Thursday, July 28, 2016

Summer Circuit

Professional musicians and academics share a similar yearly cycle. Most musical groups work within a season that begins in the fall and ends in the late spring/early summer. For those musicians – and in my case, composers – who work within the academy, there is a similar yearly schedule. Given this fall/spring season, many tend to assume (if they even think about artists and teachers at all) that musicians and academics simply “take the summer off” lounging at the pool and binging on Netflix for three months. How often I have heard the sentiment “wow…I wish I had my whole summer off…” by friends and family.

Truth is – there is very little time off during the summer months. For academics, this very short time-span is the single best period to further research that affects chances for promotion and tenure. For composers in the professional world (Mahler famously comes to mind) the brief summer months may simply be the only time to compose.

The Athens Saxophone Quartet in concert -
May 7, 2016 • Nicosia, CYPRUS
Yet, for many professional musicians (in or out of academia), summer does not actually afford the opportunity to recharge after the considerable demands of a performance season. Most of the time, summer is a time to continue performing at music festivals. Throughout the summer months, music festivals (large and prestigious as well as small and energetic) dot the landscape of our country as well as around the globe. Many of these festivals tend to mimic programming found in established ensemble seasons – meaning there is often a disparity between presenting older more “established repertoire” as compared to featuring contemporary music. However, there are still many festivals and conferences during the summer where a composer may find opportunities for performances of newer pieces.

I am grateful to be included among many other composers during the summer of 2016 who have received performances of pieces during the “off season.” For me, three particular events come to mind. First, I had the great fortune of having my work for saxophone quartet, Wandering Into Myth, performed at the International Conference: Wind Orchestras in Cyprus and Greece (May 7, 2016 in Nicosia, Cyprus). Sadly, I could not make the trek to Cyprus but having heard previous performances by the group that commissioned the work (the fabulous Athens Saxophone Quartet) I have no doubt of the quality of its presentation.

My "Two Tapestries for Brass Quintet" performance at the New
Music On The Bayou Summer Festival - June 3, 2016
Next, I was pleased to attend the inaugural New Music On the Bayou Summer Festival (June 1 – 4, 2016, Monroe, Louisiana) where my Two Tapestries for Brass Quintet received a really wonderful performance. In addition to the thrill of hearing my music performed at a very high level, the festival provided me with the opportunity to meet many new composers and performers from not only around the country but from around the world as well! I was amazed that talented composers from as far away as Italy and Mexico attended this festival. (This made me feel a little guilty for not making more of an effort to hear my work in Cyprus earlier!)

Lara Saville Dahl (oboe), Tania Maxwell Clements (viola)
and Tatiana Musanova (piano) performing my "Suite for
Oboe, Viola & Piano" at the 2016 IDRS Conference.
Later in the month of June, I was in the audience when my Suite for Oboe, Viola and Piano was performed at the 2016 International Double Reed Society Conference in Columbus, Georgia (June 28). I was doubly honored to have my music presented at this event not only because the piece itself was selected but also because my wonderful colleague, oboist Lara Saville Dahl, made the work part of her proposal for performance at the conference. I am forever grateful to the wonderful friends and colleagues in my life who regard my music high enough to include on their respective programs.

Finally, while not strictly speaking a performance at a summer festival, I was nevertheless just as thrilled to learn that the new recording on ABLAZE Records, New Choral Voices, Vol. 1, featuring my SATB a cappella work Every Good & Perfect Gift, was released in the late spring of 2016 both in physical and digital formats.

After a busy first half of the summer, I have settled into my more rigorous writing routine that has seen the completion of one new chamber work and the start of new work for symphonic wind ensemble commissioned by the Gwinnett Symphony Wind Orchestra. This routine, however, will be very short indeed as the new academic school year is barreling towards me like a runaway train. Wait…summer is nearly over already…?

One last mention – in case any reader may (rightly) feel that a good portion of this blog post was a thinly disguised self-promotional newsletter – I write this article as a form of therapy after receiving FOUR rejection letters for opportunities I really desired this past week (two yesterday alone). So there’s that.

From feeling unconquerable one moment to regarding myself as the worst composer ever in the next moment, I never cease to be reminded of the constant ebb and flow of an artistic life. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Roommate Issues

Success is often compared to a journey leading to a destination. People are said to have “made it to the top” and business plans cite “milestones” to mark progress. However, I don’t think about success in terms of a journey or a goal. Rather, I tend to think of success as a companion with whom I have a relationship. Like any healthy relationship, a significant amount of work is necessary to make the connection last.

