What I’ve Learned from Orchestral Composing

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It’s a wonderful feeling to finally hold a completed score in your hands.

Okay, I realize I haven’t posted since July.  Much has happened, and while I could go on for a whole post attempting to recount these last few months, I’m going to cut to the chase…

I’ve just finished my first orchestral work, “Out of Ashes.”

I realize that I announced a solo piano album by the same name, and that’s because, initially, I was simply trying to orchestrate the title track.  Being a junior Music Composition major now, I thought it would be good to have a piece for orchestra in my portfolio.  But “Out of Ashes” became so much more than an orchestration exercise or an addition to my portfolio…

I quickly learned that, if you really want to write for orchestra, you have to write for orchestra—you can’t just cut and paste piano parts into different instruments.  Thus, my piece for orchestra bears very little resemblance to the solo piano work for my piano album.

You see, there are so many more textures and colors available in an orchestra than on a piano.  You can do so much more, if only you know how to take advantage of it.

And that’s why my favorite composing medium is no longer piano, but orchestra.

Wait a minute…  Did I just say that?  I, the person who spent her entire senior year of high school composing, recording, and editing a solo piano album?  Whose compositional output was 70% solo piano until a year ago?

Truth be told, in some ways, all composing to me is my “favorite composing.”  Any time I sit down in front of empty measures and fill them in with notes from inside my head is a time that I feel I’m satisfying my calling in life.  But I’ve discovered that orchestral music simply does something to me on a spiritual level that I can’t explain.

So there is much to say about the process of writing and finishing “Out of Ashes,” but I can’t possibly fit it into one post.

Suffice it to say that I’ve never written anything else like it, and it makes almost nothing I’ve shared so far seem representative of my present composing abilities (except perhaps “Agitato” and maybe a couple other pieces).

It’s still hard to believe that I’ve finished something that was over a year-and-a-half from the initial inspiration to the final measures of the full version for orchestra.  It took more time, willpower, and soul than I believed I could give, but I pulled it off.

I learned a lot through composing “Out of Ashes,” not just in terms of technical abilities with orchestration and tonality and more ways to develop themes, but in terms of the creative processs in general.

I learned (even more so than ever before) that composing can be both my greatest torment, and one of my greatest joys—yet I can’t live without doing it.

I learned that sometimes, you seem to make leaps and bounds in your abilities as a composer, but even when you don’t seem to be getting better, every bit of composing and studying is pushing you towards your goals.

I learned that there will always be that critical voice in your head telling you that you’ll never finish or that you’ll never write anything “good enough,” but 99.999% of the time, it’s wrong, and you have to keep going to show who’s boss.

And finally, I learned that plain coconut butter makes the best 3 AM snack, when you need some real food but don’t want to stop composing to go to the kitchen…

So now what do I do with myself after all of this?  Keep composing!

Why Rest Is Vital to Composing

After making it halfway through music school this semester and doing everything I came to Nashville to do, I’d worked myself into the ground.  I’d run out of creativity, because I’d had to expend so much energy on trying to get through the semester.  I could no longer write any music, no matter how much part of me still wanted to do it.

So I took a break from trying to compose.  

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In the nine years I’d been composing, I’d never really taken a break for any significant length of time.  Even on vacations, I often crammed my keyboard into the trunk of the car so I could keep working at the destination.  I spent many plane trips with Finale open on my laptop as I notated whatever was in my head.  I even kept (and still keep) staff paper next to my bed so that I’d never miss an idea that came in my sleep.

For years, composing never felt like working.  The idea of truly taking a break—even for one week—seemed outrageous and unnecessary.  If I enjoyed it, why stop?

But this summer, I realized that, without rest, over the years, it culminated in burnout.  Rest is necessary in order to take full advantage of the time when you work.  If you don’t rest, the wear and tear of life builds up, and you can never catch a breath to repair yourself.  Before you know it, it’s too much.

It was difficult to take time off from composing in May, but in June, I finally sat down at the piano again.  For the first time in months, I began to look forward to composing.  I did it for hours at a time, and though it wasn’t always easy, I was able to keep pushing through whatever roadblocks came up.

Amazingly, after nine days of composing, I finished the string quartet I was assigned to write for the Wintergreen Summer Music Festival.  (If you’re in the area, you can come hear the premier on July 28!  More info here.)

I initially called the piece “Elude” simply because it has a strong air of mystery to it.  But now, I think I subconsciously chose that name because, in writing the quartet, I finally rediscovered the joy and inspiration that had seemed to elude me for so long.  Finishing it reassured me that I really could still compose.  If anything, the difficulties led to a weathering and maturing of my skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise gained.

So, readers, all is well in my composing world now.  More music to come soon!

Halfway Through, Fully Burned Out

I’ve just finished my second year of Music School in college!  This year, I’ve worked harder than I ever knew I could, and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunities that have allowed me to do so.

