Author: Olivia Kieffer

Playing in Time: Chronos, Kairos, Crossfades

Clocks of various sizes all set to different times.

In this post I want to talk about time: time in our musical relationships with others, and time in the creative process. I’ll start out with the Greek concepts of time, chronos and kairos, which I learned about from the author Madeleine L’Engle.

Kairos, a term for which there is no English equivalent, is often defined in opposition to chronos. For musicians, chronos is metronome time; it can be objectively and quantitatively measured. Kairos, on the other hand, happens when we lose ourselves in the creative moment, and all measures of time are lost. It is

“That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards, because kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time.”

—Madeline L’Engle, Walking on Water

A metronome in motion

These concepts have shaped my understanding of my own creative process. It’s from losing track of time while composing that I learned how much I love writing!

It’s from losing track of time while composing that I learned how much I love writing!

In the summer of 2015, I was gifted a used 25-key red Schoenhut tabletop toy piano. I got the idea to start writing little one-minute pieces and dedicating each one to a friend. Some of the dedicatees are lifelong friends and family, some are people who happened to pass through at an important moment but who I never really saw again, and some were shorter friendships. I ended up writing (and transcribing!) 55 of them, and made them into a book called The Texture of Activity. I stopped writing toy piano solos then; 55 was a good Fibonacci number, and I felt I had nothing else to say on the instrument.

6 months later, I realized I had a lot more to say! So I started my 2nd book, called Playing the Changes, which is 72 pieces. All 127 of these miniatures were written and recorded in an hour or less, and like each friendship, they are all unique.

There are so many more people I’d like to dedicate pieces to, but I wrote my very last one just a few nights ago. I knew it was time.

Sitting down at the toy piano for these pieces over the years took me through a lot of dark times and major life transitions. The toy piano is kairos for me.

CROSSFADES

As musicians, we spend our time making perfect time, playing music in time, by ourselves, with a few others, with a group of 60. We get short times with some people, and long times with others, and others crossfade in and out.

One of our most basic jobs is giving and receiving the gift of time.

One of our most basic jobs is giving and receiving the gift of time. We do so with personal practice, rehearsals, playing concerts, attending concerts, listening to recorded music, composing music to be listened to and practiced and rehearsed and played. Success in performing and writing music largely comes from the concentrated time we put into the endeavor. And success in an ensemble requires time. When you play with a chamber group or even a large ensemble with the same players over a long time (say, 10 years or more), you get to know each other’s ins and outs quite intimately. You understand how to play with each other—who’s better at drums and who needs to stick to mallets, who can sight-read fast xylophone passages and who should stick to the bass line, who has stamina in long rehearsals and who needs frequent breaks.

Perhaps I only experience perfect time when it’s least expected: The fortunate appearance of a new person in music who is introduced to you by another music friend, who then becomes a friend and a mentor, whose presence completely changes your life, and that person makes you feel like you can do anything.  In this case, it’s perfect kairos.

Olivia Kieffer in front of a dinner table (containing plates with various food items) with MarcMellits, Douwe Eisenga, and Bill Susman

With my kairos dudes Marc Mellits, Douwe Eisenga, and Bill Susman

As composers, we can worry if we’ve bloomed at an inconvenient time. We live in a culture where composers must be young & fresh & hip (i.e. all the “under 35” calls for scores), while composers in their 50s and beyond, unless they are already quite famous, are ignored. Maybe our composer world is in cahoots with AARP, who start mailing you things on your 49th birthday.

Just as the grand arc of life has its peaks and valleys, so does music and so do relationships. I think life in music is a lot like Steve Reich’s Drumming. There’s a beginning, and there’s an end, and everything else is four long seasons of entrances and exits, buildups and breakdowns, crossfades and phases.

Music is about finding joy in places, and bringing some happiness to other people.

If we could see the grand arc of our lives, knowing exactly how much and what kind of time we have, would we do things differently now? I think it’s about finding joy in places, and bringing some happiness to other people. That’s what music is, to me.

Playing the Brake Drum: A very short guide to percussion parts for composers who write for band

An identified person walking behind a large gong, only the person's socks are visible.

In the past two weeks, I’ve shared some of my experiences during my two years as a master’s degree composition student, and the lens through which I experienced college life as a student and mostly-composer after spending many years as a professor and mostly-percussionist.

For my third post in this series of four, I’ll turn to a lighter subject but one very near to my heart: percussion parts in band music!

A general sense of flexibility leads to good long-term relationships with band directors.

I have performed in the percussion section of bands, on and off, since the seventh grade. Over a span of 25+ years, this includes performing in a wide variety of groups, from junior high to high school, intermediate and advanced college bands, and community bands. I have seen the worst of the worst in percussion parts, and also some of the best. My experiences working with a variety of bands as a composer have led me to an even deeper understanding of the need for clear and practical percussion writing, and how a general sense of flexibility leads to good long-term relationships with directors—directors who, inevitably, are interested in programming newer music!

As composers of band music, treading the line between “serving my artistic vision of the music” and “let’s make sure the percussionists don’t want to stab me in the eye with a triangle beater” can be daunting. I hope to provide some very practical writing advice for those looking to write for band, as well as for those who may want to fix their major sins and/or minor transgressions ex post facto. I do not propose to offer actual composing advice. This is rather a cut-and-dry guide for percussion scoring in band music, and it is not comprehensive. Books are available to further illuminate percussion writing. There are points and subtleties that I will miss, and I foresee many possible arguments in the comments section, which I welcome, because it shows that composers are actually thinking about percussion instead of writing willy-nilly while thinking, “I’m sure they’ll figure it out!”

I would like to thank my Twitter friends for providing additional suggestions, many of which are included throughout this article.

The full text of Olivia Kieffer's Twitter call for comments

INSTRUMENT PRACTICALITIES

Auxiliary Percussion

A whirly tube

We all hate whirly tubes. They are physically unpleasant and difficult to play, they break easily, and nobody can really hear them unless at least four people are playing them at once and the rest of the band is silent. This advice goes for crystal wine glasses as well; we hate those, too.

No liquids in the percussion section, please.

Anything requiring a bucket or tub of water (a.k.a. water gong or any other thing you’ve decided needs to be dipped in water) is murder on our backs and a danger to anyone who walks on the floor. Waterphones are also unacceptable. No liquids in the percussion section, please.

There are wind chimes, and there is a bell tree. They are different. Mark trees do not actually exist; we just guess whether you actually mean wind chimes or bell tree.

When considering writing for more than eight tom-toms, ask yourself why, then pare it down to four toms.

Brake drums are beastly heavy. They can break your foot if they fall off a trap table. Consider using just one, and suggest it be mounted on a snare stand.

Pitched gongs are lovely instruments but do not belong in band. They require giant stands or multiple trap tables. We play tam-tam. Asking for more than two tam-tams is asking for trouble.

A waterphone photographed from above, which shows the filling port for the water.

A waterphone photographed from above, which shows the filling port for the water. (Wikimedia commons image by Hangklang)

Mallet Percussion

Imagine a percussion section that is bowless, and you will find a sea of happy faces in the back.

Bowing crotales is absolutely the worst. They are round. Challenge: don’t write for bows at all. Imagine a percussion section that is bowless, and you will find a sea of happy faces in the back, and you will never experience that heartbreaking moment when the note simply won’t sound.

Nobody in the history of the world will ever hear the low notes on a five-octave marimba in a band context. Moving a five-octave marimba onto a stage is a backbreaking, two-person ordeal that every composer should have to physically do themselves, over and over again, until they never write for five-octave marimba again. For marimba in general, do not score it during fortissimo tutti sections. We have to use practically diamond-encrusted mallets to be heard, which ruins the bars and sounds terrible.

While vibraphone with motor can sound truly majestic, understand that vibe motors rarely work when we need them to. We have to plug them in, and there are cords to trip over. Many bands own a vibraphone, but not many own one with a consistently working motor.

Timpani

Not everyone owns a piccolo timpano. Take the time to figure out whether you need four timpani or whether you really and truly actually need five. Be aware that you may get a well-meaning roto-tom as a replacement for those high pitches.

Marcato-fortissimo low pitches on 32″ timpani distress the heads something terrible, and make the drums sound like cardboard boxes.

PARTS

It’s rarely the notes that cause percussionists trouble. It’s much more often the careless instrument distribution that is so taxing.

Sometimes a full hour or more of uninterrupted time is needed simply to assign parts.

One thing composers may not completely understand is the important role the percussion part-assigner plays, and how sometimes a full hour or more of uninterrupted time is needed simply to assign parts. Countless times, I have looked at a single set of parts with resignation as I realize how much time it will take to de-tangle the major transgressions just to assign parts among the section players. This is completely unnecessary. We should see a part called “Percussion 1” and hand it to one percussionist. That’s it.

Percussion score? NO! Take the time to make actual parts for a specific number of people. Do not make two players play on the same bass drum, or the same xylophone, meaning: keep one person on xylophone or bass drum the whole time. If you choose to sin and ask the percussionists to load an enormous amount of gear and only play, say, the ratchet once, make it an incredibly special ratchet moment. What we do as percussionists matters, and the schlepping we do matters. Above all, ask yourself, “Am I assuming the percussionists will just figure it out?”  While we are certainly smart enough to figure it out, it’s better for us to spend that time practicing our parts rather than pulling our hair out trying to decipher a careless percussion score.

The schlepping we do matters.

In closing, for any composers who are now feeling the sting of condemnation or are even a bit defensive, I’d like to share the story of the absolute worst percussion scoring I have ever seen. It happened recently, and it should ease your mind. The percussion parts arrived as 14 individual parts. One for bass drum, one for triangle, one for crotales, one for snare drum…you get the picture. As the part-assigner, I was baffled. We had six players, not fourteen. Then, the composer sent a full percussion score. This score simply had a list of instruments on the front, with “Five Players plus Timpani” underneath. The score was 32 pages long and it was, once again, simply instruments stacked vertically. It took me 90 minutes, but I figured out exactly who could play what, when, and where, and there was significant instrument overlap. I shrunk the parts to horizontal (two pages to a page), double-sided printing, and bound them. I had to use highlighters for each person’s part, with arrows pointing to their next instrument change. The thing is, the parts were meticulously notated…a true paradox of care and remarkable laziness.

There is certainly much more to be said about percussion part-making! My hope is that a few of these suggestions will go a long way, and that my words combined with the Twitter posts will illuminate the (often hilarious!) variety of difficulties percussionists come across in our band parts. Godspeed, and good luck!

Playing My Hand: How I Learned to Trust My Composition Teacher

playing cards

Last week, I shared the story of my first year in graduate school as a composition major, and the many transitions I went through during that time, including discovering a new identity as a musician. This post is all about my second year of graduate school, and how I learned to trust my composition teacher and become a better teacher myself. But first: the summer!

I spent most of the summer between my first and second years alone, in the dorms, in my bathrobe, writing a song cycle and a band piece. I was broke, but I slept eight to ten hours a night with regularity. I walked on the beach of Lake Michigan on sunny days, visited family up north and friends in Chicago, took my time learning a lovely and very difficult vibraphone solo in order to premiere it, and watched a ton of movies with my wonderful and hilarious roommate (a fellow grad student in the music school). Overall it was a time of resting, and it went by really fast. I gained confidence in my ability to make it through this degree and graduate, all while still maintaining a professional career and applying to doctoral programs.

Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.

And yet, I wondered if my new composition teacher (my third teacher of the degree) would just try to make me sound like them, as a teacher during my first year had done. Being pushed to completely depart from my own voice had given me existential anxiety, and I was afraid I’d be asked to do that again, for my thesis. A few days before classes started, I happened across the professor who was supposed to be my main composition teacher for the year ahead, and he told me that he wasn’t taking on any new students and that I had been placed in another studio. When he told me who my new teacher would be, I was surprised and excited, and thought, “Great! I don’t really know him personally at all, but I do know based on his work that there are so many things I can learn from this man.” Taking the advice of a composer who had also gone back to school in her 30s, I registered and interviewed with the Accessibility Resources Center, to get time accommodations for the Theory Comprehensive Exams and discuss other possibly needed accommodations. I have a learning disability and mental illness, which is a great cocktail for extreme heartburn and anxiety during tests that determine whether I graduate or not, in subjects that are eye-bleedingly difficult for me. I figured having a history with the ARC would be helpful for my time in a doctoral program as well, where I will certainly be in several high-pressure test situations, and where I will encounter a lot of stress.

Once the school year started, I still played in band and percussion ensemble (but less), and I took conducting lessons on top of my very full class schedule, which included Digital Synthesis, Music History Seminar, a theory class, and lessons. I was busting my butt with college applications, I had a big trip to San Francisco coming up for a world premiere, doctoral applications were all due at the same time, I had a commission due, and I needed to keep knocking out my thesis. Four weeks into the semester, I got sick and disappeared for a week. I had to withdraw from History Seminar (it was the most stressful, busy-work class) for mental health reasons, which included filling out a bunch of papers.  The second semester was a breeze in comparison. My heart stopped cracking like a walnut every time I thought of teaching at my old college or heard from my students. I was ADJUSTING. My grad band staff comrades were lifesavers. We had an office all together: Percussion TA, Band Librarian, Conductor, Tech Guy, etc. We had a blast, partied together, and practiced together.

And I loved composition lessons with my new teacher. I was given some great advice from a mentor, which I kept in mind: “Keep your cards to your chest. Never let them see your whole hand.” I had plenty of practice doing this during my first year, so it was easy this time around.

There I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.

Right from the beginning, I could tell my teacher and I would get along: he was a drummer too, and had been everywhere and done everything. He was one of these modest people, where you keep opening doors with them and a thousand more doors are behind those. He was very fun and funny, enthusiastic, full of ideas, and our lessons went until somebody had to leave—sometimes two hours. I checked out my hand, laid down a single card…and nothing bad happened. We kept working on music, and I decided to write a percussion trio for my thesis. I laid down another card, and asked if he would write recommendation letters for my college applications. He said yes, so I sent him my C.V. and he read it. Something new clicked; it was like suddenly he “got” the amount and variety of experience I had had in music so far. Finally! Someone took the time to get to know me and my history. So I started to trust the guy. He came up with lists of music for me to listen to and scores to read and pieces to try out or exercises to do. He saw my strengths and weaknesses and helped develop both, pushing me the appropriate amount if I needed pushing, helping me expand my sound universe. My thesis started to come together! He came to some rehearsals of the piece and was incredibly supportive at my graduate composition recital. My lessons were the highlight of the week, all year long. So there I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.

Entering my master’s degree, it never crossed my mind that I would learn anything new about teaching. I had a good handle on being a teacher! It turns out there was still a lot to learn. Being back behind a student desk after eight years in front of the classroom was an eye-opener. I observed the hell out of each of my teachers. I understood everything the professors said from both a teacher’s perspective and from my own perspective as a student. The new percussion instructor became a friend, and I watched him handle the percussion studio extremely well, but in a very different way than I did when I was teaching. I had an analysis teacher who transformed material I was disinterested in into something incredibly interesting. Thinking back to when I was a teacher, I felt like this: a student’s enthusiasm is life, and a student’s apathy is death. So I did everything I could to create an atmosphere of challenging, joyful, fun learning. I knew a good teacher when I saw one. There were many here. There were also some who made the material, and the class, all about themselves. I gave unsolicited feedback to professors more than once, when I saw they were talking over the students and not listening to us. Perhaps this ruffled some feathers but I absolutely did not care, because I found out exactly how passionate I was about the joys of learning from a great teacher. It must be an enormous joy to watch a student’s music develop and blossom over time, and I discovered just how much I’d love to become someone’s composition teacher. Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.

Playing the Changes: The Transition from Professor to Student (My First Year as a Composition Major)

A photo taken of a person's legs in heans ad sneakers, holding a black backpack

Imagine you have a master’s degree in music performance from a long time ago and, alongside many exciting musical adventures since, you’ve taught at the college level for eight years (adjunct with full-time hours—you know the drill, you absolutely adore teaching and the students but the money is miserable). Looking at this situation, you … decide to quit teaching and go back to school across the country for a master’s degree in music composition!

It’s hard to imagine, right? You’d have to be completely bonkers to make that kind of a decision.

“I could never go back to school after teaching,” said many wonderful professors who used to be my colleagues.

So why did I do it?

Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012

Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012

I started writing music when I was 30, and by the age of 36, my composing career was soaring. I loved writing music just as much as I loved performing and teaching. I knew I would never be bumped up to full-time at my university, and even after eight years, my pay couldn’t go up because I only had a master’s degree. Despite working as a freelance percussionist, curating concerts, writing music, and teaching, I still was hardly making enough money to get by. I was wonderfully happy in the Atlanta music scene and had established amazing friendships there, especially with the members of my chamber rock band. I had developed a life there, but it was time to leave. I was ready to take a step down in order to take a step up. I had to do something to make a better and brighter future for myself. The goal was to earn a master’s in composition to get my skills up to par, and then continue on to a DMA in composition so I would have The Piece of Paper that would allow me to teach at a college again—at a higher salary level. It’s a completely risky endeavor with no guarantees, but it’s the choice I made. And I’m happy I did. I now hold a master’s degree in composition and will be starting a DMA in composition at the University of Miami next month. I’m looking forward to the journey, no matter where it takes me.

First, though, allow me to back up two years. There I was, beginning my first semester as a new student, living in the graduate dorms with roommates—two 21-year-old German exchange students, who were hilarious and noisy and wild. Right away I embraced everything about student life, and that part of college made me very happy. My classmates became my dear friends, even though most of my new friends were the age of the students I used to teach. I learned all the cool millennial slang words. I had FUN. I took free bus rides to Brewers games, ate tons of free pizza, played in percussion ensemble and band, taught part of an online music theory class, fixed bongos and organized the percussion studio, took classes in theory and analysis and writing, studied with two different composition faculty members, heard the University Band play one of my pieces, and wrote a ton of music—including my first piece with electronics in it. I was much more focused in my classes than I was during my first master’s degree; I wanted to soak up all the new knowledge and experience that I could. I remembered what it was like to be completely bored in class, and how invigorating it was to be in the classroom with an enthusiastic teacher who made the subject matter come alive.

UWM Band Rehearses Universe

UWM Band Rehearses …and then the Universe exploded

I juggled a professional composing career on top of everything. My assistantship was split in half; I was both a theory TA and the percussion TA. The percussion majors were kind to me from the very first day. They brought me right into the fold and never treated me like I was “old.” Everybody thought I was in my twenties, until I told them otherwise. They were fun, talented people, and playing music with them was a joy. The performance majors in general were absolutely delightful and played my music with enthusiasm. Some of these folks will be lifelong friends and musical collaborators.

So that’s some of the FUN STUFF, but here’s the kicker. The transition from professor to student, from mostly-performer to mostly-composer, from professional in my field to student in my field (while remaining a professional) was difficult and awkward that whole first year, and especially the first semester. Five months prior, my music professors would have been my colleagues. But once I started school, I would rarely be treated like a colleague again. A few of my professors took the time to talk with me early on, and learned about my background and treated me with respect, just as I treated them, and we have great relationships. I’m so thankful for them! But most professors saw that I played in band and assumed I was a new graduate percussion major. There was a lot of assuming.

My friends and mentors were lifesavers to me during this time. A few friends from Atlanta, who were passing through town at different times, came to visit me. I was recharging myself in Chicago once a month, taking composition lessons with one of my dearest friends and favorite composers. I brought him all the music I was writing professionally, outside of school. His joyful spirit and the fact that he loved my music really lifted me up. He introduced me to one of his composition students, who saved my sanity and became a very close friend. I wouldn’t have made it through that first year without the both of them.

I was accustomed to being loved, to being known and knowing others, in my old life. There was so much mutual admiration in the Atlanta music scene. I really tried to be graceful about existing in Milwaukee, a brand new space where most people didn’t know or care about my previous 15 years as a professional musician. “They’ll figure out I’m a pro percussionist by listening to me play,” I thought. “They’ll figure out I’m a legitimate composer once they hear my music.” Still, I confess that there were days when I wanted to wear a bright green t-shirt with flashing Christmas lights on it that said in red lettering I’M 37 AND I TAUGHT COLLEGE FOR EIGHT YEARS AND WAS CO-FOUNDER AND CO-DIRECTOR OF TWO CONTEMPORARY MUSIC FESTIVALS AMONG MANY OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS on the front and GO TO MY (SWEAR WORD) WEBSITE AND YOU’LL SEE MY MUSIC IS PERFORMED REGULARLY ALL OVER THE COUNTRY SO STOP TREATING ME LIKE I’M AN INEXPERIENCED 22 YEAR OLD on the back, but I didn’t. I felt incredibly childish about my inner reaction. I wanted to be cool about it, on the inside and the outside. Well-meaning friends said things to me like, “Your identity is no different. You’re just in a new environment.” Easy to say when you’re living in the same environment you’ve lived in for a decade or more. The truth is, the only other time I’ve had an identity shift that intense was when I got divorced. It was hard, and weird, and very isolating.

Yet there were so many good parts to the weirdness. After performing with only professionals for ages, I got to play in a college percussion ensemble again, which was wonderful fun and so much easier than directing a college percussion ensemble! All I had to do was learn my music and show up to rehearsal to play. In rehearsals, I learned to disengage (as best I could) from Teacher Mode. I instead just sat back and enjoyed playing music with my classmates. Since I knew I’d most likely only be in the city for two years, I chose not to get my feet wet in the Milwaukee music scene outside of school, but I met some area musicians who became friends. I desperately missed playing music with proper professionals, and that was difficult. I felt isolated from the performance faculty; I felt like they were my colleagues, but not many of them felt the same way. I learned to accept that I’d be playing less because I was composing more, and that I would probably lose some of my chops. I developed some extra long-term patience, figuring out that these two major transitions: professor to student, performer-composer to composer-performer, would take time. Thankfully I had another year of grad school ahead!