The Secret Life of a Music Major

“Music students: as the semester grinds on you may feel intensely burnt-out. You may even consider dropping out of music altogether. If that happens, go back and listen to your favorite recordings, make music with your friends, do anything you can to remind yourself why you loved music before you started studying it. An education in music can be a very good thing, but it can also squeeze the life out of any love you ever had for it. Don’t let it.”

Recently, I came across this quote by Eric Whitacre on his blog. The timing couldn’t have been better.

Lately, I’ve been exhausted and burned out on everything. As of this semester, I’m officially a double major in Music Composition and Audio Engineering. At my school, there’s no overlap between the two degrees outside of the general education requirements. As far as I know, no one has ever successfully completed both programs, because they’re both so demanding. The only reason it’s not completely insane for me to attempt is because I transferred a lot of credits from community college.

But it’s still so much work.

If you’re going to be a music major, you can kiss goodbye all of your notions of having a “stereotypical” college experience. I don’t get to have a normal social life—mine revolves around required concerts and ensemble practices. I don’t get to know what it feels like to finish my homework—there’s always more practice to be had and more measures to be written in my compositions.

Make no mistake––music school is exhausting!

Make no mistake––music school is exhausting!

I literally do nothing but music all day long. It’s wonderful, but it’s also terrible sometimes—two hours of piano practice, one hour of organ practice, at least another hour (hopefully two or three) of composing, varying amounts of time rehearsing for ensembles, and then more time doing theory, ear training, and orchestration assignments. And then I have to work on recording projects, which takes up the rest of my day.

There are times when I legitimately start to hate all of it, because my life is completely scheduled, and I barely have any time to breathe. This week, after a particularly long day of practice, I even found myself lying in bed wondering, Why did I give up my teenage years to get here—to just be miserable?  How can you write good music when you’re not enjoying what you’re doing? You can’t, which is why I’ve had such a hard time composing lately.

Sometimes, you need to step back and realize why you’re studying music in the first place.  Sometimes, when you’re burned out, you need to get out of the practice room and listen to some great music. Sometimes, you have to remember the dreams you had that gave you the courage to pursue a music career in the beginning. Sometimes, you just need to do something that has nothing to do with music so that you can come back to it refreshed.  Don’t let the pursuit ruin the goal.

I couldn't give up on composing even if I wanted to...

I couldn’t give up on composing even if I wanted to…

In the end, I have to remind myself that everything I’m doing and the sacrifices I’ve made are moving me on towards my objectives. The only reason to pursue a music career is because you cannot do anything else—when you try, music simply comes back to haunt you, leaving you without a choice.  For me, every time I feel like I can’t compose any more, I hear a new melody, and I have to give in and write it down. It often keeps me awake at night.

It’s clear to me that composing is what I was put on this earth to do, and this notion is what keeps me going through the drudgery of music school. It’s what lets me have confidence that I will get out of this dry spell and recover from the burnout…

As soon as I can leave the practice room for a few minutes.


So readers, what do you do to overcome musical burnout? How did you get through music school?

New Music, New Season

I just released some new music! I’ve recorded a solo piano song called “To the Sky” written by an artist named Dirk Maassen. It’s a lovely piece, and if you enjoy my own piano compositions, then you’ll love Dirk’s music, too. Check out more of his work here. This is my recording:

Not only was Dirk kind enough to let me record his piece, but he also shared my version with his fans. As a result, my recording is getting up to 2000 plays per day on SoundCloud, and it’s listed as one of the most popular piano tracks on the entire website right now. I’m not going to lie, it’s a great feeling to know that thousands of people are listening to your music.

"To the Sky" has been the fourth most popular piano track on SoundCloud in the last few days.

“To the Sky” has been the fourth most popular piano track on SoundCloud in the last few days.

In addition to my recent popularity on SoundCloud, I have some other very exciting things percolating—things I’ve been working towards for a long time that are finally starting to happen. And I’m entering a new season in my composing. After a year of being in a dry spell, the rains of inspiration are beginning to fall once again.