The problem is that success is only an infrequent guest. My true artistic companions – the roommates of my creative life – seem to be disappointment and rejection.

A good way to court success: create your own music festival!
Here is the Artistic Board of SoundNOW the evening we
formally created the event (Feb. 2016). (L-R): Caleb Herron,
Amy O'Dell, yours truly, Olivia Kieffer & Brent Milam
There are, of course, many definitions of “success” that go beyond an artistic career. Outside my calling as a composer, I do feel very successful in my personal life. However, within the context of a professional career in the Arts, it is simply a truth that all artists must come to terms with rejection and disappointment at various points in their lives. All artists, especially composers, are well aware of their frequent visits. They show up so frequently for me that I have stopped thinking of them as “visits” altogether. Artistic disappointment and rejection have moved into my creative life as roommates. Yet, I am not alone in sharing my life with these unwanted housemates. Many artists have them hanging around, taking up space and using up valuable energy. After a certain amount of time, dealing with disappointment and rejection ceases to be “romantic” or a weirdly narcissistic badge of honor for the martyred artist.

After awhile, it just gets old.

I believe I am safe in assuming that there are thousands of composers within the United States with more being churned out of conservatories and music schools every year. I’m also not going out on much of a limb to note that contemporary classical music is not very high on anyone’s list of music streams, download purchases or even physical CD sales (if that is even a thing anymore). We can’t even agree on what to call our genre! Is it “Alternative Classical?”; “Art Music?”; “Contemporary Classical?” With so many composers, so few outlets for expression, no clearly defined genre and – at best – societal indifference to our work, there is no way success will simply show up on a composer’s doorstep, much less remain for an extended period of time.

The Clibber Jones Ensemble premiering my piece
Zero Hour. Part of the inaugural SoundNOW Festival!
The initial way a composer goes about courting success in such an environment is by submitting work to external opportunities such as contests, festivals and conference score calls with the hope of attracting the desired housemate. I am a big advocate of this and even highly encourage my students to engage in such submissions. However, relying exclusively on these kinds of opportunities can paradoxically be just the sort of energy that feeds unwanted guests. The odds are usually long against winning a contest or having work selected for a festival and invites rejection into the creative life. Unsuccessful submissions also richly feed disappointment. In order to nudge these roommates out the door, it’s best not to provide too much hospitality.

Chamber Cartel premiering my piece So Small Against The
Stars. Part of the inaugural SoundNOW Festival!
The artist who tires of disappointment and rejection faces three options: redefine “success”; make a life so barren of creative activity that disappointment and rejection leave out of sheer boredom; or actively refuse to serve these lousy roommates and make their environment inhospitable in order to force them out. For me, the first option seems like a cop-out and the second option is essentially a form of artistic suicide. The third option, while certainly more work, not only keeps unwanted roomies at bay but actively courts the very roommate I desire: success. Yet there’s more to simply refusing to serve rejection and disappointment. Should these undesirable guests finally leave but the “creative house” remains empty, they will return with greater ferocity. Their absence must be replaced. It is important for an artist to therefore actively pursue success. While courting success will still involve submitting work to outside score calls, there is an additional, and more pro-active, way to attract this more appealing roommate: a composer must create his or her own opportunities.

Not getting your music performed as much as you would like? Organize your own concert! Conductors and performers are unaware of your work? Promote yourself tirelessly online and in social media! No one is commissioning you to compose a new piece? Make friends with performers and write for them! Sometimes, substantive opportunities are nothing more than a flash of inspiration that one is not afraid to pursue. This is precisely how the SoundNOW Contemporary Music Festival, a brand new festival I am involved with, got off the ground. Click HERE to read more about the creation of this endeavor.

Creating a successful contemporary music festival certainly kept disappointment and rejection away this past spring. What really attracted the more desirable companion of success, however, was maintaining control over my own creative life. The success of SoundNOW was not dependent upon the subjective whims of an adjudication panel but rather through hard work. The same can be said of the group I founded back in 1996, the neoPhonia New Music Ensemble. Both activities have yielded success in my personal artistic career. Of course, engaging in these types of activities is risky and a bit daunting at first. It also takes lots of work to create a robust presence on the web and in social media; another very pro-active way to create opportunities. However, these types of actions nurture a relationship with success. Any healthy relationship always involves risk and hard work.

