Hands of people applauding
Composing is a Lonely Craft, but We Can’t Do It Alone

Composing is a Lonely Craft, but We Can’t Do It Alone

Hands of people applauding

It was the winter of 1979 in Chicago.

Anyone who was somewhat conscious at that time knows that that means just one thing: blizzard.

I was a young piano student at the time, and a “little bit” of snow didn’t mean that a lesson would be cancelled. Nor did it mean that I would get a ride. (Contrary to today’s mentality.) So there I was, a ten year old boy, who may also have forgotten how important socks were, trudging my way half a mile, through un-shoveled drift after drift, over to Mrs. Jackson’s house. By the time I arrived, my feet were frozen solid. Needless to say, piano took a bit of a back seat that day, as Mrs. Jackson prioritized my frozen toes over a few etudes.

But there is something else about Mrs. Jackson that needs to be mentioned.

She sensed—somehow—that though piano was not going to be my life’s vocation (I never practiced), there was something about the theory of it all that intrigued me. She taught me what was going on, mathematically and harmonically, with those little black dots on the page. As a result, those five years of study with Mrs. Jackson made subsequent study of theory at the Interlochen Arts Academy much easier, which later gave me confidence at the New England Conservatory, where I earned my undergraduate degree. All of this gave me a head-start on composition when I decided to give it a try, some several years later.

So – dear Mrs. Jackson, I know you’re unfortunately not around to hear it, but, THANK YOU.

I have a request: if there is someone you know who saw talent or intrigue-in-the-arts in you at a young age, please thank them, now. Take a minute. No worries. This blogpost will still be here when you’re done.

For Christmas one year, when I was about 21, sitting under the Christmas tree at my parent’s home was this new program of which I had never heard: Finale. I think it was Version 3.0. This was before I had even considered arranging or composing, but somehow my parents detected that it might be interesting to me. And they were right! (Believe me, anyone who was willing to sit through that program in its infancy must have had a serious interest in putting notes on the page! It was so SLOW!)

Forgive me for a second while I thank my parents. I’ll be right back.

There.

Now, there’s another story I REALLY need to share.

At the age of 25, I heard about a composing “discussion” class to be held at Northwestern University in the summer. I was still a trumpet player in the Naples Philharmonic at the time. I had started doing some arranging, but had yet to compose an original note. I decided to go to our boss at the orchestra, Myra Daniels, to tell her about the class. While in her office, I explained to her that it was to be a three-week class, where about 15 of us would sit around discussing “bad music” (more about that in a bit), and how exciting I thought it would be. Without even flinching, she asked, “How much?” I told her, “$600” (which was a lot of money to me at the time), and she immediately reached into her drawer and wrote me a check. How amazing is that?!

The class at Northwestern was called “Adventures in Bad Music.” (The older generation might recognize that title as a take-off from Karl Haas’ radio show “Adventures in Good Music.”) As mentioned, the class was mainly a discussion class, led by the Israeli composer Amnon Wolman, where we would be asked to name a “bad” piece, and then provide supporting arguments for why it was bad. (Usually, this led to the mention of a country-western song, whereupon he, or someone else, would say: “But that song sold 5 million copies. Who are you to claim that it is bad?”) This certainly was food for thought.

Well, our final assignment was to write a “bad” piece of music.

I thought this would be easy, since I’d never composed before. Therefore, I went back to my desk at my apartment, with no piano, and wrote a trumpet duet in a stream-of-consciousness style. I brought it to the class with a friend the next day, and we performed it.

When completed, someone—I’ve now forgotten who—raised a hand.

“You failed,” he said. “Why?” I responded. He replied: “That piece was actually really good.” One might think that I would have been upset at having “failed,” but I was secretly very excited. I knew that I had a new start at something fun to explore.

And so, to Myra Daniels, and to the nameless person who liked my “opus 1”: THANK YOU. None of us knew it at the time, but you are a very big reason why I am a composer today.

(For the record, I’m sure the “opus 1” is actually not that great of a piece, but it certainly served its purpose!)

