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!

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!