I hear from time to time that music is the universal language. In many cases I agree with this statement, but I also don’t agree with this statement at all. I know this seems very oxymoronic, but bear with me and I’ll try to explain why I think this way.
Music for the most part is pitch and rhythm played in time, basically just organized sound. The individual sounds themselves have no particular meaning no real ‘universal’ lexicon that guides us to particular thoughts when we hear them. They are just soundwaves that hit our ears. Since humans are pattern seeking creatures, we try to organize those sounds into something meaningful, but as individuals we are going to do this in different ways.
Before we get into the more abstract ideas behind sound let’s look at sound from a scientific angle. Sound, as we know, is the effect that happens when objects vibrate and disturb the air molecules around it, which creates sounds waves. These waves are measured in frequency of the number of revolutions the object makes as it vibrates and these are labeled as Hertz (Hz), named after Heinrich Hertz. The speed at which something vibrates we hear as pitch. So something that is vibrating at 1000Hz we hear as a high pitch, while something vibrating at 400Hz sounds lower to our ears.
So, now that we have some science behind our sounds, do we find any “universal” organization there? In the United States and in most of Europe we have a standard frequency for A, which equals 440Hz. There are parts of Europe where A has a range between 440Hz and 444Hz. Which isn’t a huge difference in frequency but changes a lot of things for musicians, especially string players. If we start throwing in music traditions and pitch standards from other countries outside of the US and Europe it starts to get really confusing. An example of this would be a Javanese Gamelan, since they don’t use exact pitch but relative pitches to a single instrument. A=440Hz has only been the standard for 48 years. The International Organization of Standardization didn’t adopt A=440Hz until 1975, before then the standard was 435Hz, which was the standard in Paris and Austria, which was mostly used in the Romantic Period (1830 – 1900). During the Baroque Period A=415Hz. (That’s a 25Hz difference, a huge difference from standard pitch today!) As we see pitch has changed drastically over time and with an increased interest in having historically accurate performances, the older tuning practices have been adopted by some modern ensembles.
So, great pitch isn’t really standardized, but music expression is something that we can all understand, right? Well … yes and no. Yes, we can listen to music and make an interpretation about the music, but is your interpretation and my interpretation going to be the same. Probably not. When we interpret things our history, experience, belief systems, culture, etc. all play a part in how we make our judgements and interpretations. Most of the time we do this subconsciously and without realizing it.
For example, a few months ago, me, my partner, and a friend went to listen to the Oklahoma City Philharmonic play Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. After the performance the three of us got into a discussion about the piece and what each of us thought about the performance and the music. My partner notice that the music at the being of the second act or Rite of Spring sounded very familiar to him. I point out the John Williams stole it for the theme for the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars (for you non Star Wars nerds it the desert planet that Luke and Anakin Skywalker lived on). This was the first time that our friend had heard this piece and loved the overall sound of the piece and the primal pictures that it invoked for him. As for me, it brought back memories of studying this piece in school and remembering the history of the piece and the many, many discussions I had about this piece with friends. Each of us in this situation walked away with different interpretations of this piece and thinking about different things.
In the Baroque period a group of music theorist came up with this idea that certain music keys and intervals express different moods and feelings. This was called the Doctrine of the Affections. Some of the ideas from this suggest that smaller intervals express sadness while larger intervals express joy. Key signatures such as C Major was considered joyous, A minor was honorable and calm. Music from India also has a similar system for their Raga (scales/tonal centers). Indian music also takes it to a different level by restricting certain Raga to certain times of the year or for specific occasions.
So, I’ve given many reasons why music isn’t universal. So why do I think it is. Honestly it’s a simple reason really. Music affects us all emotionally. We may not have the same reaction and it may not illicit the same emotions, but there are pieces and songs that we connect with, that give up hope, and joy, make us feel loved, make us cry, make us feel happy and sad. All of these emotions are universal and what helps define us as sentient beings. When we listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony we may not get the same emotional response, but as one listener to another we can connect over how it makes us feel, what we like about the piece, and what we don’t like the piece.
