Author: David Smooke

Scare Tactics

scary music photoThis is the final week of the semester for the rock and roll history class that I teach for general humanities credit on the main Johns Hopkins campus. In this class, as we move through the various eras, we constantly see society lamenting the new musical styles in the belief that they will lead their children down what Count Basie quoted the contemporary haters of jazz as calling the “primrose path to hell.” So that the students will realize that this phenomenon was not new with Elvis and the first generation of rock and roll, we trace prior styles as far back as ragtime, which was dubbed “cheap, trashy stuff [that] could not elevate even the most degraded minds, nor could it possibly urge any one to greater effort in the acquisition of culture in any phase.” Similar invective was applied to such dissimilar styles as jazz, rockabilly, psychedelic rock, heavy metal, punk, and rap (among others).

Those of us in the experimental world have heard tales about horrified reactions to various premieres, including the famous Rite of Spring riots, Slonimsky’s conducting of Ionisation at the Hollywood Bowl, and several works of John Cage. The first complete performance of Satie’s Vexations was so notorious that it even led to one of the pianists involved, John Cale, and the sole audience member who stayed for the entire concert being featured on the game show I’ve Got a Secret.

In the past two decades, I cannot think of a single instance of a musical style—whether experimental or otherwise—frightening the public. Where is the new version of punk and its associations with anarchistic youth running amok? Where is the experimental music that causes society to take notice, in order to condemn its nature? Within this time frame, the art world has given us the controversies over the Mapplethorpe retrospective, the Andres Serrano Piss Christ, and the Chris Ofili The Holy Virgin Mary, but no similarly controversial music. Where the art world’s provocations continue to be met with society’s approbation, the general public seems surprisingly willing to simply ignore the music they find distasteful. In today’s world, is it possible to create music that will frighten the world into taking notice? Or have we seen the end of music that scares people?

While I remain confident that experimental music will continue to develop outside of society’s gimlet view, I worry that this situation might be dire for the future of rock and roll. At heart, rock always has been a music of rebellion, the teenager’s cry against the cruelness and unfairness of a world ruled by their elders. If the youth can’t shock their parents, then what remains for rock and roll?

Within the new music community, a great deal of effort is being applied towards creating a new mode of expression that welcomes people into it, that reaches out towards the engaged listener. Perhaps the lack of frightening popular music has left us with an opening. Perhaps we should try shock and fear. Perhaps our best chance at reaching new listeners is to instead try to scare people away.

The Composer’s Toolbox

As the holidays approach, so do application deadlines for academic institutions. Those students who plan to earn their degrees in the spring seriously consider their future; many of them work diligently towards their next collegiate home. Often, they turn to me for advice.

As someone who is in certain ways an example of the success these students seek—having earned my doctorate in music composition and landed a job teaching at a major conservatory—I feel it incumbent upon me to help them consider other options, to creatively assess the paths that lie invitingly at their feet. I ask them why they want another degree. As we consider the costs associated with university education, I tell them to imagine a scenario in which they cut their costs in half by offering their favorite composer $20,000 (instead of the typical $40,000 tuition demanded by many private universities) to work together for a year while the student works in any field in which they can find employment. (I’ve never heard of anyone using this solution, but I imagine that even a very prominent composer would be tempted by such an offer.)

All of this has me wondering: What intellectual and artistic tools are necessary for composers? What abilities should all students of composition seek to master?

toolboxObviously, the budding composer should study the craft of composition. We should learn how various instruments work and should be able to write for any instrument, either solo or within standard and original ensemble configurations. We should have a deep understanding of the full historical context for the music that we intend to write: film scoring, rock operas, performance art, or any other genre. We should analyze favorite works in order to fully comprehend what makes them tick and how that work creates a vivid musical statement. If we intend to produce scores, we should study engraving practices.

In addition, the composer should have hands-on practical experience with music making. In today’s world, it’s essential to have the ability to edit sound on computers, and if one is able to create live electronic music, so much the better. We can be our own best advocates by performing our own works as instrumentalists, vocalists, and conductors—advice that I personally have found very difficult to follow.

