Monday, March 30, 2009

Stifling the Muse?

I have recently been accompanying a lot of standard repertoire for high school musicians. Some of the pieces are rather difficult (especially the ones that have an entire orchestral part reduced to a piano without leaving any notes out!), some of them are harmonically simplistic but technically flashy, and some of them just strike me as mediocre pieces of music.

There are a couple, though, that really grab me, and I think: I wish I had written this... I could have written this... I can write something as compelling and as beautiful and as fun as this... Why don't I?

Not very long ago, I would have said that self-doubt and fear of not being good enough were the biggest obstacles. When I check that with myself now, though, it doesn't ring true. I honestly believe that if I created the time and managed my energy for the task, I have plenty of music to compose. And although I am still a little caught up in the effort it takes to get a piece performed, I have been sending out compositions to contests and calls for scores for long enough now that I realize there will be ample opportunities to seek or create a performance once a piece is written.

So what am I waiting for? Well, nothing really. My days and weeks are packed with other things: my job, my marriage, accompanying, More To Life, life in general. I am working toward creating more space in my life for composing, but creating that space takes effort in and of itself. So I beat myself up for not making composing more of a priority right now. A part of me believes that I'm just being impatient and another part believes that I'm just being lazy.

Sometimes, I can't win with myself, even when everyone around me is acknowledging the value of what I am creating day to day.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Challenging Connection

It's pretty easy for me to talk openly with my friends. I am not terribly guarded about my thoughts or opinions, and it usually takes quite a bit of effort to offend me. That being said, I have been avoiding a conversation with a close friend because I am afraid he just won't hear me, no matter how carefully or tactfully I speak. I know how to be graceful when speaking the truth, but I'm not sure that he has invited me to do so.

I was thinking about my options, and there are really two that I keep coming back to. I can basically ignore his self-defeating patterns of behavior and go on with our friendship. Or I can call these patterns to his attention in as nonthreatening a manner as I can muster. There are other options, of course, but these seem to be the most reasonable choices.

On the one hand, I want to accept him as he is, self-defeating patterns and all. This leaves me with an elephant in the room, but it preserves the relationship as it is. On the other hand, I want for him to be able to grow and thrive and realize for himself the fullness of his potential. This might (ideally) lead to him shattering a few illusions he holds about himself, others, and life in general, but I know he's quite comfortable with his perceptions as they are. What it comes down to is that I really don't know that he will appreciate me being honest about what I see. My desire for him to become more could ultimately be detrimental to our friendship.

When I translate that last statement into its most basic form, here's what I wind up with: I'm not completely honest and supportive to him, because I'm afraid he won't like me. I feel a little shocked and ashamed at that. But I know what I would want from a friend. Even if I didn't like it. I would choose honesty, even though I would want the acceptance. Maybe there is room for both.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Web

I had a rehearsal with several intermediate school musicians yesterday. During my time at the school, I observed a remarkable exchange. One student was having a little trouble with his trombone piece. His teacher first asked if there were any notes he had a question about, and the student replied, Yes. The teacher then asked one of his peers to help him out. The other student very kindly and graciously worked for a moment with his fellow trombonist, and the rehearsal went on from there.

This was only a remarkable exchange for me as an observer. To the students and teacher, it seemed to be rather commonplace. But I see so much competition and so little compassion from day to day, even among people who are supposedly on the same team, that it was impressive to see genuine cooperation in action.

What would change in our lives if we all generously and kindly served, and graciously accepted service from, one another? What would change in our jobs? What would change in our families? What would change in our driving experience? What would change in our economy? What would change in our government?