In the end music connects us in ways that we may not be able to in any other way. Just because I don’t fully understand a piece of music, what the text says, or why the composer wrote the music, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it and get meaning out of the piece.
I’ve been thinking about my writing prosses a lot lately. I’m coming off a long stint of writers’ block. When I have these periods of writers’ block, I start thinking about how I can improve my writing process and I’m in the process of doing this. So, I may ramble some. Please forgive me. I’m going to break this down into two parts. The way that I work on children’s pieces greatly differs from how I work on more mature works.
When I begin working on children’s work the first thing that I think about is the techniques that I want my player to learn and practice. For example, maybe I want my performer to learn about rolling chords (arpeggios). This will be the focus of the piece so the piece that I develop will stem from this idea rather than from the musical themes themselves. Once I have the main technique decided and a couple of themes written using the technique, I begin looking for other techniques that are similar or that will complement the primary technique. This will end up being a secondary theme or a development of the main theme that I can use to help spice up the piece. For the most part my children’s pieces follow standard structures such as 4 bar question and answer phrases, 8 – 16 bar sections, etc. Because of children limited technical abilities pedagogical pieces tend to be highly structured and highly limited in scope. One of the reasons I love writing beginning pieces is because it limits a lot of decision making. This box that pedagogy pieces put you in helps me to be more creative be I have to try to make the piece interesting and still focus on the primary objective of the piece.
Writing more mature works is a different story and seems to be something that I struggle with from time to time. I have discovered if I have a premise or a title to work from that it makes writing much easier. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote my piece Ancient Alchemy. I knew that I wanted the piece to focus around the four elements and because I had that starting point the work seemed to fly by. My first step after getting the thesis, I started writing themes that reflected each of the elements and finding techniques that would help color these ideas. The next step was laying out the ideas that made a logical progression in my mind, followed by connecting these ideas together. The next step for me is where the real heart of composition lies, that’s in editing. At this point I have put together an audio file (usually MIDI) so that I can listen to the piece over and over again. During this editing process I make adjustments to things, change layouts, add dynamics and articulations, and begin to slowly build the piece into something that I like and am happy with. This process takes lots of time an effort. There are times when I hear things that I absolutely hate, but am not sure how to correct it. This is when I go back to the beginning of the process and begin again with just that small little piece of music.
I am always looking for new and more efficient ways to compose, looking for new ideas to improve my writing process. One of the things that I often turn to is articles on writing stories and novels. Surprisingly there are a lot of similarities between writing a book and writing a piece of music. Somethings that I have looked at and/or learned are about structure, form, keeping on track, etc. Even participate in NaNoWriMo, except I work on music instead of a novel. (NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. It’s an annual event that generally happens in November and it is used to help novice writers to complete lengthy projects. It started in 1999 as a challenge to write 50,000 words within a month. It’s a great program. I’ll post a link to the website below.)
This is just a little glimpse into my composing world and what I do. If you have any writing tips, I would love to hear them. I’m always looking for new perspectives and new ways to make my writing process better.
I am an avid reader and always have a pile of books on my night stand. My favorite genres include fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, horror, and of course books about music. I’ve also been known to read a romance or two. With that being said, I’m going to give you a list of 7 books that every musician should have in their collection. These are in no particular order, and I’m not being paid or asked to promote these books. I just think these books are good and should be in a studio collection.
What to Listen for in Music
by Aaron Copland
Written by American composer Aaron Copland (if you’re not familiar listen to some of his works: Rodeo, Quiet City, Appalachian Springs, and Fanfare for the Common Man). It is one of the best books out there to learn about basic music concepts. Copland is great at explaining musical concepts to the layperson and his style of writing is easy to read.
The Art of Practicing
by Madeline Bruser
This is such a great book. It’s one I return to every year just to encourage myself to practice more. In this book Bruser gives great advice on ways to practice and helps the reader overcome practicing hang ups a student may have. She works with other musicians and gives pointer for various different instrument, focusing on technique and breathing all the way through. If you need to improve your practice habits, this is a great book to pick up.