So much happened this last school year:

I’ve had my compositions featured in almost every student composer concert…

Debuting

And I even had one piece performed by the New Music Ensemble.

The Belmont New Music Ensemble debuts my composition

The Belmont New Music Ensemble debuts my composition “Rise”

I was awarded a scholarship for my work as a composer at the end of this semester.

I was nominated to present a Music Theory paper I wrote on a Xenakis piece at the annual student research symposium next spring.

I was accepted to study composition for two weeks this summer at the Wintergreen Summer Music Academy.

I'll be spending 2 weeks here (somewhere) improving my composition skills.

I’ll be spending 2 weeks here (somewhere) improving my composition skills.

 

On the outside, everyone (myself included) would say I’ve thrived this year.  I do enjoy my successes, but there’s also a darker side to it:

I’m burned out now and utterly exhausted.

This isn’t the typical, “I’m going to lie around and rest on the couch for a few days now that I’m home.”  This is, “I seriously wonder if I’ve lost my passion and ability for composing.”

What can I do?  I feel that the only way I might get my composing back is to take a break until I can’t stand it any longer.  Then, I’ll get my passion back because I’ll have missed composing so much.  At least, this is how I hope it will work out…  Maybe I really do just need to rest because I pushed myself so hard this whole year.

Although part of me has legitimately questioned whether I might hate composing now, stepping away from it, even for a week, has been one of the hardest things for me to do, because I don’t feel completely whole unless I compose.  And this is why, on some level, I know I haven’t truly “lost” my composing.

For now, I think I’ll just celebrate the fact that I’ve made it hallway through college—and not only made it, but did really well.  I’m going to praise God for all of the good things that have happened—and still praise Him through the frustration (and sometimes despair) of my present burnout.  This, too, shall pass.

Someday soon, I’ll get past this.  I’m still planning for a second album this summer!  But first, I need to remember it’s called a “summer vacation for a reason…

So readers, I’m curious: how do you fight back against burnout?  How do you get your passion back?

My 2nd Piano Album: Details Announced!

AshesIt’s official…  I’m releasing a second piano album this summer.  As promised last week, I’m revealing the title: Out of Ashes.

When I first discussed my intentions for a second album in June, I didn’t know how I could ever again make another album as good as Airborne was.   I had no title, theme, or storyline for this next album, and I was at a loss as to how to move forward without a plan.

So many artists struggle with the so-called “sophomore album.”  You have your whole life to make the first album, but for the second, you maybe have two years—plus, you’re burned out from making the first album.  Could I ever throw myself into a second album the way I did for my first one?

In a post from June, I decided outright that, even though I couldn’t do Airborne again, I could do another album with its own style and theme—even though I had no idea what that theme would be.

Eerily, a few hours after I published that post, some bad things happened to my family.  Suddenly, I was thrown down into the ashes, with no chance of releasing my second album before the end of 2014.

What happened is far too difficult to explain, and I still have a hard time talking about it.  All you need to know is that I feel like the Phoenix that caught on fire—and then rose up from the ashes.  Thus, my new album is Out of Ashes.

I really wasn’t planning on doing an album about the ordeal.  I was hoping to forget the trauma of it and go on with life as it was before, (as much as I could, anyway).  Yet it seems that what happened has forever changed me and has left an indelible mark on my work.

Even so, Out of Ashes is not about sitting in the sadness of the ashes.  It’s an album about rising up from them—it’s full of hope and will be a journey unlike any other.  I’m going to take my listeners from a happy time at the beginning, through the waves of pain and denial and confusion, through glimmers of hope, through the heartbreak and reality of not being able to forget, and finally through overcoming.

From a musical perspective, I’ve been exploring new harmonic structures and have gotten more adventurous with everything in general.  I’ve had the benefit of two years of composition and piano studies in college.  The lyricism of Airborne is still present in many of my new pieces, but there’s a whole new depth to my composing, and I don’t shy away from more unusual textures.

Yes, it’s true that Out of Ashes is not the sophomore album I expected—it’s going to be more powerful and beautiful than anything I could’ve imagined.  As I work towards releasing the project in July, I hope you will join me on this journey.  And I hope you will enjoy this album as much as I’m enjoying writing it.

With four pieces done and three more on their way, there is much more to discuss in future posts.  See you soon!

Where I’ve Been

I know, I know—I haven’t posted in two months.  So maybe you’ve been wondering where I’ve been.  Or maybe you didn’t notice.  The truth is, I’ve been a lot of places, so I’ll tell you about some of them…

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

For the most part, I’ve been… At school, in the practice rooms.
Three hours a-day, seven days a week (in theory, anyway). Music school is extremely demanding and exhausting, but in all of that time at the piano, I’ve come up with some amazing pieces that I’m looking forward to sharing on the next album.  I’m going to dare to say that my second album will be better than the first.  (I’ll tell you more about this album in next week’s post.)