Finally, composers should learn how to effectively self-promote.

I perceive this list as a starting point and am curious as to what tools you believe are necessary for the craft of composition.

The university experience can be an effective way to acquire many of these tools, both through one’s studies and through the social contact with one’s peers. But I think many emerging composers forget that it’s not the only path they can take. Sometimes we can forget what our true goals are, and as we grasp for the next rung on the ladder that lies within our immediate frame of perception, we need to remember to stop and look around just in case there is another way that we might ascend towards our personal objectives.

Extended Toy Piano

For the past several years, I’ve been spending a large amount of time playing a very small piano. It all began when I was asked to write a short piece for toy piano—played by the amazing Phyllis Chen—and two violas, for the 2004 ICE Toy Piano Zoo. I was enchanted by the evocatively nostalgic sound of the instrument, produced by tiny plastic hammers tapping metal rods. In 2009, Phyllis asked me to write a work for two toy pianos for a concert in Tokyo, the last movement of which is for one toy piano, four hands. Later that year, I incorporated a toy piano solo into a large work for two pianos and percussion.

While I was composing the latter piece at an artists’ colony, I performed my first toy piano improvisations as part of a multimedia presentation by an interdisciplinary artist who was in residence with me at the time. Further collaborative pieces followed, as did free improvisations with some amazing musicians. In attempting to blend with other instruments, I found myself playing the metal tines directly in order to produce a greater variety of sounds at volumes other than the mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte range typical of the toy piano itself. Schoenhut Toy Pianos, the premiere contemporary manufacturer of these instruments, created an instrument specifically for me in order to allow me greater access to the working innards.

Smooke's Schoenhut Toy Piano - Photograph by Alexandra Gardner

Probably the greatest advantage of performing on this instrument is that it’s significantly easier to transport a toy piano than a regular piano. I’ve been focusing more and more of my attention on this small box, including composing a concerto for myself to play along with a chamber orchestra. In preparation for a performance on the UnCaged Toy Piano Festival this December, I’ve been working on solo improvisations. I want to share with you some of the extended techniques possible on the toy piano, some of the available sounds beyond its typical bell-tone. I recorded myself improvising on an amplified instrument, using a Kaoss pad in order to record and play back for a more layered sound. All the noises you will hear were originally produced by the toy piano itself within the improvisation, without any sound processing, even though you will hear some only as recorded and reproduced electronically.

My biggest frustration when performing on toy piano along with other instruments has been the inability to create a sustained tone. In order to transcend this difficulty, I’ve been working with several different techniques for bowing the toy piano itself, as you will see in the video below. As I continue, I bring in knitting needles in order to create a truer bell sound than that created by the instrument’s plastic hammers.

In this second excerpt, I strum the metal tines to produce a gentler attack than the typical toy piano sound. In the background you can hear some other bowed toy piano sounds being played by the Kaoss pad.

In addition to the difficulties creating a sustained tone on the toy piano, I also get jealous when I’m performing with other instrumentalists who play glissandos. While it’s not as clean as a swooping tone on a violin, I have created a technique for glissandos and microtonal inflections, as you can here in this next excerpt. As in the second excerpt, the background will include some sounds from earlier in the improvisation that have been recorded without further manipulation.

For me, the biggest draw of the toy piano is paradoxically found within its limitations. I enjoy the creative problem solving needed in order to match the tone and musicality of other instruments, and I believe that it’s an excellent exercise towards creating new compositions. The same process that has forced me to rethink the possible performance techniques for this toy instrument can be applied to the piano itself or to any instrument for which I’m composing, and that has allowed me to re-consider my basic approach to sound itself.

Adding by Subtracting

delete buttonRecently, I’ve been revising a piece in advance of its premiere while working with the player for whom it was composed. These revisions have mainly consisted of scouring through the score and removing superfluous notes. The process of deleting notes has helped to create a better piece.

Anyone who has created an interior design scheme or planned a garden understands the phenomenon of adding by subtracting. Removing the clutter allows the important elements to stand out more clearly. Something that might have been missed against an ornate background can often shine when placed within an austere setting. A small black dot will be lost in a sea of color but might be immediately perceptible on a white sheet.

As I’m composing, I often forget that grand gestures can often be sharper and stronger when extraneous details are removed in order to focus the sound, that pulsing music can be groovier when silence begins to obscure the beat, that desperate flailing can be expressed with one horrific held sound. As I write a new piece, I like to fill in all the details, to create a fully fleshed-out being that can live and breathe by itself. At times, these details overburden the skeleton, creating monsters that crush themselves under their own weight or are simply less nimble than I had expected they would be due to their extra heft.

I very much enjoy the process of going through scores and finding notes that I can remove. As I started composing, my biggest fear was that my ideas weren’t interesting enough, and so at times I believe that these extraneous details are my attempt to hide. For me, the overt ornamentation can serve to obfuscate the basic structure so its inherent quality hardly matters. While I no longer am trying to create an opaque texture, at times I naturally find myself adding details until I’ve buried the inner structure of the music. This is why each deletion allows me to feel that I’ve won a small victory over my inner demons. And I’m finding that I am gaining confidence in the basic nature of my music, that I have something to say as a composer, that I can allow my musical frameworks to shine.

I think of the process of deleting notes as being one of honing the composition. Just as we sharpen a blade by scraping imperfections off the edge, the act of removing notes from a passage can allow it to penetrate the consciousness more easily. Sometimes subtracting details can allow a piece of music to more fully express its nature.

Good Music

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to hear nearly 100 pieces live, by over 50 different composers. Most of these works have been new to me, as have many of the composers, and nearly all had something to offer an interested listener.

All of this has me wondering again exactly what constitutes “good music.” Many of the works were absolutely not composed to my tastes but had arresting moments of sonic wonder or beautiful lyricism. Others were perhaps less well constructed but more suited to my particular aesthetic predilections. Objectively, which were the better pieces? Or does that question even matter and should my personal tastes shape my listening habits?

When I attempt to define what constitutes a good composition, I keep returning to the question of what the creator is attempting to express, and whether those aspects are successfully conveyed. A poor piece by someone who wants to depict the suffering of the victims of genocide might be joyous and gorgeous, while the same music might be perfect were the goal a celebration of life. Beyond that, I seek works whose surface presents something other than re-ordered stock gestures. By these standards, nearly all the music I heard lands on the successful side of the good/bad divide. Is this because the music is good, or are my standards lacking?

At times like these, I find myself quite hopeful about the future of music composition. In addition to the quality of the pieces, the two aspects of this concert binge that leave me most sanguine about the state of new music today are these:

1. Performers keep getting better. Each generation of students appears to be rising to the ever-greater challenges of new scores. I heard absolutely convincing performances of works that were highly complex, overtly theatrical, and simply lyrical. Even as the emerging musicians almost blithely throw off technical acrobatics, they also display a keen interest in the underlying musical framework and phrasing of new repertoire. At times, the student performers even outshone their more accomplished professional peers.

2. Aesthetically, the world is wide open and free. I heard music of all types, sometimes presented on the same program. In these settings, pure 1960s-style European Modernism can quite happily co-exist with rock-derived lyricism and all styles in between. With performers that are able to navigate these disparate challenges, each work can be presented in a befitting manner, allowing the individual listeners to respond to those pieces that most please them.

Lazarus Music

I’ve had several pieces that have seemed to me to be purely unlucky. There was the quintet that lay dormant for three years before receiving its premiere, the duo that’s been performed nearly a dozen times but has only been recorded during performances that didn’t go very well (while the excellent performances have been out of range of any microphones), the quartet that kept getting turned down by concert presenters, etc. Some of these pieces are very difficult to put together, or were composed for a specific occasion that got cancelled and then the commissioner never had access to that instrumentation again. To paraphrase Tolstoy in a way that surely will cause him to spin in his grave, all successful pieces are alike but each miserable piece is unique.

For me, the past few weeks have been an incredibly hopeful period in this regard. There’s one work that I’ve known for a while has needed revisions. Recent very fruitful conversations with the person for whom I wrote it have led me to where I’ve finally figured out a way to improve the piece while also making it more gracious to play. I’m terribly excited to make these changes so the piece can finally see the light of day. I also had an arrangement of a work that I created without having any real experience writing for the instrument in question that was premiered last week after sitting for several years. It sounded better in this version than in any previous iteration of the composition.

Finally, there’s my recent experience with my unluckiest composition, a work for 7-string electric violin. This project began when I was teaching at the Merit School of Music in Chicago, in the basement of Dearborn Station. One day I heard the most exquisite electric guitar playing ever from the room next door, which was an odd sound at this serious tuition-free conservatory. So odd, that I had to find the source. I was greatly surprised to learn that I wasn’t hearing a guitar at all. Instead it was the violinist Chuck Bontrager practicing on his 7-string electric violin. We immediately made arrangements for me to write something for him. About two years later, in 2007, I finally was able to compose the piece. Since I was writing for a rock instrument, I decided to go against type and to create a very quiet microtonal work for which the seven strings would be tuned very specifically, the first in what would become my series of Introspection pieces.

Despite the excitement he expressed when he first saw the piece, Chuck was unable to find the right venue for premiering it. Meanwhile, I sent the score to some other electric violinists, only to find that they each played 5- or 6-string versions and that the 7-string model is only used by a few players, all of whom are in death metal bands. Since the tuning is integral to my work, a version for fewer strings would be a very different piece, and so I waited. I found various ways to check the tuning in time, which my outdated software had been unable to do when I first composed the piece, and realized that the microtonal aspects worked just fine. Eventually, I heard that Chuck was going to play it at an unofficial concert, but I didn’t hear anything afterwards and so I began to think that this piece might never be played. I chalked it up to experience, figuring that it helped me to become a better composer and thinking that I had learned valuable lessons from the composition even though I would never hear it.

Then out of the blue, I received an email last week with a video of a performance of the piece. Chuck plays it beautifully, and seeing how he needs to contort in order to realize the left-hand pizzicato technique that I ask for throughout made me realize how incredibly difficult it must be to play. (The wider neck of the 7-string model makes it very difficult to pluck the lower strings while fingering any notes on the upper ones.) But he can play it, and play it very well, and we’re coming up with very exciting plans for future performances.

Like Lazarus, this piece has been raised from the dead. I had moved through the stages of mourning to acceptance, only to find that it can live after all. I’m in the very happy position of needing to re-calibrate my emotional relationship to the work in order to account for the fact that it really can exist. This process is surprisingly difficult for me, because I honestly don’t know how I feel about this old piece anymore. On the one hand, I’m hearing it for the first time, but on the other hand it represents the composer I was several years ago. When pieces are premiered shortly after they’re completed, I get inured to their flaws and accept them for what they are. But this time I’m hearing the work for the first time when I’m no longer wedded to its essence and so all I hear are the compositional mistakes, the things that I would do differently if I were writing the piece today. Hopefully, soon I’ll be able to accept the composition for what it is. Meanwhile, I’m very thankful for Chuck’s efforts which have allowed this piece to fully exist!

The Sublime in Bowling Green

Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Bowling Green State University in Ohio in order to experience the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music‘s New Music Festival 2011. I was heartened to enjoy the camaraderie among the dozens of composers who came from as far away as Germany and Holland to enjoy the performances, and was astonished at the major figures on the new music scene—Hey, look, it’s Eve Beglarian!—who took the time to be involved in the proceedings. The organizers, Jacqueline Leclair and Kurt Doles, kept everything running smoothly and elegantly, while the local faculty composers, Christopher Dietz, Michael Kuehn, Elainie Lillios, and Marilyn Shrude, were gracious hosts.

After hearing 44 pieces over nine concerts, I can report that it was a fantastic festival. Nearly every single piece had something important to offer, some way to recommend it, while a few stood out as being major events in and of themselves.

For me, one of the more pleasurable aspects of this festival was the opportunity to hear a huge swath of the featured composer David Lang’s music. I’ve been a fan of his since I first discovered Bang on a Can’s recordings in the early 1990s, but had only rarely been able to hear his music live (most memorably in a performance of the Little Match Girl Passion on the Evolution Series in Baltimore). Three of his pieces, one from the first concert and two from the final event, stood out for me as a listener. His c. 40-minute long percussion work The So-Called Laws of Nature was presented in its entirety in a performance by a quartet of students (Rob Ciesluk, Mark Cook, Stephen Klunk, and Ellery CG Trafford) that was both elegant and deeply committed. This piece gradually grows in volume and intensity through the first three movements, then shifts into an unexpectedly quiet sound world for its finale that ups the ante through its unique sound in a way that brings the intensity beyond what I would have thought was possible. On the final concert, Lang’s Again (After Ecclesiastes) for choir and his orchestra work Grind to a Halt created perfect bookends in their dialectical approach to human suffering, the former a gentle acceptance while the latter rages in a way that I personally found created such an extreme endorphin rush that I was grinning from ear to ear hours later.

On an entirely different surface aesthetic bent from the Lang pieces (but absolutely related on a deeper level in their uncompromisingly powerful individual compositional voices), Salvatore Sciarrino’s La Bocca, I Piedi, Il Suono for saxophone quartet and 100 additional saxophones was an incredible musical experience. First, the 100 saxophonists surprised innocent bystanders with a performance in the school’s student union—on Homecoming weekend no less. I shot a little video during this performance (posted below) giving a sense of the beautiful mayhem they created. About an hour later, they reconvened as part of an official concert in the main recital hall. First, the members of the River Rouge Saxophone Quartet—John Cummins (who also beautifully performed a piece of mine earlier in the festival), Noa Even, James Fusik, and Elissa Kana—invited audience members into Sciarrino’s sound world with the long opening section which they performed with great musicality and confidence, antiphonally surrounding the listeners. When the 100 additional saxophones eventually entered and walked through the crowd the experience went from the beautiful to the sublime and ended far too soon.

The other highlights of the festival were both courtesy of Mantra Percussion. First, they presented the U.S. premiere of Michael Gordon’s Timber, a one-hour long work for six percussionists, each of whom plays a single piece of 2×4 wood. The work itself was absolutely stunning, clearly transcending the limitations of its unique instrumentation. But in this presentation, it was as much a piece of theater as of music. The percussionists stood in a circle, each with their strip of lumber on a sawhorse and their music on a laptop. The main lighting was very dim, red-gelled floor lights, but they had rigged up a system (created by Jim Findlay) so that when an individual player’s volume would pass a threshold, a brighter floor light would illuminate the face of the percussionist who had that main material. In the opening several minutes as an idea was passed around the circle of players, this lighting effect created a brilliant opening, allowing us to experience the aural and visual aspects as a single unit. The performance itself was an incredible display of unified virtuosity by the Mantra percussionists. Most of the piece created a sustained sound through constant mallet rolls, but the limited resonance of the wood allowed every individual hit to be heard as clearly articulated. The six players were so tightly together that throughout the piece these rolls were never perceived as a mass of sound, but rather always as a series of single notes at a blindingly fast tempo. The picture below is from a rehearsal of Mantra performing Timber.

Mantra Percussion performing Michael Gordon’s Timber.

Early the following morning, Mantra reconvened, this time in order to perform the works of several high school students from the Toledo School for the Arts. This concert was the culmination of a year-long project on composition and creativity sponsored by the MACCM. It was incredibly heartening to hear the virtuosic musicality of the Mantra players brought to bear towards the realization of polished works by burgeoning composers. Almost all of the visiting guest composers took the time to attend this concert, supporting the young musicians and inviting them into the greater compositional community. The picture below is of Jude Traxler from Mantra Percussion coaching the student composers before the concert.

Jude Traxler from Mantra Percussion coaching the student composers.

I hope to be able to catch more of these festivals and suggest that everyone in the area plan ahead for next year’s rendition which will feature John Luther Adams and his music.

October Travels

Even though in general I’m happiest holed up in my home, at times wonderful opportunities push me out of the nest towards greater adventures. Right now, I’m anticipating upcoming trips for concerts, each of which will hopefully allow me to connect with composers who are new to me and to reconnect with old friends who I haven’t seen in a while.

This weekend, I’ll be in Bowling Green, Ohio, for the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music‘s new music festival. That the weekend’s events come under the title “Method in Madness” leaves me quite confident that I’ll be in the right place. I’m very much looking forward to hearing music by David Lang, their “special guest composer,” and all of the featured guests, especially pieces that will be new to me by friends and colleagues including Amy Kirsten, Ruby Fulton, Marilyn Shrude, and Christopher Dietz, and the first pieces I will have heard live by Mark Mellits, Kevin Ernste, and Tristan Perich. Based on everything that I’ve heard, the full performance of Michael Gordon’s Timber promises to be a special highlight of the weekend’s concerts. I’m hoping to make all nine concerts in three days, which should leave my ears quite satiated for a while! I’ve long admired the programming of this festival and am very much looking forward to being a part of this year’s edition.

Also, for me the last week of the month will be a full one indeed. First, I’ll be having a piece on the Sequenza 21/MNMP concert at Joe’s Pub in New York City. Through the wonders of social media, I feel that I already know nearly all the composers on this concert, and I’ve actually met five in person, including my wonderful co-NewMusicBox blogger Rob Deemer. I’m very much looking forward to hearing the fine folks of ACME perform such excellent and diverse repertoire live. Later that week, my October will end a little closer to home with UMBC’s Livewire Festival. Focusing on the more experimental side of contemporary music, this concert series will include a premiere of a new work by Michael Finnissy, a rare occasion around these parts indeed, and one worth celebrating.

It’s very interesting to me to be thinking about so much traveling immediately following the conclusion of the International Symposium on Synchronous Distance Learning that I helped to organize. During this conference, I was able to interact simultaneously with colleagues from as far away as Finland, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore, in short, from all over the world, but without leaving the physical confines of the Peabody Conservatory. The musical performances were all broadcast in high definition audio at better-than-CD quality, while the video allowed for an excellent sense of intimacy with the presenters without regard for where they happened to be located. I’m very intrigued to see where this technology takes us. It already allows for a surprising closing of seemingly impossible distances and only needs to be more widely available in order to truly change the way we interact. Perhaps in a few years, I’ll be able to visit all these festivals without ever leaving my home.

Some Thoughts on Self-Promotion

Last week, I found myself participating in a Twitter discussion (now there’s a phrase that I never thought I’d type) on the merits of self-publishing vs. working with a legacy publisher. (I self-publish in part because I want to keep my copyright on my work and also in part because Boosey and Schirmer have yet to call me.) This conversation gradually evolved into one about self-promotion during which many composers expressed their angst at the prospect and their lack of ability to do so effectively. I’m not naturally good at this sort of thing, which has led me to invest a great deal of thought towards creating a set of guidelines to help myself navigate between the Charybdis and Scylla of either having my music languish or forcing myself into awkward situations. Here are some hints:

1) Never engage in self-promotion. Instead, promote the wonderful projects with which you’re involved.

No wonder you’re shy about self-promotion! You’ve been taught from a very young age that it’s not nice to brag, and you’ve watched eyes glaze over in social situations the moment you start talking about your accomplishments. You’re right. It’s not good to self-promote. But I also presume that you’re involved with some amazing projects, that you’re working with other incredible musicians, that you have pieces that you want people to hear. Instead of self-promoting, explain these points. Tell people about the fabulous concert that just happens to have a piece of yours on it. Expound at length about how much time the talented musicians have spent learning your piece. Tout the fact that this particular piece stands out from all of your others.

2) Do your research.

If you’re anything like me, you probably write music with a specific niche. If it’s amplified and rock-based with a nice dance beat, you won’t get the classical critics very excited about it. Conversely, the rock critic won’t have a lot of fun at your solo vuvuzela recital. Find confluences and promote your projects to people who might have a natural interest in them.

3) Check, double check, and triple check.

Just as you can’t have any errors in your scores, you can’t have any in your promotional materials. Don’t give people an excuse to dismiss what you’re saying.

4) Don’t be shy.

Remember, you’re not talking about yourself, but about an interesting project. So you’re not being rejected, it’s that people just aren’t as into that particular project as you thought they might be. That’s okay. Don’t accept half answers and avoidance techniques. Instead, make certain that people understand what you’re proposing and that they don’t want to be involved. Accept a clear answer, but don’t assume that an unanswered email means that the person hated the idea. They might just have forgotten to reply.

5) Show genuine interest in what other people are doing.

The best way to find people who might be excited by what you’re doing artistically is to find others who have similar tastes. Go to any concert you possibly can make, listen online to anyone who seems at all similar to what you like, and buy the music of those artists who you most admire. Those people might be interested in working with you if they think that you know and respect what they’re doing. And you might find that other fans of the same music are interested in what you’re doing and want to collaborate or listen to your music.

6) Promote others as strongly as you promote yourself.

Think of yourself as part of a scene. The more you can help the scene grow, the more people will want to hear what the music from that area is all about. If you like what someone else is doing, drag people to their shows. If those people like what they hear, they’ll be more likely to want to hear what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter if the other artists reciprocate or even if they’re total jerks to you. If you like what they’re doing, promote it.

7) Be quick to praise and very slow to criticize.

You want your name to stick out, but in a good way. Be remembered as the nice person who functions as a hub for a larger scene instead of as the polarizing element turning people away from experiencing music. And don’t forget that all of us feel pretty strongly about what we’re doing, and the person to whom you’re talking may not share your tastes and instead may adore the music you’re denigrating.

8) Involve others.

When you get people excited about what you’re doing, ask them to help amplify your message. If you’re the only one sending Tweets or posting to Facebook about what you’re doing, people will eventually tune out. But when a larger circle of friends and acquaintances join in, it spurs more interest. If you’ve been following rules 5, 6, and 7, you should ideally be able to find lots of people willing to join forces with you to help.

9) Be gracious.

Don’t forget to thank people! If someone helps to spread your message or replies to one of your emails, thank them for their time. Thank the musicians who work with you. Thank your family and friends for their support. Just to be safe, thank strangers on the street.

Thank you for reading.

In Theory

This summer, I began a two-year stint as chair of the Department of Theory at the Peabody Conservatory (which probably should have begun like a two-year army stint, with basic training overseen by a friendly drill sergeant). This new position is forcing me to step outside of my classroom bunker and to consider the role of music theory within the larger conservatory community.

Friendly Drill Sergeant leading a Music Theory Class

Fortunately, the studio faculty and students at Peabody generally view their classroom studies as an integral aspect of their professional training. Students begin each semester expecting to gain skills that will help them attain their main goal of becoming better musicians. Our undergraduate music theory curriculum was designed very carefully to integrate ear training, keyboard skills, and written theory within a single framework to work in concert towards this goal, and all of our graduate seminars focus on a specific topic relevant to the concerns of student performers and composers. Based on the reports from the students, faculty, and administration, the system works.

A Rube Goldberg Machine, an example of a working system

I’m thrilled to be part of a successful long-standing tradition, one that goes back to the founding of Peabody over 150 years ago and that includes Elliott Carter and Nadia Boulanger among those who formerly taught music theory at the conservatory. I strongly believe that we provide an excellent foundation for the students, and that the classroom training we provide truly enhances their ability to function as thinking musicians and to create original interpretations of their repertoire or new pieces that clearly reflect their artistic vision. Yet I can’t help wondering if this is enough. What are the unique challenges for this new generation of musicians, and are we flexible enough to help current students overcome these obstacles? Does our curriculum prepare students for life beyond the concert hall, or should we be doing more to develop critical thinking and writing skills? In short, what is the role of a music theory department in the 21st century?


Last week, I wrote a little about the upcoming “Music Anywhere, Anytime” conference. We have confirmed Michael Tilson Thomas as a second keynote speaker, along with Thomas Hampson, and still have slots available for interactive partner sites who wish to observe the proceedings and participate in Q&A sessions. For more information, please visit: