pierrot ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion)
7. American idiom #1: folk, pop, rap, or rock
8. American idiom #2: jazz, blues, Motown, or R&B
9. A cappella choir
10. Orchestra, post 1920
11. Wind ensemble
12. Opera or musical
13. Anything goes! Choose a piece that somehow relates to what you’re composing now.

Finally, students should choose works that not only bring them much enjoyment, but will also challenge the way they currently perceive music. As composers, we need to get out of our comfort zones every now and then – these are the works that can help our music develop in new and exciting directions.

Enjoy the process of building your playlist!