Long before there was an internet, shamans believed in a different sort of world-wide web. A spiritual web of existence that connects all things. They held that what we do creates reverberations along that web, and it has an impact of which we may not even be aware. Whether we subscribe to this view or not, I believe what we do as individuals has incredible reach and unfathomable power. What are we doing with it?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

To Trust Or Not To Trust

A couple of nights ago, it was rather late in the evening when the doorbell rang. Joy answered it, and I heard her talking with a man whose voice I didn't recognize. Her end of the conversation sounded like politely getting rid of a door-to-door salesman, but it was close to 10:00 at night. The man was carrying a pillowcase in which he had a PlayStation which he was trying to sell for $50. Joy was nice about it, but she turned him away.

We immediately started talking with each other about our desire to help him. Didn't we know someone who would like the game system? Did we even have $50 in cash lying around anywhere? Would it be insulting to him if we just ran after him and offered him a little something without requesting his PlayStation in return?

But cynicism and suspicion crept into our questions pretty quickly. How did we know it was even his PlayStation? What is he going to be using the money for exactly? Why is he going door to door so late to sell a single item? We decided it was probably best for us to be thankful for what we have and share it generously but wisely. Buying a game system out of a pillowcase from a peddler late in the evening somehow didn't seem wise.

The next evening, we got a call from one of our neighbors. A couple of houses down the street from us, a mother and her two children returned home from dinner to be accosted by a man with a gun. Apparently, he was trying to get into their house. I don't know how the situation got resolved as safely as it seemed to, or why the man left. We were getting our information third-hand, and the story had likely changed a bit. Still, the basic description of the man matched our peddler. It was unsettling.

Had our PlayStation salesman been carrying a gun? Was it a ploy to get into our home? Why wouldn't he have just forced his way in instead of creating a sales pitch? And why did Joy even open the door to a stranger so late at night?

Well, the last one seems like an obvious question, but it implies that we could keep someone from coming into our home just by keeping the door closed. We have an alarm system and we keep the doors closed, but if someone wanted to get into our home badly enough, they could. And although night time can be a little more creepy than broad daylight, there's no reason to assume safety just because the sun is out. Ultimately, life is a rather fragile thing. We are never truly secure. It all comes down to a trust that we share with one another as part of a common society.

I don't know what to make of our salesman. But I do know that there are plenty of reasons to live in fear. Good reasons. Logical reasons. But that doesn't seem like much of a life to me. I would rather choose to trust, even believing that I'll be disappointed from time to time. I believe my life will be fuller and richer for it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Subtleties

I was working today on composing using virtual instruments, sounds created primarily by electronic means instead of acoustic instruments. I was choosing the palette for a piece, picking the specific sounds that would comprise the various elements of the music.

Before starting any composition, it's helpful to me not only to have a clear vision of what I want a piece to sound like but also to determine the general structure of the piece. When I am writing for acoustic instruments, the timbre of the piece is already limited. If the piece is intended to be performed by a flute and a cello, the "colors" will consist of sounds which can be produced by one of those instruments. Such limitations are somewhat beneficial to a composer. Without some boundaries, a piece might never get written.

When I am devising a set of timbres for a non-acoustic piece, my choices become exponentially broader. It can be a bit intimidating. I have much more control over every facet of a sound than when I write for human performers. Which means many more decisions. I never have to decide exactly how the members of a string quartet balance with one another, or how much reverb will be present in a particular performance space, or just how short a staccato note will be played. Or, or, or... All these options and more are at my discretion with a piece created on a computer.

To be completely honest, it's a lot of fun to play with all the details of a sound. When I get through with this creative preparation, I find I am a little more keenly tuned in to other details around me. It makes me wonder what little details I typically ignore, and I want to hold on to the heightened awareness as long as possible. Something will distract me eventually, but I am convinced that being aware is a choice.

I used to think that I needed to partition my life into my different areas of focus, but more and more I am seeing how everything feeds into the whole. The various ways I spend my time and energy don't have to distract from or compete with one another. Being creative begets creativity, and paying attention to details leads to greater awareness of details. The various ways I spend my time and energy don't have to distract from or compete with one another. They are all just part of a complete me.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Missing the Mark

Well, the best of intentions and all that aside, I was woefully distracted today. I had plans to create music, I envisioned what I wanted to create last night, I set aside time today, but I allowed other tasks to gain urgency. I got a great deal accomplished over the course of the day. All of it consisted of tasks I wanted to complete or commitments I wanted to keep. But I let them take precedence over the creative efforts I intentionally prioritized.

