The Mind of a Composer

I never thought, as a piano performance major in college, that I’d spend a good percentage of my professional time composing.

As a concert pianist, I’m immersed in the ideas of other composers, and I love the intellectual challenge of trying to figure them out. Most of the time, it’s fun, although there are stretches that are just plain hard. Like now, as I painstakingly make my way through the Allemande from Bach’s fifth English Suite. There are so many changes in harmony that don’t quite seem logical to me–but, hey, I’m just the player. Yesterday’s practice session got me to the end of the first half, and it’s always interesting to see what stayed in memory a day later when the piece pushes my mind to its limits like this.

On another level, I’ve earned a good portion of my annual income from composing. My “Soul Essence” pieces have continued to sell steadily, and I passed the hundred-song mark sometime last December. Besides these individual portraits in sound, there has been the “Five Elements” series of music for healing, meditation or plain enjoyment, and I’ve written lots of things to enhance my piano teaching.

Perhaps the most fun, though, is my teaching composition to students. These range in age from five to their late teens (pretty much K-12 kids). So many kids tell me, “I can’t compose,” because they’ve never tried it and, to a lesser extent, their creativity hasn’t been stimulated.

Every year, I hold a series of competitions for my students called the Piano Olympics, and one of the categories is for composition. Once kids discover that they can be creative, that, with the technological advantage of a digital keyboard hooked up to a computer and software that not only creates lots of different sounds but can also correct uneven rhythm and otherwise produce a very polished end result, and that there is no such thing as a “wrong” composition, they often surprise themselves.

Often, this process takes a few years to unfold. Students who only composed the first year because I made them do it decide they want to try something bigger their second time around. And they’re not content to do two songs that sound alike. They begin exploring different moods, styles, and national traditions–music with an Asian flavor is popular.

There’s a different frame of mind for each of these. As a pianist, if I’m interpreting someone else’s music, there is room for my own personal sound, and this is what sets me apart from the other thousands of pianists out there–it’s what distinguishes Pianist A from Pianist B and both of them from Pianist C. But, the composer’s ideas must take precedence and guide what I do.

Writing for students, with a pedagogical goal, requires me to work within sometimes very strict limits. A first-year piano student won’t be able to play what a third-year student can, and yet, both deserve engaging music that is enjoyable to play, teach, and listen to. How, for instance, do I create a full, rich harmonic landscape without moving beyond the scope of what a 5-year-old’s hand can reach?

Finally, music for healing or as an expression of a person’s humanity, perhaps more than the other two forms, demands that I, as an individual, step aside, make room for the “song of the spirit” to come through. It’s the same tenet that should guide healing of any kind: “It’s not about me”.

One of the things that gives me the most satisfaction as a teacher is that all my students don’t sound like me. They don’t even sound too much like one another! We produce a CD of their Piano Olympics compositions every year, and it’s always fascinating to me to listen to the whole thing, as a group, and hear just how diverse the music is.

We’re heading into “crunch time” now–the deadline for the composition competition is April 1, and some of my longtime students, who can usually be counted on to produce very interesting pieces, haven’t even started yet. As I write this, two kids are just about done, and two more have the main content of their work finished. A fifth has a melody, but nothing beyond that.

Over the next few weeks, guiding students in what to listen for as they create, how to balance repetition and change, using instrumentation to highlight their ideas, and coming up with a title that fits the piece, I’ll be challenging them and challenging myself to think and hear in new ways.

Let the games begin.

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Explore posts in the same categories: healing arts, music, piano, psychology, spirituality, teaching

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