This summer was one of the hardest three months of my life, and nothing went as planned, but now, thanks to what’s happening on SoundCloud, some other unplanned things are happening that are finally moving me towards my goals…

I’m moving back to Nashville for my sophomore year of college tomorrow.  If the last couple of weeks are any indicator, I believe that I’m headed for one of my most productive years ever.  I can’t wait to see what happens next!

An Unusual Vacation…

I’ve been debating when and if I should say anything, but I’m tired of pretending everything is fine when I haven’t posted in forever.  So I’ll be blunt: I’ve been away because I’ve been to the gates of Hell and back this summer…

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No one ever thinks bad things will happen to them.  But the scary part is that these things can happen for no apparent reason to anyone, no matter how sure you are that they won’t…

But if it’s even possible, this experience has made me treasure the gift of music even more than before, because I’ve seen again just how strongly music can and does touch people—myself included.  During all of this, sometimes I’ve felt like music was my only window left into normalcy, and it was a wonderful thing.

It's all a gift...  I can't possibly take it for granted after everything that's happened.

I’m realizing again that music is a gift I can’t afford to waste…

In a dream recently, someone said to me, “You have the gift…  Don’t waste it!”  And I’m going to listen.  I have a gift from God and a responsibility to make the most of it.  From now on, I don’t want to take another day or another opportunity to make music for granted, because I’ve been given another chance—a chance to bring to others the kind of healing and relief that music has brought to me.

You simply cannot go through something like this without being changed, and I’m completely okay with that.  For the rest of my life, this time will be an unforgettable journey that influences me on a personal, musical, and spiritual level.  You can be sure some great music will come out of this.  I already can’t wait for you to hear the new pieces I’ve written this summer for my next album. (One of them should be out in another month!)  And everything will be 100% fine soon—I truly mean and believe it when I say that.  The best in life is yet to come—as with my best compositions…

Why My Next Album Can’t Live up to the Past

Back in the studio working on my second piano album!

It’s official… I’ve begun working on my second piano album!  I plan to record most of it over the course of this summer, and I expect to release it in early spring of 2015—perhaps sooner or later depending on how many other projects I’m doing.  I’m hoping to make it longer than Airbornehopefully around 40 or 45 minutes.  As of right now, I’ve completed two compositions with another almost done, bringing me to around twenty minutes of music.

I was hoping to come home from college with enough material completed to record another album right away.  And I wanted to be more active on my blog throughout the past year, release singles, produce other artists, and play more gigs, but life happened…

You know you have a problem when this does nothing for you...

Even this didn’t help me…

The truth is that last semester was a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from––almost literally.  I’m waking up now, and soon, I do expect to be able to get on with my life as if nothing had happened.  I refuse to let anything hold me back from my dreams.  When things get hard, you can choose to give up or you can keep moving forward, one agonizing step at a time.  Today I’m choosing to make an album even though nothing this year went as planned.  Setbacks only make me work even harder.

Right now, the biggest obstacle for the new album is trying to live up to Airborne.  No matter what I do, I always feel like what I’m writing now will never be as good as the songs on the last album.  I find myself wishing I could go back to the way things were a year ago, for so many reasons…

Last year, God did things in my life that I never would have believed could be possible.  I went through the hardest time of my life, but in spite of it, God’s presence became as near and real to me as my own life, and I’ll never be the same.  But this past semester, in another dark time, I prayed and prayed but seemed to be in a spiritual drought.  If only things were how they were last year, I told myself…

I had such a great response from people with Airborne.  Can I do it again?

I had such great responses from people about Airborne. Can I do it again?

Last year was also the most productive year in composition that I’d had in five years.  It seemed like anything I touched turned to gold.  People were moved to tears when I debuted “Precipice” at my spring recital.  I got dozens of emails and letters from people telling me how much they enjoyed the album (and I still do sometimes).  One person told me they played it in their car while in a parking lot, and strangers started asking what the music was so they could get a copy for themselves.  I can’t help but wonder if what I’m writing now will touch people in the same ways that Airborne did.  And lately, composing has not come as easily as last year, and I long for the inspiration of yesterday…

But you know what?  Not only is it impossible to go back in time or to change this past year, but it wouldn’t necessarily be beneficial.  I’m not willing to claim that everything happens for a reason, and, in doing so, pour salt on open wounds.  But I do believe that both the good things and the bad things make us who we are.  I can no longer believe that God directly sends pain on innocent people, but I do believe that somehow, He can work everything for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).

No, I can’t make another Airborne, because I’ve learned more as a composer and as a musician, and I’ve lived and experienced things I hadn’t a year ago.  But what I can do is make this next album the best it can be as itself.  It will still sound like me, but it will be different, too.

On the new album, you’ll hear my first post-tonal piece (don’t worry, it’s still melodic).  You’ll hear a more sophisticated touch in my playing.  You’ll hear a piece I wrote about obscured lines between consciousness and unconsciousness (much of it was written while asleep). Most of all, you’ll hear things I couldn’t have written without having the year I’ve had.

Why try to live up to the past when you can create a new future?

Successfully Recording an Out-of-Tune Piano without Tuning It

As I was getting ready for my piano jury at the end of the semester, it became apparent to me that my Chopin nocturne was at its peak.  The problem?  Juries were still two weeks away.  I know myself too well, and I know that when I get to a certain point, the more I practice, the worse my pieces will become.  So I decided that if I ever wanted to have a recording of my nocturne, I had to do it fast.  So one night, I packed up all my gear (a feat in itself) and headed to my university’s music building, hoping to somehow find an open grand piano.

After searching around the building for twenty minutes or so, I finally found an open classroom with a grand piano.  The room had great acoustics—not a single parallel wall in it.  It was more reverberant than the room I record my piano in at home, but with close miking, it wasn’t as much of a problem.

The room I recorded in.  Rooms with non-parallel walls help prevent unwanted resonances which can negatively color recordings.

This is the room I recorded in.  Spaces with non-parallel walls prevent room resonances which negatively color recordings.

When I began to play, I soon discovered that there were several notes that were severely out-of-tune.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten to bring my tuning hammer and mutes.  But even if I had remembered the hammer, I didn’t know if I could risk using it and accidentally damaging something.  Yet it was so out-of-tune.  I had to do something…

At home, there is one string on my piano that will not stay in tune for more than ten minutes.  On a piano, the keys on the high end all have three strings per note, so I usually just mute the one string that won’t stay in tune.  Although that note, since only two strings will sound, becomes slightly softer compared to the surrounding notes, it is a simple fix for the problem.  And if I know ahead of time that it will be softer, I can make up for this by attempting to play it louder than I would normally.

However, I didn’t have my rubber mutes that night, so I dug through my backpack and found some erasers.  I managed to rub them down thin enough to fit between the strings, and they worked beautifully.

In a pinch, a rubber eraser can function as a tuning mute

In a pinch, a rubber eraser can function as a tuning mute

For me, the real problem is that I have a form of perfect pitch, so I notice even the slightest tuning problem.  It’s great when I’m working with singers, but otherwise, it can be a nuisance.  I’m never sure if I’m the only one who can hear something being out-of-tune, or if it’s actually something most people would notice.  Although I muted the worst notes on the piano that night, and I knew that the rest of the piano was at least a little problematic, I’m still not sure if anyone else notices or not…

Once I had muted the worst strings and set my equipment up, the session went smoothly.  As I listened back to what I was recording, I greatly improved how I played the piece.  When I’m just practicing something, it’s easy to get focussed on the technique and memorization and not even “listen” for phrasing and expression.  But listening to a recording of yourself allows you to listen for the feeling without having to concentrate so hard on remembering the notes.

At midnight, I heard a knock on the door, and as usual, it was campus security kicking me out so they could close down.  But I had what I needed.  And after only a few hours of editing and minor EQ adjustments the next day, this is what I got:

Two weeks later, just as I suspected, despite continuing to practice every day and spending the minimum amount of time on the nocturne that prevented me from forgetting it, the piece had declined.  I could remember it, but the expression was gone.  But because I had the recording from two weeks before, I pulled the piece back together in time to get an A on my jury.  Lesson learned: always record yourself so you don’t forget what you’re capable of, and always be sure to bring rubber mutes with you when you record… or some erasers.