Secret Lives of Great Composers: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the World’s Musical Masters
by Elizabeth Lunday
It’s a long title, but this is a fun read. Lunday gives short biographical accounts of composers from Bach, Berlioz, Glass, and others that are presented in a tongue and cheek in nature, recapping incidences in these composers’ lives that they might wish history would forget. Lunday does it in a way, though, that is not meant to disrespect our musical heroes, but makes them seem more human and relatable.
Musical Composition Craft and Art
by Alan Belkin
Written by Canadian Composer Alan Belkin, this book gives fledgling composers a step by step method to writing their first piece. This is a great book for composition teachers as well as students wanted to learn the basics of composition. Belkin gives exercises at the end of each chapter for students to complete and also has a YouTube channel where he expands upon the material (link provided below). I use this in my studio with my composition students as well. It is clearly written, without a lot of jargon and the methods can be applied all types of composition, be it video game music, chamber music, or a symphony. If you have students that are interested in composition or you yourself are interested in writing, you should give this book a read.
Embrace Your Weird
by Felicia Day
Everyone should have an uplifting book that they can go to, to help them get over the bad days. Felicia Day’s book is one of those books. Not only is it a workbook to help you get through being stuck or just getting a little motivation, but Day gives you glimpses into some of her own personal struggles with her carrier. It is written in a fun quirky manor, reflective of her acting style. If you want something for self-improvement or just a little pick me up, I highly recommend this book.
Beyond Talent Creating a Successful Career in Music
by Angela Myles Beeching
If you are trying to start a career in music or trying to come up with new ideas to change your music career, Beyond Talent is a great resource. Beeching’s book provides a plethora of ideas to help budding musicians get started with their careers and provides information on the essential things that need to be done to help you get started. This book is a must for soon be professional musicians and established professionals alike.
Music in the Western World a History in Documents
by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin
This is probably the priciest book that I am going to suggest, mainly because it’s a textbook, but it is such a good book to have that I’m going to risk it. Music in the Western World is a collection of letters, reviews, diary and journal entries, newspaper articles, and the like about musicians, composers, and critics. It’s a great way to get into the mind of some of our favorite past music artists and learning about the time periods that they lived in.
What are some of your favorite books about music? I look forward to reading them!
The last few weeks have been dreadfully busy, not to mention that I ended up sick for a few days, which really through my schedule for a loop. Despite all of that though there are few things that I’d like to share with you that are coming up over the horizon for me.
The first thing that I would like to mention is my studio recital. While recitals time is usually a busy time for me, I really enjoy them. I love just getting to sit an listen to my students play and let them just have fun playing pieces that they have worked hard on. Not only does it give them a performance opportunity, it just a fun way to share our music with family and friends. My next recital will be at the end of the school year, in late May or early June. Normally I have a theme that goes a long with my recital, but I think for this third one, it just going to be music we enjoy.
A couple of years ago I met my friend Ruirui. She has been a big champion of my music and I love listening to her play stuff that I have written. Last year, after Ruirui had finished playing my piece Ancient Alchemy, she asked if I would write something bigger. We discussed it for a while and then finally landed on a piano quintet (piano plus string quartet). I have been diligently working on this piece for her, I have had a few setback but and in a good work rhythm now and have a great start on the first movement. The premier of this piece will either this fall or next winter.
So, earlier last year I started working for Deer Creek public schools as the Fine Arts secretary. This job has put me in contact with several wonderful music and theater teachers. It has also given me an opportunity to explore writing symphonic band music again. In the next few weeks, the band director will read one of my pieces I have written previously. The students and the director will be giving me feed back on what they think about the piece and things that I need to work on. Hopefully this will spur me on to write some more pieces for band. I am looking forward to this opportunity and looking forward to what everyone has to say about the piece.
Along with the above upcoming events I am working on getting a couple of my pieces published. One piece will be a set of children’s pieces that I wrote last years. These are a set of little dances that are based on the five finger patterns. The other piece is a set of three short nocturnes. My goal is to get this out and available for purchase by the end of the summer. As a reminder I have two pieces are that are available for purchase if you are interested, 25 Pieces for Little Fingers and Ancient Alchemy.
As a music lover, musician, and composer there are certain pieces/songs that I always return to. Pieces for when I’m sad, happy, or just excited about life. I know we all have those songs that we add to our favorites lists. This is going to be a starter list of some my favorite pieces that I listen to over and over and over again. (These are in no certain order).
“Little” Fugue in G Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach
This piece is one of my favorites because it is one of the first organ pieces I learned to play. It has a nice opening theme that if it’s voiced correctly on the organ can make you feel ten feet tall. This organ fugue isn’t one of Bach’s major works, but it’s fun to play and fun to listen to. Listening to this piece makes me miss playing the organ.
I added a scrolling score video so you can see all of the voices that are happening at the same time. I find fugues fascinating and like I said above this is one of the first ones I ever played so it holds a special place in my heart.
Jux d’Eau by Maurice Ravel
I love this piece, but it is exceptionally difficult to play! It requires a lot of various piano techniques to accomplish that include wide hand positions and cross hand jumps. However, when it is done right it is a gorgeous piece to listen and relax to. The title Jux d’Eau translates to “playful water.” Ravel does a wonderful job of musically depicting light shining through the waters of a fountain. Every time I hear this piece I close my eyes and I can see the Fontaines de mers in Paris.
This performance is by Martha Argerich. She is one of my favorite pianist! This is a great video because is shows the technicality that is involved in playing this piece and she makes it look so easy!
Prelude from La Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel
Yes, another Ravel piece. If you don’t know I’m kind of a fan of Ravel’s music. I especially like the first movement of his Tombeau de Couperin. The whole work is wonderful to listen to but the Prelude always reminds me leaves dancing in the wind. When I wrote my piece Ancient Alchemy I listened to this piece a lot to get inspiration for my Air movement. I’m curious what you think about when you hear this piece.
I shared two versions of this piece. The first is the original piano version and the second is the Frankfurt Radio Symphony performing an arrangement of the work. The first time I ever heard this piece was as an instrumental version ... I hate to say it, but I think I like the orchestral version better!
Vltava (Die Moldau) from Ma Vlast by Bedrich Smetana
I was introduced to this work in one of my college music theory classes. The piece depicts a boat cruse down the Moldau River. The music starts out with flutes playing these beautiful runs that weave in and out of each other, creating these musical rapids that are amazing to listen to. When the melody finally takes over it, gives you this feeling of sad longing, like you have been away from home and you know that you are never going to return. As the piece progresses it becomes brighter and happier. As Smetana continues down the Moldau he depicts different scenes from Czech life. I hope that you enjoy this piece as much as I do.
Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Felix Mendelssohn
This piece in itself is a lot of fun and then pair it with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it’s even more fun. Listening to the whole work is going to take you a good hour at least, but if you don’t have that amount of time at least listen to the overture. As you listen to the second movement Scherzo you can certainly hear fairies and sprites dancing around. Not to mention, there is an amazing flute solo in the middle. Listen to the Scherzo and if you have time listen to whole thing, you won’t regret it. (Oh! Did I mention this is work where the Wedding March comes from?)
The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky
The Firebird is probably in the running to be number one on my list of favorite pieces ever (we’ll that and Jux d’Eau). If you are not familiar with this piece it, is based on the Russian folktale of the Firebird, a mythical bird wreathed in flame (similar to the phoenix) that helps Prince Ivan defeat the immortal sorcerer Koschei. The opening of this ballet sets the tone for the whole work. It opens with the low strings playing a very ominous and mystical feeling melody which slowly builds in intensity. The whole ballet itself is about 30 – 40 minutes in length so easy to get through in one setting. I encourage you to listen to this piece.
The video provided below is an old Bolshoi Ballet Russe Film, it's a little dated but still a lot of fun to watch.
Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler
I was never really into symphonies until I heard this piece. Of all of Mahler’s symphonies I feel that this one is the most accessible and fun to listen too. Mahler juxtaposes several themes, moods, and textures against each other that it makes for an interesting listening experience. My favorite movement of this five movement work (no wonder it’s nick named “Titan”) is number 4, titled Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (solemn and measured without dragging). Checkout this epic work and tell me what your thoughts are.