So, perhaps I tried to pack too much into a day and underestimated how long some things would take. Maybe something inside me was procrastinating out of laziness or fear. Actually, my challenge today was the number of things ~J would recommend placing in the "Urgent and Unimportant" quadrant. I minimize the things that are really important to me in order to take care of the things that are important to other people. Because I don't want to face the fear that, deep down, I'm selfish. So I deny the world the things that only I can create. Kind of silly when I put it that way, actually.

At the end of the day, I look in the mirror, I forgive myself, and I acknowledge that I have tomorrow. Then I realize the true gentleness and blessedness of "I recommit."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Good Advice

After working a full day, I am allowing myself to just plan out the week tonight. Not in a hurry to get anything accomplished. Not making any arbitrary deadlines. Just looking at my schedule for the week and prioritizing things a little differently. Putting emphasis on the most important things rather than the most urgent things or the tasks that will be most quickly or easily accomplished. I can't help but smile about this.

And now, I am going to spend some time on my creative efforts as my mentor and friend Art Gottschalk advised: Sit in a comfortable chair and think about what you want to hear when the curtain opens on your piece.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Creativity Generator

I received an email from Gregory Wiest in Munich yesterday. He'll be performing my song cycle Chasms in an arrangement for tenor, piano, and double bass in about a week, and he had some rehearsal recordings for me to hear. When I listened to the recordings, it really struck me again that this is a great set of songs. Although I hadn't initially conceived them with double bass, the ensemble sounds so rich! Having just heard Marion sing them at Carnegie with piano, it was a real treat to hear how well the pieces sit in a different voice with a different accompaniment.

Just listening to something I created is incentive to create more. I'm so proud of these songs, but then I think about some of the other pieces I've written and think "Oh, that's a pretty cool piece, too. I should see if I can get that played again." With the satisfaction of Carnegie, the inspiration of an event at Le Poisson Rouge, and the excitement of Gregory's email, I have no trouble believing in the value of my creativity today. And everything I've seen and all my activities this week have fed into that "creativity generator."

And yet, there's always that piece gnawing at the back of my mind: Where can I fit it into my schedule? I have this list of things to do today, I have these appointments to keep in the next week, I have this set of commitments, and I would like to be able to pay my bills. My energy is scattered. I want to reign it in and focus it, but I'm afraid something important won't get done. Can indulging my creativity compromise my integrity?

The idea comes to me (probably out of the same snowball of creativity that has been gaining momentum this week): have I ever really pushed the envelope with my commitments? Or are all of these "obligations" just an excuse not to be creative? [I get to be a martyr!] What would happen if I put what was most important to me as top priority, rather than at the bottom of the list waiting for everything else to get done?
I'm ready to find out.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Location, Location, Location?

Upon return from our extraordinary New York experience, we started talking about what it would take to relocate. I would potentially have greater opportunities as a musician and composer, and the city is just a wonderful place to be. We talked about selling cars and finding resources about where we would want to live in the city. And then it hit me: This doesn't directly serve any of the intentions I have claimed for myself.

Sure, the city would give me opportunities to hear music that I don't currently have, and I may be able to make a full career out of accompanying. But my goal is to create a life in which I am unfettered by location and schedule so that I have the space to compose. Sometimes, when I want something to be different in my life, I look for something to change. "If I start working there, I'll be happier." "If I move to that place, life will be better."

