Finding My Music Part 3:

During the summer of 2009 I was getting ready for the premiere of my fourth wind ensemble piece. It was written for a summer band camp that I had been attending since I first started playing the saxophone in the fourth grade. A fair amount of people from my high school also attended the camp but because of the fallout from being kicked out of the school band I couldn’t really call many of them my friends. Normally this wouldn’t have been a huge problem but I was going to have to rehearse and conduct my new piece at this camp. I spent most of my free time at the camp just practicing piano or clarinet since I didn’t really have much in the way of friends to socialize with. From the start of my first rehearsal with the wind ensemble I knew that this was going to be a nightmare. The first chair trombone player was my ex-boyfriend who hated me, the trumpet section included my ex-boyfriend’s best friend and a few other people who didn’t care much for me. And half the saxophones also didn’t particularly care for me. The flutes and clarinets were really the only people in the ensemble who actually had any intention of listening to me. I spent a week running rehearsals where half the ensemble wouldn’t pay any attention to me at all. I still dislike standing up in front of an ensemble to this day in large part because of that experience.

The day before the performance the piece was still an absolute mess and I knew there was nothing that could be done about it. It’s hard to explain just how terrible it is to be in front of an ensemble that has a vendetta against you while playing your music. By the end of the final rehearsal we had not managed to play through the piece without stopping and it was only a seven minute piece of music. Now in retrospect this piece was nothing particularly good or groundbreaking, but then none of my early music was. I don’t think I could find the score or recording if I tried but I do remember that the title was “Return to Paradise” —it will take me a few years to learn how to title a piece.

And that brings us to the performance, the single most traumatic performance experience of my life —note that we’re being very specific with that, it will be important in a few years. It’s the day of the concert, I’m as ready as I can possibly be. At a minimum I know all of my parts both playing and conducting but I know there’s nothing that can be done about the rest of the ensemble at this point. I start the piece, it’s going fine and then about two minutes in an entrance is missed and it snowballs, nobody is playing in the right place, half the ensemble is just staring at me and without their instruments to their faces. The whole thing is a complete disaster, I stop conducting, turn to the audience, and say “Let’s try that again”. I attempt to put a smile on my face but it was pretty obvious I was mortified. Take two the ensemble gets through the piece and its…fine…meh. The rest of the concert goes by in a blur, I’m sure it was…fine.

Thankfully after that the camp was done. I packed my shit up and went home, and despite a few false starts a wind ensemble piece it was going to be at least a decade until I write another one.

Finding My Music Part 2: Intro to Existential Dread

In August of 2008 I travelled down to Austin, Texas to have my first composition lesson. I had reached out John Mackey a few months prior about having a lesson with him and amazingly he agreed. So with pieces for wind ensemble, mixed chamber ensemble, and solo piano I presented my music to one of my first composer idols. John was incredibly kind and dug into my music in intimate detail. One thing that still stands out in my mind is a discussion we had about articulation. He took a passage of one of my pieces that was lacking articulation and started adding slurs and staccato markings in various combinations to demonstrate how articulation can drastically change the effect of a single passage of music. Even though I had only worked out an hour lesson with him he ended up spending over three hours working with me. He talked to me about potential schools I was looking at applying to as well as how to tailor my portfolio to best showcase myself. This is the earliest memory I have of meeting a composer I looked up to and having a truly positive experience (not all of them have been so great).

I returned to Dallas newly reinvigorated after my lesson with John. I was entering my senior year at Bishop Lynch High School and had no idea how tumultuous the upcoming year would be. I was starting my second year as the drum major of my high school band and had to work with a band director who had been a complete jackass towards me in the spring. I was juggling a full load of college level courses, band programs inside and outside of school, the school play, and finishing my portfolio for college applications.

Within the second week of the semester tensions had already started to flare, I was going to have to miss one football game in order to perform in the school play. God forbid, whatever was the band director going to do? (Cue massive eye roll here) What he decided to do was get incredibly mad at me and set an ultimatum that I had to quit the play or he would fail me. I don’t remember my exact response but it was a slightly politer version of telling him to suck it. The semester continued relatively smoothly despite fairly frequent fights with the band director until one Friday in early November. I may not remember the exact date but I will never forget what happened. Around 3:00 in the afternoon I was called to the administrative office of my high school. I was a relatively well behaved kid and had only served one detention in my life so I had no idea why I was being called to the office. When I got to the office I knew something serious was going on as the entire senior administration of the school was in there. I sat down and was told that I would not be allowed to participate with the band at the football game that evening. Now there were multiple problems with that statement the first being that the only reason I was given for this is that the band director “would not be comfortable having me there”. The second problem was my car was in the shop and I had not driven myself to school that morning. I lived over thirty minutes away from my school and by this point the school day was ending in less than fifteen minutes. I asked to call my mom, calmly explained the situation to her in front of the “adults” in the room while holding back tears, and with that I had been kicked out of my high school band program.

Most of my friends at the time were in band and the administration felt it was their right to lie to my friends and tell them that I had quit the program. Anybody who has ever been in high school band knows that the kids can be quite tribal and quitting in the middle of competition season would be considered at minimum a shitty thing to do and at worst a betrayal. Within the next week almost all of my friends in band had stopped talking to me and those would be friendships that were never repaired. In part this is why there is only one person from my pre-college life who I still have any kind of frequent contact with.

The events that transpired in the fall of 2008 taught me one of the most important lessons that I have ever learned and one that sadly I have needed to be reminded of a few times over the years. I learned that I should never expect people in positions of authority to do anything that is in my best interest. It’s a nice surprise when they do but it’s safer to assume they’re self-serving scumbags.

For the rest of November I threw myself into my work for school and my portfolio. I applied to three music composition programs at the University of Miami, University of Texas Austin, and University of Southern California. And with that it was time to start counting down the days until I could get the fuck out of Dallas.

Having completed my portfolio for schools I began writing my next pieces in the spring of 2009. I created an arrangement for concert band of the first two movements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. And a short original work for concert band that was performed by my band program outside of school in May of that year, which I again conducted. During that semester I also had auditions for the University of Texas Austin and University of Miami. When I was applying I had been completely torn about what instrument to audition on but settled on clarinet. I went to my auditions with the first two movements of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and two of the Rose Etudes. My first audition was at UT, I stepped into the room to audition and played a brief excerpt of the first movement of the Mozart before the professors stopped me and asked for the second movement. I remember playing about the first line of music before they cut me off, said they had heard enough, and that they would be in touch. The only good thing that truly came out of my trip to Austin was a visit to a local record store where I bought a recording of John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man. That piece has had a significant role in my life, but I’ll get into that later. This wouldn’t be my last time at the University of Texas but that story comes much later.

My audition at the University of Miami later that semester was drastically different. Unlike at UT I got to meet the composition professors and sit in on a seminar being led by Lansing McLoskey. He was presenting his recent work for Clarinet and Basset Horn called Blur, the seminar was focused on the concept of consonance and dissonance and how can we as composers move the line between the two. I didn’t quite get the concept at the time but it was fascinating and intellectually stimulating. Then I had to audition. I walked into a room with the flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon professors. The clarinet professor, Dr. Donaghue, was welcoming and friendly. I got the impression that she didn’t want me to be nervous and that was incredibly reassuring (and a complete contrast to my experience at UT). They asked me to play one of the Rose Etudes I had prepared and as I played the oboe professor began to hum along with it. I couldn’t believe what was happening and I almost stopped playing but managed to get through. Now I was never the best clarinetist but at the time I thought I was hot shit (spoiler: I definitely was not). Luckily Dr. D has always seemed to understand that a composition or therapy applicant may not need as high of a proficiency level as a performance applicant to be successful in their chosen field.

I returned home to Dallas and had my first experience with fighting off panic as I waited for the results of my applications. Time seemed to drag on as I sat in classes I didn’t particularly care about like Linear Algebra and A.P. Psychology. The first letter I got was from UT and it was in a small envelope and we all know what that means, a crisp clean rejection letter. But then on April 1st when I was full on panicking I got home from school and a big envelope was waiting for me. I had been accepted to the University of Miami, I would say the rest is history but there have been a few twists and turns along the way so far.

After the performance of my third band piece near the end of May I began writing my fourth piece for concert band that was slated to be premiered at a summer band program in July. This is the first piece I wrote that I can remember the title of, Return to Paradise. It would be a few more years before I figured how to title my pieces in a way that wasn’t utter garbage. This piece was in two distinct sections, it began with a short introductory section that primarily consisted of solo lines in the woodwinds where I was doing some early experimentation with rhythms I had seen in the score to The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. The second section of the piece was a fantasy on Sheep May Safely Graze from J.S. Bach’s Hunting Cantata (Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208). I had heard the Egon Petri transcription of this piece performed in a recital by Yeol Eum Son during the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition just prior to starting work on my piece. I only had three weeks to bang out my fourth band piece and I knew working with pre-existing material would allow me to put something together incredibly quickly. I had an immediate connection with Sheep May Safely Graze and it is a piece that has had an important place in my life to this day.

Finding My Music Part 1: I Was a Weird Kid

The process of becoming a composer has been more difficult than I could have ever imagined. When I first began this journey at the age of sixteen I was just dicking around in a bootleg copy of Cakewalk that my brother had installed on my computer for me, not even realizing that it wasn’t primarily notation software. I spent those last years of high school writing random crap for whatever instrumentations popped into my head with no expectation to ever hear them played on real instruments. I also spent that time downloading midi files of every single video game track I could get my hands on and opening them in my software to see how they were constructed. It’s only now that I can look back on my teenage eccentricities and realize just how fucking weird I was.

