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!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Composers & Competitions: To Enter or Not To Enter?

Throughout my career, I’ve heard much debate on the value of composers entering composition competitions. Should we? Shouldn’t we? If we win, does this mean that our music and career are validated? If we don’t win, should we pack away our score paper and notation programs to pursue another career?

There are many good reasons to enter a competition: a cash award that can help you pay the bills; a performance in a city, state, or country outside of where you live; a recording you can use to interest others in your music; recognition/publicity for you and your music; a grant for a project of your own devising; an opportunity to compose a new piece for an organization you’ve not worked with before… so how do you know if a particular competition is worth your time and resources to enter?

To help you decide, try asking yourself the following questions:

1. What are your expectations for winning the competition? 

If you think it will lead to instant fame, think again. Realistically, there are very few awards that can truly change one’s career trajectory overnight (with notable exceptions – for instance, Caroline Shaw, the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, was a relatively unknown composer who became an instant sensation). So you need to ask yourself, what is it that you hope to gain by entering a particular competition? Make a quick list of how the competition would benefit you to help you decide.

2. Is there an entry fee?

Some competitions are free to enter, while others require an entry fee. If there’s a fee, ask yourself if the competition’s prize is worth the cost, particularly if you also need to spend money to submit scores and recordings by snail mail.

3. Does the competition provide you with a performance?  

If so, will they also cover your expenses to travel and lodging to attend the concert? Bonus points if they also cover your meals!

4. Will you receive a recording of the performance? 

You usually can’t use this recording for non-commercial purposes, but many competitions will allow you to use the recording on your website or Soundcloud page so you can share your music with the world, as well as interest potential musicians in performing the piece.

5. Do you have a strong and suitable piece to submit that matches what the competition is asking for? 

For instance, if the competition asks for a 10-15 minute piece for large orchestra and all you have is a seven minute composition for string orchestra, now might not be the right moment to enter. However, keep track of each contest that you find so that as you write works that matches their requirements, you can submit them in future rounds.

6. If the competition results in your needing to write a new work for an upcoming concert, do you have enough time to compose the piece? 

One of the dangers of entering competitions of this sort is not budgeting adequate time to write a piece alongside other activities in your life. If you’re not careful, you might not have the time you need, which can result in a very stressful composing situation and potentially a less than optimal piece. Before you enter this type of competition, take a careful look at your schedule.

Personally, I encourage composers to enter competitions. The payoffs can be very beneficial and wonderful, as long as you don’t take the losses personally. Winning any competition is a roll of the dice – you never know quite what the adjudication panel is looking for – so all you can do is submit your best work, then forget about it until you get your congrats/regrets letter. Whether you win or lose, remember that the value of your music is not determined by any competition or group of judges; this comes from within yourself and whether you’re doing what you love.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Why Composers (Should) Go on Concert Sprees

Near the end of May, I attended eight concerts in seven days, traveling all over the Chicago area in my quest. I haven’t experienced had a concertizing stretch like this in quite a while! A concert spree is a good thing for a composer to do every so often, for many reasons: to hear fresh, newly composed pieces as well as established repertoire; to make connections with musicians with whom they might collaborate in the future; to discover which musical elements and sound combinations in a piece work well to a composer’s ear and which don’t; to hear how the musicians finesse and shape their musical passages; and to understand how musicians navigate challenging pieces in which tuning, range, rhythm, or other elements can be problematic. What I gain when attending concerts helps inform my compositional process and future projects; also, I find that garnering a large amount of knowledge in a short amount of time helps me conceive of music in ways I don't normally get from attending an occasional concert every few weeks. What did I learn on my latest spree? Read on…

1. “New Works Sampler” – Opera America Conference
First up, I watched Opera America’s live stream of their New Works Sampler concert that was taking place at their conference in Montreal, Canada. The concert featured scenes from seven operas that were either recently premiered or still in development. Four composers were Canadian – Tim Brady, Neil Weisensel, John Estacio, and John Harris – and three were American – Laura Kaminsky, David T. Little, and Ricky Ian Gordon. Several were on either political themes (revolutions, the last hours of JFK, the immigrant experience in America in the early 1900s) or societal issues (bullying, the life of a transgender teenager). One opera reimagined the Greek tragedy of Medea into modern times, which was a nice twist of an old tale. I was surprised, though, at the number of operas focused on stories of politics and social issues. Sure, this makes sense – people everywhere are grappling with our shared history and humanity. But I am looking for something, well, more fantastical when it comes to opera…a story line that is familiar enough to engage audiences, but with enough differences to break away from the rest of the pack and spark audiences’ imaginations. Regardless, I was very inspired to see that the world of opera is flourishing for composers and opera companies alike. You too can also watch the New Works Sampler, as it is preserved online:

2. “Laying Down the Law” – Patrice Michaels, soprano, Kuang-Hao, piano, and John Bruce Yeh, clarinet
Held at the University of Chicago, Patrice Michaels programmed songs and arias on social justice, homelessness, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Featured on the concert was the partial debut of Patrice’s own The Long View, a large, nine-movement song cycle she is currently composing that features texts by or about Justice Ginsburg, or having to do with social justice. Laurie Altman’s Laments of the Homeless Woman, Margaret Bonds’ Minstrel Man, and William Grant Still’s Grief were also performed. My own My Dearest Ruth was included as well, in which I set the last letter written by Martin Ginsburg, Justice Ginsburg's husband, to his wife before he passed away. Patrice ended the concert by dressing as Justice Ginsburg to perform an aria from Derrick Wang’s new opera Scalia/Ginsburg. Peppered among these weightier texts were piano preludes by George Gershwin and Nikolai Kapustin that added lighter, jazzy moments to the concert. This concert was not only thought-provoking with its strong social justice message, but it was also for a good cause, as all proceeds benefitted the “You Can Make It” family shelters in local Chicago neighborhoods.

3. “In the Penal Colony” – Fringe Opera Chicago
Chicago’s music programs in colleges and universities are producing quite a bounty of opera singers these days! Several graduates from local universities founded Fringe Opera Chicago in 2014. While their company may be relatively new, this talented group adeptly performed In the Penal Colony by Phillip Glass. The opera questions the premise of capital punishment by means of a prisoner who is to be slowly and excruciatingly executed by a machine that will tattoo his crime on his body over the course of twelve hours (and yes, I found this story captivating!). The most unique feature of this performance is that it was held in a midsize studio at Lill Street Art Center, replete with canvases and art materials scattered about the room. About 60 audience members were divided in half, one on each side of the room, with the singers and actors staged diagonally across the middle and the musicians tucked discretely in a corner. The intensity of the story mixed well with both the close-packed studio and the tension in Glass’s music, making the audience feel as though we were caught in the crosshairs of the unfolding drama ourselves.

4. “Opera for All: Once upon a Windy City” – Field Elementary School
Chicago Opera Theater annually offers the Chicago Public Schools a wonderful education outreach program that results in classes composing and performing 10-15 minute mini-operas. The students start out the school year with a trip to a local museum (this year, it was the Chicago History Museum), from which each class brainstorms a story based on what they’ve learned. Over the course of the year, COT artists help the students to brainstorm their opera’s topic, write dialogue, compose a group song, and learn choreography for a group dance number. The two mini-operas I witnessed involved an altercation between American settlers and the British at Fort Dearborn, and a pair of siblings who time travel back to the Great Chicago Fire (enlisting the help of the Obamas and Michael Jordan) to put it out. In a city where funding for the school system has been under constant duress (as our state government hasn’t passed a budget in a year), COT is helping these children experience the joys of creativity and music-making. Was this a polished performance? No, but that wasn’t the point. The students were excited to share their hard work with the audience and did a respectable job with their shows. More importantly, I hope the enthusiasm these youngsters have gained for the arts stays with them throughout their lives.

5. “Cosmic Convergence” – Chicago Sinfonietta
I have grown accustomed to expecting the unexpected at Chicago Sinfonietta concerts, and this concert was no exception. For the first half of the concert, the Sinfonietta teamed up with Dr. José Francisco Salgado, and astronomer and visual artist. Salgado has spent time over the past ten years creating films of space that are synced to particular pieces of music, a number of which we were treated to in the concert on a gigantic screen erected behind the orchestra. For instance, we watched spectacular footage of the planets Jupiter and Mars while listening to the corresponding movements in Gustav Holst’s The Planets. I especially enjoyed Salgado’s deep space pictures of exploding stars and black holes during two movements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. At intermission, audience members could learn more about our solar system by perusing science exhibits. Chicago Sinfonietta is quite the master of cross-over concerts – I’ve seen acrobats tumbling up the aisles and across the front of the stage, as well as a concerto for bagpipe and orchestra – but I found this pairing of science and music to be particularly poignant. For many concert-goers, how a composer writes music is a total mystery, a process that appears somewhat magical. I feel similarly about the origin, vastness, and beauty of space. Having the mysteries of the universe and music brought together by Dr. Salgado, maestra Mei-Ann Chen, and the Sinfonietta musicians made for a wonderful concert.

