Getting up an hour earlier every morning isn’t like an on/off switch – it is taking lots of discipline but you know what? I’m getting a lot of work and reading done.
But that’s just one new outcome of this Psalm Setting Quest.
Another one is being adventurous.
If you look through my list of compositions they are mostly for percussion (including piano) and wind instruments. There are a handful of string pieces and one or two that include brass instruments. For some reason, ever since writing a tacky piece for brass quintet, percussion and narrator in college, I’ve avoided composing for brass instruments.
So, I decided to switch things around a little bit and tackle brass instruments head-on!
My buddy Jim Stretton (of Orichalcum and Brasso Profundo) shared some wonderful advice, and to start with I’ll be writing for just horn, trombone and tuba. Once I have some increased familiarity with these instruments, then I can add a couple of trumpets.
Therefore, my next psalm, number 143, will be for a brass trio. This is definitely something new for me.
Setting up a plan of action really does seem to work, wouldn’t you agree?
As the Psalm Setting Quest was formulating, for fun I figured out a way to determine in which order I would use the psalms to compose music to. A few columns, sorts and ranking formulas were added to a spreadsheet and “voilà!” an evenly mixed distribution of each psalm type. There’s actually one psalm type (Prophetic) that has just one psalm in it and I know this ranking system works when that psalm (#50) appears right in the middle of the list, as the 75th piece of music I will write.
An added benefit of using a spreadsheet to create the order, is that due dates could be easily scheduled, and even completion tracking could be setup to be very user-friendly (just check out the stats on the right →). If this all sounds computer-geeky-like to you, just remember that there’s some truth to the old cliché that “music and mathematics” go well together
Well, the crux of it is that I started composing early, and have actually now finished my first piece.
It is Psalm 19.
I gathered several sources together to help me determine the content and perspective of each psalm, and according to a Wikipedia entry, the first few verses of this “Song of Praise”
present the heavenly bodies and their movement as a universal witness to the glory of God that is understood by people of every language. The language connects day and night as a continuous presentation. The words suggest energy, strength, joy, and light.
So I zeroed-in on that last sentence, and used it as the composition’s title: “Energy, Strength, Joy & Light.” I created four verses in this piece, one for each of those characteristics, and interjected a chorus using the meditative prayer in the last verse of the psalm. There are moments of ‘clumsiness’ particularly in the Strength verse and the chorus (a rising pattern on the vowel ‘o’ as in “of” – not an easy task to sing well!) which are hints at the psalm’s admittance of man’s presumptuousness when compared alongside God’s creations.
I started composing, wary of contrary motion, harmonic sequencing and melodic interest for all the performers. Below is the computer-generated audio (never an attractive proposition, especially when it comes to representing human voices), and I am making the sheet music available for free for one week only – go and print it now and give it to someone!
“Energy, Strength, Joy & Light”
Having a plan in place, complete with 7 years’ worth of due dates, has created a great foundation for this massive project. Even though I am now ahead of schedule (I wasn’t even planning to start writing until my birthday this year, but couldn’t wait) there is some sort of sense of accomplishment in checking off a task.
Do you use project plans for your hobby or craft? Or do you just ‘wing it’ and see where it takes you? Let me know in the comments below.
Some of my compositions were recently submitted as materials for another Masters-level qualification which would permit me to teach higher education in the USA – something my experience and approach is well suited to. The application was not approved, and that hurt. When I shared the assessor’s report with my select circle, most of the reactions were along the lines of “These comments make no sense,” and “I haven’t got a clue what he’s on about.” One comment suggested how the assessor seemed to be looking for negative things to say and ended up saying the same thing about each piece that was submitted. There is no recourse to appeal the assessment, and therefore I particularly reveled in one friend’s description of the assessor as a “Schmuck” (all in good jest to lighten the weight I’d put on his career-jolting opinion.)
A colleague in the academic world seemed to corroborate but put it like this:
You have wonderful ideas and a sense of exploration. Maybe there is a voice in your head wondering if anyone will like what you are doing so you play it safe. As with any creative venture, safety does not result in efforts that fully show one’s capability. I also think you have been limited by [composing for] players with modest ability and so you have had to avoid writing anything that pushes the envelope too far. Break out of that. Quiet the voices of questioning that I can imagine are speaking to you and see what happens.
Wow! Nice! Thank you, G!
My action plan must be:
Something that doesn’t require seeking the participation of musicians I can’t afford or are of “modest ability.”
A project that doesn’t require coming to you with my hand out asking for funds.
Something with changing flavours, aromas and colors that last over a long period of time.
A project which produces results but is not dependent on what happens to them.
Something that can be created with the resources I already have, and that can be shared with you if you’re interested.
Heard of Chris Guillebeau? Several years ago he set himself the goal of visiting all the countries of the world by his 35th birthday. He just completed his quest ON his 35th birthday last month. 193 countries in less than 11 years. No-one else has ever accomplished it.
Most of Bach’s work, much of Mozart’s, Beethoven, Verdi, Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, Taverner, Part and a multitude of other composers have written music influenced by the Bible, including two of the most amazing pieces ever: the ultra-famous Messiah by Handel, and the incomparable Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton (watch below). Even outlying members of the post-WWII British atheist movement, including composers such as Benjamin Britten and John Rutter, often turned to the Bible for source material. So why not me?
I recently heard a reading of Psalm 33 and it caught my attention. It is far from being famous but it’s descriptive content is unique. There are many pieces of music in the world influenced by the psalms, but… all of them? Yes. Plenty. But that’s like asking if every country in the world has been visited. Until Chris G set his goal, no one person had visited every country in the world.
To advance my composition skills by writing 150 pieces of music based on each of the 150 psalms by my 50th birthday in 7 years’ time.
How on earth will that get done? I have a plan. [In fact, I've already started].
It’s going to be a fascinating journey! I hope you’ll stay the course with me.
Tell me in the comments below how you’ve overcome diversity or a big disappointment. Did it spur you into action? Did you setup a project or quest? Did you move onto something completely different? I’d love to hear how you managed to move on with your life. Go on, add a comment, and then share this post so others can benefit, too:
One of the impressive train sets at Northlandz in NJ
What are you working on?
Do you have a hobby or skill that you pursue outside of your day job?
Some people build model train sets, others go ice skating. Some folk coach Little League baseball, and others knit.
What’s your hobby?
(Tell me in the comments below).
It’s interesting that over the past 10 days or so something has come to light in my world prompted by several emails following my “Keeping up appearances” post last week. That something is a project. No, a Project. Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s a “Major Project.”
Much of the encouragement and advice you’ve shared in comments, tweets and emails has been very uplifting and very wise. Perhaps the most common public perspective was how incredible it can be to have a mentor or two, and that’s what Tuesday’s post was all about. But several emails fairly unsubtley told me to get my act together, cease and desist the doubt and negativity, and get back to what SPB does best.
Those emails from a handful of well-respected people, plus two from people I’ve never met in person, were intimate and direct. They were and will remain private, but the common thread between them all served the same purpose and mentioned the same solution.
What I was like, once.
I think the purpose of those emails was not so much to get me believing in myself again, but to remind me of who I was – jog my memory of what I was like – lift me above the dark thicket and thorny brush to survey the vast pine forest I’ve been wandering in (musically) for several years, and combine that with all that I’ve learned in recent times. In other words, transition from a floundering find-your-footing thirty-year-old to a mature expert forty-something (My older sister would probably translate that as “Grow up!“) OK, a little deep, perhaps, but isn’t that something we all hanker for once-in-a-while? Maybe that’s been my problem: I’ve been dealing with surface stuff for so long now that I’ve not taken care of the inner, deep things. Whatever your stance on that, I choose to acknowledge that we all have deep, personal issues to learn about, and I’m not going to brush them under the carpet or hide from them anymore (like the British are particularly renowned for!)
However, getting back to the real Me was only the first commonality mentioned in those emails. The second was this: a Major Project.
Yeah, yeah, yeah…
Before you sigh, roll your eyes up and shake your head at yet another SPB attempt at something, we’re not talking about the trite little videos I’ve been publishing over the past few years. No, we’re talking something different – something more in line with “me” – a project that will blow me (and hopefully you) away. This project will be something I can focus my energies on and produce a result that is actually outstandingly SPB-like, not a mediocre copy of what has (or appeared to have) worked for others.
People matter: I love chatting to audiences after a concert.
It is clear my music career needs attention. No more fluff. No more scrounging around looking for something to do. Being a conductor is TOUGH because whatever you want to do, you need a bunch of people to do it with. Conducting 1 or 4 people is just dumb, yet finding players to form an orchestra is either nigh impossible outside the higher education environment or it costs a small fortune (believe me: my wife and parents know!) (It can be done, though – remember George Marriner Maull and his creation of the remarkable Discovery Orchestra in my last post?) And composing usually requires an ensemble who will play your music. Good luck with that! Well, I have been blessed: I am VERY fortunate to have many colleagues in the music world who have more confidence in me than I do myself, and they’ve taken on my music and performed it – most recently Jane Rondin of the Zephyrs Wind Quintet in New Jersey, and Alexandra Vago of the Blue Pointe String Quartet in Cleveland, Ohio.
You also matter. Thank you for taking this journey with me.
So I need a project. A big project. Something that will blow me away. Something I can do without relying on other people, and something that does not require me to put my hand out and ask for money. I need a music-related project in which I can find fulfillment.
Funnily enough, the disappointment that sparked this recent series of posts may provide just the right catalyst for that project.
Give me a few more days to figure out some nuances, and I’ll tell you what the disappointment was, and what it and you have spurred me to do.
Shall we say, Friday next week? It’s a date – look out for my next email then.
To help us all focus on what we do well in life, what is your hobby or Major Project right now? And how did you get into it? Write a comment below, and then share this post with your circles of influence – they will want to read what you write!
My last blog post “Keeping up appearances” attracted the most views I’ve ever had, as well as the most comments. Thank you!
It is clear that many of you believe a small group of advisers or friends with whom you can share disappointments is a good thing, but even better is a mentor or two. I must admit to constantly referring back to the same handful of people on many matters, but unfortunately I have yet to come across a mentoring candidate in my industry who is on the same playing field/ experienced in what I’m trying to do/ ignoring staid industry norms.
Not even the adventurous Emily Wozniak and her Sound ExChange Orchestra can claim that no-one has done it before. Maybe the Aurora Orchestra is the closest thing to my kind of innovation. Certainly their marketing is – that’s a great 2013 season video:
The small, global Orchestra Establishment has its noose tightly wrapped around just about everyone, convincing them there is no other way. Certainly every Musical Director and Senior Administrator in the USA & UK, who are probably the closest candidates for mentoring someone like me, succumb to their ways if they want to keep making great orchestral music in the current climate. Emily is young, cute and has a plethora of eager college students at her disposal. I don’t know if she has a mentor or two, but even if she doesn’t yet it won’t be hard to find them. On the other hand, I’m not quite as attractive as she is, and at 42 years old most people would expect me to know what I’m doing and be mentoring others – probably people like Emily.
In fact, I am and have been for several years (I wonder if that explains why people started calling me Maestro a couple of years ago?). Many ex-students stay in touch and I often support them through their own career and life decision-making processes. Just earlier this month one of my longer-term online students came from El Salvador to Tampa for our first in-person sessions – a couple of lessons, a couple of chats about goals and career options, and participation in some rehearsals & concerts. It’s very different in person than via email, and the visit has strengthened the trust between us.
The vibrant George Marriner Maull Photo courtesy of aptonline.org
I definitely have advisers (actually, more like Friends) in business, spirituality and my personal life, but not in the break-the-mold, rip-it-up-and-start-again orchestra industry of the 21st century. [At this point I must give a nod to a dear, dear friend who has taught me a great deal about how to approach music, and makes time to hear my concerns as much as his schedule permits: George Marriner Maull of the Discovery Orchestra. Please buy their incredible DVDs. George has had a profound influence in my musical life since I was a teenager, and continues to do so, but his efforts are hampered by the old-school setup of classical music - which is what I broke away from many years ago. He is doing remarkable work bringing live classical music to children and generally interested people and I hope his passionate flame burns brightly for a long, long time.]
All in all, perhaps that is why last week’s post expressed surprise about sharing deeply personal disappointment – without a mentor it’s not something I’ve done or experienced before and I’ve been immensely touched by your response & support. Here’s an interesting twist, though: whilst many of the blog post comments answered my questions, and many others were boosting my confidence (thank you!), some actionable solutions actually came via email.
One reoccurring solution in particular caused me to think about it over this past weekend, and I think I’m going to look into it further.
I’ll post about it on Friday, but suffice it to say: it will have a HUGE impact.
Do you have a mentor?
Have you had a mentor in the past?
Have you been a mentor for someone?
Let me know what the benefits are in the comments below…
I recently received some rather disappointing news. Normally, no-one would know except my poor wife who would end up tolerating my pottering around the house and moping through the kitchen cupboards kidding myself I needed something to munch on.
But the rest of the world wouldn’t know.
Blog posts would still appear on schedule, uplifting tweets would still get posted, and the occasional Facebook message would continue to find its way into the ether. Students would continue to strive for goals just out of their current reach, audiences would cheer and applaud, and colleagues would continue to rely on the ever-smiling, ever-present, ever-reliable SPB to be there for them.
All was always well, apparently.
Except this time. Tweeting has been difficult, I’ve fallen behind in my blog posts thinking I have nothing to say that anyone would want to read, and my Facebook presence has all but dissipated. Students noticed an absence of normally high expectations, audiences didn’t seem entertained, and colleagues noticed that laughter no longer filled the room.
The disappointing news hit me hard.
But there was one difference this time. At the beginning of the project I reached out to a bunch of people to see if anyone was interested in supporting my efforts – a mini Board, if you will. Eight brave souls jumped on board without hesitation (well, some hesitation for a couple of them). Upon conclusion of the project and its disappointing outcome, I had to reach out to every one of those supporters who believed I could pull it off.
To say I was nervous is an honest understatement.
Afterwards, something remarkable happened. Slowly, one by one, every single one of “The Great Eight” responded by email with incredible words of encouragement and humorous perspective. Comments like:
We still believe in you.
You are definitely a talented musician and composer. We are behind you 100%.
They’d probably have refused Bach & Beethoven, too.
I’m sure you will succeed in achieving your objective soon.
Keep believing in yourself Stephen - my money is still on you!
Isn’t that wonderful feedback?! However, these are not your run-of-the-mill stock phrases spurted out to make someone feel better. No, I know these people and trust them. These comments are real. They’re genuine. And coming from these specific Great Eight, these are comments I should actually take to heart. Then I realized something: perhaps sharing one’s disappointments with a handful of people close to you and/or the project will actually enhance your relationships, healthily build your confidence, and lift you out of any potentially depressing doldrums.
First, THANK YOU!
Second, I’d love to know if this really works, or if it was a one-off. Have you shared a particularly devastating disappointment with a small private group of people? What was their response? And how did it affect your own perspective and/or behavior?
Leave a comment below and let me know if sharing helps you. Tell me if you have a close circle of ‘listeners’ you can go to with disappointments (as well as successes). Perhaps I can learn from your own experiences.
Yet another terrific #OrchChat last week! Thank you to all who participated in the lively discussion.
For one hour several people from around the world gradually joined in as schedules permitted, and there was much intense and passionate discussion among the group. Based on feedback, we kept the format to three topics and as usual, they bled into and over each other. It was actually fun (no, really) keeping up.
The topics we explored were:
Free Flashmobs. Although a great marketing tool, when orchestras perform for free do they devalue what they do?
Liven it up! How do we overcome performer’s lethargism due to the repetitive nature of the job? Fascinating responses, including “Fire them!” (unfortunately it was a very well known critic who has since closed his Twitter account ) as well as changing the shape of the concert hall (or getting rid of the “stage” altogether!)
Who’s in charge? Again, opposing viewpoints on who calls the shots – the money (i.e. the Board) or the Artistic Director? (Almost no-one supported the CEO or other administrator.)
What are your thoughts about these topics, and what topics would you like to discuss? Add your comments below this post.
Some stats for the hashtag #OrchChat (some people keep forgetting to add it to their tweets – sorry!):
The composer Zoltan Kodaly has a special place in my heart and history. I like much of his music, which is very folk-based. He was the chap that pioneered formal classical music based on local regional folk & popular music. He actually traveled around his native Hungary with wax cylinders recording peasants, villagers and gypsies singing their made-up songs. Then he composed pieces of music based on them, and inspired his colleague Bela Bartok to base much of his music on folk tunes and hence the formal genre now known as ‘ethnomusicology‘ was born.
Hungarian Cimbalom player Ida Toth Tarjani, 1987
Perhaps Kodaly’s most famous piece is a suite from his opera Hary Janos which features a weird instrument called a cimbalom – it’s like a sideways piano played with sticks instead of keys. When I was playing this piece in Budapest I actually got to have a 3 hour lesson (through an interpreter) with the famous soloist we were playing with, Ida Toth Tarjani. I still fondly look through her autographed instruction manuals with intrigue as I still don’t understand the Hungarian language.
But Kodaly was also present on that trip. Scarily so. In one of the towns we toured through, the orchestra played in a modern concert hall withlarge huge headshots of Kodaly and Bartok on the sides of the stage overlooking proceedings. During the Hary Janos Suite by Kodaly I made a mistake and played a cymbal crash in the wrong place (something I did again in a Tchaikovsky piece when playing for Henry Mancini a few months later. I was 17 and we were on a barge!). After playing it in the right place I sat down and continued counting the beats until my next entry.
As I counted, I was naturally embarrassed and desperately hoping no-one noticed. But I felt a presence, a “look”. It wasn’t the conductor. My fellow players were giggling at me. Inconspicuously I turned around and looked up, and there was the 12 foot face of Kodaly glaring down at me from on high! The composer did not approve.
I’ve played the piece many times since and never had a problem.
Another of my favorite pieces that Kodaly wrote is the Dances of Galanta. As it happens, this is not based on actual folk songs Kodaly collected but because he became so studious at them, he was able to compose original music that sounded like folk music. It starts out wonderfully dreamy and evocative, but I love the fast-pace ending. Click on the video to watch, and ENJOY!
If you’ve ever been on the Tube (London Underground) you’ll be familiar with the phrase “Mind the Gap!” Not only is it announced as train doors open, but it’s also written on the floor in numerous stations.
To make it easy and efficient for trains to traverse the underground tube-like tunnels throughout London, some tracks are curved even in the stations. Therefore, the platforms are also curved. But train carriages are straight. Naturally, the center of each train carriage is the closest it gets to the platform but the ends of each carriage can be far away. For the sake of providing an efficient service, there is a gap.
By this time next week the world of classical music will have a terrific new resource that reduces the size of a similar large gap: A central concert calendar for classical music happening around Tampa Bay. This is a huge area with more than 4 million year-round residents, and what feels like an almost matching number of part-time residents (a.k.a. “snow birds”). With that kind of crowd spread over Florida’s largest metropolitan area it’s no wonder it can boast three regional performing arts centers and seven local performing arts centers.
There’s a lot of music going on around the Bay.
However, to find a concert you have to look at each venue’s website, or each performer’s website, or any one of the media sites that list hundreds of entertainment opportunities of which only a handful may be ‘classical.’ It gets frustrating. So here’s the solution: a new concert calendar website dedicated to the thousands of classical music fans who have access to Tampa Bay. And that includes you! Seriously, even if you don’t live here, have a winter home here, or have never even been here yet, it’s just a quick and easy flight from New York or a couple of hours from Orlando (think: Disney & Universal), but we have far better beaches.
As a truly loyal reader of my blog, I’m going to give you a sneak preview. Click here to take a behind-the-scenes look around the pre-launch site and as you do so, you may notice some gaps. (If you end up on the prelaunch home page, simply click your browser’s BACK button.)
Mind the Gaps:
We need to encourage local performers and presenters to add their concerts. Have a look at March in the calendar view – it’s pretty full but that’s not everything.
Some of the preview and interview articles are all ready for publishing over the next couple of weeks, although you won’t find them on the prelaunch site – just a Welcome article for now.
None of the paid ads are active, yet. Classical music advertisers book spots by the week, so you’ll start seeing some ads after the launch.
We do not have any concert reviews scheduled yet as the site needs to earn some income in order to pay for reviewers’ tickets.
Your name doesn’t appear as a Partner, yet. During your site exploration did you come across the Partner page? That’s a list of people like you who like Classical Music and believe that this site is providing an incredible service. (If it works well, there are other cities that have already expressed interest in having me setup similar sites for them). The costs of hosting and running the site plus providing outstanding editorial content that is not influenced by ads, is pretty intense.
For as little as $1 a week you could help fill the gaps – especially those last two. Please click here to become a Partner of TampaClassical .com and you will be supporting a valuable service for the classical music industry. Seriously – we need to stick together in this day and age of massive distraction, and I hope you feel motivated to inspire the world through becoming a Partner. Or you could buy some ads!