The Planets by Gustav Holst
Probably one of his most famous pieces. I love this work because of the wide variety of moods that Holst presents in this work. This wonderful piece that depicts each of the plants (sorry Pluto not included). Each work in the piece have fun descriptive names such as Mars, Bringer of War; Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity. Holst was interested in astrology and each movement depicts his ideas about the astrological meanings behind each planet. My favorite movements in this work are Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune.
Past Life Melodies by Sarah Hopkins
So, this is probably one you may not have heard of unless you are familiar with collegiate choral music literature or from Australia. Past Life Melodies is by Australian composer Sarah Hopkins and I love it for two different reasons. One, it is a chorale piece that doesn’t use text it complete sung with neutral syllables and secondly, it uses overtone singing in the third section. The composer, Sarah Hopkins, stated that the piece was inspired by Aboriginal chant melodies. This is a fun and interesting piece to listen to and one I really enjoy listening to over and over again.
Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughn Williams
This is a gorgeous piece! If you have never listened to it stop everything you’re doing and devote the next 15 minutes to this piece. It will change your life! Vaughn Williams is one of those composers that I have always aspired to be. I love the complex simplicity that he creates in his music. What I mean by this is that his melodies and pieces always sound so simple and pleasing, but once you start digging into his work you begin to see the complex ideas that themes that are underneath the melodies. This is most evident in this work. Enjoy!
I hope that you enjoyed the selections I provided for you. I'd love to hear about some of the music that you love repeating and I look forward to sharing more music with you in the future!
Advocating for mental health has always been important to me. When I was a practicing music therapist my specialization was in mental health. I think that everyone should spend at least a few months working with a counselor to help them unpack some of their past experiences. So, with that being said I am going to be open about some of my mental health issues.
Over the past few years I have been experiencing depression. This was brought on by the loss of my grandparents (who raised me) and dealing with some trauma that I experienced in college. I have been working with a counselor over the past year and thanks to his help I am coping with it in a much healthier way.
My depression manifests in a couple of different ways, which generally revolve around self-esteem. I have a tendency to be very hard on myself and get stuck in loops of negative thinking. This leads to me getting into bouts of writer’s block, which feeds back into my self-esteem and negative thoughts because I’m unable to produce the work I know I should be able to. Which feeds into the cycle and keeps it going.
Another way that my depression seems to appear is in the form of social anxiety. For those of you who know me this may be hard to believe, because generally I am a very social person. When I get into cycles of negative thoughts, I feel that people don’t want to be around me and I use little things to justify this line of thinking. Then, instead of trying to reach out, I isolate myself and that begins another feedback cycle.
After working with my counselor for a while, I am beginning to learn how to identify when theses cycles start and to learn how to break them. One of the things that I use to help me through these dark periods is meditation. There are several types of meditation exercises that I use to help me through this process, one of which is pairing meditation with positive affirmations and mantras. A harder technique is that I have been working on is actually letting the thoughts appear and then letting them go. This practice is based in Zen and one that I have the most trouble with, but also have been getting better results from.
I hope this sheds some light on my own struggles, and if you are struggling with depression that reading this helps you not feel so alone. This blog has been part of my recovery effort and I’m hoping it will help start a dialog about mental health with those in my life who are interested. For so long our society has pushed the health of our minds aside. After the pandemic there seems to have been an uptick in people searching for mental health professionals. If you feel like you need to talk to someone I encourage you to find a counselor or other mental health specialist to talk to. Sometimes the road to recovery takes a little bit of courage. I have provided some links below for mental health services.
Music has always been a big part of my family. I grew up listening to my grandparents sing in the church choir and when I got old enough I started singing too. In high school my cousins and I were all in band together, which usually lead to trouble and interesting band trips. Most of my aunts and uncles sang or played an instrument or two also. So, I was always surrounded by music and music makers. I was the only brave enough (or stupid enough, depending on how you want to look at it) to make music my career choice.