I forget that I've already staked a claim for what I want in life, and it has to do with who and how I want to be. It has to do with the kind of things I can do anywhere, if I put my mind to it. I would love to be able to visit New York and the friends I have there as often and for as long as I like. But the desire to move there is a clever distraction from the things I really want to create. What a great distraction, though!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Proselytizing vs. Equipping

I've been thinking today about why I want to introduce mentoring and life coaching into my career path. At various points in life, I have been so taken with a practice or belief that I have wanted everyone to know about it. I wanted to win them over in a certain sense. On some level, I think now that there was some external validation to be gained from another person buying into the same things I believed. I've seen this same behavior in other people quite a bit as well, sometimes more gracefully or subtly exhibited than others.

Proselytizing now seems to be a strange way of expressing fear. Fear that what I have isn't real, that what I believe isn't true. That I have somehow been duped. If I can get collusion from someone else, then I won't feel quite so stupid. If they believe it too, it must be at least somewhat reasonable. And if someone challenges this belief, that fear of being wrong can lead right into defensiveness. "How dare you question this valuable thing that I'm trying to share with you!?"

And yet, sometimes I learn something that really is useful for other people too. It feels different when I share those things, though. Not so attached to the outcome, but excited that I know something that can benefit someone else. I don't need what I know to be validated by someone else's belief. I can believe it without anyone else's approval. And even more interesting: whether another person believes it or not, I don't need to defend anything from this space. I can be open to someone else's point of view without feeling threatened. And I can even change my mind, if I choose to do so.

So, one of my favorite types of conversations now is sharing the things that have been of benefit to me with other people when the opportunity presents itself. And being able to listen to what other people have found meaningful to them. Not so either of us can convince the other, but so we can mutually equip each other with the knowledge we have gained. At the very least, I walk away understanding a little more about someone. And that's just fun.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Opera

I've got my composer brain working after seeing a performance of Il Trovatore at the Met last night. It has a couple of memorable melodies, particularly the Anvil Chorus, and there is some truly virtuosic vocal work throughout. Still, the bulk of the vocal writing is rather forgettable and the basic plot is a tragic set of convoluted decisions made by people with an archaic worldview and an incredibly unhealthy view of themselves and their relationships.

Yet, it remains a popular opera despite these things. Perhaps people remember that they were really impressed with the singing even if they can't recall exactly what was sung. Maybe people appreciate a certain nostalgia for a time when revenge was a life-long endeavor and killing oneself was a reasonable alternative to marrying someone you really didn't like. I can't say for sure what goes on in people's minds. And to a certain extent, that is the source of some of my frustration.

I have begun the conceptual phase of an opera: selecting a story, working with a librettist, and making some rough sketches of the kinds of sounds I'd like to work into it. But why am I considering writing an opera? So much of the genre is dominated by works that are over a hundred years old, and when a new opera is written, it's often given a premiere performance and then put on a shelf. It almost seems that a "modern" opera is such a novelty that it isn't really considered legitimate, especially if the composer is still alive. There are exceptions, of course, but it seems unrealistic to hope that a new opera will be heard a proportionate amount to the time it takes to create such a massive work.

Part of the problem is that the filter of time allows us to look back and critique a piece of art from over a hundred years ago more objectively than we can judge a contemporary work. And many composers of vocal works in the last several decades have chosen to write distinctly un-vocal lines for singers. Whatever my opinion of Il Trovatore, it certainly was not difficult to follow musically.

So, given these extra challenges of the genre, why would I want to write an opera? I do have some confidence that I write well for the voice, and this belief has been confirmed time and again by vocalists and informed listeners. Most importantly, I want to communicate something with every piece of music I write. So I would only be willing to dedicate the time and energy to composing an opera if I have something valuable to communicate. So it boils down to that question: Is what I have to communicate worth anyone hearing?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Subway Excitement

We had planned a trip to visit Bob and Pauleen, a couple of mentors who have been involved with More To Life for some time. They live in Breezy Point, on the opposite end of the A-line from where we have been staying in Harlem. Originally, the trip was scheduled for late morning on Sunday, and so they had sent us detailed instructions about the trip, down to specific times to catch the A-train and transfer to the shuttle train that would get us the rest of the way. It was a well-planned venture.

Then, Kara and Konrad brought up the idea of visiting the cloisters, which would take a few hours to really enjoy. We had wanted to give Konrad a chance to go with us, so we thought Sunday morning would be the best opportunity. So, we contacted Bob and Pauleen to let them know that we would be traveling out to them a little later. No problem.

After the concert Saturday night and the subsequent celebration(s), Sunday morning got off to a slightly later start than originally intended. We took our time with breakfast, we visited with Kara and Konrad, we started getting our things packed up for an overnight stay in Breezy Point. And we realized that we weren't going to be seeing the cloisters that day. No problem. Konrad can see them anytime, and Joy and I were alright seeing them on Tuesday. This had the added benefit of giving us somewhere other than the East Side to be on St. Patrick's Day. So instead we had a leisurely morning, bought tickets for a concert on Wednesday, and double-checked our plans for the subway trip. We knew exactly what we needed to do and when we needed to do it.

So, off we went to the subway. We went to the correct A-train platform and waited to a train with the correct destination. It didn't show up. Other A-trains came and went, but none with the designation for which we were told to watch. There was a variety of signs posted regarding subway work, but we weren't entirely sure how to interpret the information. We asked for some assistance from the kind subway attendant (which involved leaving the platform, asking the same question five different ways, and paying again to get back to the platform). We were frustrated with each other. We were frustrated with the New York MTA. We were frustrated with all the people who had "misled" us. And then we got on a train. It wasn't the "right" train, but it was at least going in the direction we needed to go.

Then we started listening. A few people on the subway were having the same confusion we were, and the conductor's announcements indicated that there was a break in service in the middle of our journey due to signal work. Our brains kicked in, and we consulted the subway map on the wall. We worked out a couple of transfers and started making much more purposeful decisions. It's amazing how quickly we could choose not to be frustrated once we had a little information we could act on confidently. In fact, the information wasn't really what was missing before. It was the confidence we had lacked. Once we found that we were on our way.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Carnegie Hall


I've just returned from the Carnegie Hall debut of Chasms, and I must confess, am quite thrilled. I am proud of these songs, and I think Marion's performance was quite representative. It wasn't perfect, but the pieces were still very well received. (Which is to say that the audience clapped a lot for them.) We celebrated a little afterward at Bricco's, and after a very full day, I am going to admit how exhausted I am and turn in. I don't know what will come of this experience, but just having had something I composed performed at Carnegie Hall is a treat in and of itself.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Arguing with Myself

At the More to Life team meeting last night, I found myself having a bit of an argument inside my head. I would offer up some realization I had gained from my recent conversations with people and the little voice inside my head would say, "You sound like you're bragging." "I'm not bragging, I'm just trying to contribute something I think has value." The back and forth goes on a bit, but the bottom line is that I am not interested in hiding out or only being semi-present. I want to be all in. If I'm spending my time and energy on something, I want it to be a conscious and passionate choice to be fully present and completely myself.

That doesn't appease the little voice inside my head though. When a question arises in the meeting about who is willing to step forward and take a particular responsibility, I want to raise my hand. But I wait because I don't want to "take the opportunity away from" anyone else. I imagine some part of my brain was counting to ten. With what power do I credit myself in thinking I can take away someone else's opportunity to serve? It's a subtle way of playing small, hiding out. It's not that I'm unwilling to do something, it's about how I want (and don't want) people to see me. But deep down inside I want to be seen and appreciated for who I genuinely am, not for how well I can act. So, how do I expect people to see and appreciate someone I won't show them?

I raised my hand.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Degrees of separation

When I spoke to some pleasant people at the Jones Graduate School of Management today, there was nothing that really slammed me. There wasn't any real effort on their part to convince me that it was in my best interest to get an MBA, although they were confident that the program at Rice is the best around, of course. It was kind of a very sweet "you need us more than we need you." Much more kindly phrased than that, but that was more or less the message at its heart.

I'm not sure that another graduate degree is really a necessary step for me, whether it be an MBA or an MSW. It seems to me that what I want is to develop the skills that will help me create something satisfying, not a credential that will get me somewhere I don't really want to go. I'm not enamored with the corporate world, and I don't see myself becoming enmeshed in that environment just to make money. It wouldn't necessarily allow me any more flexibility of time or geography than what I'm doing now, and it could potentially distract me from what I'm really going for.

So what am I going for exactly? Well, I want to be spending my time and energy on my innermost passions. Those passions include composing music and challenging others to greater, healthier awareness. There are a few other interests that are strong for me, but those are the big two. Of course, along with composing music, I have a strong interest in my music being performed and heard. And there are nearly limitless ways in which I can challenge people to deeper awareness. It boils down to connecting. I want to create music and I want to create connections with people.

So where does another degree fit in with that? For the social work angle, I see the connectivity of that. My greatest concern there is that I am ignoring a significant piece of my self when I push musical creation to a back burner. It's what I find dissatisfying about my current position and the way my time and energy is spent. A business degree might open some doors for me to meld making money and making music, so that survival is not an issue, but in the end I go back to: do I need a degree to do that? It's really the skills I'm after.

What I would really love is to find a business partner who is gifted at thinking entrepreneurially and energized by marketing ideas. I don't gravitate naturally toward these things, and although I can learn them for myself, a partnership with someone who has similar vision would be even more sharpening. I do pretty well at the strategic side and the long-range planning. It's what composition is in large part. But I am not a great self-promoter (yet), and I don't know how to create a viable business plan for some of the creative ideas I have. Yet.

My conclusion on the degree front: No for now. To both the MSW and the MBA possibilities. Entering into another graduate program will not inevitably connect me with my goals. Gaining another degree does not relate directly to my deepest intention. The skills to extend my reach and expand my potential would be helpful, but there are other (less costly) ways to develop those skills that will contribute toward creating what I want. And I could benefit from a partnership with someone who possesses those skills and has a complementary mindset to my own.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sinking My Feet In

Alright, I've been procrastinating starting a blog since the beginning of the year, and today seems as good a day as any to get this thing rolling. In fact, it's a better day than most, because I realized today how much more accepting I am about Life's little frustrations than I was not too long ago. "Frustrations" even seems a bit too strong of a word; reality just didn't play out according to my expectations.

I received word this afternoon that the Power of Connection Mentor Course I was planning to take at the end of the month is being postponed. This is a course through More To Life that I had hoped to incorporate into the next phase of my career, and I know the church that currently employs me would benefit from it. Still, I understand the reasons for the mentor training to be postponed; the designers want to provide an intentional product about which they are very confident. So the disappointment is somewhat tempered. The course will still happen, and I will still get the opportunity to share what I learn there with my patch of the world. Just not yet.

On top of that, I received my acceptance letter into the Masters of Social Work degree program at the University of Houston. I'm not sure yet if this is the best path to create a life and career that nurtures my deepest passions, but it's something I want to consider very carefully. Tomorrow I have a meeting at Rice about their MBA program with a focus on Creativity. I'm not even sure that another graduate degree is the best next step, but I am exploring and honing little by little.

Saturday evening, Chasms receives its Carnegie Hall debut, so Joy and I are flying up to hear Marion Russell Dickson sing. It is always incredible to hear my work performed, and there are a lot of emotions bundled into that experience. Sometimes, I wish I could change something or tell a performer exactly how to play it, but often I am just captivated and grateful to hear what I created come to life. That's how Marion sings these Teasdale settings; she brings them to life.

So, right now I'm critiquing my first blogging attempt: How much am I supposed to write? Who's going to read this anyway? What value is there in anything I have to say? But I am also telling myself that this is just another step in my thousand miles. Right now, I am just enjoying sinking my feet into each step of this very fine journey.