Thoughts on Music

Finding the Creative Groove

This week I had sort of a mini revelation I would like to share: it seems that my most productive creative time is the afternoon.  Seems simple, I know.  But I feel like I have been trying to find this answer for years.  In the past, I have set aside time to compose at pretty much every time of day, and most of the time I am fairly productive, but I have never been able to identify a particular time of day that works best for me.  Some musicians prefer composing or practicing late at night, or first thing in the morning.  I have had some success at both of these times, but I would say only limited success.  I can't count on being productive at those times, and here is why: Early Morning: I'm still waking up, digesting some food, thinking about all the stuff I need to get done that day.  Even though people say your mind is generally pretty clear at the beginning of the day, I don't always feel that way. I need to sit down and get some tasks off my plate right away.

Evening: I'm tired - we have been through the entire day and whatever it holds.  I don't like to stay up too late, so my mind knows I don't have a long stretch of time to burrow into creativity.  Sometimes I can be successful with a short block of creative time, even 30 minutes, but more often I need a large chunk of time that I know I can dedicate to composing.  I may be productive in the first hour, but I don't feel really satisfied (in the groove) until a little more time has passed.  At night, my brain seems to be better and doing non-creative work.

Afternoon: Jackpot! I have had plenty of time to wake up, do email and knock off some generally non-creative tasks, and my energy level is pretty high.  I can plan out a large block of time, and I'm not tired like I will be at the end of the day.

I'm not sure why it took me so long to figure this out! But I'm excited to see how this continues to play out.  I wonder if this will change or if I have really found my ultimate creative time period? We shall see.

Life for a Work After the Premiere

Yesterday I read an interesting article on the Chorus America website titled "What Happens After the Premiere" by Don Lee. The article brings up some interesting points, one of which is that many works are commissioned for a premiere performance and then fall off the map (at least for a certain amount of time).  He points out that there is a distinct marketing advantage for a group to present the premiere versus the 2nd or 3rd performance of a piece.  But, to be honest, I'm not sure the audience really thinks about this as much as the ensemble does.

The audience is there to hear great music, and they are there to be enriched regardless of whether that performance is the very first, or the 2nd, or the 100th.  As a composer, I am of course a huge proponent of commissioning and I think there are myriad benefits, but I am also a huge proponent of supporting pieces after they have been premiered.  Given all the work that goes into bringing a new piece to life, I think we need to be careful to not just premiere a work to pomp and circumstance and then forget about it.

In his article, Lee points to some good programs and partnerships that are striving to address this issue.  Composers certainly have some responsibility here and must do everything they can to ensure that the works have life beyond the premiere performance.

Spirituals: A Lecture Recital

Monday evening Ashley and I presented a lecture recital on Spirituals. We discussed and performed Go Down MosesDeep River, and Wade in the Water.  We talked a bit about the history of the Spiritual, and tried to present the context of what was happening at the time of their development.  We also talked about possible deeper meanings within the works - of course on the surface Spirituals appear to be songs based on biblical stories, but it seems plausible that they also had meaning related to the underground railroad and the Slaves' journey for freedom.

We transcribed the Harry T. Burleigh arrangements (voice & piano) for saxophone and piano and had a great time working on these songs.  There is so much depth and beauty in these works, and so much to consider in terms of the texts, the music, and how they complement each other.  Hopefully I will have a video clip to post soon.  In the meantime, enjoy a recording of your favorite Spiritual today and be appreciative for these wonderful songs!

Idea for a New Piece

Sometimes I just improvise at the piano to come up with ideas that might turn into something.  Occasionally an idea sticks around, comes back to me several days later, and I'm not sure why (at the time).  But often times, ideas like that are the seeds for a new work.  This happened a few days ago - I came up with a simple little chord progression that sounded nice, but disregarded it and went back to work on something else. I didn't even write it down.  Then on Wednesday I was sitting at the piano and I found myself fiddling with this chord progression again. Now the ideas have been in my head almost non-stop for the past few days.  Even though it is in some ways distracting from a piece I'm trying to finish (Magnolia Star for wind ensemble), it's always exciting when this sort of inspiration happens, and I don't mind the distraction one bit. I think the ideas will work great for both an SATB choral piece and possibly a wind band transcription.  The essence of the idea is an 8 bar harmonic progression  in 3/4 time that would be repeated, each time adding a new layer of counterpoint, or a new voice, etc.  It will definitely start as a choral work, and I'm thinking the text might just be "Alleluia."  The idea reminds me in some ways of Mozart's Dona Nobis Pacem canon, which has a special place in my heart because it is sung community-sing style at the conclusion of the Eastman Holiday Sing each year in December.   Here is the 2010 performance directed by the great Mark Scatterday (even though you can't see him in the video):

Panel Discussion - Composers on Composing & Commissioning

This morning I participated in a panel discussion at KMEA (Kansas All-State Conference) titled "Composers on Composing and Commissioning."  The session was organized by my friend Timothy Shade, Conductor of the Bethel College Wind Ensemble, who performed "Lauda" on Thursday at the conference.  Composer Derek Jenkins and myself talked about writing for wind ensembles, our experience with commissioning, and fielded some excellent questions from the attendees. Derek is a wonderful composer, and it was a pleasure to hear more of his music and hear him discuss his compositional process. I put together this handout: Thoughts On Commissioning, for the occasion.  The handout is by no means an exhaustive tutorial on commissioning, but is instead just some general ideas and information for those interested in commissioning a piece of music.  Many thanks to Tim for organizing the fun discussion and for all the folks that participated!