Disappointment and rejection will always be a part of my life as a composer. Selection panels will always be subjective and there are always better composers out there that will edge me out of opportunities. However, creating my own opportunities goes a long way to flipping my roommate paradigm. By taking control of my own artistic career, I should only need to put up with occasional visits from disappointment and rejection while enjoying the companionship of success.

It’s really up to me.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Taking This Show on the Road

It’s always great to learn that someone is actually reading these blog posts. In the case of my friend, Ari Ioannides, the President of Emerald Data Solutions, the blog was more than simply read. After coming across my posting on Three Ways to Escape A Cul-de-sac, Ari invited me to speak on these ideas at the 2015 eGovLIVE! Conference held just outside of Chicago, IL in early September 2015.

The following video is my 35-minute keynote address that not only references my posting on the creative Cul-de-sac but also incorporates ideas articulated in my July blog post on What It Takes to be successful as a composer.

Friday, July 31, 2015

What It Takes

As the summer days quickly pass away, I’m beginning to accept the inevitability that a new academic year will soon arrive. It won’t be long before I find myself standing in a classroom filled with young composers trying to help them master their craft, find their respective artistic voices and establish meaningful careers. In gathering my thoughts on how to once again approach these topics, there are two events that provide me some direction.

The first event was a conversation I had with a graduating composition student this past spring. For a final lesson, this student simply wanted to spend some time over coffee talking about what comes next. The conversation began with a simple question: “How do you know if you are successful?”

The second event was actually a series of short trips. This summer, my wife, daughter and I made several college visitations. My daughter, a rising high school senior, is interested in pursuing a career in Musical Theater. This desire is at least as daunting as my own desire was at her age to become a composer – perhaps more so. I can certainly relate to being strongly drawn to an artistic field that is ruthlessly competitive and offers little in the way of financial security. The administrators of the various musical theater programs we visited all spoke about the admission requirements and, more importantly, how their respective degrees would aid our young performer in getting on Broadway. Listening to these administrators, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the basic points in their respective conversations were very similar to the response I gave to my graduating composition student. The necessary tools for achieving success, it seems, may be the same irrespective of discipline. 

After thinking a bit more about the similarities between my conversation with a student and an administrator’s conversation with my daughter, I believe there are four major components to a successful professional career:

1. Talent

Whatever talent I may have is made to look better by
surrounding myself with super talented folks like
DJ/Composer Jennifer Mitchell (L) and Conductor
Georgia Ekonomou (C) - Photo taken after the premiere of my
commissioned work, "Eyes Wide Open" - April 27, 2015
Whether it is a composer holding a fistful of commissions or a Broadway actor holding an Equity Card and a contract for a long-running show, talent is the first and primary component for anyone who wants to be successful in the Arts. Sadly, this is the one component that no one can simply acquire via education and hard work. One is either born with the necessary creative aptitude or one is not. I love baseball, but no amount of wishing or training would have ever allowed me to throw a 95 mile-an-hour fastball. Possessing innate talent, however, certainly does not guarantee success. It is simply the prerequisite that allows one in the door. It’s not even enough to have the talent and the desire to develop one’s gifts.

2. “I can’t not do this.”

Recent performance of my "Long
Journey Home" given by the Lake
Superior Chamber Orchestra. 
I believe that a successful artist must be absolutely compelled to engage in their discipline. When I was a senior in high school, I was briefly torn between pursuing a degree in music composition and another field outside of music altogether. As I contemplated entering the non-musical field, I found my mind constantly devising ways that I would still be able to compose. It soon became apparent to me that I was going to find a way to write music no matter what the “day job” might be. For me, composing music is not just an enjoyable activity; it is as necessary as food and drink. It’s irrelevant whether I enjoy or desire certain foods. I am absolutely compelled to nourish my body or perish. While it may sound a bit dramatic, the creative drive approaches that level of importance for a successful professional artist.

Often, students receive the advice to “do what you love.” This is not entirely accurate. There are many times that I agonize over a piece of music I am writing. In those times, I can promise that am not experiencing joy or doing “what I love.” In fact, sometimes, I actually hate the drudgery of the process. However, I simply cannot not compose. This is different than “wanting” to compose. Despite creative agony, societal indifference to my endeavors and low pay, I nevertheless continue to write music anyway. There are joyful payoffs to be sure. However, my engagement in the field runs far deeper than simply “doing what I love.” I have always been driven to hone any talent I was given at birth and develop it to its full potential. This drive gives me the strength to make the considerable sacrifices necessary for a successful professional career.

3. Thick Skin

For every great opportunity like this, there
are many rejection letters!
Many people think that being an artist means one is “sensitive.” This may be true when discussing a person’s relationship to the natural world, the world of ideas or the creative process. However, artists cannot harbor for long any sensitivity about their personal successes or failures with respect to their work. I’ve written about rejection before in this blog. It’s never easy, of course, to get the word that your work has been passed over. However, it is a fact that there are far more failures than successes in the careers of most artists. This is certainly true for an endeavor as esoteric as contemporary classical music composition. Most professional composers do not receive major commissions, grants, prizes, recordings and stellar professional performances of their music on a regular basis.  Often, it seems that success is only an occasional visitor making brief appearances in the life of the composer while rejection is a constant and unwanted companion. So how does one push onward in the face of seemingly constant disappointment? In addition to the drive to create (described above) I believe it’s important to also perform a bit of a personal and honest artistic inventory:
  • Do I truly have the talent?
  • Sure, my family and close friends may think I’m the next Beethoven but what outside objective validation from a broad group of professionals in my field (teachers, performers, music critics, presenters, conductors, etc.) attests that I do, indeed, possess the basic tools?
  • What is my level of commitment?
  • Do I view my art as a hobby or side interest?
  • Do I have a job outside of my creative pursuit that prohibits my constant and uninterrupted pursuit of artistic expression?
  • What am I prepared to sacrifice for my art?

Honest answers to these questions will help determine an artist’s level of commitment. This honest inventory will also lead naturally to either the formation of a thick skin or to a realization that a professional career in the arts is not one’s true path in life. Rejection may always hurt, but that is just one of the many sacrifices an artist makes. Peer review of work can be a subjective process but it never hurts to also acknowledge that there is always someone more talented out there. A better response to rejection should be, “What am I prepared to do now?” I also find it helpful to remember a famous quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

4. There is No Plan B

Even if one has the necessary talent, the relentless drive to create and a thick skin there is one last component that most successful professional artists must have: no Plan B. One of the consistent takeaways my daughter heard in her college visitations was that to be successful in the audition process, a person must be all the way in. There is no dipping in a toe or easing slowly into the water. There is no hedging of bets and keeping several disparate irons in the fire – just in case. A successful artist never had a Plan B because it simply never occurred to them that they would not be successful.

The wonderfully talented students of the  Paideia Chamber
Orchestra rehearsing
 for the premiere of my piece,
"Eyes Wide Open" this past April.
In presenting these four components to success, I stress that I am speaking of what I believe it takes to be successful in a professional career. I’m speaking to those who forsake a “regular” life in favor of pursuing their art exclusively as their primary vocation. I do not mean to suggest that only professionals should engage in art or that the Arts should only be taught in rarified Ivory Towers for the Gifted. Quite the contrary! I believe many people are born with various artistic talents and gifts. They use these gifts as an integral part of their non-artistic vocations or contribute to the general health of artistic expression in various non-professional or semi-professional settings within their respective communities. They may just simply love and support the Arts. For these reasons, and for the general health of a civilized society, I believe a vibrant Arts education is essential for everyone. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

A tangible measure of success - Athanasios Zervos performs
my "Tonoi X" for solo soprano sax at the  17th World Saxophone
Congress – Strasbourg, France • July 10, 2015
What separates successful professional artists are the levels of commitment and sacrifice they are willing – no, compelled – to give to their art. Such commitment will usually result in some tangible measurement of success. Ultimately, there is also another way that I think any artist can be reasonably sure of true success: there must constantly be an acceptable dissatisfaction with one’s career. Acceptable dissatisfaction never falls into self-pity, envy or jealousy. For the composer, being acceptably dissatisfied with a career simply is the grateful recognition of past successes (no matter how meager) and a belief that the next piece will be better; that the next composition will somehow do a better job of articulating a personal artistic voice.

Despite what a trophy case may or may not reveal, I believe that true success is the result of talent, hard work, a thick skin and a single-minded devotion to the creation of art. Given this foundation, how did I answer my graduating student when I was asked, “How do you know if you are successful?”

I am successful so long as I remain grateful for my gifts, confident in my abilities, diligent in my work ethic, unconcerned with comparing myself to others and realize that there is always much to learn and more room to grow. The rest always takes care of itself.