Tag: mentoring

Empowering Teenagers to Compose: A Guide for Educators

A pen and a notebook with handwritten notes, a CD and a smartphone with a display of a video of music performance overlayed with the New Music Toolbox logo

Although K-12 music standards call for students to develop skills in composition, I often hear educators express that they feel ill-equipped to support their students in this endeavor. Many music teachers do not get trained on how to facilitate composition projects in the classroom, and their own experience with composing can be quite limited if their studies placed an emphasis on performance. As a result, instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

Though these assignments can serve a purpose, they often do little to develop a young musician’s creativity, and at times, they can even stifle students’ artistry by implying that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to compose. Instead, students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development. This is especially crucial in music programs where many students’ only access to formal music instruction is in the classroom, where their studies are typically not as individualized as they would be in a private lesson setting.

This article is a collection of actionable tips primarily from my own experience as a composer-educator and founder of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop. These strategies can be adapted to group or private lesson settings and don’t require that educators have extensive background in composition. Though these approaches are geared towards middle and high school students, many of these tips can be adapted to create lessons for students of different age groups.

Cultivate a practice of observation and discussion.

Eric Booth, in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, advises that we need to guide students in practicing observation before defaulting to interpretation or judgment – a discipline that we also need to cultivate in our own practice.1 This approach enables students to learn a great deal from the music that they listen to, yet it also gives them an ability to ask insightful questions of themselves while they are in the process of realizing their own ideas.

If a student listens to a new piece and responds with “This piece makes me feel as if I am watching a cartoon,” giving a follow up question such as “What about the music reminds you of watching a cartoon?” can help them to return their focus to aspects such as the instrumentation or texture of the piece.

When we model questions that focus on observation, this empowers students to practice asking themselves more insightful questions during the composition process. For instance, a student who is dissatisfied with how their melody resolves can ask themselves, “What about this melody makes it sound incomplete?” However, if they immediately judge the melody as something that is “no good,” they will likely abandon their original ideas, and the opportunity to learn from their experiences will be missed.

Even if the student ultimately decides to scrap their composition and start over, taking a moment to pause and observe what they have created so far can give them the insight needed to accomplish what they set out to write the next time around.

Focus on one element of music at a time.

In the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, one of our topics during the first week of classes is a lesson on the elements of music. When we give students the vocabulary to talk about elements such as rhythm, pitch, and texture, they become better equipped to make observations about the music that they are listening to. That way, they are less dependent on interpretations and judgment.

Even if students are having trouble finding the right terminology to use in the midst of a discussion, it can be helpful to invite them to describe what they are observing to the best of their abilities without having to utilize the proper musical term right away. The vocabulary can always be taught later, and the students’ findings can be great ways to open up conversations around new terminology.

Aside from listening exercises, composition projects that focus on a singular element of music are great for narrowing the scope of a lesson while allowing plenty of room for creativity. For example, I’ve often used the Sonic Scavenger Hunt by composer-educator Danny Clay as a starting point for students to explore the concept of timbre.

Experiment with many approaches to composition.

When students can try their hand at a variety of approaches to composing, they will eventually choose a writing process that is most inspiring to them. Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece. They may even decide to change their approach based on the result that they are trying to accomplish in a given project.

Though a new approach may be uncomfortable at first, sometimes, students can actually be inspired in unexpected ways. I’ve taught workshops where students work together to compose chance music; however, I always tell them that even if they set up a system for choosing the notes, they are always free to break their own rules and edit the piece if they are dissatisfied with the result.

After using a die, a coin, or a picker wheel to determine certain elements of a piece, often, they will become quite opinionated about which notes to change and why they are changing them–another great opportunity for conversation.

Bringing in guest composers to teach a class (either in-person or virtually) or finding videos of composers talking about their creative process can motivate students to try something new. Though some students may initially feel that processes such as rolling a die or turning their name into musical notes are not legitimate ways to write music, when they discover that there are many established composers who have created masterpieces with similar strategies, they will feel validated in their own creative process.

Many of the reasons for introducing a variety of approaches to composition also apply to experimenting with different styles of notation. Another great aspect of Danny Clay’s Sonic Scavenger Hunt is that it is a great example of a graphic score – a concept that is fit for beginners and more experienced students alike.

Students can also explore projects that don’t require any notation, such as composing a fixed media piece in a program like Audacity. Young composers tend to fixate on pitches and rhythms, but these alternatives to traditional notation can be useful exercises in developing elements such as timbre, texture, and dynamics when students might not have focused on them before.

Use technology to your advantage…

Even simpler apps, such as voice notes or a video camera that’s included with a mobile device, can be useful tools for composing. When I teach composition, I often encourage students to record their ideas as they go. That way, they don’t have to worry about forgetting concepts that they are experimenting with – a strategy that I often use in my own work before I begin to notate my ideas. Documenting the composition process can also enable students to better reflect on their experiences since it will be easier to see how the piece evolves over time.

Aside from being a way to introduce students to other artists and composers, watching and discussing videos of performances, interviews, and demonstrations can be a great way for students to witness how sounds can be created in innovative ways. For instance this performance of Zaka by Jennifer Higdon has been a great conversation starter amongst my students since it demonstrates the concept of extended techniques. Additionally, this profile of Angélica Negrón has piqued my students’ curiosity about electronic music and found sounds.

…but be mindful of where technology has its limits. 

At times, introducing certain technology too early in our students’ development can encourage them to “color inside the lines” in unintended ways. I have often seen this happen to students who begin to use notation software long before they have started to get comfortable demonstrating their ideas on an instrument or writing sketches by hand, however imperfect these methods may be at first.

In a lot of notation software, such as Noteflight, MuseScore, or Sibelius, to name a few, users are asked to specify parameters such as the meter and key signature before they begin to enter the piece itself. Changing these options later on can become a barrier if students aren’t aware of how to work around these limitations or if they are not aware that their tools are imposing such limitations in the first place. This often results in melodies and rhythms that sound too “square” and pieces that can become too redundant.

One way that I counteract this is by encouraging students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities.

For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

Some verbal and graphic notes for a musical composition that can be used instead of music notation

Save the theory assessments for another time.

When composition projects are primarily intended to examine whether your students can write an eight-bar melody in D Major, for example, they are much more likely to become fixated on whether they are choosing the “right” notes and pleasing their teacher. Instead, opt for open-ended projects that enable students to explore and define their musical tastes.

Students who feel empowered to envision and realize their own ideas will gain a sense of confidence that can be applied to any profession whether they choose to continue in their musical development or move on to other endeavors. On the other hand, if they feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

Alice Kanack, the pioneer of Creative Ability Development, has a very helpful formula to refer to when structuring creative exercises for students:

Freedom of choice or Freedom from criticism + Disciplined practice and repetition of making choices = Creative Ability2

Whether I am teaching composition in my own studio or I am visiting another teacher’s class to do a workshop, I’ve found it much more empowering to encourage students to express their intentions and their artistic vision so that we can explore how they might accomplish what they intended. This is another reason why lessons that incorporate plenty of time for discussion and reflection are so important.

Embrace imperfection.

As educators, we can enable students to take creative risks and break free of a fixation on choosing “right” versus “wrong” notes by creating multiple opportunities for them to share works-in-progress. Often, I will set a short timer (e.g. 5-10 minutes) for students to respond to a prompt that is very narrow in scope. Then, they will have an opportunity to share what they came up with and express their intentions for their work as they go forward.

Even though there will often be at least one student who is too shy to share their unfinished works, I’ve found that simply inviting them to reflect on what the experience of composing was like can gain their trust. More often than not, they ultimately decide to present the music itself.

That being said, it is crucial to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable in this way, especially if they are in a group setting with their peers. All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few. This goes for all parties involved — their peers, their teachers, and even parents or guardians who are supporting them in their studies.3

Because of this, modeling what it’s like to embrace imperfection can be a powerful tool. When I give students an opportunity to work independently during class, I will often use the time to compose ideas for the same prompt and demonstrate what it’s like to share my own imperfect, unfinished work. This includes verbalizing my thoughts on how I feel about the creation at the moment. Whether I am excited about moving forward with my ideas or I feel ambivalent and want to scrap them, I make a habit of sharing these reflections with my students so that they can feel safe to do so as well.

Connect lessons to real-world experiences.

Introducing our students to living composers, whether it is via a live workshop or through pre-recorded media, can illustrate the many ways in which a career in music can take shape.

This can easily become a starting point for activities that give students a taste of what the music profession can be like. For instance, prompts such as writing a short solo for a classmate to perform can give students a glimpse into the process of writing a commission.

As part of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, Samantha Hogan, has visited our class to share excerpts from her concert works as well as selections that she wrote for games and film. After her presentation, she facilitated a lesson in which the students created music to portray characters from I Wish I Were A Butterfly, a children’s book by James Howe. This kind of activity is a great way to introduce students to the idea of telling stories with music.

Aside from empowering students to make creative choices in the music itself, encouraging students to assist in the production of their work can give them confidence to initiate their own projects later on. Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today’s world.

One of Sakari's online composition lessons.


As you begin to apply these practices, my hope is that you will feel more confident to share the art of music composition with your students, even if you have little formal training in composition or you do not identify as a composer. Though an emphasis on observation and experimentation will take much more time than prompting students to “color inside the lines,” approaching the study of composition in this manner will offer more enriching opportunities for us to learn alongside our students, inviting them to take risks and explore new territories in their creative practice.


  1. Eric Booth, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 33.
  2. Alice Kay Kanack, Fun Improvisation for Violin: The Philosophy and Method of Creative Ability Development (USA: Summy-Birchard Music, 1996), 15.
  3. Kanack, 20.


Terri Lyne Carrington: A World of Sound Waiting for Us

Terri Lyne Carrington behind a drum set.

NEA Jazz master and three-time Grammy Award-winner Terri Lyne Carrington was practically born into music. Her father was a saxophonist and her mother played piano. Plus her grandfather, who died before she born, was a drummer who played with Fats Waller and Chu Berry among others. In fact, his drum set was the first set Terri Lyne played on at age 7.  Being raised in such an environment gave her access to just about everyone in the scene and at the age of 10 she was already performing on stage with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, in the process become the youngest person ever to be issued a union card in Boston!

But that doesn’t mean that Terri Lyne Carrington is a hardcore jazz traditionalist. Growing up, she listened to everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to Michael Jackson, and that music ultimately also seeped into her own vocabulary.

“People can’t just tell you to choose,” Terri Lyne says during our conversation over Zoom on a Sunday afternoon in later October. “It’s all part of my experience.”

Not choosing, or rather choosing everything, makes Terri Lyne’s own musical language extremely expansive. By embracing elements from rock, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop into her own compositions (as well as occasionally interpreting more recent popular songs with the same level of creativity that characterizes the most exciting jazz renditions of classic standards), she is making music that is very much about the present moment and it is extremely vital. However, at its core, she still thinks of her music as an extension of musical practices that go back many generations.

“There’s a historical and cultural context that the music was born from, and that has to be acknowledged as well,” she explains.

Also, either through including singers and lyrics or pre-recorded samples of spoken texts, her music frequently contains pointed social messages. Some of the songs on Waiting Game, the most recent album she recorded with her band Social Science, such as “Trapped in the American Dream,” “Pray The Gay Away,” or “No Justice (for Political Prisoners)” are a powerful soundtrack to our extremely complex and fractured zeitgeist. But none of them offer simple solutions.

“People are going to come to any of these issues differently,” she realizes. “They’re going to come in there wherever they are at the time, and so it leaves a bit more of an open door, an open palette for people to discover maybe what they need at the moment. I don’t know if it’s about changing minds, because most people that are hateful may be a little difficult to change. If you’re just ignorant, then it might be easier to educate, with satire and the hook.”

One of the things that Terri Lyne hopes to change is the gender imbalance among jazz instrumentalists, why is why she founded the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice and has now partnered with New Music USA to create the Next Jazz Legacy program.

“There’s always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support,” she says. “Young women and, of course, also the transgender and non-binary community, people on the margins of what’s been normal in jazz, don’t have as many opportunities; that’s just the way it is. … There’s a world of sound waiting for us that hasn’t necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming.”

Multiple Voices: Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³)

The twelve participating musicians in the M3 initiative during a Zoom meeting.

[Updated December 14, 2020] On December 6 and 12, two concerts from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem presented over Zoom, both at 7:00 EST, offered listeners their first opportunity to hear six world premieres that are the result of a new initiative called Mutual Mentorship for Musicians, M³ for short. The two concerts were hosted by M³ “Editor in Chief” Jordannah Elizabeth, who also guided post premiere Q&As with the audience. M³ is a revolutionary new model for mentorship which was created by co-founders Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa in March and launched in June 2020 at the height of the pandemic. The founders describe M³ as “a think tank for new ways to connect, collaborate, support, create, and empower womxn musicians worldwide including BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+, and musicians of all abilities across generations.” To celebrate these first two concerts of this new initiative, we asked the twelve initial participating musicians about why they decided to participate in this opportunity and how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. New Music USA is funding the next round of M³ collaborations. – FJO

The twelve initial participants in M³ are:
Romarna Campbell
Caroline Davis
Eden Girma
Val Jeanty
Maya Keren
Erica Lindsay
Lesley Mok
Tomeka Reid
Sara Serpa
Jen Shyu
Anjna Swaminathan
Sumi Tonooka

Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³) World Premieres: Duo Concerts & Conversations Pt.1

Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³) World Premieres: Duo Concerts & Conversations Pt.2

Romarna Campbell playing a drum set

Romarna Campbell (photo by Peter R. Fischer)

Romarna Campbell

On New Year’s Eve 2019, I remember being excited for 2020 and making all the 2020 puns I could; it was the year of 20/20 vision. In my opinion 2019 had been a pretty rough year and I was excited to start afresh, so to speak. By mid-March of this year all the optimism had completely dissipated. From the moment I landed back in the UK to quarantine, it just seemed to go from bad to worse. And in the middle of this, I was being forced to learn some hard truths myself, personally and artistically. How do I interact with my friends and peers? How can I offer support when I felt like this is a time that I’ve probably needed the most support? How do I create without being surrounded by immensely creative beings? How do I collaborate? Is music even important anymore?

It was in the midst of this doubt and fear that Jen contacted me about M³ and it felt like this little beam of excitement and happiness. Yet, I could never have envisioned what M³ would really do for me. I remember tentatively turning up for the first meeting via Zoom and instantly I experienced complete warmth and honesty from everybody and felt inspired. I wanted to play again. I wanted to write again. Music became important again. Although we have had to conduct the whole process via Zoom, with a 5-hour time difference and the lag or cameras not working properly and being entirely at the mercy of technology, music and this community that has been created prevailed over all of these obstacles.

Caroline Davis standing in front of shrubbery

Caroline Davis (photo by Alex Free)

Caroline Davis

Some are born into tribes, but the creative process of re-defining ourselves places us in new ones. This year has presented some pretty severe obstacles—the pandemic, the persisting face of race, gender, and class biases, the political climate, the encroaching climate crisis. All seem to divide us into factions while at the same time allowing us to connect with individuals who are ready and willing to fight for the cause.

The initiative dreamed up by Jen and Sara has gifted me safe spaces with which to unpack all of these obstacles and more. The group space gives perspective, while the smaller meetings have opened intimate ways of interpreting and designing poetry, melody, and video production, through sending messages, phone calls, and meetings on Zoom. With each passing meeting, my mind sees how each of us would handle situations differently, leaving me confident to approach my creative and professional endeavors with more vigor. The creations haven’t felt prescribed or scheduled in any sense; rather, they are journeys that we are all on in this tribe, which, in the end will emerge most naturally.

Eden Girma standing outside

Eden Girma (photo by Maeve Moayedi)

Eden Girma

Why say yes to M³? There is the easy answer of how could I possibly refuse any opportunity to work with the brilliant Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa? But also, I think I responded instinctively from a yearning for a holistic musical community, one that certainly predated the pandemic, and was only intensified through it.

Particularly, there seem to be so few models for intergenerational artistic communion; I’ve spoken with many friends who are also aspiring artists, and who have shared such deep desires for something akin to mentorship or apprenticeship. There is so much about the artistic landscape and industry that is utterly nebulous, especially for those (like myself) who do not come from artistic families or see themselves, their background, represented meaningfully. In the midst of cacophony and silencing discrimination, how does one find their voice? How does one survive, when attempting to employ their voice for artistic meaning and financial security? How, through our artistic practice, might we carry forward the legacy of those who fought, died, for a more just and equitable world? There is no handbook, no well-worn path, only the stories and experiences of those before us to gather any idea. So, this was one way in which M³ really struck me: as an avenue for such needed dialogue between youth and elders. To be honored with the presence and insights of such powerful and resilient women—and to also have my own perspectives celebrated and valued as something of worth—is indescribably enriching.

How is this program affecting my practice? I think, if anything, to have this vibrant community in my life right now has invigorated so much of my spirit. Given the bleakness of this time, frankly it has felt life-saving. I can perceive the growth, shifts of relationships with others and also with myself, due to the space we are creating now. What is evolving due to this program is a collective awareness and compassion and confidence that invariably influences my work by way of influencing my deeper self. And I believe that the interpersonal and internal changes occurring now will affect my practice for years to follow.

Val Jeanty holding drumsticks and sitting on a wooden floor near a window surrounded by large drums

Val Jeanty (photo by Richard Louissant)

Val Jeanty

As a collaborator/artist, working with “Women” has always been a major goal of mine.
This creative collaboration/ mentorship has been such a blessing during these intense and uncertain times. It’s a great source of inspiration and support, and it connects me to women that I’ve always wanted to collaborate with.

Maya Keren outside among greenery near a large yellow flower.

Maya Keren (photo by Lilly Dupuis)

Maya Keren

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how deep, structural change actually comes about. In moments like this one it’s easy to see change as something that is sparked spontaneously from the heat of a charged moment. But looking further, we find that social change comes about from a lineage of resistance—from decades of folks fighting not just for survival but for the right to live beautiful lives.

I’ve been reflecting on several linked movements—the fight against white supremacy, especially by radical Black feminists, the queer liberation movement, the development of creative improvised music—and how these movements all required groups of people who trusted each other to come together and create their own momentum outside of the systems that oppressed them. For me, Mutual Mentorship for Musicians feels like a continuation of this tradition. We are this little underground intergenerational family giving each other love and support to bolster ourselves against a society that leaves very little space for the voices of non-cis-male, queer and BIPOC artists. Our group completely reconstructs the foundations of our musical ecosystem; it imagines a community free from patriarchal, capitalistic, and white supremacist ideals and presents one based upon vulnerability, communal support, and compassion. And M3 does this while also meeting the current moment; over Zoom we have tuned in from Portugal, the UK, and all over the US.

The current limitations have challenged us to create new forms of community-building and art-making that take advantage of the digital format, from using the Zoom chat function to hype each other up to combining exquisite-corpse style audio recording with film editing for our joint projects. I’m so excited to continue this model of artistic collaboration and mentorship and I truly believe structures like these will create profound systemic change in our musical community and beyond.

Erica Lindsay sitting in front of a piano

Erica Lindsay (photo by Paul Tsang)

Erica Lindsay

The aspect of this initiative that I was not expecting, but feel so grateful for, is the intergenerational energy generated from our talks and sharing of perspectives. It is fertile ground for synergist transformations. It also has been a great experience to have the opportunity to collaborate with other artists that one might not have had the chance to do so otherwise, and to become more familiar with a whole new generation of amazing musicians and composers who have a strong and unique voice to contribute to the music.

Thank you Jen and Sara for spearheading the development of this creative community. I envision it expanding and growing stronger through the years. We need new spaces, new visions, new methods to communicate with and to support each other. If there was ever a time for transformation of the arts, the business, the culture, it is now. The breaking down of the normal, that this pandemic has created, let it become a crack that a new reality can be born through.

Lesley Mok against a white background

Lesley Mok (photo by Luke Marantz)

Lesley Mok

Black American Music, and the creative music it has informed, is inherently political. In a time where white supremacy, corporatization, and militant fascism seem to undermine the core values of our existence, it’s crucial we ask ourselves: how can the music, the process of collaboration, and the spaces we work within, actually reflect the times we’re living in?

History has shown us the capacity for change when we create spaces that reflect the diversity of our creative ecosystem. Groups like the AACM, the Black Artists’ Group, and the Pan-African Peoples Arkestra have focused on building community and social consciousness, and have done so outside of existing corporate structures. To me, M3 is an extension of this work, bringing together BIPOC womxn to foster support, love, and growth through adventurous music-making.

M3 has allowed me the space to be truthful and vulnerable in an otherwise white, male-dominated, cis-heteronormative space. I’m grateful to Jen and Sara and all my fellow M3-ers for nurturing this space, and for allowing the fullest expression of ourselves.

I’m reminded of this quote by Joshua Briond: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but rather individuals and classes repeat history.” Mary Lou Williams, Abbey Lincoln, Nicole Mitchell, Susie Ibarra, Amina Claudine Myers, Terri Lyne Carrington, Fay Victor, Matana Roberts… and all those who’ve illuminated the way, thank you…The fight for liberation continues!

Tomeka Reid playing the cello

Tomeka Reid (photo by Joel Wanek)

Tomeka Reid

When I was asked to be a part of this group, I was initially on the fence. While I was concerned about my gigs disappearing for what I realized at that point would be the rest of the year and into 2021, I also felt that there was a kind of pressure to still do, to be active…so many wonderful organizations were shifting quickly to create much needed lifelines for the artist community but honestly all I wanted to do was just be and process all that was and had been happening so quickly!

Over the years, I think I have felt a kind of exhaustion of always having to adapt to some new (mostly digital) change or update and I felt like, while the moment was indeed financially challenging, this might be the moment and rare opportunity that forces all of us to just slow down, reflect, reevaluate. To just simply stop. Is it okay to just not do for a while? Thus, I was weary to commit to something, especially something that I knew would be conducted expressly online and that would require an online performance as well. I was still very much resisting that reality, lol!

But Jen and Sara curated a wonderful cast of intergenerational womxn artists and I have really enjoyed sharing and getting to know them all, some of whom I have met prior to COVID life and others whom it will be exciting to meet in person someday! It’s been a great space to hear how others are managing in this current climate. Everyone is extremely supportive of where everyone is at this current moment. It’s been a welcome positive space to be a part of in this moment that has felt so fragile, confusing and disillusioning. I am grateful that this space has been created for us to just be.

Sara Serpa sitting with her left hand on the side of her face.

Sara Serpa (photo by Heather Sten)

Sara Serpa

It has always interested me how we, as artists, can create alternative structures that connect us as opposed to alienate/divide us, where the artist is free and does not have to conform or compete in order to be successful. This mutual and intergenerational mentorship initiative proposes the idea that we all learn from each other, instead of the original top-down mentorship structure. The absence of the traditional hierarchical system is liberating, and has allowed me for a personal transformation that initially was subtle. Now, as time goes by, this seed is growing and expanding to all relationships I nurture. The meetings have opened my mind to different ways of interacting with my peers: supportive instead of competitive, honest instead of performative, transforming instead of conforming.

I didn’t have this kind of support when I was growing and studying to be a musician, and just the fact that is right happening now, when we are all forced out of work and the world seems to be falling apart, has helped me going through the uncertainty of the moment. Zoom has limitations. Nothing can replace the act of being/ playing/ listening together in a room. However, each meeting is invigorating and inspiring and shows me that we are all more connected than I initially thought.

I feel incredibly fortunate for being able to communicate and interact with this group of womxn on a regular basis. I don’t want it to end in December! Each time we meet is different – the honesty, creativity and vulnerability each one of us brings into our projects or meetings stays with me during the periods we don’t meet, inspiring me to use different approaches to challenges that seem to always exist no matter the generation we belong to. The fact that each artist has such a unique and original way of expression makes me dream about the possibilities of expanding these kinds of dialogues to as many artists as possible. I am beyond grateful for this work and to be doing it with Jen—a work in progress of imagining, restructuring, discussing and hopefully transforming our artistic landscape, in which kindness, generosity and respect prevail.

Jen Shyu with her hair in front of part of her face and a guzheng (classical Chinese zitrher) leaning against her right shoulder.

Jen Shyu (photo by Daniel Reichert)

Jen Shyu

The night after our eighth M³ meeting, I dreamt that one of my students taught me a very specific way to move my hands and legs that would enable me to fly up the stairs without ever having to step down. The infinitely linked staircases in the dream hung in the air like in an M.C. Escher drawing. The room was hardly a room, but rather a greenhouse full of sunlight with no walls. Perhaps it was so big that I didn’t feel the walls around me.

I woke up. The dream still fresh in my half-sleeping body, I tried out the hand and leg movements in my kitchen, which will surely become new movements in a new dance. This process is a metaphor for what these M³ meetings have meant to me, whether in our full cohort of 12 or in our smaller groupings. We’ve been exercising our vision-building and integrating that envisioning into our everyday lives. Personally, I’ve infused those dream states into my reality not only as an artist, but as a human being and a citizen of the world. I’ve learned from each cohort member how I can better do this, from how each artist speaks, lives their art, articulates their ideas so clearly, and creates such profound work. The issues and situations that we have talked about, all happening in real time, have continually moved me and shaped my psyche. These are issues I rarely discussed openly on such a deep level with other womxn artists when I was in my 20s or 30s. Those conversations usually happened one-on-one and rather secretly, in the context of male leadership or in relationship to men, as I usually found myself as the only woman or one of two women in any given musical setting.

My concept of “mentor” has also changed. I have many mentors, most who influenced me in life-changing ways, but also some who placed their limitations on me, telling me I couldn’t be a “jack-of-all-trades,” for example. Obviously, I rebelled. Another interaction which challenged my idea of “mentor” was just after a breakfast with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell at the Ojai Festival in 2017, where I had performed solo the day before. Little did I know it would be the last time I would see Muhal before his passing four months later. As we were walking to the elevator, I told Muhal, “I just want to thank you for being such a generous mentor to all of us all these years.” He stopped me and said, “Now wait. I don’t like this word ‘mentor.’ Because it implies someone is higher than the other, like there’s a hierarchy. I prefer the word ‘exchange.’ Like I want to know about those Taiwanese folk songs you’re into.” I was stunned and humbled. This short conversation initiated the idea of “mutual mentorship” in my head, and when Sara and I began developing the manifestation of this idea, it was one of the concepts that inspired M³, which has been absolutely shaped by our inaugural cohort members every step of the way.

We always try to take a screenshot at the end of our meetings, capturing our time together which began on the Summer Solstice of this tumultuous year of 2020. These are magical snapshots of our lives colliding at different points in our careers, painting a picture of the work that needs to be done and how we’ll continue to grow this energy exponentially outward for the rest of our lives.

Anjna Swaminathan sitting on a rock at a beach by the water.

Anjna Swaminathan (photo by Molly Gazay of Diabla Productions)

Anjna Swaminathan

Truthfully, I was initially reluctant to join M3. This of course has nothing to do with the brilliance and camaraderie that Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa offer or the beauty of the kind of mentorship they sought to cultivate. However, in the early stages of the pandemic, I was trying to feel secure in my ongoing projects and commissions and felt “too busy” for this. The feeling of community and catharsis that this group would offer was terrifying to me because it would push me to confront the fragility of our existing musical ecosystem.

As my colleagues lost gig after gig, I clenched harder to my lingering commitments, trying to convince myself that the pandemic couldn’t destabilize me. It was likely a triggered response. In March 2019 almost exactly a year before we became aware of the virus’s toll on New York City, I started experiencing severe chronic pain symptoms, which forced me to part with my instrument (the violin). I went through many of the same motions that our entire community of artists is going through now. I stopped performing. I stopped improvising with my community. I stopped traveling due to the toll it took on my back and the radiating neurological pain I was experiencing. And to make everything worse, I had also developed a psychosomatic response in my immune system that manifested as frequent respiratory illnesses, that kept me constantly washing my hands and fearful of touching my face. Fortunately, I found home in composing and felt safe to heal while still creating music.

I suppose, when the pandemic started, I wanted to be privileged enough to stay grounded. I got attached to not experiencing an existential crisis — even going so far as to create an alliance for patrons to connect to starving composers and performers from my oh-so-charitable high horse. I needed to hold on to this, and when I saw Jen’s email, my internal response was, “I’m totally fine! This should go to someone who actually needs community.” Of course, though fearful, I said yes to Jen, because I knew that every encounter I’ve had with Jen has taught me to confront my fears. I heard her voice saying something like, “go towards the things that frighten you and figure out why.”

Since we began our meetings, I’ve been so deeply grateful. For one, in these meetings, we speak at length about how these illusions of security were wound up in capitalistic, white supremacist, and heteropatriarchal structures. Many of us spoke of scarcity in our initial meetings. Feeling that there weren’t enough spaces where we could truly be ourselves, artistically, politically, and spiritually. We spoke about tactics to navigate existing power structures and to find our voices within them. And as these conversations have progressed, I’ve witnessed and experienced cosmic intergenerational healing. There are days when mentors in their 60s nurture and comfort mentors in their 20s. On other days younger mentors radicalize their experienced mentors. And on most days it is like a wild game of volleyball, each of us bouncing this radical and dynamic energy off of one another, working together to elevate in abundance rather than falling into scarcity. In the course of the past few months, the security of commissions and projects has dwindled. Yet, I feel renewed with a different kind of security. I feel connected to this ageless, timeless creative energy within me. With the love and encouragement of this community, I am exploring the widest and wildest extremes of artistic play. This group, in replacing power and hierarchy with love and radical vulnerability, has kindled a security in me that feels everlasting. I think back to this feeling of fragility in our musical ecosystem. Of course, it is fragile. It wasn’t working for musicians. This group is planting seeds of abundance, of communication, and of vulnerability that I know will transform music-making and fortify intergenerational mentorship for years to come.

Sumi Tonooka holding her left hand above her left eye in a salute or viewing pose and holding her right hand in front of her chin.

Sumi Tonooka (photo by Karen Sterling)

Sumi Tonooka

I know it’s cliché to reference the Lotus Blossom that grows out of the mud. But that is precisely what M3 is, something beautiful, and exquisite that has arisen out of these chaotic, dark and troubled times…2020, whew, and it’s not over yet!

Saying yes to Jen and Sara who had the initial vision for M3 was easy, especially considering the dynamic group of invited persons to take part. I loved their idea and vision to collaborate, with a choice group of artists that represent the broadest spectrum of sexual identity, genre, and generations among women, to produce new music together as composers and players. We meet bi-monthly via Zoom, to support each other with our diverse creative processes. The duos and quartets were formed randomly and provide an even more intimate window to share and build. M3 has provided a means of support, caring and creativity that I am so grateful to be a part of, especially now! There is a way in which we have bonded and we are learning so much from each other. There is chemistry and momentum moving forward with love and mutual respect at its core. We are doing all this through the rather limited technology on Zoom of all things and this has surprised me!

I’m a child of the 60’s and 70’s. I was raised by radical left wing bi-racial parents during a very tumultuous time in this country. My parents lived through World War II, the Great Depression, the McCarthy era. My mother, who was Japanese American was imprisoned in Internment camps during World War II because of her race. My father who was African American, was a union man, a Marxist, a factory worker. My parents’ philosophies were woven into the fabric of their children’s lives. I cooked breakfast for the Black Panther breakfast program in Mantua Philadelphia when I was 12 years old! My family marched against the Vietnam War, when the country was unified, sick, and tired, but not too tired to protest.

The current struggles of our times is something not new to many of us, it’s an old fight. I am disheartened, angry and depressed at the level of anti-blackness in our culture, the systemic racism in our institutions and prison system and the fact that Black mothers, still fear for their son’s lives, but I am relieved to see the current revolution for racial injustice and people of all races engaged so actively across the globe uniting in solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too movement, the Climate crisis, and more.

Nina Simone, whom I greatly admire, said that artists must address their times. We can look to artists like her to learn exemplary ways in which artists can respond to injustice. Nina was black, beautiful and bold and knew it. Her musical expression contained her fury, love, and soulfulness, fighting for freedom and equality. We can look to artists like John Coltrane whose humanity and protean musical expression and legacy is a constant reminder of what it means to be free as an artist and a great human being.

The fight goes on, as it must until we reach a level of humanity, understanding, and acceptance, a more spiritual ground of love for one another. It might be that we have to keep going round and round until we get it right. The human realm is complex and flawed and ugly and beautiful.

The concert poster for the two upcoming performances featuring photos of the twelve participating musicians and the host.

Dec 6 @ 7pm EST, National Jazz Museum in Harlem event link HERE
Dec. 12 @ 7pm EST, National Jazz Museum in Harlem event link HERE
M3 Eventbrite links (linked from the above links):
Facebook link HERE

Tyshawn Sorey: Music and Mindfulness

A BIPOC man posing in front of a rehearsal hall door

Tyshawn Sorey’s music emerges from a vast array of experiences, communities, storytelling, and a deep engagement in mentor-mentee relationships. When I listen to his recent works Pillars I, II, III, and Everything Changes, Nothing Changes, I hear imagined worlds and sonic environments that are anchored in numerous histories and traditions. The detailed timbral designs within his compositions amplify a spiritual and creative focus in the music, asking the listener to employ mindfulness, to breathe, and to engage with spontaneity.

Sorey’s creative practice is multifaceted. His musical journey began as a trombone player in New Jersey where he listened to everything from be-bop to hip-hop and country music. He is in regular demand as a new music composer, writing for ensembles such as the International Contemporary Ensemble and the JACK Quartet. As a drummer, Sorey is a fixture on the jazz scene and can be heard performing with artists such as Vijay Iyer, Kris Davis, Marilyn Crispell, and Jason Moran, in addition to leading his own ensembles. Sorey has also developed a unique voice as a pianist and has played piano with artists such as composer/trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith and mrudangam artist Rajna Swaminathan.

Throughout his rigorous career as a composer and performer, Sorey regularly teaches and mentors other artists to support the creation of their own work. This practice has led him to become an assistant professor of music and African American studies at Wesleyan University. It is here, in his new creative home on the Wesleyan campus, that Tyshawn Sorey and I sat down to discuss his history as an educator, his latest works, and his thoughts about the word “improvisation.”

Tyshawn Sorey outside

Tearing Down The Wall

All of us, as composers, have origin stories.  For some, it may have been one cathartic moment when the light bulb snapped on and you knew what you were going to be.  For others, it may have been an accretion of experiences, of formative musical events that added up to being a composer.  Or, if you’re like me, it may have been a series of revelatory moments, like an unseen hand guiding you down a path—to where, you may not have known until you got there.

Baitz playing a guitar and leaning on the back of a van in Durban in 1972

Baitz in Durban in 1972

In 1972, when I was seventeen, I got a job as a deckhand on the Bontebok, a dredger operating out of Durban Harbour in South Africa.  I’d moved to Durban from L.A. with my parents and younger brother earlier that year; my dad was transferred by his multinational employer, the Carnation Company, to manage their South African branch.  From the start, South Africa seemed completely bizarre.  From the moment we stepped off the plane, with “slegs blankes” (whites only) signs directing you to the terminal, every single action and interaction reinforced the impression that this was a country consumed by a collective mental illness.  Apartheid, a kind of race-based slavery enforced by a byzantine series of laws, governed every aspect of everyone’s life.  It was illegal for “Europeans” (their term for whites) to socialize in any way with “non-whites,” comprising tribal Africans, “Coloreds” (those of mixed race), or “Asians” (those of Indian or Pakistani ancestry).  Strangely, though, since non-whites made up the enormous working class that supported the Europeans’ comfortable lifestyles, there was a lot of interaction between races—although most of it was governed by our economic and social positions.  I felt uncomfortable all the time there, especially having spent two years, from the age of 14 to 16, living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which, although by no means free of racial inequity, was as miscegenated and passionate a culture as South Africa’s was segregated and repressed.

On my first day on the Bontebok, a Zulu deckhand who spoke almost no English was assigned to show me the ropes.  The black deckhands actually lived on the boat; the whites showed up at a launch on Durban Harbour at 6:45 a.m. every morning to be ferried across the bay to the dredger, which would cast off at 7:00 a.m. on the dot, to spend the day on the water, dredging the seaways so that larger ships could pass into and through the harbor.  My silent teacher showed me how to place the fenders that hung from the side of the boat, to put the giant anchors on the foredeck into gear and operate the motors that lowered them to the sea floor, to swab the deck, to paint (and re-paint) the chimneys and vents that were placed throughout the boat, and tie a bow-line, which I had trouble with.  Nonetheless, a day came when I had “graduated,” and instead of continuing with his instruction, my maritime mentor stood to the side and just stared at me, waiting.  I remember asking his supervisor—the boat-tribe’s Zulu “chieftain” named Silas—what I should be doing, and he said, “Tell him what to do.”  Now that I knew the job, my role became that of the boss, and my responsibility was to order my former teacher to perform the tasks he had taught me.  That’s how distorted that place was.

Up on the foredeck, I was put in charge of the anchors, which was kind of a big responsibility.  I would spend my free time there, while we were out in the middle of the harbor dredging, watching Silas, who carried a whip, cursing and pretending to whip the Zulu deckhands, while they would pretend to run away from him in fake terror.  They knew how to have a good time on that boat.  But mostly, I was alone up there at the front of the ship, surrounded by the sea with the hills of Durban in the background, watching the gulls battle for air supremacy and the dolphins frolic in the waves.  It was during one of those solitary moments when I had a kind of auditory epiphany.  We were anchored in the middle of the harbor for a few hours, sucking up clay from the seabed.  I was sitting in the sun.  On the shore, miles away, the dry dock’s ceiling cranes whined in a kind of overlapping polyphonic stereo filter sweep; nearby, the gulls were singing their war cries; and on the boat, the Zulu workers were hammering in a strange, repetitive, asymmetrical syncopation.  It was a true, 360-degree multi-textured composition, replete with ambient motion, polyrhythmic grooves, and exotic melody.  Of course at that time I had no vocabulary to describe it—I’d not yet heard of John Cage—but I sat in sensory amazement, thinking, “This is music!”

When not working, I spent most of my time with the Fataar family, playing rock ‘n’ roll.  Steve Fataar had recently arrived back in Durban after several years in L.A., leading his rock band The Flame, made up of himself and his two brothers Ricky Fataar and Brother Fataar, and Durban musician Blondie Chaplin.  The Fataar family are Malay—yet another racial distinction, stamped “M” in their passbooks—and lived in the “Colored” section of Durban.  (All non-whites were required to carry a “passbook” at all times, declaring their race and what neighborhoods they were allowed to enter.)

The Flame had made it about as big as you could in South Africa—in fact, they were kind of like the Beatles of South Africa in the late ‘60s and had decamped to London where they were discovered by Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys.  The Beach Boys took the Flame to L.A. and set them up in a big house at the top of Outpost Drive in the Hollywood Hills.  The Flame became the Beach Boys’ opening act and toured with them, recording on their label, Brother Records.  When The Flame broke up, Ricky and Blondie joined the Beach Boys (about 1971); Steve Fataar moved back to Durban where I met him in early 1972.  We hit it off and suddenly I was breaking the law with every breath I took, hanging out in the Colored district with Steve and a group of amazing musicians of all races  and playing music all day.

Baitz with Steve Fataar in Durban, 1972

Baitz with Steve Fataar in Durban, 1972

This friendship continues to the present day.  When I came back to the States I became friendly with Blondie and Ricky, and as I became a composer, have been fortunate to be able to work with them from time to time, occasionally contracting Blondie—in between his tours with the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and most recently, Brian Wilson—to play guitar and/or sing on my theater or film scores.  He’s got those African styles down cold.

Here’s the theme to Heart of Africa, a National Geographic mini-series I scored in 1996, with lyrics (in Swahili and Kirundi) sung by Blondie Chaplin:

Later in 1972, I made my way to Georgetown University, where the Jesuits fed me loads of science, philosophy, and theology (and where I learned about Taoism and Buddhism for the first time; it was worth it just for that)—but no music.  So finally, at the age of 20, I hit the reset button, ending up at the Manhattan School of Music where I got my bachelor’s and master’s in composition.  There, I began to feel the barest inkling of an aspiration that animates my creative energy to this day: that of becoming a whole musician.  By “whole musician,” I mean one who can function in multiple settings: the chamber ensemble, the recording studio, the orchestra, the jazz ensemble, the rock band.  One who can compose in varied idioms without diluting the authenticity of his or her own voice.  One who has professional skills as a player, producer, arranger, editor, orchestrator, engineer, even as a copyist and composer.  And whose music is meaningful and provocative in all situations.  Of course, this goal is the journey of a lifetime: the joy of being a composer is that you never really get there.  Or perhaps better put: the journey is the destination.  And in that sense, it’s a gift to be a composer.

The joy of being a composer is that you never really get there.

As an undergrad at MSM, I scored a few short films, but ultimately got caught up in my conservatory studies and left film music behind in 1980.  I had a fledgling voice as a composer, very much trying to process the cathartic feelings I’d had in Brazil, hearing 100,000 people playing and dancing samba in the streets during Carnaval, and in South Africa, with its earth-rumbling, emotionally transformative percussive, vocal and township music.  But as a classical composer, studying with the ambient electronic composer Elias Tanenbaum, then with Charles Wuorinen and Ursula Mamlock, and later with George Perle at Tanglewood, and Mario Davidovsky and Jack Beeson at Columbia, I was pretty much surrounded by modernism, which intrigued me for its coloristic and harmonic complexity and variety. I was open to everything, yet most, if not all, of my concert music had Brazilian and South African patterns in it, even the serial pieces.

Starting in the late 1980s, my younger brother Jon Robin (“Robbie”) Baitz, who is a playwright, invited me to provide incidental music to several of his theatrical productions.  Like me, he was processing his expatriate childhood in his art and several of his plays took place in Africa and other tropical locations.  This gave me a chance to directly channel many of the influences that I absorbed while living in Durban and Rio.  Here’s the overture to his play A Fair Country, produced at New York City’s Naked Angels Company in 1994; kudos to the amazing mbira playing of Martin Scherzinger, Thuli Dumakude’s heartbreaking Zulu vocals, and Cyro Baptista’s tasteful percussion work:

In 1991, just as I was finishing my DMA at Columbia, I scored Robbie’s PBS teleplay Three Hotels (which won the Humanitas Award, and was later produced as a stage play at New York’s Circle Repertory Co.).  By then I was really getting the bug for composing for drama, especially the screen, and that year I took the BMI Film Scoring Workshop in Los Angeles, taught by the eminence grise Earle Hagan (who had not only composed, but whistled, the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show).  And I came to a couple big decisions.  Despite my newly minted doctorate, I hadn’t gone to Columbia for the teaching credential; I’d actually gone to learn and be inspired. In fact, this was at the height of the updown-vs.-downtown culture wars, and I wasn’t completely at home with the judgmentalism that at times hovered around the new music world.  Even though my composition teachers mostly gave me space to explore my own path of integrating folkloric elements into concert music, most of them just didn’t really speak that language.  Inasmuch as my concert music was, and is, formally within the classical tradition (and was suitably complex for my teachers’ cerebral inclinations), I received some encouragement, but—with a few notable exceptions—true nurturing was hard to come by.  Instead, I sensed a kind of repressed disenchantment within academia, as if its composers secretly regretted that the world didn’t shower them with acclaim and riches. So while finishing my doctorate, I wasn’t sanguine about the prospects of battling for academic stature as a life path, and I was enjoying scoring for film and theater.  I determined that I would go all-in, throwing my hat into film music and seeing if I could survive.

I sensed a kind of repressed disenchantment within academia, as if its composers secretly regretted that the world didn’t shower them with acclaim and riches.

The other important decision I made, contemporaneous with my first TV broadcast of Three Hotels, was to join BMI.  I will not, in this forum, belabor the eternal debate in our community about whether ASCAP or BMI (or SESAC) is the better choice.  Honestly, after all these years, no one has been able to definitively say which one will support you more or make you more money.  I do know this: at about that time, Ralph Jackson, then the head of BMI’s concert music division, took me to lunch and said, “I don’t care which one you join, but just join one, now.”  And that is what I tell everyone who asks me the same question. I know people in both organizations and they are all really cool.  At the time I took BMI’s film scoring workshop, I began to develop close ties with the people within their film and concert music divisions, and they have remained extraordinarily supportive throughout my career.

For example, while hanging out at BMI’s L.A. offices in the spring of 1991, Doreen Ringer-Ross, head of their film music department, suggested that I return in August of that year, and she would introduce me to people in the film music industry.  But when I showed up in August for my meetings, Doreen was nowhere to be found.  Even the people at BMI didn’t know where she was.  I cooled my jets for three days until I found out that she was in the hospital giving birth to her daughter Chelsea.  When she heard I was in L.A. for my meetings, she dictated 10 letters to studio music department heads and music supervisors from her hospital bed, signed them and had them faxed out.  And I had my meetings.

Rick Baitz and 12 others at the BMI Earle Hagen Film Composers Workshop

Rick Baitz (far left bottom row) at the BMI Earle Hagen Film Composers Workshop in 1991. Also pictured (L-R, bottom) are: Bruce Babcock, Earle Hagen, and BMI’s Doreen Ringer-Ross, plus (top row) Jonathan Sacks, Steve Chesne, Danny Nolan, Ann Moore, Wyn Meyerson, Steve Edwards. Daniel Freiberg, engineer Rick Lindquist, and Jim Legg.

In 1991, I knew that being a composer for media would entail a huge learning curve, and I would have to devote myself to it pretty much exclusively if I wanted to get anywhere.  It was not that I was giving up concert music, but that I was ready to bet on myself to the extent that I could afford to take a hiatus from concert composing while building my film music career.  I also knew that I needed access to the technology and to a studio.  Fortuitously, right around that time I met a composer with a very extensive studio, who needed arrangers for a huge recording project he was producing.

Buryl Red was a unique person; in one side of his life he was a luminary in the Christian music community as a vocal and orchestral composer and conductor—but he wore many other hats.  He had worked as an orchestrator, and eventually, a producer, on Broadway.  And in his capacity as a music producer, he was directing a massive educational recording project of ethnic folk songs for children, Silver Burdette’s The Music Connection (later called Making Music): 160 CDs worth of songs; 1600 tracks in all, with new editions every five years.  Buryl put together a team of arrangers and producers, and built up a studio that wrapped around three apartments at the top of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper.  There, we worked non-stop, churning out folkloric recordings from every locale on the planet.  Along with Jeanine Tesori, Mick Rossi, Joseph Joubert, and other talented musicians, I learned how to arrange, record, engineer, edit, and mix music, and worked on hundreds, if not thousands, of tracks from 1992 into the early 2000s.  Buryl also tossed us some film work that came his way, allowing me to further hone my film scoring chops.

Meanwhile I embarked on an intense self-study, choosing several composers whose work interested me: Thomas Newman (whose score to The Player was like lightening striking), Jerry Goldsmith (what a joy to revisit Our Man Flint, Chinatown, and Basic Instinct), and many others.  I kept a sketchbook where I transcribed themes and took notes on the films I watched. I was particularly taken by alternative, non-traditional approaches to film scoring, from Zbigniew Preisner’s scores to Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, to Tôn-Thât Tiêt’s atonal Vietnamese soundtrack to Scent of Green Papaya.  Even back in the 1990s, I found that there were examples of composers who brought a fresh, original approach to film scoring—and a significant number, like Toru Takemitsu, who maintained careers in both film and concert music.  I counted Takemitsu, whose music I love, as my model on how to live as a composer.

In between deadlines researching, arranging, and producing recordings of folk tunes from Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, Polynesia, South Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Native America, I took on several short films to score, mostly pro bono, just to learn.  One such collaboration was with Caroline Kava, who I had met at the Edward Albee Foundation in 1983 when she was in residence as a playwright.  She also had a successful career as an actress for stage and screen, but had returned to school for an MFA in film; in fact, she was at the Columbia University School of the Arts, as I had been.  The film division was right downstairs from the music division, although in typical siloed fashion, the two programs didn’t talk to one another.  After graduating, I returned to the School of the Arts to put up signs at the film division, asking if any graduate filmmakers needed a composer, and Caroline got back in touch.  Our first of three collaborations, Polio Water, won her the IFC Grand Prize and the Princess Grace award.  It was about a girl who grew up above a funeral parlor during the polio epidemic of the early 1950s.  This is an example of a partnership with a filmmaker who really understood music.  Caroline taught me, among other things, that you could have random-length, aperiodic sustained tones as background; that the Bach cello suites make great getting-stuff-done music; and that the Agnus Dei of a Requiem Mass just repeats the same text over and over.

The film division was right downstairs from the music division, although in typical siloed fashion, the two programs didn’t talk to one another.

Here’s the Agnus Dei from Polio Water, with Beth Blankenship’s heavenly vocals:

Between the music for my brother’s plays and films, the short films I was scoring, and, especially, the ethnic folk tunes I’d been arranging, by 1993 I had a strong demo reel to pass out to filmmakers.  That year, Doreen Ringer-Ross came to New York for the Independent Feature Film Market (now called IFP Film Week), which takes place every fall.  There, she passed on my cassette tape to a film music supervisor who happened to be married to a National Geographic executive producer, who happened to be looking for a classical composer who could do African music.  Suddenly, I had my first high-profile gig: Nat Geo’s upcoming special, The New Chimpanzees.

At that point I began to almost live at Buryl’s studio (much to the ambivalent tolerance of my wife, who was still getting used to my insanely long hours).  Sometimes I would leave the studio and walk around Manhattan, or sit in a coffee shop, trying to invoke some kind of inspiration and drum up a music cue in my head.  It was during one of those walks that I started imagining a guitar theme, based on a repetitive slowed-down version of a Buddhist chant my older brother Jeff used to do.  (Inspiration can come from strange places.)  I turned my memory of that sutra into an African guitar pattern, and I had a start on The New Chimpanzees.  Much of the film took place in Congo, and I listened to a lot of Central African music as preparation and inspiration.  I hired the great New York session musician Kevin Kuhn, who had played guitar on virtually all of the songs from Buryl’s project, to handle the guitar parts.  But as my deadline approached, I wasn’t quite done.  I had one more day, and it was going to take an all-nighter to make it.  As I worked into the night, Buryl periodically came in to see how I was doing.  Eventually I realized he wasn’t going home either—Buryl stayed in the studio all night just to give me moral support.  The next day, the director called and told me that she’d bought me yet another day.  It turned out I needed it.  The music was very detailed and completion was coming too slowly.  I worked throughout the next day, and into the night, on no sleep.  I realized I was going to have to pull another all-nighter to get this thing done.  So I did: I pulled two all-nighters in a row.  And, amazingly, Buryl stayed the next night too, hanging out in his office, occasionally stopping into the little garret studio I had made my home, giving an approving listen.  At 6:00 a.m. on that last day, he finally saw that I was going to be all right and headed off to catch some rest.  And I made my extended deadline.

Buryl Red’s and Doreen Ringer Ross’s acts of good will are examples I carry with me every day.  Those moments were turning points in my career.  And I learned, and re-learned, that nobody can do this alone.  We need help to move forward in life.  Now, as an educator, a mentor, and an experienced composer, I pass on Buryl’s and Doreen’s generosity to the next generation, and try, when I can, to go that extra kilometer for those who need it.  I know that such a gift is priceless.

Nobody can do this alone. We need help to move forward in life.

I found, over time, that composing for film is as personally rewarding as writing concert music, although film music has definite unique challenges.  You have to have strong studio skills for film music jobs, including being able to sing or demonstrate your intentions to players, if, for some reason, they’re not apprehending its intent on the written page.  (Or, if they don’t read music.)  It’s helpful to have lots of harmonic, metric, and rhythmic tools in your toolbox; a delicate and unerring sense of timing; and the ability to adjust to the demands of multiple styles.

One example: in 2000, the director Geoffrey Nauffts asked me to quickly score the opening to his short film Baby Steps, starring him and Kathy Bates.  The directive: a funny, slightly Latino version of the James Bond theme. (Thanks to the amazing violinist Todd Reynolds and extraordinary sax player Andrew Sterman):

At its best, film music transcends any distinction between genres.

I once mentioned to the composer Michael Giacchino, who I met while sitting in on a scoring session for the TV show Lost, that while the form of concert music is self-generating, in that a composition develops out of its own materials, the form of film music is governed by the structure of the film itself.  “Yeah,” he answered, “but the best thing is when it can do both.” And I agree. While there may be formal differences between film and concert music, the challenge of film music is to make it work as music.  As Giacchino said, at its best, film music transcends any distinction between genres.  From Bernard Herrmann’s 1958 score to Vertigo, whose bitonal opening arpeggios in contrary motion, with polymetric texture, pre-date minimalism by years, to Mica Levi’s layered electric viola clusters in 2013’s Under The Skin, film music is a place where unique musical juxtapositions have a home.  And I have found that it is a place where I can do what I love, getting my music played, recorded, and heard by many in the process.

Mentor, Me—Beyond Musical Mentorship

This is the second in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.

Early on in Plato’s Republic, Socrates’s young interlocutor Glaucon asks, “Is there not such a [class of] goods … which are desirable not only in themselves, but also for their results?” My undergraduate political science professor, Vickie Sullivan, answers Glaucon’s question in the affirmative: she recently told me that for her, mentorship is “both good in and of itself and good for what comes from it.”

Vickie Sullivan sitting in front of her desk which has open books on it.

Vickie Sullivan

Mentorship is both good in and of itself and good for what comes from it.

Though Sullivan was a popular professor at Tufts University, particularly well known in the political science and classics departments (both of which she’s chaired), and an important mentor to some of my closest friends, I didn’t experience a class with her until the fourth year of my five-year double degree program between Tufts and NEC. I enrolled in Sullivan’s fall Western Political Thought seminar, a survey of ancient to early modern philosophy, starting with Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, spending generous time on Plato / Socrates’s Apology, Symposium and Republic, and wrapping things up with Machiavelli’s Prince. I was in it for the Plato.

But quickly I was in it for the Sullivan. Her lectures on the Symposium are still among the most memorable, intriguing, and personally valuable lessons of my education. If you don’t know the Symposium, it’s basically a story about a drinking game in which Socrates and his groupies—an aristocrat, a doctor, a lawyer, a comic playwright, and a tragic poet—compete to give the best speech in praise of Eros, the god of Love and the Beautiful, all the while getting more and more plastered. Aside from being wildly entertaining, the Symposium addresses such lofty themes as sex, beauty, the meaning of love, truth, the material versus the ideal, and the ever-complex layers of the human experience.

According to my own biased take, this dialogue is fundamentally about art: why we make it, why we need it, and why it is an endlessly fulfilling pursuit. In Sullivan’s lecture on Socrates’s climactic speech about Eros, she suggests that he depicts Eros (beauty) as an entity of constant in-between-ness and becoming. Beauty is the ascent up the ladder of love for what is to love for what ought to be— a ladder whose steps climb infinitely towards something unattainable that we pursue regardless. This reading resonated with my own reasons for art making that I’d never been able to articulate. For me, music is about creating and re-imagining how the world ought to be. Though material means—pencil, paper, hollowed-out pieces of wood—the musician transforms something real (symbols on a page, vibrations of a bowed string) into something ideal. Like Socrates’s Eros, music is always in a state of becoming. This inherent instability makes it beautiful. Sullivan, in her own pedagogical artfulness, acted as an intermediary between me and Plato, so that I could find personal significance in the texts she taught.

An illustration depicting a description in Plato's Symposium

Her goal of teaching students “to try to take texts really seriously and gain an appreciation of how they were written and can be read” and “of the necessity and possibility of continual improvement” was consequential to my musical studies. During the next two years as her student, TA, and eventually, her collaborator, Sullivan’s guidance in critical reading and thinking made me a more critical musician.  Having a mentor figure outside of music was also really grounding: it reminded me that my art and the skills I need to make it didn’t exist in a vacuum.

Music is about creating and reimagining how the world ought to be.

Observing her teach also made me think about cultivating an audience in music. I often viewed Sullivan’s lectures and seminar discussions as her way of creating a fresh and enthusiastic readership for the texts she loved. Especially as a TA for Western Political Thought, I watched students enter the lecture hall shrugging at this required course for their major, and within the week passionately debating Thucydides’s Melian Dialogue. Sullivan created audiences not by watering down esoteric material, but by diving headfirst into it, inviting and trusting her students to as well. She was concerned with clarity rather than accessibility. She challenged her students to search for nuance and to find the words to articulate it rather than settling for black-and-white explanations. Sullivan taught me that trusting an audience to be open to new experiences is empowering, not cumbersome. I hope to invite listeners into the music I love by being unapologetic to and trustful of my audience.

The vast majority of Sullivan’s students will not go on to pursue graduate degrees in political science or careers that echo her own. Many might never reopen Plato’s Symposium after their midterm exam. But, they will have gained an experience of studying something in depth. This is a gift that can never be taken away from them.

Sullivan’s Glaucon-inspired teaching philosophy has put my approach to classroom teaching in healthy perspective in several respects. First, most of my classroom students will not become professional musicians, but they can become curious music lovers and engaged listeners. To me, this is the “good for what comes from” teaching music. Second, and more importantly, studying and listening to music in depth is an experience “good in and of itself” that merits no further rationalization or objective. At conservatory there’s this assumption that everyone is going to be a professional musician and one trains to achieve that goal. Sullivan showed by example that rigorous training can be good in and of itself, and this made learning music satisfying even if I had days or weeks or long stretches of time when I thought that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the whole composer thing.

Undoubtedly, Sullivan’s role in the classroom is very different from Kati Agócs’s role as a studio teacher (whom I wrote about last week). When I recently asked Agócs for some of her opinions on teaching, she immediately drew the distinction between studio and classroom teaching. Indeed, Agócs lessons had a set of expectations hinged on the assumption that I was training to be a professional composer, while Sullivan was almost always communicating to a broad range of personalities and interests. The assumption of my commitment to music was an important social contract in my studio lessons: Agócs treated my work seriously because she was invested in my development towards the particular vocation I sought for myself. There was a material goal to our working together, whether it was a finished score or my long-term career trajectory. My contract with Sullivan was very different: to be an engaged and curious learner.

Observing Sullivan teach political science made me think about cultivating an audience in music.

Yet, both likened mentorship to parenting: When I asked her about navigating the issue of teacher/student boundaries in a conservatory culture where these relationships can be quite intimate, Agócs told me that “it is a little like parenting. Children value boundaries because they make them feel secure, best for learning, then they are always challenging and testing them. The boundaries shift and change as the relationship develops.” Similarly, Sullivan described mentorship as a “kind of intellectual family” in which the mentor “is in a position to model professional behavior, setting an example, sort of like parenting. You’re really trying to focus on the development of that individual and you’re not getting anything out of it except that satisfaction of seeing that student develop.”


30 Fellows Selected for Inaugural Blackbird Creative Lab

In addition to award winning and boundary breaking, Eighth Blackbird is adding some serious mentoring to their activities. Thirty early-career musicians have been chosen to receive fellowships to the Blackbird Creative Lab, a newly launched two-week summer training program taking place Ojai, California, this June. The selected fellows will focus on the process of creating new work, including “developing a performance aesthetic, nurturing one’s curatorial vision, and building an entrepreneurial foundation,” all of which will culminate in a pair of public concerts, June 23 and 24, at the Besant Hill School’s Zalk Theater.

In addition to Eighth Blackbird ensemble members, the faculty will include composers Jennifer Higdon and Ted Hearne, as well as director/filmmaker Mark DeChiazza. During the session, an array of guest artists will complement the faculty: composer Steve Reich, composer/performer Pamela Z, flutist/composer Ned McGowan, and from the Ojai Music Festival, curator Tom Morris and producer Elaine Martone, who also serves as director of the Blackbird Creative Lab.

More than 200 candidates applied from around the world; the 30 selected will attend tuition-free, inclusive of room and board.

They are:

Justine Aronson, soprano
Erika Boysen, flute
Dan Caputo, composer
Danny Clay, composer
Viet Cuong, composer
Jordan Curcuruto, percussion
Fjóla Evans, composer
Robert Fleitz, piano
Bryan Hayslett, cello
Molly Herron, composer
Invoke, string quartet
Molly Joyce, composer
Matt Keown, percussion
Tamara Kohler, flute
Sammy Lesnick, clarinet
Kaylie Melville, percussion
Benjamin Mitchell, clarinet
Kate Outterbridge, violin
Passepartout Duo, piano + percussion duo
Evan Saddler, percussion
Jeff Stern, percussion
Michiko Theurer, violin
Dylan Ward, saxophone
Aaron Wolff, cello
Phoebe Wu, piano
Jocelyn Zelasko, soprano

Read more about the Blackbird Creative Lab and the inaugural class of fellows here.

The Role of the Mentor

Michael Tilson Thomas and Teddy Abrams

Music is one of the remaining professions where the master/pupil relationship still thrives. I had a number of incredible mentors; some of them were positive, encouraging types, others not so much. I’ve seen it all. I would say it’s extraordinarily rare for the conductor/music director of a major city’s orchestra to make the effort to be a mentor for a young musician. It is one thing to hear someone play in a masterclass; it’s another thing to actually care about that musician’s progression and development over months and years. I fortunately had that, and I think under pretty cool circumstances.

It’s extraordinarily rare for the conductor/music director of a major city’s orchestra to make the effort to be a mentor for a young musician.

I’ve told this story many times, but it is still something I think about every day. I saw my first-ever orchestra concert when I was nine years old. It was pretty much my first live concert of any type—a free, outdoor concert in San Francisco. The experience was so magical and overwhelming I decided right then and there that I wanted to be a conductor for the rest of my life. I wrote a letter to the conductor—Michael Tilson Thomas—and I went on and on about the experience, about how much I loved what I saw, the kind of music he was leading, how enthusiastic I was, how I knew I would be a conductor, and then asked if he would give me a lesson.  It probably came across as a crazy person’s letter, but I was nine years old so I guess I got a pass because two weeks later I got a response. I have that response hanging in my room right now. If Michael Tilson Thomas could take the time to write me a letter, give me conducting advice, and basically teach me a conducting lesson right then and there, then I can do the same thing for any young musician who comes across my path.

So for our first Classics concert in the Festival of American Music, Michael Tilson Thomas is coming to Louisville to conduct the Louisville Orchestra in a program filled with uniquely American composers and including some of Michael’s own work. It can’t be overstated how special this is, because Michael is one of the real icons of American music. The span and diversity of his career is extraordinary, and the impact he’s had on orchestras, composers, and education is vast, so for him to come to the Louisville Orchestra is a very big deal for us. This is a musician who collaborated with Audrey Hepburn and who used to regularly work with James Brown. He was Leonard Bernstein’s protégé. Michael’s mind is so active and so curious that it’s impossible to lock it down and his compositions reflect that. One of his signature works is From the Diary of Anne Frank created for a series of benefit UNICEF concerts in 1991 that featured Audrey Hepburn as the narrator. Michael has a contrabassoon concerto that’s all about night creatures in urban environments. His newest work is an incredible vocal and jazz-inspired work on Carl Sandburg’s poetry that combines populism with heavy subject matter. Michael is just fascinating; there’s nobody quite like him. You can talk to him about anything, just name it. He’s one of the most brilliant, well-read, and knowledgeable people about virtually anything.

I will always look up to him as a mentor and teacher. He was always interested in my opinions, and that’s something that distinguishes him as a teacher. He would always ask me, “What do you think about that?” or “How did this affect you?” But now we’re also colleagues to a certain extent, and he’s entrusting folks like me to take these messages and all the things that I’ve absorbed from him and his work, and apply them. Had I not been around people like Michael Tilson Thomas growing up, I’m not sure I would have the same drive and desire to do all this work in the community, to do all this work with young people, and to be out there in ways that are beyond what you would expect of a conductor. In 2014, the Louisville Orchestra launched a new series that would take the orchestra out into the community to do performances outside of our usual venues. Since then, we’ve performed in churches, synagogues, and community centers throughout Louisville as well as across the river in southern Indiana. Our musicians are out in the schools with ensemble visits and I also do a series of masterclasses throughout the community with all ages of young musicians from elementary through high school. And in 2015, we started two youth leadership/mentoring programs for elementary and high school students. The 4th and 5th grade students learn to conduct and have a chance to conduct the orchestra as part of our legacy education program MakingMUSIC. This is the age I had my opportunity to conduct so I really wanted to pass that love of conducting on to these young students and I thoroughly enjoy getting to teach them!  The high school program centers on juniors and seniors who have a passion for the arts and are considering an arts career. I meet with them monthly to discuss everything from auditioning and looking at universities/colleges/conservatories to having them sit in on rehearsals. They also have to do a service project that connects their community with the arts. We have thirteen students in the program this year and they just presented their ideas for their service projects and I am so inspired by what these young people have in mind. These projects include helping middle school students connect with classical music, performing in senior assisted living homes, setting up performances for a local orchard, and an Eagle Scout project to turn an empty room at a local high school into a performance space.

4th and 5th grade students have a chance to conduct the orchestra.

I keep thinking to myself if I don’t mentor folks and get involved with them, then who’s going to care for the next generation? In my mind, a mentor is someone who can actually serve as a role model for what a great person or a great musician might be and that’s where you’re going to get folks hopefully emulating and striving to do that kind of work because those are the kinds of musicians you want around.

That’s the whole point of doing this kind of work in the arts to begin with, and I think Michael understands that innately—that we’re sharing something a lot deeper than a piece of music. That’s what was passed down to me and that’s what I’m trying to do for other people too, to help them see that music is far more powerful than they may have ever thought.

The Empowering Art of Music

If I could go back in time and talk to myself before I embarked on my 37 years of teaching, I would be kind. I would gently omit the pain of carrying too much of the student’s world home with me. I would subtly sidestep the bureaucratic framework that often made teaching a challenge. I would not want to discourage anyone from the vastly underrated but magical career of teaching. Teaching students who have allowed the art of music to deepen their sense of humanity has been a privilege. This parade of students who still march through my mind in colorful colliding recollections learned how to live peaceably with each other. They shared the common bond of music and learned to celebrate their uniqueness while respecting the differences of others.

The students I’ve taught have shared the common bond of music and learned to celebrate their uniqueness while respecting the differences of others.

My first school position was at Hugo Junior High School in Hugo, Oklahoma. My assignment was to teach general music to all seventh and eighth graders. I jumped in and taught each class as if it were the most important course of their lives. Music theory, singing, choreography, classical solos, ensemble competitions, musical theater—these talented students responded to the energetic call for musical excellence. One of these students went on to graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music. I forgot to mention that at that time, we had no air conditioning in our building and our county had the highest welfare rate in the state of Oklahoma. I visited one student in a home that had no running water. When my principal helped us find money in the budget to assist some students with purchasing choir uniforms, it was a beautiful day.

My next position was at Valliant High School in Valliant, Oklahoma. In a rural school community whose lumber plant funneled tax dollars back into the school district, the school’s facilities were extremely new and luxurious. I not only had AC, but my own office, a music library, classroom risers, and a new performing arts center with excellent lighting and sound. What a contrast in public school equity and access. The students were unlike the suburban kids I grew up with. These rural students really only liked country music. I knew that in order to influence them to develop their musical skills, I would have to find some common ground. My strategy was to perform songs that they liked, and then present them with more traditional choral repertoire. We did a spring concert of all country music and the auditorium was packed. After that, they would sing anything (including classical music) that I put in front of them. They saw that I was willing to accept their cultural norms and meet them halfway. I learned from my students that square dancing was fun and that country music is a soul-stirring form of music.

One afternoon, we were gathering donations of farm implements for an upcoming concert’s set design. While visiting the barn of the grandpa of one of my students, he showed me his working bootleg whiskey still! The lumber company donated material for our set. The community took great pride in supporting the students and the school music program. I witnessed music bring out a new confidence in some of the introverted students. One of my students had been physically abused as a child. The shadow of this haunting past disappeared when he sang beautifully with others. He, along with other students, discovered musical gifts that they did not know they possessed.

Students in music class working with a tool to assist in learning musical notation.

While living in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, I taught at Wilson Elementary School. Some 420 elementary students from kindergarten through fifth grade marched in and out of my classroom weekly. The principal was very supportive and backed many creative initiatives. The principal even allowed me to purchase 30 small keyboards and set up a piano lab. It was a creative outlet for the students and their musical skills grew.

The fifth graders wrote a rap called “We All Need to Read” which won a competition to inspire literacy. It was performed at the State Capitol with choreography. The video was played on our city television station as a public service announcement. The students were champions of literacy through this original composition.

In addition, our school presented a dramatic interpretation of the book Aida, the opera by Verdi as told by Leontyne Price (1997) and even our janitor, Robby, gallantly portrayed a character (in costume) so that the story would come to life for the students. One of my favorite exploits was the kindergarten presentation of The Nutcracker, for which students made glamorous masks for each character out of the Enfamil baby formula boxes that I had saved from home. At Wilson Elementary I also team taught a multi-handicapped class with the physical education teacher. Some students who struggled with the inability to talk or walk learned to keep steady rhythms on large drums. Students who had limited forms of communication learned to imitate rhythmic patterns on the hand drums. Their joy was contagious!

Students who struggled with the inability to talk or walk learned to keep steady rhythms on large drums.

I was so excited to teach secondary music in my next position as high school choral director at North Lamar High School in Paris, Texas. There was one small problem. Only twelve students enrolled in the mixed chorus of this newly consolidated rural school district. They were very talented, just few in number. Four years later, we were 43 members strong and the sweepstakes winners of the Texas UIL choir and sight-reading competition. These young singers learned varied choral repertoire in German, French, Italian, and Latin. We started a yearly tradition of singing Handel’s Messiah with other schools in our city accompanied by the Northeast Texas Symphony. These students learned so much about teamwork, unity, and support for each other, as well as discipline, focus, and hard work. Several of these young men are now community leaders in the Dallas area. The soprano All-State winner became a high school choral director. One young man returned to this same school many years later to become the theater instructor. What an inspiring example of giving back to the community by investing your life as a teacher of the arts in your own hometown.

Next in my professional music timeline, I began a doctoral program in music education in the Dallas metroplex. In addition to the course work, I began my next assignment at the much-beloved Dallas elementary school, Walnut Hill Elementary. Our class was in the basement directly below the stage. It sounds pretty spooky, but thankfully a large bank of windows lined the outer wall. The stairs were very steep, so I taught the students to hold onto the rail and chant, “Stay to the right and hold on tight….” The classroom was decorated with instruments from all over the world. The Hispanic English-language learners were especially emboldened in music class. Learning English with the help of elongated speech or singing was so beneficial to their phonemic awareness and language development. I observed a stark contrast in these jubilant faces and voices in music class when compared to the stressed and intense demeanor they had in their regular academic classrooms. The music class was their oasis; in our classroom, they were treated equally by all of the other students in the school. We learned songs from all different countries and performed them with costuming and colorful props… celebrating the many kinds of “us”. That year our school was awarded the “National Blue Ribbon School” status.

Music class was their oasis.

On the recommendation of a Fine Arts Coordinator, my next position was in an inner city middle school that was struggling to regain the music program. This very diverse school population was 82% at risk of dropping out before high school graduation, and in most instances, their home lives were very fragile. After establishing a sense of order and routine, the students embraced the creativity and joy of our music classes. For a Martin Luther King program, I asked students to write a short piece of prose on what freedom meant to them. It was so powerful to hear the strong verbiage that came from these 7th and 8th grade students. Hardship was no stranger to them. They shared these readings in a performance of songs honoring Dr. King. It was unusual to hear that such young students had such fierce understandings of freedom. They sang strong that day of peace and liberty for all.

The fifth hour class was challenging. The majority of the boys had spent time in the juvenile detention center. The ugliness of life emanated from them through their speech, their body language, and their tough demeanors. The most musical thing they did was to beat on their desks throughout the day with their pencils. I decided that this was a starting point. I brought in every kind of drum I could find and a culturally responsive pedagogy evolved. We learned how to notate rhythm, how to create new rhythms, and before I knew it, the boys were putting prose with their rhythms. They were writing songs, chanting and rapping. The context of the lyrics they chose were phrases describing their world as they knew it. They were composing in groups of three and four. They were performing in class. They added choreography. With much practice, they began performing at a very high level.

I asked the students to perform one of their best raps on the spring concert. They knew that the rules of only “G rated” lyrics were required. They honored this requirement and after performing at the concert not only had they validated their journey, but their peers observed that music was a form of release from their angst. The second year our girls’ choir won the Texas University Interscholastic League Choral Sweepstakes in sight reading. I continued the strategy of allowing students to share their favorite popular music. Every Friday we watched Beyoncé or some other pop star as a reward for the week’s hard work of singing, sight reading, and music theory lessons. One of my girl’s uncles taught salsa dancing at Gloria’s Restaurant in Arlington. After school we all learned to salsa and performed this while singing “Maria” by Santana. The cultures intermingled in harmony in our classroom. They learned to respect each other through the words of Martin Luther King, Latin chant, and through the choreography of the salsa. It was a melting pot. What had started out as chaotic was not perfect, but it was a rich, mesmerizing mix of 64 different native languages that lived together in the Irving Independent School District. Music was a bridge to cultural competence and communication. This is the experience that served as the catalyst for my dissertation topic, “Elementary music teachers instructing Hispanic English language learners: Reflection on practice” (2005).

Music was a bridge to cultural competence and communication.

My music teaching led me next to a large public suburban high school in Grapevine, Texas, just minutes from the Dallas International Airport. One morning as I led the 50-member varsity choir in warmups, there was a break for announcements before our rehearsal began. I needed to check with the band director next door about the instrumental students who would be accompanying us on the upcoming concert. As I walked into the band room, I noticed that several students were gathered around a television set and an eerie sight was on screen. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I discussed with the band directors that surely this was just a poorly trained pilot who had mistakenly crashed into the building. As the next few minutes unfolded and the second tower was hit, an unsettling fear hovered over us. I returned to the choir room and announced the tragic scene. Several of our students had parents who were pilots or who worked for American Airlines, which headquarters in nearby Fort Worth. We were in shock. We were all broken. After a few minutes of wild speculation and discussion, I decided we would watch the news on our classroom television as well. As the gruesome scene came to life, I could sense the fear and anxiety in our choir. After the facts were made known, I decided that a choral piece we had just learned was just the medicine needed to calm our fears and help us make it through the next hours. Lutkin’s arrangement of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” was the selection I asked the students to perform.

The members of the Grapevine High School Varsity Choir standing on a stage and singing.

The Grapevine High School Varsity Choir

After the first run through, I had an idea. “Students, follow me down the hall in single file order.” So they followed me down the long hallway past the office and the auditorium. We exited out the front door and circled around the tall flagpole where the cold wind was whipping the American flag. Our school was in the flight path of DFW Airport. All of the normal air traffic had stilled in the sky above us. Even the birds were flying erratically. I stated, “Students before we sing this song, let’s have a moment of silence, reflection, and prayer for all of those people who have been affected by today’s events in our country.” At this moment a small white pickup careened into the adjacent parking lot and a man hurriedly got out of his vehicle and walked urgently over to our circle. “Do you mind if I join you?” he said. “Of course,” I said. And we joined with this total stranger in singing these strong and meaningful words:

“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace. Amen.”

Many lessons were learned that day in music class. Mostly love.

It is the right of all students to express themselves creatively.

As I reflect on these and other teaching experiences, I count it as a blessing to live in a free country with public school for all students. During this economic season, many public schools are considering cutting funding for music and other arts. I hope that reading these accounts of music in public school has shown the many positive ways that music serves to inspire students to respectfully engage in a global world. Reflecting on these music education experiences reminds me that music has brought comfort and joy to a great many students. Our schools should be academically rigorous and support creative, critical thinkers. It is the right of all students to express themselves creatively. I consider it a great privilege to teach the empowering art of music.

Our Responsibility to the Next Generation

I try to live by the Seven Generations principle: meaning, to live one’s life with the next seven generations ahead in mind, while paying tribute to the lives and traditions of the seven generations that have come before. The most obvious application of this principle is in ecological practice: the reduction of one’s carbon footprint, elimination of waste, conscientious buying, and the like. As composers, we are immortalized in that our music is a tangible and teachable entity that can be passed down in the written and oral traditions for generations after we are gone. This concept is presented to us from the moment we learn what a composer is: part of the greatness of Beethoven and Bach is that their work has transcended not just years but centuries, and still remains important. As I grow as a musician and as a person, and (yikes!) my 30th birthday is less than a year away, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a hand in bringing up the next generation of musicians.

In a rather quick turn of events, I’ve gone from being the devoted disciple to the one looked to for leadership. My circumstances were specific, given that my mentor Fred Ho was dying and knew it, but I feel a responsibility to eventually do the same as he did before his death: to ensure the growth of my artistic tradition well past my lifetime and into the changing times.

Fred’s last project, The Eco-Music Big Band, is multigenerational, with our musicians’ ages ranging from 20 to 70. This happened somewhat by chance when the band was formed last year: those who had worked with Fred Ho and wanted to continue playing his music after his death joined my band, which was already filling up with some of the best young blood in the city. It has led to a dynamic that I wouldn’t trade for the world: the avant-garde fused with the foundational traditions. It means that leading, in this case, still means learning.

Four trumpeters of different ages playing their instruments

Multiple generations are represented in the trumpet section of the Eco-Music Big Band

One of our first few concerts was at the University of Vermont; before the concert, we gave a masterclass with the University of Vermont (UVM) Big Band. The UVM Big Band had been working on Soul Science Stomp, one of Fred Ho’s more famous charts, and some of our band sat in to work with them on it. I was guest conducting, and when one of the veterans in my band, who had been in the recording session for Soul Science Stomp, heard UVM’s rendition of it, he cried. When I spoke to him after, this is what he told me: “They really did their homework. They listened to the recording, listened for our phrasings, and matched them. It was really great.”

For the encore of the final performance of “The Red, Black and Green Revolutionary EcoMusic Tour” at the National Black Theatre on February 23, 2014, we performed Iron Man Meets the Black Dog Meets David Taylor written by me with Fred (my first big band arrangement!) for the bass trombonist David Taylor. (He’s also doing vocals on this one…)
What I learned from this experience is that making sure our music survives is about a lot more than just writing it down. It has to do with teaching our harmonic language and melodic style to those who learn from us. It has to do with nuance, experience, storytelling, and subtlety. It has to do with knowing, for instance, that Fred loved blaxploitation films and that the pitch bends in his melody lines are best done on the first beat and a half of every measure. It means that we should be able to pass on the same implicit understanding to those that we teach our music to. If we can do that, maybe ours will generate a momentum that lasts past our lifetimes.

One of my favorite things to do is sit and listen to the stories the members of my band have of playing with the likes of Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington. Their stories are of a different time, when things were simpler in some ways and more difficult in others. The time that they speak of is a time that I could never even begin to understand (let alone experience—opportunities for a female jazz composer/bandleader back then were virtually nonexistent), but I feel that their stories in some way later inform the musical decisions that I make and the music I write. Furthermore, these experiences, both the ones they tell me about and the ones they don’t, inform the musical decisions that they make when playing my work. Their deep and firsthand understanding of the traditions of Mingus and Ellington allow them a poignant frame of reference when approaching my more avant-garde ideas. When I bring my hip-hop collaborators to the band, it is these same older musicians who have the most surprising contributions. (Have you ever heard a trombone participate in a rap call-and-response?)

spiritchild joins the Eco-Music Big Band in a performance of Cal Massey’s “Hey Goddamnit, Things Have Got To Change”
To take the traditional and add something new is to understand where the traditions came from. We must respect the past but not put it in a museum; there are enough big bands playing standards out there. Understanding where Cal Massey was coming from when he wrote the Black Liberation Movement Suite allows me to help my hip-hop collaborators make informed contributions to his music. Similarly, understanding the traditions of Sun Ra informs my own compositions, even though my work doesn’t sound much like Sun Ra.

I am working with the poet and writer Quincy Troupe to finish an opera about Sun Ra coming back to life to save the planet from the apocalypse, brought on by global warming and large-scale oppression. It begs the question: What would Sun Ra be writing if he were alive right now? How can my experience living in the 21st century amid the effects of climate change and police brutality inform a fictional world of my own creation in which Sun Ra can come back and save us with his interplanetary music? Quincy has his own ideas—having known Sun Ra informs his creative process differently than mine. One of my favorite things about working with him is hearing the firsthand stories: running into Sun Ra in Switzerland; having the Arkestra visit the college campus where he worked. His stories inform my work in a way that I never could have anticipated. These stories couldn’t have been found in my research about Sun Ra’s life. They are only available firsthand.

I want to pass on not only my own stories but the stories that I am told about the likes of Duke, Miles, Sun Ra, and Mingus to those that I teach my music to. I want them to understand why the tradition is important to the continuation of our craft, even after we’ve embarked on our path to create something hopefully no one’s ever heard before. We must learn our scales before we can improvise; likewise, we must know where our traditions came from so we can create our own.

Albert Marquès wows the audience at the Blue Note with his piano solo on “Hey Goddamnit, Things Have Got To Change!”