There are times that I get frustrated with music and all of the hassles that come with having a performance based career. However, there is a lot of joy that comes along with it too. One of the things that keeps me coming back to teaching piano is watching students struggle with pieces, start to understand the piece, and then grow from the experience. It doesn’t matter their age, young kids or adults, I love watching them work on a piece and then hitting that moment when they realize that they can play something they enjoy. All that hard work they’ve been putting in finally paying off. I also love that moment of realization that student get when they finally understand a concept that they’ve been working on for a while. That moment when it clicks and you can see it in their eyes is so satisfying and it reminds me why I teach.
In the composition side of my career, it’s a little different. There are several things I love about composing. For me composing is like working on a puzzle and I have to figure out how all the parts are going to fit together. The process itself is satisfying, but hearing from other people is gratifying too. I always feel a little vulnerable when I present a composition for public review. In many ways it’s like raising a child. You, put all this time and effort into crafting a piece that you think is perfect in every way and then you have to let it go to see what it can do on its own. Will it get criticized? Did I give enough attention to make it the best it can be? Did I put enough of myself in it to make it awesome? These are several of the questions that run through my mind when a performance happens. It can be nerve wracking at times, but hearing a piece played that people enjoy and react to positively is an amazing feeling.
Music has its ups and downs like all career paths, but I don’t know if I could do anything else.
I hate these things… everyone does. Talking about themselves, trying to pretend to be humble but what you really want to do is brag about all the little dumb things that you have ever done. So, that’s exactly what I’m going to do, brag about myself and not sound humble about it. Now, where to start?
First off, I’m a composer. I love writing music. I love writing weird music. I like writing music that’s easy to listen to. I like experimenting and finding sounds from random objects. But, most of all I just love writing music for beginning musicians and children. I’ve been composing since 2001. I started out composing small simple things that I thought were amazing, and looking back were just … eh. I eventually started taking composition lessons and discovered that I love composing children’s and pedagogical pieces. I love the ridged structure that children’s pieces require. I eventually discovered having that rigid structure is essential to my composition process (we’ll explore that more in a later post). I also like writing more sophisticated pieces. However, they don’t come as easy for me and I really struggle with trying to make them sound the way I want.
I have studied composition with several people, Jim Vernon at Oklahoma Baptist University, Dennis Widen at Southwestern Oklahoma State University and Edward Knight from Oklahoma City University. Each of these professors taught me valuable lessons, but Dr. Knight taught me that my musical voice is important and that there are people out there that are interested in what I have to say. It’s taken me quite a while to get there and I understand now that not everyone is going to like my music, but there are people out there who are going to love what I say musically.
The second thing that I like to brag about is that I am a pianist. I am classically trained and have studied piano since I was 12ish… it’s kind of fuzzy, but somewhere around there. I love playing the piano. I love its range, the many colors that it can produce, and the wide range of literature available to explore. I went to college at Oklahoma Baptist University and was able to study piano with Sandra Meyer. She helped me to develop my technical skill and helped me to explore a wide range of literature that was fun and exciting. After graduating from OBU I went to Southwestern Oklahoma State University where I got my degree in music therapy. There I studied with two piano teachers, ChihChen Sophia Lee and James Breckenridge. Both of these wonderful people helped me to grow and develop into the pianist I am today. Dr. Lee helped to develop my technical skill and Dr. Breckenridge helped me to develop my artistry and musical curiosity. I can’t thank them enough for their support and guidance.
Last thing I’m going to brag about, I promise. I have opened my own music studio where I teach piano, composition, and music theory. It is by far one of my most gratifying accomplishments and source of frustrations. By opening my own business, I have learned a lot over the past few years. I have learned a lot about business, self-reliance, asking for help, and music. Though, from time to time, there are things that frustrate me and times that I don’t want to teach, I keep coming back because I love it and my students. I love watching them grow into musicians and exploring music. I love that moment when something clicks with a student and you can see a visible change in their face.
What should you expect out of this blog? Well mostly, I’m going to be talking about myself and my career as a composer and musician. I will throw in other things, present music I love, review performances I’ve been to, etc. If you have something that you are interested in me talking about, please feel free to leave me a comment and I will look at it. Most of all, I am looking forward to getting to know you and exploring music with all of you more. Feel free to reach out and contact me. I want to make this as interactive as I can. Until next time!