This list of thanks could go on:

  • to Evans Haile, a young conductor who agreed to have me write my first orchestral piece (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)
  • to David Alpar, who commissioned my first piece for concert band in 2006. (I now have over 30.) I didn’t even know then that wind bands loved new music, and living composers. Shame on me.
  • to Rich Stoelzel, who commissioned my first trumpet sonata. This piece was the start of a collection of works that now numbers over fifty for trumpet.
  • to Jeff Work, who had my first trumpet concerto commissioned, which led to four more.
  • to my colleagues in the Naples Philharmonic Brass Quintet, who were patient with me as I introduced arrangements and compositions to try out…
  • a HUGE thanks to the Minnesota Commissioning Club, who gave me a big opportunity to write my first violin concerto (premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra) and a couple of other significant works
  • to ALL of the performers, conductors, festivals, administrators, churches, sponsors, and other patrons who believed in me enough to have me create something that wasn’t guaranteed in any way to be any good, especially early on in my career.
  • (To anyone else who I may have inadvertently omitted from this list, I sincerely apologize. There are so many of you who should be pointed out.)

But, most importantly, I need to fast-forward this story to early 2007, to a discussion initiated by my wife at our home in Naples. At this point, my life was equal-parts composing and performing. The former had me staying up to all hours of the night meeting deadlines, while the latter had me practicing at all other hours to keep up as best I could with the concert-performing demands. In the meantime, we had four young children (at that point aged ten down to four) that needed our constant attention, of course. In short, something had to give.

It was my wife’s idea to for me to quit trumpet and focus solely on composing, and for us to move back “home” to Chicago. Somehow she saw the passion I had for it, even more than I did at the time. This move subsequently opened up many doors at a professional level, for sure, and from a very practical level, being near family and being more centrally located in the country was very valuable. Certainly, at the onset, we took a financial hit. (My wife was in the orchestra as well, and we both quit.) However, the new freedom to create, to be home at nights with the family, and to look forward to a future without limits—what we like to call the “psychic income”—was immeasurable. This is all because of the suggestion of my wife, Sally, and to her, I say THANK YOU.

She’s in the room where I am now typing this, and I just told her so.

By now, I’m guessing you understand the purpose of this article.

If you’re of the younger generation, and you have benefited from the blessings of others, please reach out—even right now—to let people know how much their actions have helped you out. Or, perhaps you are of the older generation, and you see something in someone that shows promise. Go ahead and tell them, or encourage them. It can’t hurt. You might never know how just a few words might shape that younger person’s life in a way that neither of you could have ever imagined.

Lastly, there is the audience.

I’ve often heard composers asked: “Do you consider the audience when you are writing your music?” Several times, I’m shocked to hear the composer reply: “No.” How can this be?

These are the people who have invested their time and their hard-earned money in spending a couple of hours of their lives, sitting immobile in a seat (usually), where they are to be the recipient of our sounds being delivered upon their ears. How can we not respect that, and not try to create something that makes them feel that their time and money were well-spent? The audience is a huge part of what we do. I am always truly appreciative of each and every concertgoer who takes the time to express appreciation (or a critique) of what I’ve done, as this helps shape each and every piece that will follow.

And so, to audiences, whether present in the concert hall, or listening through other means, I wish to express my appreciation.

Music is my life. Contrary to what you might believe if you read my second blogpost on this series, though I try not to take myself too seriously, I take music very seriously. I reveal much more about myself in a piece of music then I would ever do in person. Therefore, if you hear a piece of my music, if you study a piece of mine, you are likely to find out more of what makes me tick than I would tell you face to face. The passion is there. Love, pain, angst, humor, depth, sadness, joy—it’s all there. I won’t tell you in person. I’m too shy, and convinced that you have much more important things to do in your life than to hear me describe it in words. Music is so much more powerful. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a well-placed note in a score would score two-thousand!

It is the audience—through their continued support of my music—that has allowed this slow revealing, and this slow growth of my persona as a composer, to have a life.  And of course, for this, I say THANK YOU.

It can be a scary thing to be a composer. Like writing a blog, you put notes (or words) on a piece of paper, not knowing whether anyone will understand them, or find any use for them. These four articles I’ve written for NewMusicBox have all been in the first-person, but I hope they have found a way to relate to each reader in their own personal way, and perhaps in some way, to even inspire a continuation within their craft, whether for the next five minutes or five years.

We each have something very unique and very important to say. I cannot wait to be in the audience to hear or see what everyone else has to say. I go to each concert—especially of new music—with such eager ears. I always come away having learned something. My life becomes enriched and more interesting. For that, to all of you who continue to write, perform, support, or listen to newly composed music, I say:

THANK YOU.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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