Boston Symphony Orchestra - Post-Concert Thoughts

On Friday (February 17), Ashley and I took the train into Boston and attended the Boston Symphony Orchestra Concert (tickets were a gift from her siblings!).  The BSO performed Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, Stravinsky's Concert for Piano and Winds and Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich.  Peter Serkin was the piano soloist for the Stravinsky and the program was conducted by Stephane Deneve. I didn't want to write a "review" of the concert, but rather share some thoughts.  So, I decided a bulleted list might be appropriate:

  • The Ravel was beautiful - such a imaginative and graceful piece of music.  The playing in the orchestra was fantastic all around.  There was especially wonderful playing from the flutes and english horn.
  • Peter Serkin was brilliant in the Stravinsky - he can play fast, let me tell you.  And, he also played with great sensitivity.   The 2nd movement was my favorite - it had a sense of great depth and urgency within the beautiful harmonic progression Stravinsky constructed.
  • The ending of the first movement of the Stravisnky is sheer awesomeness.  I love endings that are unexpected, and yet satisfying and powerful.
  • The first movement of the Shostakovich is a brilliant piece of motivic development, and the orchestra played with great energy and passion.  To me, the high point of the concert in terms of energy was the first few minutes of the final movement. The orchestra absolutely tore through the music and the enthusiasm was palpable.  However, to my ear, they didn't recoup that level of energy, even at the ending.  Unlike the Stravinsky, the ending was predictable, and lacked the satisfaction of a truly powerful and overwhelming end.  Nevertheless, most people jumped to their feet and clapped with reckless abandon.  I was left feeling a little underwhelmed, but still very happy to be there.
  • Overall, it was a great concert and inspiring performance.

The Greatest Goal

Yesterday I posted about presenting a preschool music program to an enthusiastic audience of 56(!) little children (see here).  It was fun and rewarding on many levels, and it made me think about my own musical experiences as a child.  Music was a huge part of my childhood, and continued to be a very present and important part of my life throughout my schooling.  Ultimately, it was passionate and inspiring teachers who sparked my creativity and made me want to pursue music as a career.  Working with the preschoolers - their wonderfully imaginative and curious minds - made me think about perhaps my greatest goal as a musician: to inspire others to love music as much as I do.  Ever since I realized the impact that those wonderful teachers of mine had on me, I knew that my greatest goal would be to pass on that inspiration and hopefully spark an interest in others to pursue music.  By inspire, I mean provide a spark on any level - not necessarily inspire someone to pursue a life in music.  Rather, it could be as simple as planting a seed of interest in taking private music lessons. I think the greatest gift I have received as a student of music, both as a child and an adult, has been the inspiration of great teachers and mentors. Their passion, their desire for excellence, their creativity, and their love for music has always been a source of inspiration for me. So, my greatest goal is to hopefully be that inspiration for someone else.

Composing Anywhere (and Everywhere!)

Composers have famously carried little black books with them to jot down ideas, regardless of where they are when inspiration strikes.  I don't necessarily do this, but I do find myself thinking about composing pretty much everywhere - while walking, driving, eating, etc.  And, I find myself working on pieces in various locations.  Obviously, when we travel we are forced to work outside of our normal spaces and sometimes get some work done in a hotel room or in a cafe.  I have always enjoyed working in cafes and coffee shops, where there is some bustle but also some ability to concentrate.  At the same time, I also like very quiet and secluded places where I can really focus on creating ideas and hearing them in my head.  However, those quiet and secluded places seem to be less and less common these days.  Today I find myself in a library where it is relatively quiet, but not without people walking by and some ambient noise.  I have my score for Magnolia Star (latest wind ensemble piece) here and I'm thinking about sounds, sections, and form.  It's nice to be able to get some amount of composition work done from anywhere.

Giving Back

Today I made a small donation to each of the two schools where I studied (University of Miami Frost School of MusicEastman School of Music). I have donated in the past, but rather irregularly, and now I'm making a commitment to donate every year.  I think this is important, because both these institutions provided me with so many opportunities, so many experiences, and so much learning which have all proved invaluable.  I recognize how much I gained from these experiences, and I want to make sure those opportunities exist for many students in the future.

It may sound a little corny, but I really believe that if everyone gave back a very small amount, it would have a huge impact on these institutions (and future generations of students).   Sometimes those 7:00pm dinner time calls from cheerful student fundraisers seem contrived, but one thing they say is definitely true - any amount you can give makes a difference.

So if you can, give back.

At Keene State College Today

Today I spent the day at Keene State College in Keene, NH talking to a composition class - listening to student works, and discussing my own. It was a wonderful time - the students presented some excellent compositions, and all of the students had insightful things to say about all of the music we discussed.  It was a lot of fun.

At the end I handed out a little document I recently put together which lists 18 "tips for young composers."  These ideas range from the importance of having a positive attitude to attending conferences and concerts.  They are ideas I have thought about over the last few years of being out of school and trying to further my career as a composer.  You can read the document here.  Enjoy!

Thanks to Keene State and the students for hosting me today, and especially Dr. Heather Gilligan and Dr. James Cheesebrough for organizing my visit!