A Month of Firsts

I realize I haven’t written in awhile, but this last month has been an incredible month of first times…

1)  The first time I performed one of my own compositions in a concert hall.

I performed my piano piece “Equinox” in the McAfee Concert Hall as part of the Student Composers Recital.  As far as I know, I was the only freshman composer who participated.  It was wonderful to hear the sound of my piece performed in such a wonderful venue.  And it was such an honor to be featured among so many other talented artists at this school!

I performed "Equinox" in the McAfee Concert Hall as part of the Student Composers Recital.

2)  The first time I was an assistant engineer in a session at a professional studio.

One of my audio engineering major friends from school was producing a singer/songwriter’s debut EP, and he asked me to assist the tracking and overdub sessions.  The artist was very talented, and we had some great players on that record.  I can’t wait to hear how the final project turns out!

Assisting a session at The Brown Owl Studio here in Nashville

3)  The first time I joined a professional band.

I knew someone who knew someone who needed a keyboard player, and now here I am.  It’s an up-and-coming group (fellow music students at my college), but they’re legit…

Details later!

More details later!

4)  The first time I received international recognition for a composition.

My track “Bittersweet” was selected to be part of the Piano Cloud’s Best of 2013 Playlist on SoundCloud.  The Piano Cloud is an international online community of pianists, and the thirty tracks in the playlist were chosen by the votes of these musicians from all over the world.  If you’re a fan of my piano music, I highly recommend you listen to these other tracks in the playlist, too.  There are a lot of wonderful artists featured, and I’ve truly been enjoying listening to all of them.

 

5)  The first time I finished the first piece for my sophomore album.

I’ve begun working on my second piano album.  As of right now, I’m expecting it will be out sometime in the early spring of 2015 or possibly towards the end of 2014.  I’m aiming for seven pieces, or at least a playing time between 40 and 45 minutes.  This first piece that I’ve finished is more impressionistic and called “Oneiros”––the Greek word for dream, because it started in a dream.  (This may elicit its own future post…)

Putting “Position” Back in Composition

Have you ever noticed that the word “composition” has “position” in it?  It may be a coincidence, but recently, I found out that position is more than a part of the word—it’s a part of the process that can make all the difference.

Over the last few months, I’ve been having a dry spell in my composing.  Even though I probably composed my usual amount of music last semester, I was beginning to get to a point where composing was just another thing on my homework to-do list.  There was no enjoyment—just dread.  It all came to a head last week, when I realized how miserable I was when I composed, and I started to wonder if I had lost the abilities and passion I’d had for composition before my album release.

This semester, my composition professor has been allowing me to focus purely on piano composition.  What more could I ask for?  But even so, whenever I’d been practicing piano, I had repeatedly rationalized why I “didn’t have time to compose” right then.  Last week, not surprisingly, I had managed to put off composing until the day before my lesson.

That afternoon, as is my habit, I headed to the music building to practice piano.  Unfortunately, I discovered that every single room was taken; there was no piano to play anywhere, but I was determined to practice.

Sometimes, it's better to have a mediocre piano and a wonderful place to play...

Sometimes, it’s better to have a mediocre piano and a wonderful place to play…

I searched all over campus before I found an unoccupied piano tucked in an obscure room in the business building—a beat-up old upright.  I didn’t expect much, but when I played the first few notes, I was shocked.  It wasn’t the piano—it was the room.  The acoustics were amazing; I heard the reverb that I always try to imperfectly replicate in the studio.

That night, I snuck back into that room and made myself compose.  Although the first few minutes went by slowly, something began to change—I became free again.  Shockingly, I found myself enjoying the composing process.

You see, whenever I composed in the designated “piano practice rooms,” I never felt safe or free.  Even though I knew otherwise, I was always sure someone was standing outside the door listening and judging what I was writing.  And then there were the blaring trumpets and screeching flutes emanating from nearby practice rooms.  But when I moved to a different place—a part of campus where other musicians don’t go—all of this changed.

I’ve realized how important space is in composing.  There has to be room for the music to breathe—to let the listener contemplate the music and take it in.  Not only this, but as the composer, I need to have quiet around me to be able to “hear” this silence.

I don’t think there’s one “right way” to compose; everyone has different methods.  But next time you’re stuck on a piece, just remember—there’s “position” in composition.

My Best Worst Semester

These past three months in Nashville have been a whirlwind of a semester.  While this semester started off rough, I’ve finished it having done things I never dreamed I’d be doing so soon.  But it was a tough start…

When I went home for fall break in October, friends would ask me, “How is your first semester of college so far?”

I think I took too many classes...

I think I took too many classes…

“Awful,” I’d tell them.

At the time, it wasn’t far from the truth.  I started off the semester being unwell, and as a result, got behind in my eleven classes.  (Yes, I technically did take eleven classes, four of which were “zero-credit classes,” which was another problem…)  I had no friends, because I was either sleeping, studying, or practicing all the time—and barely doing well with any of those things.  And then I failed my first exam… ever (because I was so sick at the time).  There were also many days of awkwardly walking around the cafeteria, tray in hands, hoping to find someone to sit with and then discreetly looking for a remote table so no one would see I was forced to sit by myself…  It seemed like everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.

I could have easily thrown in the towel and come home or at least dropped some classes—but I didn’t.  When I got that exam back with a big fat D- (only not an F because of some extra-credit), I felt a fire beneath my feet.  I had failed—but I dared myself to fail harder.  I wanted to work harder than I could fail.

I didn’t come to Nashville to fail—I don’t think anyone intentionally does.  I had worked for years to make it to Music City.  I had sacrificed so much to be able to say I was having even a horrible semester in Nashville, so I was determined to make things work somehow.  I came to realize that, no matter how good you were, you wouldn’t always win at everything.  Sometimes, I was going to fall down.  But you can’t fall if you’re already on the ground—you only fall because you’re standing up and trying to go somewhere.  It was time to get back up.

Hanging out at Oceanway Nashville

Hanging out at Oceanway Nashville

In the midst of the mess, I started taking every chance I could to meet people in the industry.  Over the course of the semester, I visited eight studios and sat in on sessions at four of them.  Before long, mingling with award-winning producers and engineers and industry leaders had become a normal thing to do after school.

And then things escalated… Before I knew it, I had landed an internship at a well-connected studio—despite the fact that my school normally doesn’t allow us to officially intern until we’ve taken more audio classes than I’ve taken.  But I think that, with where I am, it would have been crazy for me to wait another year…

One day, I woke up and realized what was happening: if this was a bad semester, then it had become my best worst semester ever.  Seriously—it had been three months since I’d moved to Nashville, and I had already met some of the best producers in town and had been offered an internship that could launch my career.  On top of this, I somehow had managed to get good grades, too.  And hey, I’d even made some friends.  Who was I kidding—I’d had a great semester!

I’ve learned a lot of things this semester, but one thing I’ve learned well is to keep trying and to not quit.  I think a large part of how I’ve gotten the opportunities I’ve had lately is that I’m not afraid to try—or to fail.  I’m not always the best student in the class, and I’m certainly not the most talented engineer around, but I’ve often been one of the few who tried.  I’ve watched so many people afraid to try—afraid to approach a studio, afraid to study harder and still not do better, afraid to do things differently, and simply afraid to fail.  Yes, sometimes you’ll fail, but keep trying, and maybe it won’t have to end like that.   And who knows?  You might even get an internship.

How I Overcame Composer’s Block

String Quartet No. 1

It was a Friday night, and I found myself, once again, sitting alone in my dorm room, alternating between staring at my much-too-blank score and at the dusty keys of my keyboard. Making progress on my midterm composition project seemed impossible. I’d never even written a string quartet before. How was I supposed to write my first one in three weeks? And it wasn’t like I could spend the entire day working on it for three weeks—I had fifteen other credit hours of course work to deal with on top of daily two-hour piano practicing.

For two weeks, I tried and tried to make progress on my quartet, but after the first twenty measures, nothing was working. I tried different approaches to composing. I tried sitting outside under the oak trees and just “listening” to whatever came into my head. I tried imagining how the piece should’ve sounded. After those methods failed, I went back to the piano and started improvising off my main theme. I started to make progress that way, but it too failed.

Frustrated, I came back to my final Tuesday composition lesson before the due date bemoaning the unproductiveness and composer’s block I was experiencing.  I told my professor that I wasn’t sure it was possible to finish the piece in another week.

His confident response was, “I’ve seen your portfolio.”

My professor had seen my portfolio, but had I?

My professor had seen my portfolio, but had I?

In that instant, I saw the light, and I realized that my biggest problem wasn’t my method of composition or even a lack of experience––it was that I hadn’t thought I could do it.  I suppose it was a sort of artistic depression—it seemed so hopeless, that even though I was fighting so hard, I was at the same time barely trying anymore.  But then I stepped back and looked at what I’d written, and I realized that my professor was right.  I could finish the quartet.

“Compose” began to take on a whole other meaning for me that week. I may not have been “hearing” anything in my head. I may not have felt any emotion to inspire the piece.  I may not have had a story—but I had my willpower and my mind, and I realized that was enough. I pushed through the walls. It was a revolutionary concept: Why didn’t I just compose?

With three days left until the due date, I simply didn’t have time to think about whether or not what I was writing was any good.  If I caught myself staring blankly at the empty staves, I’d tell myself, I’ve seen my portfolio, and I’d just write something. It was when I stopped trying to make the piece “good enough” that I made some of the most memorable moments––and wrote the most music.

In the end, it only took around fifteen hours to write my string quartet once I stopped getting in my own way.  Until I pushed myself to write the quartet in three days, I don’t think I’d truly seen my own portfolio.  But now I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s better to step back and look through the fading pages of your well-worn book of compositions than to stare hopelessly at an empty score.  It is in your portfolio that you can see how far you’ve come and dream of how much farther you can push yourself to go.

Mission accomplished!

Mission accomplished!

So readers, let’s hear from you: how do you overcome composer’s block?  Have you ever felt like you were your own biggest obstacle?

The Next Step

It’s amazing how much can change in a few weeks’ time…  I’ve moved to Nashville and started college.

Up to this point, my posts had running through them the consistent theme of being a teenager and trying to figure out how to make good recordings and compositions on my own—and often getting in over my head with my undertakings.  However, now I have the ability to learn from some of the best of the best; I’m not on my own anymore.  But I don’t know what that will mean for this blog.  For that matter, I’m still figuring out what that means for me.

I got to sit in on a session at RCA Studio B!

I got to sit in on a session at RCA Studio B!

It’s hard for me to truly comprehend how much has changed; I’m not sure it’s sunk in yet.  A few weeks ago, I was just a random teenager from the Southeastern countryside setting up microphone’s on my home piano and recording an album as best I could.  But now, I’m more an aspiring producer and engineer who’s new to Nashville, and I’m out making connections.  Back home, I spent countless hours researching the music industry and audio engineering on the Internet and in books; now, I go to class and to office hours and sit in on real studio sessions for myself.

This is where I choose to be on a Friday night.

Where I choose to be on a Friday night.

Every once in a while, I’ll be walking across campus, and suddenly it hits me that I’m finally in Nashville, doing what I’ve prepared for years to do, and I get such a big grin that people must think I’m up to something.  Maybe I am up to something––up to making the most out of every moment here.  I’m always thinking about the next step––where I need to go and what I need to do next to meet my goals.  I have so much work and am so busy that I plan nearly every hour of every day.  My life is so planned, yet sometimes, I feel like I’m wandering aimlessly.  Sometimes I just step back and look at everything I’m doing and at life as a whole and just ask, Why?

IMG_1876

At least I have an ohmmeter and a turquoise rug…

There are many whys that I don’t think I’ll ever answer.  But the whats and the hows––I can deal with those.  And so, I will continue to follow the roadmap of my dreams––for as long as it is God’s will.  I will continue to be grateful for everything I’ve been given and do my best to make the most of it all.  It’s not going to be easy, but I can almost guarantee it will be interesting––oh, it sure has already!

So friends, will you join me?  I have every intention to continue this blog, going forward.  I’m learning and doing so much that there is plenty to write about.  And hopefully, these new experiences will make my blog even better.