My path to becoming a composer has been roundabout, but I thought I’d share a bit about how I got to the work I’m doing today - and it’s not through a whole lot of training specifically in composition!
Much to my regret, I don’t remember many opportunities to be creative in my piano lessons as a child - improvisation and composition weren’t part of my experience. (That’s why I have all of my students do both, and even improvise at the very first lesson!) Looking back, I remember more of a perspective of right notes vs. wrong notes. I can’t remember my early piano education fully, but I know that I was a very shy kid, and could have used more encouragement to create my own music, instead of just playing others’ music (although, that is great, too).
My first experience was an elective music theory/composition class in high school, in which we were given very little guidance - the class was basically spent going through modules of music theory software (most of which I’d learned already in piano lessons), and working independently on our pieces. I don’t remember any criticism that I received on my writing, constructive or otherwise (and I would remember that, since I was such a perfectionist back then), so I assume that we just got a few comments on our final projects. I learned something from trying to write, but didn’t get to develop my skills like I would have if there were feedback throughout the whole semester.
My path to becoming a professional musician had some fits and starts, too - I actually quit piano lessons with my longtime teacher after 11th grade, with the idea that I was going to switch to a jazz piano teacher, but I never followed through on that, and when it came time to apply to colleges, I didn’t consider majoring in music because I didn’t believe that I could do it. Back then I had a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset (read Mindset by Carol Dweck!) - despite years of practice and learning on the piano, I didn’t have confidence in my abilities to grow. I eventually decided to audition to be a music minor at Ithaca College, started with the required theory, sightsinging, and lessons, while trying out other types of classes, too. Toward the end of my freshman year, my advisor had commented to me that she thought I had too many classes in my minor, which then solidified my feeling that music was indeed supposed to be my focus. I decided to audition to be a music major soon afterward, was officially admitted into the program, and still managed to graduate in 4 years! So, even though I didn’t initially choose music, it kind of chose me.
My lack of confidence about my playing abilities at that time also extended to my composing abilities. I didn’t do much more writing, if any, after that high school class because I still didn’t feel “qualified” - I hadn’t yet gotten comfortable with the idea that you have to do something more (and more!) to become better at it and gain confidence. During my last semester of college in 2005, I decided to sign up for another composition class, which was (unsurprisingly) much more helpful, since we wrote weekly assignments, and got useful feedback. (I was going to show an example here, but sadly, I think that those files are lost, and my office closet is too scary to dig through and maybe find a paper copy!) I do remember that my style back then was to overcomplicate things because I didn’t want it to be TOO EASY - I used some interesting rhythms and melodies, but things often got too clunky because I tried to cram too many ideas in - I was using my brain too much, and not trusting my ears enough.
I still didn’t continue the habit of composing after college, but every so often, I would write down a snippet of something. I was pretty intimidated by the thought of writing something for real, so this felt like a safe way to collect ideas.
Then, about 5 years ago, I applied to play at a faculty recital at one of the schools where I teach, with the proposal that I would write a couple solo piano arrangements of Brazilian choros. Before that, I’d written many arrangements for my students (mostly simplifications), but it was the biggest arranging project I’d taken on thus far, with a deadline to motivate me to finish (let’s be real)! Over the next few years, I wrote more arrangements of Brazilian songs for these recitals - this felt like a safe entry point because arranging gives you a sort of template - and began to take on other arranging projects. Each year I got more and more adventurous with my writing, while in the meantime, I would still write down original snippets of things occasionally, but rarely do anything more with them.
In October 2015, I was tired of not taking myself seriously enough, and decided to give myself a personal challenge to write a little bit every day in the month. Although I wasn’t brave enough to share my work at the time, one of these snippets eventually turned into my Brazilian choro Anelante!
That December, my trio played a composition by our cellist Aaron Kerr at the New Ruckus Composer Night, a monthly event for sharing original music (of any kind) here in St. Paul. I thought to myself, “Hmm, I don’t have anything written, but I should get in line anyway - a deadline will be motivating.” (Are you seeing a theme here?) I eventually got programmed on a July 2016 date, and had finished the first section of what is now Anelante to perform, as well as another contrapuntal mini-piece for piano. Performing my music was really scary at first, since I didn’t quite believe that I was officially a composer, but it was a great experience, and to my delight, I got lots of positive feedback.
Showing up in public to share my work was the push I needed to write more - I began to actually feel like a composer, and decided to start calling myself one, which felt like a big deal. I also started to notice my self-critical brain’s grip loosening - less often asking “is this good?” than “do I like how this sounds?” (Still a work in progress, but I do believe in growth mindset - anything can improve if we give it our attention.) I had finished the B section of Anelante over the winter (Brazilian choros typically have 3 major sections), and signed up for another New Ruckus date in April 2017 to force myself to finish it.
The real turning point that increased my output and commitment to the creative process of composing was signing up for the 100 Day Project in 2017 (which I wrote about a lot here), a global art project in which people do a project of their choice for 100 days in a row, and post it to Instagram. I decided that I would write 8 measures of music each day, of any type - the main point was to show up every day and do it.
Showing my work daily was also scary at first, but I quickly became desensitized to it, so it became much more fun. After the 100 days ended in mid-July, I found that I actually missed this daily habit of writing music, so I did another 100 days at the end of 2018, too! (Thoughts on that here.)
I’ve now shared a lot about how I became a composer, but not yet why - I’ve known for a while that it’s not enough for me just to interpret others’ music (which I also have great respect for). Also, as a recovering perfectionist, I was most often in a right vs. wrong mindset when playing classical music, which felt unhealthy for me. I remember moments of practicing for a concert or audition, playing a “wrong” note or chord, thinking, “Ooh, that sounded cool,” then shutting down that creative spark because I was supposed to be learning that piece, not making up my own stuff (which sounds super sad to me now!) All aspects of solving the creative puzzle that is writing a piece of music are engaging for my brain, and most importantly, it just feels like fulfilling a deep need (that maybe I can’t exactly explain - how do you explain anything that you fall in love with?)
Even though I did go to music school, a traditional path, my path to composing was not academically traditional at all - when I was in school, it didn’t even occur to me that majoring in composition was something that I could have done. Sometimes I wish that I had done it back then, but all I can do is accept where I am right now, and go from there, which is actually kind of liberating - just move forward, whatever that looks like.
It’s a little scary for me to admit that I don’t have a long history with being a composer, but I don’t really think that matters. What matters is that I like the work I’m producing (and hopefully others do too), and that I’m committed to continuing to work on it, and to the experience of the creative process. The way that we build skills is to keep composing, keep improving, look for feedback from trusted sources, and get people to play our music. Anyone can do this - you just have to decide that you will.
If you're a musician who has thought about writing but didn't know where to start, if you're looking for some idea generation, or camaraderie with other creative musicians, I have just the thing - if you're interested, sign up below and join us! Don't wait for years, like I did!