Tag: composing life

Learning to Embrace Community-Based Music-Making

I confess that right after I graduated from college four years ago, I was reluctant to join community groups as a way to both maintain and further my skills. In my mind, I planned to network, prepare auditions, and perform music primarily through gigs.

When I made the adjustment from being in school full-time to working a 9-to-5 plus teaching during evenings and weekends, I found that I was simply too tired to do much else.  I was aware of a few ensembles in a nearby town, but the thought of adding another commute to my arduous workweek disgusted me.

A year later, I moved into a studio about a half hour away in order to be closer to work. Much of my commuting time was eliminated, and now I was closer to the groups that I was already aware of. At the same time, I realized that in the year since I graduated, I had practiced and composed much less than I had wanted to, and few musical opportunities had materialized. Also, I felt as if I had made very few new friends, especially in music, and without frequent performance opportunities, there was little motivation for me to practice.

Joining an ensemble meant that I could get to know not just music but also people.

Reflecting on this made me put aside my ego and join the Redlands Community Orchestra that fall. The lazy part of me was reluctant to give up 2-3 hours every Sunday night for the greater part of the year. However, even greater than my laziness at the time was my excitement to have ongoing, regular rehearsals like I did while I was in school. Joining an ensemble meant that I could get to know not just music but also people over a long period of time. Since I wanted to learn how to better write for large ensembles, rehearsing with an orchestra on a regular basis would keep me aware of what compositional choices are effective for performers of varying abilities.

In my second season with the group, I took on the role of librarian for the orchestra. Since I had little previous experience in orchestra administration, I thought it would be a great way to acquire some hands-on training. Renting scores and parts has given me some insight into the way publishers work, which is helpful for me to know as an emerging composer. Preparing and organizing parts has also taught me more about the needs of the musicians throughout the orchestra.  As one who currently self-publishes her music, it made me realize that studying scores alone won’t give me examples of formatting and page turns, for example. I need to also review parts on occasion to learn what notational choices communicate best with various sections of the orchestra and make their jobs easier.

The bass section of the Redlands Community Orchestra

One aspect that I particularly enjoy about the RCO is that in the past three seasons, we have premiered several pieces by local composers. Because our ensemble is committed to providing free concerts to the public, it felt inspiring to know that people in the community who might have little previous knowledge of contemporary classical music could witness it live and hear composers speak about their work. Although many of the musicians are from different backgrounds, my impression is that most look forward to the opportunity to read through and vote on compositions from the call for scores as well as interact with the composer during rehearsals. The result is a production that educates not just the audience but also musicians whose backgrounds may not be in the conservatory.

People who might have little previous knowledge of contemporary classical music could witness it live and hear composers speak.

Now that I am nearing the end of my third season with the orchestra, I can say that my involvement in the group has led to a variety of other opportunities, both paid and volunteer. One highlight in particular was an opportunity to play in a local new music concert series started by a fellow composer and member of the orchestra.

If I had to go back in time to give advice to myself as a graduating senior, I would tell myself not to hesitate to make time to find at least one group to join right away. Though finding time to practice or compose in the midst of a busy schedule can be a struggle at times, even the tiniest blocks of time in which I choose to stay connected to my art would continue to uplift me and encourage me to pursue my aspirations even more.

Follow the Music

When the phone rang four years ago, I was asked if I would be interested in moving to Bangkok, Thailand to teach music theory and composition.  I said yes. It was one of those moments in life when one embraces the possibilities, even without knowing what will happen.  I can admit that, due to my patchy-at-best understanding of global geography, it was not too long after the phone call ended that I decided to look again, this time more carefully, at my map of the world to find out where exactly I was going before a celebratory trip to the bookstore.  Even though I did not know precisely where I was going, I had to honor the important rule of my life: follow the music.

Following the music had been the story of my life up to that point. Years before the phone rang, in the senior year of my undergraduate studies, this rule helped guide me through a decision to move my concentration away from voice (an area that had previously defined my musicianship) towards composition. While I was transitioning towards becoming a composer, it was tremendously unclear what would happen. I had invested so much time and attention into singing that composition really came to me as a surprise. Thankfully, I had a very supportive group of teachers in both voice and composition who encouraged and inspired the process.  Although it was difficult at the time, this change towards making music in a new-to-me way led to being able to learn more. In order to follow the music, I have moved more times than I can count—along a general path from my home in Texas through Michigan and then on to Bangkok. Through so many changes, music has always been what has held it all together.

Ironically, the steadiness and predictability I sought became available to me only through a great dislocation.

Before the phone call, I had been considering two things. One was the potential to enrich my composing by pursuing new experiences, and the other was my desire to teach and interact with musicians.  After finishing my degrees, I had been teaching private lessons and working a day job while I composed in my free time, but I found that much of my time was actually being used in the drives commuting back and forth from one area to another.  I enjoyed having writing time and teaching students, but did find the day job difficult.  The chance to work abroad would allow me to consolidate my work into one place. I liked the steadiness of the idea. I did not know at that point how long I would be interested in living there or how long I would even be able to last overseas, but a steady life was something I wanted for myself. Ironically, the steadiness and predictability I sought became available to me only through a great dislocation. As I packed my bags, I did feel scared to be leaving but was more excited about the possibilities that might come as a result.

A twilight view of Mahidol University.

With a time zone thirteen hours ahead of my home, the sprawling capital city of Thailand is strategically located on what, geographically and culturally, seems to be the other side of the Earth! Bangkok is an intense collage of colors, sights, and sounds. Downtown the whole city buzzes, temples glitter with mirrored tiles (even in the moonlight!), taxis and tuk-tuks line the street beside outdoor markets and cranes loom overhead. Food stalls are tightly packed with families and friends enjoying fresh meals. Boats chug and swoop along the Chao Praya River, the city’s oldest expressway. I had travelled quite frequently prior to moving to Thailand but had never stayed anywhere internationally longer than a week or two. Life as an expatriate is a completely different experience than just passing through as a tourist. Unlike a temporary visit, successfully living abroad requires a gradual and pragmatic approach towards adaptation. By investing my time and musicianship here, Bangkok has become my home.

Nevertheless, navigating this new terrain demanded focus and dedication. When I arrived, I did not even know how to greet people properly. During the course of my daily walks those first days, I waved and smiled back at every smile I received, something that I only know now was completely inappropriate. (My well-intended waves looked alarming. The smile was okay, though.) In the first weeks, the priorities were very basic: find a place to live, get a telephone, get a handle on what is happening with Wi-Fi, successfully get a taxi, try to go somewhere specific on purpose, see what happens. In the beginning, it took a great deal of patience to observe what needed to be learned and to follow through. Each day required a high level of attention and intention. Research done beforehand had warned of the possibilities of initially experiencing culture shock; this can happen when days (weeks and months) go by without the personal ability to complete a task with accuracy. I did not want this to happen to me.

Soon enough I met with other international colleagues at the College of Music at Mahidol University (where I would soon begin working) and listened carefully to a much-needed flood of instructions regarding the skills I would need to learn. The learning curve was quite steep at first.  When you are moving to a new country, it can be difficult to anticipate some of the side effects that can result from needing to re-learn how to do what in the past have been simple tasks. That said, gradually moving towards a more complete set of geographic and cultural navigation skills is very important. This process has been very revealing for me and is one of my favorite aspects of deciding to come here—I’m so glad I did. The joy that living here brings is something I had never experienced before either. Even though I was quick to pick up the hand technique for a proper wai greeting that normally accompanies a verbal hello, over these past years I’ve still been continuing to develop my wai, making sure to be mindful that my elbows don’t stick out so much.

A frieze of musician playing a baritone saxophone outside the Mahidol University music department.

My activities here are centered around music-making—something which has always felt like home to me.  As chair of the composition and theory department I interact with the creative and administrative aspects of musical teaching and development. My goal here is to make more space for composition and creativity for the next generation to enjoy. I teach a studio of composers as well as a wide variety of lecture courses ranging from music theory, orchestration, form and analysis, electronic music, and 20th century literature, as well as help organize new music events for young composers such as the Young Thai Artist Award and the Thailand International Composition Festival. Most of my free time is spent exploring Bangkok and the surrounding areas.  When I am not composing or teaching, I particularly enjoy walking through the city while I practice using my language skills to find local recommendations.  My favorite activities are touring the many street markets, taking photos, relaxing with a Thai massage and visiting the Buddhist temples in and around the area.

Following the music took me far away, but has also guided me towards the music I was called to discover.

Following the music took me far away, but has also guided me towards the music I was called to discover.  Taking a path open to possibility can lead to enriched depths of craftsmanship, creativity, comprehension, performance, and perspective in deeply meaningful ways. As I will discuss in later posts, the impact of living in the collage of sensations Bangkok has to offer has gradually come to influence my music. Similarly, my own process of learning and the growing awareness of how to cultivate development would come to inform how I approach teaching and learning. In the next article in this series, I will talk more about the variety of options available for musicians abroad, Thai traditional music, and the appetite for contemporary music within the region.

Judy Bozone

Judy Bozone’s music is as eclectic and vivid as the composer herself. She is currently chair of the composition and theory department at Mahidol University’s College of Music and enjoys following her love of music while reaching out for new experiences.

Composing and Motherhood

When I started composing, as an 18 year old in 1990, I knew of few women composers. Those I did know of either had their careers curtailed when they had kids (Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler, Ruth Crawford Seeger), or they didn’t have kids (Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, and the few women composers I knew personally). I thought I might want to have kids one day, and it was scary going into a field in which I knew no role models. But I needed to compose, and any possible kids were a long way off. Certainly I encountered occasional sexism as a student and young composer, but mostly I received great encouragement. My way of participating in the new music world was no different from that of my male contemporaries. I studied,[1] I went to music festivals, I lived abroad, I went to artist residencies, and most of all, I went to lots of concerts, met people, and talked about music late into the night, hatching plans for new musical projects and adventures. It’s 2017 and I’m now a mother myself (kids born in 2012 and 2015), and though my commitment to composing is as strong as ever, I’m starting to understand some of the ways that composers who are mothers intentionally and unintentionally get written out of new music.

Though not all women become mothers, all women may find themselves affected by anti-mother bias.

Though not all women become mothers, all women may find themselves affected by anti-mother bias. It’s still shockingly common to hear of women composers being passed over for positions because it is assumed that they’ll get married, have kids, and give up composing, or of mentors refusing to write letters of recommendation for female students until they know their reproductive plans. The difficulties associated with being a composer and a mother are, of course, compounded once children actually come into the picture! Finding enough time to compose while earning enough to pay for childcare—in such an underpaid field as composition—is impossible for many, and grants seldom come with funding for childcare. (I just applied for a grant in which the maximum allowable monthly subsistence rate is 30% less than we pay our babysitter per month.) Attending evening concerts—so important, both for musical nourishment and for networking—is difficult, and new music concerts are even more likely than others to start late at night. Residencies are often offered in increments of one month, a prohibitively long period of time for most mothers of young children. Of course these pressures affect parents of all genders, but mothers are more likely to need to remain in physical proximity to their child because of breastfeeding, more likely to be the primary caregiver, and more likely to feel cultural pressure, both internalized and external, to not be away from their kids.[2],[3]

A few years away from concerts and residencies might not be a problem if the new music world weren’t so focused on “young composers.”[4] Though young composer support schemes were initially developed to allow new voices to be heard, they have now become the norm, making it harder for older composers who are not already well-established to find a way in. The focus on young composers comes with an attendant assumption that if someone hasn’t “made it” by 35, they never will (despite the existence of such well-regarded late-blooming composers as Rameau, Scarlatti, Janáček, and Scelsi). Women who have kids in their late 20s or early 30s may miss out on the key years for participating in young composer programs, only to find that just as the kids are old enough for them to participate more fully, they are excluded on the basis of age.[5] Yet having children older doesn’t necessarily help either. The late 30s and early 40s are a notoriously difficult time for all composers – “young composer” support has dried up, while one isn’t yet considered an “established composer.”[6] Without kids, navigating this period can be difficult and require a renewed focus on developing ones career; with kids, the obstacles may seem insurmountable.

Women who have kids in their late 20s or early 30s may miss out on the key years for participating in young composer programs.

Even when there aren’t explicit age limits, the conditions of grants, calls for scores, and awards often make it hard to return to active composition after a period of slowed productivity. I recently found myself unable to apply for a grant because it required a piece relevant to my project proposal that I had written in the past two years. In the past few years I’ve finished a 45-minute chamber opera, a violin concerto, two chamber pieces, a scientific paper, a book chapter, taught both privately and at a college, started a new research position, and had a baby (in addition to parenting a preschooler), so I haven’t been lazy—but no, I don’t have a choral piece. There’s no inherent reason composers who are most continuously prolific should be considered most worthy. We recognize the importance of Varèse, Webern, and Ustvolskaya, whose output was small, and of Crawford Seeger, Knussen, and Donatoni, who had years when they didn’t compose. Yet composers who are steadily productive are most likely to receive grants and support.

On top of these structural problems, there’s the general tendency to dismiss moms as culturally irrelevant. “Mom jeans” are the quintessential anti-fashion, and The New York Times recently told us we should be worrying about “mom hair” too.[7] “Soccer moms” represent suburban blandness. “Explain it so your mom would understand” suggests moms are slow-witted. “Mom-approved” is safe, dull, and smug. “Even your mom would like it” describes inoffensive and insipid art. These comments are said jokingly (even by moms themselves), but hearing this language over and over again predisposes us to think of cultural contributions by mothers to be unimportant. Perhaps it’s worse than unimportant: the underlying message is that “mom” stands in direct opposition to art that is incisive, interesting, and meaningful.

There’s no inherent reason composers who are most continuously prolific should be considered most worthy.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are lots of steps we can all take so that motherhood doesn’t become a barrier to active participation in the new music world. In visual arts, writing, and theater, there are already some great initiatives to be more inclusive of mothers (and of parents generally),[8] but in composition we are farther behind, perhaps because women are already such a minority, and our position can feel so precarious. Here I propose a number of measures that can be taken in order to be more inclusive. Some are easy to incorporate, others more complex. Not all are practical for every situation, but it is not necessary that everything be done in the same way, or even that every event or opportunity be mother-friendly. We simply need a variety of ways to engage with the new music world that reflects the diversity of people interested in creating, performing, and listening to new music.

MOTHER by EngTay (a woman seated at a piano playing music and being hugged by her child.) Image by Beth Scupham

MOTHER by EngTay. Image by Beth Scupham via Flickr

If you present concerts, consider:

• Having some daytime new music concerts – not just greatest-hits programming, but with the same programs as evening concerts.
• Performing programs in both a standard, quiet concert context, and in a more noise- and wiggle-friendly context.
• Providing childcare.
• Having concerts in explicitly family-friendly locations, with conveniences such as change tables in the washrooms, “breastfeeding welcome” signs, and an area where someone could entertain children outside of the concert space.
• Performing in non-traditional venues which are more accessible to families.
• Including the timing of pieces in the program, so audience members can choose to come in or leave for one piece.
• Letting people know which concerts they could bring a baby to and stand at the back and leave if the baby starts to fuss, vs. which concerts would be disrupted if someone stepped out. (Perhaps there could be a child-friendly rating system?)
• Having intermissions long enough to feed a baby or pump milk
• Letting the audience know when the intermission will be in case someone needs to arrange to have a baby brought to them at a specific time.
• Having post-concert dinners and receptions in baby-friendly locations (e.g. in pubs or restaurants that allow children).
• Making the dress rehearsal like a performance, and open to families.
• Reserving seats in the back, the balcony, or boxes for people who may need to step in and out.

If you organize residencies, consider:

• Allowing people to attend residencies for shorter periods of time – perhaps in one week increments, or even for just a few days at a time.
• Allowing the possibility of coming back for several short residency periods rather than one long one.
• Allowing families to stay at residencies.
• Providing childcare. This could be provided on-site, or perhaps the residency could team up with nearby summer camps.
• Providing stipends for babysitters, either at the residency, or to help with the costs of leaving children at home with other family members or friends.
• Reserving some spots specifically for people who are using the residency to refocus on their work after some time away.

If you run a funding organization or hold a call for scores, consider:

• Not seeing gaps in a resume as an inherent negative, and/or giving people the opportunity to account for gaps.
• Eliminating age restrictions. (Experience restrictions – e.g. limiting a grant/award/performance to someone who is still studying, or hasn’t had any performances by major ensembles – can be a more equitable way of allowing new voices to be heard.)
• Searching for under-heard voices, including but not limited to young voices.
• Giving grants specifically to people who are returning to composing after a gap. (Re-emerging composer awards?)
• Eliminating or lengthening time limits for the composition dates of pieces, or giving the applicant the opportunity to explain if they don’t have a relevant piece that has been composed recently enough.
• Including stipends to pay for babysitters as an eligible expense. (Ideally these should be granted once the award is already decided, so the additional expense is not held against the applicant).
• Accepting high-quality computer generated sound files, since returning composers may not have access to good performances.
• Explicitly recognizing the need for support after gaps, rather than consciously or unconsciously writing off composers who have taken time away.

All of us in the new music community, consider:

• Asking parents of all genders about their work AND about their children. (Don’t just ask men about their work, and just ask women about their children. This still happens way too often!)
• Continuing to invite your parent friends to do things – to attend concerts, to write pieces. Let them tell you if now isn’t the right time – they’ll appreciate being asked!
• Writing pieces that can accommodate audiences which include families.
• Asking about (and creating) provisions for children and families, whether or not you are a mother (or even a parent). Especially in fields which are still male dominated, like composition, it would be nice if the people with more social power were advocating for change in the direction of family-friendliness!
• Lobbying for increased support for parents, including paid maternity leave and subsidized high-quality childcare.
• Lobbying for fair pay for artists.

Even if these changes would only help mothers, that would be reason enough to make them. But in fact they will help many participate more actively in the new music world: fathers, caregivers of all sorts, composers who have taken time out for any reason, and composers with any sort of non-traditional career trajectory. Even composers with a more traditional trajectory may appreciate having more options for how they can participate in new music, without feeling like if they take some time off or try something differently they will lose their career. Some of these ideas may even help the music itself, as we come up with new solutions and find ways to facilitate the expression of new kinds of voices and ideas.

More than any specific structural change we can make, however, I’d suggest that the most important thing we can do is move away from seeing motherhood as something inherently “negative for” or “in competition with” the creation of music. The difficulties are obvious: increased time pressure, lack of sleep, fragmented concentration, added expense. But parenthood also offers an amazing chance for a change of perspective, the development of new skills, and a refocusing on what is most important.

Can the selflessness developed during late nights with sleepless babies help us put self aside as we follow our music in unexpected directions? Might learning to trust in the process even when the immediate results are unclear—as we do when gently modeling behavior we want but don’t yet see in our toddlers—help us trust the process in writing music at the boundaries of what we can imagine? Do the communication skills learned in speaking gently, patiently, and lovingly with our kids (even when we’re feeling the exact opposite) help in difficult rehearsal situations? Can time away be seen as offering a valuable change of perspective, rather than only as a distraction or obstacle to composition? Can increased demands on our time encourage us to prioritize, and make room for the projects that are most important to us? If we decide to create child-friendly art, could the limitations imposed by trying to make music that is impervious to interruptions or that takes place in flexible child-friendly venues open our minds to new kinds of musical ideas? Might struggling to maintain the place of music in our lives lead us to value it even more?

There are as many ways of being a composer as there are people committed to the world of new music.

Of course I don’t mean to suggest that one needs to be a mother (or parent) to experience growth and development as a composer! But I do suggest that there are as many ways of being a composer as there are people committed to the world of new music. Let’s value the many, varied paths people follow, and instead of intentionally or unintentionally keeping people out, think of how we can make room for all who want to contribute.[9]

1. This was back in the day when tuition was cheap and scholarships were more widely available: I know that even this step is unavailable to many now.

2. Ellen McSweeney has also written about these difficulties from a performer’s perspective.

3. Of course, not all birth-giving parents identify as women or mothers, not all mothers have given birth, not all birth-giving mothers breastfeed, and not all primary caregivers are mothers or women. But I do think there is a specific way that the challenges of being a female composer in a still male-dominated field interact with the challenges of being a parent and an artist. I write from my own experience, but recognize that there are many other ways that being a composer and becoming a parent may interact.

4. See Bill Doerrfeld, “Ageism in Composer Opportunities” (NewMusicBox, published June 5, 2013).

5. Mothers aren’t the only composers negatively affected by age limits. A removal of age limits would help anyone with a less traditional trajectory.

6. Aaron Gervais has some great reflections on making the transition out of being a young composer.

7. See Bee Shapiro, “Have ‘Mom Hair’? Here’s How to Fix It” (The New York Times, published June 21, 2016).

8. Parents in the Performing Arts and The Sustainable Arts Foundation are two such initiatives.

9. The author would like to thank Kala Pierson for discussions which led to this article

Emily Doolittle

Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, composer Emily Doolittle was educated at Dalhousie University, Indiana University, the Koninklijk Conservatorium, and Princeton. From 2008-2015 she was on the faculty of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. She now lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where she is an Athenaeum Research Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Doolittle has been commissioned by such ensembles as Orchestre Métropolitain, Tafelmusik, Symphony Nova Scotia, the Paragon Ensemble, and Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal, and supported by the Sorel Organization, the Hinrichsen Foundation, Opera America, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Fulbright Foundation, among others. Her chamber music CD all spring was released on the Naxos distributed Composers Concordance Label in 2015.