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: