Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Music Teachers are Vital to Awakening Creativity

The reason I’m a composer comes down to one person: Mr. Jay Lehmann. Back in the mid-1980s, Mr. Lehmann directed the instrumental program at Monte Vista High School in Danville, California. I had been a choir and band geek ever since freshman year, and took piano lessons regularly since the age of five, but the idea of composing didn’t strike me until junior year when Mr. Lehmann offered an Advanced Placement Music Theory course. Enrolling in the course was a natural outgrowth of my choral and band geekiness, as well as an opportunity to earn some credits applicable toward a college education - but taking it changed the course of my life with a single homework assignment, when Mr. Lehmann said to go home and write a piece of music.

I remember thinking how difficult that sounded and feeling apprehensive…how could I possibly compose? Would I have anything to say musically? My trepidation lasted until I got home and sat down at my family’s piano. While writing that first piece of music, it felt like a light bulb turned on inside my mind, showing me a room I had never known existed before, and how that room glowed brightly with possibilities. It didn’t take long to realize that now that the light bulb had been turned on, it apparently couldn’t be turned off! Composing was intriguing, fun, and kept my attention far more than my math and science classes. I began writing piece after piece about anything that came to mind – a piano waltz for a boy I thought was cute, a saxophone quartet about soaring eagles… you get the idea. Luckily, a friend of the family took note and put me in touch with Mr. H. David Hogan, a composer who lived in the Bay Area, who agreed to take me on as a student. Additionally, Mr. Hogan sent me to the Walden School for Young Composers, a summer program in New Hampshire he co-founded in 1972, and whose mission is to train pre-college students in composition and music theory (Walden is still going strong today, which is a wonderful testament to the ongoing work of Walden’s administration and faculty in cultivating today’s youth to compose). Between Mr. Hogan’s studio lessons, my continuing musical activities and classes in high school, and the training I received at the Walden School, my composing abilities had advanced enough to apply to composition programs in music schools during my senior year. In the fall of 1988, I entered the University of Michigan as a composition major, and my career path came into focus.

My origin story offers a simple point: music teachers are vital in helping students think in ways they might not inherently do. Would I have discovered composing in some other way? Not likely. I was already doing a host of musical activities during high school, and yet hadn’t had any impulse to pick up a pencil and start scribbling down notes. The question that more often comes to my mind is what would I have done if I hadn’t discovered composing? It is hard to say, but I’m relatively sure it wouldn’t be a career in music – while I enjoyed performing, I had already realized I wasn’t nearly talented enough on any particular instrument, nor as a singer, to follow a performance path.

This is why I make it a point to continue doing education activities within a variety of schools, colleges, and organizations as part of my freelance career. One never knows who we may inspire through a communal music-making activity, or with some bit of encouragement we give on a youngster’s composing efforts. When I work with teenagers (particularly 15-year-olds), I point out that I was their age when I first discovered my passion for composing. Perhaps they feel like I did – how can anyone compose? Do they have anything unique to say? Aren’t they too old to start? – or perhaps they’ll be emboldened to try composing or another artistic pursuit, seeing how seminal their teenage years can be.

A few months ago, I found Mr. Lehmann online. He is the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Berkeley Youth Orchestra, and a professor at the California Jazz Conservatory (Berkeley, CA) and Laney College (Oakland, CA), where he teaches all levels of Music Theory, Ear Training, Jazz History, and Music Appreciation. He has taught music for the past 48 years, and been honored along the way with the Golden Bell Award for outstanding teaching in the state of California, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Parent Teacher Association. I sent him an email, thanking him for giving our class that homework assignment all those years ago, and letting him know how that one assignment changed the course of my life (he wrote back – I was a geeky band nerd all over again!). I’m so thankful Mr. Lehmann was in my life in high school, that he gave our music theory class that particular homework assignment, and then encouraged me to keep composing over the course of my junior and senior years. I hope that I, too, can inspire students to unlock and explore their creative potential, and that our schools can keep music teachers among their ranks to awaken their students’ imaginations across the country and world.

An article I found in my first composition notebook, when Mr. Lehmann won the Golden Bell Award. 
It was also the first time I was interviewed by a reporter, who mistakenly printed that I 
played the tenor saxophone (I never got beyond alto sax).

Sunday, June 2, 2019

An Afternoon at the American Academy of Arts and Letters

One of the holy grails in the music composition field is to receive recognition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This prestigious organization was founded in 1898, when it was chartered by the U.S. Congress, as the American Academy states, to “foster, assist, and sustain an interest in literature, music, and the fine arts.” The Academy maintains a roster of 250 highly accomplished elected members whose careers encompass a very wide cross-section of these fields; these members are elected for life and pay no dues. As part of the mission of the Academy, these members annually nominate individuals within their own fields to receive prizes, which serve to acknowledge the artistry of the recipients as well as offer financial support for their endeavors.

New York Times announcement
As I have learned over the years, a person can be nominated over and over (and over) again. It can be a bit of a guessing game – who might have nominated me? Which of my pieces should I send in for consideration this year? And when I didn’t get chosen… might someone nominate me again sometime down the road so I can try again? This past fall, I received a letter that I had once again been nominated. This time, I took a different approach to the application than what I’ve done in previous years – I sent in works that showed exactly who I am, with my narrative-driven,
mostly tonal musical language on full display. For once, I didn’t send in what I think they wanted to see, which I had previously (and erroneously) figured was a highly academic language. I have to give a hat tip here to John Mackey, who had received an award from the American
David Rakowski in the Portrait Room
Academy in 2018 for his wind ensemble music; seeing the Academy honor him for what he does so well gave me the push I needed to submit works that I feel show the true essence of my style. Incredibly, the committee honored me for exactly who I am. For this, I am eternally thankful. Their acceptance gives me the conviction that when we excel at what we do, no matter our musical language, someone will notice.

Helen Keller's portrait and signature
From the array of music awards annually given, I received an Arts and Letters Award in Music, a distinction that is annually given by the adjudicators to four composers who have arrived at their own voice (conviction!). This year’s fellow awardees of this category are Wynton Marsalis, John Musto, and David Fulmer. The award includes funding towards recording a work for commercial release, as well as a chamber concert featuring works by all four of us in the spring of 2020 at the Academy.

The Academy held their Ceremonial to honor all new members as well as award recipients on May 22nd in New York City. There’s lots of history and culture gathered within the walls of the Academy, starting with a room containing portraits of everyone who has been elected to be
With Chen Yi and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
a member of the Academy (this year’s new musical members are Chen Yi and Meredith Monk). I was surprised and thrilled to find Helen Keller among the portraits. There are also paintings, sculptures, and other 
pieces of art tastefully displayed throughout the Academy. Additionally, all of this year’s award recipients and new members were invited to send in materials to be on display; these were placed around the Academy’s rooms as well.

With Joan Tower
What was most impressive, however, was the collection of people who were gathered together. Current Academy members and previous award recipients mingled with the freshly-elected members and new awardees among a cocktail hour, then a seated lunch, followed by the Ceremonial, and finally in a post-ceremony reception in which the audience who had attended the Ceremonial joined us. I’m not used to hanging out with the likes of author Ron Chernow (nice guy!) and stage director Peter Sellers (he congratulated me on my award!), let alone the staggering number of
With Melinda Wagner and David Rakowski
luminaries within the composition field, so this made for a unique and inspiring afternoon. The Academy provided a seating map of those of us sitting onstage for the Ceremonial itself, so we could get a visual of who was who. I made a point of seeking out all of the prominent women in the composition field who were in attendance: Tania León, Joan Tower,
Melinda Wagner, Chen Yi, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (the only one I missed was Meredith Monk, who I didn’t spot until the Ceremonial
With Martha Mooke, Tania León, and Gity Razaz
was about to begin).
These six women have
had an enormous impact on my career over the years, serving as role models for me and others following in their blazing footsteps. There were a good number of women composers there as well who were either current or previous awardees. It is not usual for me to encounter more than a few women in any particular concert or event, so to see so many of us gathered together was a wonderful reminder that the makeup of our field is indeed changing.

Before I knew it, the afternoon had passed, and I had to hop in a taxi to get to the airport for an evening flight home. This was truly a remarkable day, one that I’ll long savor in my memory. I look forward to returning to New York City and the American Academy next spring for the chamber concert!
Display case of my works

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Conclusion of a Fantastic Residence with CUSO ❤️

I have had a wonderful second year of my residence with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra! In my first year, I focused almost exclusively on offering a wide assortment of activities for education programs. These brought me to multiple elementary, middle, and high schools, colleges, and several organizations to work with students and adults of all ages. We also ran a chamber ensemble concert at the i-Hotel featuring CUSO musicians, as well as an Overture Composition Competition for regional composers.

For my second and final year with the orchestra, I kept some of the elements of the first year, while also diversifying in new directions. CUSO’s overarching theme for this season was “Our World, Our Music,” to tie in with the focus of various works of mine about our planet earth.

We brought my chamber music to old, new, and unexpected locations around the region.
  • We started off the new concert season with a “Messages from Gaia” Concert at the i-Hotel in Champaign, IL. This concert featured several of my earth-themed chamber works, performed by musicians from the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra and two guest singers. Along with my String Quartet No. 3: Gaia and Phoenix Rising for solo flute, we performed two arias from Terra Nostra, my oratorio about the planet, as a teaser of our March 9, 2019 concert. We live-streamed the concert so people around the country could watch. Audience members took part in CUSO’s “Messages to Gaia” community project, creating artwork, writing poetry, and leaving messages on large pieces of butcher paper that we then featured at CUSO’s Terra Nostra concert in March 2019.

  • We held a Gelato Social at the Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery in Champaign, IL, featuring free homemade gelato from the farm’s goats, accompanied by performances of my String Quartet No. 3: Gaia and Phoenix Rising played by musicians from the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra. PFFC co-owner Wes Jerrell spoke about how he and Leslie Cooperband started raising goats in 2004, which led to their interest in making cheese and gelato. He also spoke about their farm’s sustainability efforts. Audience members also took part in CUSO’s “Messages to Gaia” community project.

  • CUSO flutist Amanda Pond performed my Phoenix Rising in a number of locations. In addition to playing the piece at the i-Hotel concert and the Gelato Social, she performed it at the Urbana Farmers Market in September 2018, as well as part of our pre-concert events in Foellinger Great Hall of the Krannert Center for CUSO’s March 9, 2019 Terra Nostra concert.

I did a lot of mentoring:
  • I designed and implemented two visits to meet with incarcerated participants of the Education Justice Project at the Danville Correctional Center in Danville, IL. For the first visit, I gave a workshop on how to unleash one’s inner creativity. We did this by discussing the decision-making process a composer goes through when composing, learning musical terms and how a composer tracks the tension within a piece, and analyzing some music together; we also created our own piece using graphic notation that we performed and then critiqued. On my second visit, I constructed a concert using a pre-recorded CD of my earth-themed works (recorded from our i-Hotel concert earlier in the month). Between these musical movements, I inserted ten texts about the planet from the libretto of Terra Nostra, my oratorio, which were read aloud by the incarcerated participants. A few of the participants in my earlier workshop shared creative projects as well during the concert. We concluded with O World, a group composition that we created together based on the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire), followed by a Q&A session with the participants in which they asked a range of questions about the music they heard and my composing process. Participants also took part in CUSO’s “Messages to Gaia” community project.

  • I designed a two-day Composers Institute for composers that lived within a 200-mile radius of Champaign-Urbana. Twelve composers from eight Midwest universities joined us at the i-Hotel. We crammed a lot into our Institute! The first day focused on my “Craft Your Career” workshop series in which we covered strategies for composing, building an online presence, and music business basics. On the second day, we held an assortment of activities: CUSO harpist Molly Madden and CUSO percussionists William Moersch  and Ricardo Flores gave demonstrations on how to effectively write for their instruments within an orchestra setting; we had lunch with Maestro Alltop in which we discussed navigating the conductor-composer relationship; and we had a fantastic reading session of three new works by Midwest composers Stephen Caldwell, Brian Hinkley, and Hunter Chang, workshopped by Maestro Alltop and the orchestra. Each of these three composers took part in a brief Q&A with me prior to the reading of their piece, as well as in a longer Q&A with our audience at the conclusion of the reading session. We live-streamed the reading session so people around the country could watch.
  • Prior to the Composers Institute, I mentored our three selected composers for the Institute via Skype on how to prepare their full scores and parts for the reading session. I also mentored a fourth composer who we ultimately didn’t select, but whose music exhibited great promise.

  • In the Spring of 2018, Maestro Alltop, CUSO, and I held an Overture Composition Competition, in which we selected five 3-minute overtures from an open competition, written by composers of all ages who lived within a 200-mile radius of Champaign-Urbana. We held a reading session in which the five works were workshopped by the orchestra in front of an audience, then the audience and orchestra voted on whose pieces they’d like to be performed on a CUSO subscription concert. The winners were Maya Benyas’ Fantasy House Overture and Roger Zare’s Strontium Red. Over the course of 2018/19, I mentored Maya Benyas in preparing her full score and parts for the upcoming performance. Both Maya’s and Roger’s works received performances by Maestro Alltop and the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra on April 27, 2019 in Foellinger Great Hall of the Krannert Center.

I visited a few more organizations.

  • At the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), I took part in CUSO’s longstanding tradition of pre-concert talks for the organization. Prior to CUSO’s performances of Krakatoa and Terra Nostra, I introduced each work to OLLI members in Friday morning talks.

  • Also at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, I gave a 90-minute talk called “How does a composer compose instrumental music?” This was a follow-up to a presentation I gave in the Spring of 2018, in which I addressed how a composer composes vocal music. I built these presentations so that people with no musical training can get a very accessible glimpse into a composer’s writing process. Both of these talks were received very well, and I have started to give these presentations elsewhere in the U.S. for general audiences.

  • In the Fall of 2018, I gave two presentations at Urbana High School on how a composer composes choir music. I returned in the Spring of 2019 to give presentations on strategies for composing music for two music classes at Urbana High School.

The most exciting part was hearing CUSO perform my orchestral works!

  • The biggest performance of my entire CUSO residence was that of Terra Nostra, my oratorio about the planet, and how we can live in balance with it. The whole final year of my residence built up to this March 2019 concert, and it was very exciting! Members of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra were joined onstage by the soloists Sarah Gartshore, Betany Coffland, Stephen Soph, and David Govertson, the University of Illinois Oratorio Society (Andrew Megill, conductor), and the Central Illinois Children’s Chorus (Andrea Solya, conductor), with Maestro Stephen Alltop leading the joint forces. We started the evening with a pre-concert event, featuring CUSO flutist Amanda Pond playing my Phoenix Rising; then Maestro Alltop and I had a conversation in which we introduced the 3-part structure of Terra Nostra to the audience. We also highlighted various texts and particular moments of the piece for which the audience should listen. Then, we performed Terra Nostra – the piece is 71 minutes and done without an intermission. Immediately after the performance, we had a talk-back featuring the conductors, soloists, and myself, in which we answered questions from the audience. To round out the concert experience, we handed out seed packets to the audience (this gesture ties in with the oratorio’s messages of humanity being stewards of the earth). Also, CUSO Guild Board’s Vice President Anne Sharpe beautifully designed two large display panels to feature all of the artwork and messages people created in our “Messages to Gaia” community project that we have held throughout the year at various events noted above.

Throughout it all, I blogged.

Thank you, Champaign-Urbana and Music Alive Program!!

Thank you so much to everyone that has played a role in my residence – Executive Director Gerri Kirchner, Maestro Stephen Alltop, the musicians of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, photographer/videographer Darrell Hoemann, Anne and David Sharpe, Rebecca Ginsburg of the Danville Correctional Center’s Education Justice Project, Wes Jerrell and Leslie Cooperband of Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and all of the Champaign-Urbana community members and volunteers — you have all greatly enriched my residence experience throughout the past two years. Thank you as well to the Music Alive Program, funded by New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras, for funding the residence. Without these organizations, I wouldn’t have had this wonderful opportunity to learn and grow as a composer and mentor.

It has been a joy to bring music and the discovery of composing to people of all ages and from all walks of life. I hope all of the activities we carried out over the course of the past two years have inspired people to be creative in any manner that speaks to them, be it making music, gardening in the backyard, singing in a community chorus, or painting artwork in the park.

And with this, my residence ends. Champaign-Urbana, you will always hold a dear place in my heart. ❤️