Tag: non-traditional

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

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

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

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

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

So why did I do it?

Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012

Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012

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

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

UWM Band Rehearses Universe

UWM Band Rehearses …and then the Universe exploded

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible Cities: Choose Your Own Opera

Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities
There’s something about Italo Calvino’s novels that makes them seem inherently musical. Maybe it’s the omnipresent interaction between precise mathematical structure and human intuition that recurs again and again in his writing. Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which finds Marco Polo narrating his travels to Kublai Khan, has a prescribed combinatorial chapter structure that dictates what kind of cities Polo describes and when, but the content of those chapters is so imaginative, so free. The structure becomes a kind of window frame that both enables and restricts what we see.

At LA’s Union Station last Sunday, November 17, I saw composer Christopher Cerrone’s opera based on Calvino’s novel, also called Invisible Cities. Wisely, Cerrone doesn’t copy the book’s structure, instead focusing on five particular cities. But as produced by the opera company The Industry and directed by Yuval Sharon, the event brilliantly captured both the ephemerality and rigor of Calvino’s writing. The Industry first grabbed people’s attention last year with a production of Anne LeBaron’s Crescent City, which featured a sprawling set composed of individual parts designed by different artists. Invisible Cities managed to be at once more extravagant and subtle, with the audience listening to the live performance on wireless headphones while wandering freely through an actual, historically scenic train station. The singers and dancers moved through the station too, with varying degrees of conspicuousness.

More production videos available here.

This means that anyone who saw the opera had a unique, unrepeatable experience—or, in Sharon’s words, everyone had a “front row seat.” But the fragmentary nature of this experience that makes it so compelling also makes it difficult to review. I can’t really evaluate the whole opera; I can only evaluate my experience of it.

Thankfully Cerrone’s music provides a powerful throughline for the entire duration. Less overtly dramatic than a typical opera score, there is an undercurrent of placidity to his music even at its most frantic and furious. It mirrors the benignly distant character of Calvino’s writing, unmoved by or removed from the cities’ inhabitants in a way, a kind of storm’s eye, an observer in a world of actors.

As the opera progressed, I felt unsure if I was an observer or an actor myself. After a brief instrumental overture, we wandered into a courtyard where a woman in white holding a large, shallow bowl sang long, lyrical lines. Crossing through the station into another courtyard, we came upon a stoic man in a wheelchair. While he wasn’t singing at the time, he was clearly part of the production. But this line was not always clear. When we re-entered the station, there were several audience members clustered around some chairs where two men were sitting. One looked bewildered, while one was sleeping or pretending to sleep. We had clearly just missed something, but what?

After that we found the bar, which became our stationary vantage point for much of the opera. We saw businessmen on smartphones moving in lockstep, dancers in military uniforms, and some kind of confrontation between the man in the wheelchair and a man in Italian Renaissance garb. As we watched, the man in the wheelchair stood, unsteadily, leaning on a cane.
Finally we returned to the ticket booth area where we began. Most of the audience seemed to be clustered here now, mesmerized by a line of dancers on the counter. A man emerged from the crowd that I recognized as the man in the wheelchair, but he was walking now, and dressed in resplendent robes. It was Kublai Khan. I prepared to follow him to his next destination but the music ended, and the opera was over.

I was left with an immediate desire to see the opera again, but unfortunately, appropriately, this was the final performance in a two-month run.

I should mention that on Sunday, the opera was preceded by a special performance of Cerrone’s Memory Palace, a work for percussion and electronics performed by Ian David Rosenbaum. Based on sounds from Cerrone’s childhood, the piece has a remarkable economy of materials, with subtle variations of a haunting motive threaded through five movements lasting 25 minutes. Rosenbaum’s performance was exceedingly sensitive to these subtleties. The piece was performed in commemoration of translator William Weaver, who brought most of Calvino’s novels to the English-speaking world.