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