I used to bring a study score of both Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Mozart’s Fortieth to school with me. When I would get bored in a class (anything from AP Calculus to AP Psychology) I would pretend to take notes and instead copy out the scores by hand to gain a better understanding of them. In a fit of boredom I start arranging video game music and other pieces for the saxophone section in my high school band. I arranged everything from the Super Mario Bros. theme song and the Mortal Kombat theme song to the C Major Fugue from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier Book 1. I was initially in the saxophone section of the high school band but switched to clarinet once I decided I wanted to “play serious music”.

Despite being a band nerd and starting out writing band music I actually had already been exposed to some very sophisticated repertoire at that age. My mother bought season tickets to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and would take me with her because my father did not enjoy the concerts. The earliest concert I can remember at all was when Andrew Litton was still the music director and he was conducting Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4. I fell asleep (which will be a running theme in my life). But the first concert that I really remember having an impact on me was the year Jaap Van Sweden took over the DSO. He opened his season with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and that is a piece that was and continues to be profoundly influential in my life. I remember seeing a performance of Bright Sheng’s Never Far Away for harp and orchestra and that in particular blew me away. On a high school band trip that same year I attended a performance by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble with the Chicago Symphony Orchstra.

What is probably even more unexpected is that in addition to the orchestral repertoire in my life I had been exposed to contemporary music including Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach and Peter Maxwell Davies Eight Songs of a Mad King. I heard these and many other piece around the time I was ten years old because my older sister was pursuing a jazz studies degree. She had a class that was almost exclusively listening exams and she would bring the CDs from that class home for me. I find it funny that I often feel like I had such a late start and exposure to classical music and particularly contemporary music. But it seems like nothing could be further from the truth.

Now my high school band director at the time was a complete jackass but he did encourage me to write a piece for the band and promised to perform it on the spring concert my junior year. This experience gave me my first taste of what it means to be a composer. In the weeks approaching the concert I had delivered a finished piece to the band director and with only a few days to go before the concert it had only been rehearsed twice and was a complete mess. So I did what anybody with any integrity would do and I pulled the piece, I picked the parts back up from the ensemble and said it would not be performed. You might think the story ends there but as I said this man was a jackass and in front of all of the parents and families at our band banquet the weekend before the concert he announced that the band would be premiering my piece. Mr. L as we called him had backed me into a corner, either I let the band butcher my piece, the first one I had truly written, or I pull the piece and look like a complete asshole. There was only one thing I could do and that was let them play the piece, I’m amazed I didn’t quit then.

At the same time that all of this was happening I was also participating in a separate band program outside of the school. When the director of that program found out I had written a piece for my high school he asked me why I had not written anything for his band. So fresh off the disappointment of my first piece I began the second. I wish I could remember the names of these piece but most of my earliest work no longer exists. In this second work I was much more ambitious, I remember that I drew inspiration from the works of Frank Ticheli and John Mackey because in the context of wind ensemble music that was what I knew. My second piece was also performed but under one very strict condition, I had to conduct the performance myself.

And now I have to take a moment of self reflection. I learned something very important about myself in the summer of 2008 that I refused to accept until years later. I am not meant to be in front of a room of people telling them what to do. I turn into a god damn dictator when you give me power. I move quickly and don’t like to compromise. So as an adult I don’t generally tell people what to do and I don’t take leadership roles in that capacity. I take care of myself and expect everyone else to handle their own shit.

That issue aside my second piece for concert band was a positive experience so I started writing more, I started on my third wind ensemble piece as well as some chamber music. My music still had no identity at that time but I was writing and creating. I was thinking about options for college and I decided I was interested in studying composition. But I needed guidance, I had no idea what I was doing and neither did anybody around me. As luck would have it John Mackey was living in Austin, Texas at time, a mere three hours away. I did what any sensible person would do, I sent him an email and asked if he ever taught lessons. Amazingly John got back to me, said yes, and told me his rate. My sister Karen was living in Austin at the time so I convinced my parents to pay for a lesson while I went down to visit her. That lesson with John is what truly set me on the path that I am currently walking…

Frank Ticheli’s Symphony No. 3 (Music of the Day)

Today I'm listening to Frank Ticheli's Third Symphony. Its a fairly recent work (premiered in 2013) that I think most people don't realize exists. The wind ensemble people ignored it because it is for orchestra and chorus. And the "academic" composers ignored it because it's Frank Ticheli. And the performers ignored it because its contemporary music (joking, but only kind of).

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