6. NU Saxophone Ensemble - Northwestern University
This was the shortest concert of the week, running about an hour, but I was blown away by the musicality of Mr. Taimur Sullivan’s saxophone studio. Comprised of nine students in various levels of undergraduate and graduate studies, these saxophonists tackled their repertoire with a poise, preciseness, and clarity of tone that I found uncommonly good. Mr. Sullivan programmed an array of intriguing works, from Caryl Florio’s Quartette (written in 1879, and one of the earliest works written specifically for saxophone quartet) to two movements from young composer Joel Love’s Three Images, written just this year (Love’s piece was quite good – he has a great ear for writing for saxophones). I was particularly interested to listen to the balance when all nine saxophones played together. When I think about scoring saxophones, I find them to similar to how I conceive of balancing a string ensemble or a choir – as long as you’re careful when you orchestrate, you can’t do much to imbalance the group overall. The repertoire I heard seemed to support my view.

A quite side note: this concert was held in Northwestern’s new Galvin Recital Hall in Evanston, which proved to be very fortuitous on this particular evening as we were having a spectacular thunderstorm. For those of you who haven’t been to this hall yet, the back of the stage is comprised of floor-to-ceiling windowpanes, so the audience was treated to occasional and exhilarating lightning strikes.

7. “Word on the Street” Exhibition Concert – Nicholas Senn High School
Senn is known to be one of the best arts high schools in the Chicago Public School system, and I could clearly see why. This concert offered a smorgasbord of everything that Senn does: student artwork displayed on panels as we entered the auditorium; performances by the school’s advanced musical groups (choir, orchestra, and wind ensemble were all represented); dramatic readings; dance groups; and musical theater scenes. However, the theater students were, simply put, amazing. Of special note, four drama students comprised the schools “Louder Than a Bomb” team. These students wrote and delivered their own poetry. Having grown up in Chicago where they are besieged with a constant barrage of race issues and street violence (and mixed with recent events involving police violence against blacks), these students made it loud and clear what they fear, as well as what they hope for. Of all the events I attended this week, these four poet-rappers made the biggest impression on me. We need to pay attention to what messages our youth are taking in about the state of our city, and by extension, our country. There is great creative power in our youth; I am glad Senn is giving these students the training to harness this power and an outlet to express themselves.

8. Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” – Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra, Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, University Singers, and the Apollo Chorus of Chicago; Victor Yampolsky, conductor
The joining of Northwestern University’s performing forces with the Apollo Chorus capped off my week of music in grand fashion. The student orchestra, led very capably under the baton of maestro Yampolsky, did a fine job in navigating Mahler’s stormy score. I was moved to tears during the fifth movement when the joint choirs finally entered. After an hour filled with fast music and bombastically loud passages, it was stunning hear the choirs sing so utterly softly. The soprano soloist entered very quietly along with the choirs, only to slowly break free and soar above the rest of the group. This was a glorious, transcendent moment, one in which all my thoughts and worries dissipated, and all I could do was be completely enveloped in the beauty of that moment. This is composition and performance at its very best, working harmoniously together. This is the power of music on full display.

So, what did I learn from this week of concertizing? A few things:

• The power of music can be felt in a piece of any size. Granted, it might be easier to feel music’s power when you’re witnessing several hundred singers and musicians bringing a massive Mahler Symphony to life, but I found great power residing in plenty of quiet moments too, and by much smaller performing forces. I found power in an art song about social justice; I found power in an undergraduate saxophone quartet playing uncannily well together; I found power in an opera singer vainly trying to convince us that capital punishment is somehow justified.

• Not all performances have to be done by professionals to move the soul. Joyous elementary students singing about Chicago’s history; impassioned high school student drama students rhythmically chanting out their hopes and fears; even a high school rapper whose song ended with a call for Chicagoans to stand up for their beliefs and for each other…these are honest forms of expression that are as beautiful and powerful as they are thought-provoking.

• Opera is indeed live and well! Opera America and other organizations are doing wonders in funding composers to write and stage their creations, and groups like Fringe Opera Chicago are programming intriguing works in unique spaces.

In all, I had a glorious week that has helped restock my own creative juices, enhanced my knowledge base, and gave me ideas for future projects. Now it is time to ramp down the concertizing and get back to composing!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Embracing a Freelance Career

Frank Ishman, photographer
Recently, I stepped down from my full-time position at Roosevelt University. I’ll serve as part-time artist faculty next year, teaching studio composition lessons, while the university holds a formal job search to find my replacement.

Why did I do this? The answer is simple – I want/need/desire more time to compose. It has taken a very long time to arrive at this juncture. I have taught at Roosevelt since 2000, and over the past sixteen years, the university has been a wonderful and supportive home for me. My work at Roosevelt has been fulfilling—I greatly enjoy teaching students and helping them develop their minds and musical skills. I’ve also enjoyed working with my talented colleagues in our common goal to strengthen the university and to provide our students with a wealth of knowledge and opportunities.

For many years, I successfully kept a balance between teaching/collegiate responsibilities and composing. But this balance has been getting harder and harder to maintain as my composing career moves in new and exciting directions. Now, I want to explore new paths, to collaborate with musicians, singers, ensembles, organizations, dancers, and opera companies. I wish to explore getting into film music, as well as to delve deeper into developing music entrepreneurship for myself and for others. In short, I want to explore my fullest potential. If I don’t do this now, when will I ever stop to do so?

I will always love teaching, and plan to do so in one capacity or another throughout my life. There are many avenues for this—Skype composition lessons with people around the world, guest residencies in colleges and universities with a focus on both entrepreneurship and composition activities, educational outreach activities with music organizations, and my continuing role with Fresh Inc Festival, where I’m on faculty. But as much as I love teaching, it is time to move composing to the forefront and take my first steps on a new path as a freelance composer. I’ll be blogging more about this transition and my new adventures as I do!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

5 Marketing Tips for All Musicians

Last night, I talked with Chicago a Cappella’s interns – they are a talented group of high school singers chosen from all over the Chicago area. In prepping for the talk, I realized that most of my blog columns have been aimed at composers.  In today’s blog, I offer some ideas (derived from last night’s talk) that pertain to singers and instrumentalists everywhere:

1. Meet musicians, performing groups, and composers
• Go to concerts; afterwards, introduce yourself to the singers, the conductor, any composers who had works performed, and the director of the organization. Hand out business cards (with your email and website address) or CDs.

• Keep up with these people on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media.

2. Build a website.
• All musicians need a web presence these days. If you’re not on the web, how are people going to find out about you and reach you?

• Check out websites by professionals at various stages of their careers. See what’s important on their websites: a welcome page, biography, repertoire list, audio files of your works or performances, upcoming performances, and a way to contact you. Then build your own website.

3. Create an email newsletter.
• Putting your name in front of people every 1-3 months helps keep you in their minds for potential gigs. An email newsletter is a great way to do this.

• A newsletter can cover a range of topics: upcoming performances, a blog of your adventures for the past month; current projects that you’re working on with other singers, musicians, dancers, or visual artists; recently released CDs; pictures of you at various events (such as posing with fellow musicians after a concert); links to audio files of a recent performance you gave; and so on.

4. Targeted advertising via “cold calls.”
• Contact groups that you want to work with. If you’re a chorister, that can be local churches, choirs, and choral societies. For instrumentalists, you might try local chamber groups, regional orchestras, and concert presenters.

• In your email, introduce yourself with a short biography, and explain your interest in the group you’ve contacted. Put links to audio files of yourself up on Soundcloud or on your own website. Also, have repertoire lists and packages of potential programming on your site, so people can see the kind of music and concerts you offer.

5. Ultimately, you are in charge of running your career.
• Figure out your strengths and weaknesses. You'll see what you're already good at, and what you need to work on.

• Create a list of short- and long-range goals. These will help you figure out where you want your career to go.

• Get organized & stay organized. This is an essential skill for everyone - to be on time to gigs, to be prompt in returning emails. Keep yourself from procrastinating on projects.

• If you’re currently in college, start making your career happen while you’re still in school. Network with student musicians and composers, create your own ensemble, start a concert series in a local venue, make a website, go to lots of concerts, and so on. Take charge early!