Just doing my homework...
I’ve been… In the studio. 
This semester, I got to have a class in Ocean Way Nashville on Music Row.  Sometimes I think I have the coolest life ever.

I’ve been… In competition. 
I just entered my first composition competitions.  I have no idea how to expect them to turn out.  I obviously think my piece is good—otherwise, I wouldn’t have written it the way I did.  But I’m up against PhD’s and prodigies, and there’s so much talent out there.  We’ll see…

Debuting "Oneiros"

Debuting “Oneiros”

I’ve been…  Onstage. 
I’ve been playing around the area more and more.  I finally got the chance to debut my solo piano piece “Oneiros” in a concert hall, and it was one of my favorite performances.  The audience was right there with me.

IMG_3626I’ve been… In training.
I’ll be running in Nashville’s St. Jude’s Country Music Half-Marathon in April!  As much as I love music, I need another outlet to help me not get burned out creatively.  Running makes me feel so good that I easily make up the four hours each week that I spend doing it with how much more productive I am as a composer.

So there you have it: I’ve been… Busy.  But I’m (mostly) busy doing what I love.  Next week, I’ll tell you about my upcoming album and reveal the name/concept.  I can’t wait!

Studio Life: Piano Recording for Film/TV

When you think about Christmas break in college, you might imagine sleeping in, spending time with family and old friends, and just doing nothing.  While it’s true that I did do all of the above a little bit, for me, going home is always a time for recording and composition.

This is what my "break" looked like

This is what my “break” looked like

My parents have wisely decided to keep my piano with them so that whenever I want to record, I’m forced to come home. (Otherwise, I might never leave Nashville…)  So with three weeks over Christmas break, I had to make every day count.

I had a lot to record: two new pieces for my album, the piano part to a new orchestral work, and a ridiculous number of stings for the production music libraries.

What’s a sting, you ask?  Essentially, it’s a snippet of a longer piece of music.  A lot of the time, a music supervisor only needs a thirty or sixty-second clip of music for a commercial or TV scene.  If I already have pre-edited clips of my tracks, I increase the chances of my music being used.  As soon as I got to work creating the stings, I realized I was almost in over my head…

I had to somehow shorten all of my piano pieces into 15 second, 30 second, 60 second, and 90 second versions.  If you know my music at all, you know I don’t write short pieces.  I even had to figure out a way to compress the 11-minute “Precipice” into a minute—not an easy task.

Deciding which segments of a piece to include in the different stings is an art.  You usually can’t just take the thirty seconds at the beginning; it might not be developed enough.  If you take a chunk out of the middle, it might not make sense by itself.  I quickly realized that sometimes, coming up with these stings can be like rewriting the piece all over again.  

The most important thing when deciding how to edit a track for a production music library is to make it interesting and catchy right away.  You have to imagine what a music supervisor would want.

I used to think the giant clock was a waste of space... Now I get it!

I used to think the big clock was a waste of space, but it’s perfect for recording stings.

Another problem I ran into was figuring out how to fit the pieces into exactly 15, 30, 60, and 90 seconds.  It’s kind of important that the track isn’t a second longer or shorter.  To make this easier, I pulled up Logic’s giant time display window so that I could watch the time while recording.  This also helped me not have to go back and cut things out later to make the track fit.

Creating all of these stings for libraries has made me realize all over again how much I have left to learn as a working composer.  I’m new to this process, and I don’t really know what I’m doing in a lot of ways.  I’m just figuring things out as I go.  But I never would have gotten this far if I only did things I thought I already knew how to do.  Sometimes, the only way to learn how to do something is to do it….

Editor’s Choice: Shelby Lock “Lirio”

My new solo piano single “Lirio” has just been featured on The Piano Cloud’s final Editor’s Choice of 2014! I have been part of this online community for almost two years and am so grateful for all the support I’ve received… 2014 was quite a crazy year, but I’m glad to be finishing it off with a bang.

Why I Know I’m a Composer

In the last few months, much has happened that has made clear to me that I need to focus on being a composer.  I can’t only do engineering.  I’m certainly still recording, producing, and spending plenty of time in the studio (and plan to keep doing so because I still love it and need to record my compositions), but I’ve realized that, first and foremost, I’m a composer.  

In the wake of an exhausting freshman year, unfortunately, until a few weeks ago, I had been struggling tremendously to compose anything at all.  It wasn’t that I didn’t try—I tried harder than I knew I could.  But the music wouldn’t come.  I hated almost everything I did manage to write.  On some level, I even began to hate composing itself because it took so much effort to even write things I didn’t like.

Not being able to compose and losing all the joy in it when you know in your heart of hearts that you are a composer is one of the worst things.  But even the fact that not being able to compose was so heartbreaking proved that I didn’t truly hate composing…

For the first half of this semester, I continually found myself wondering what I was thinking by being a composition major.  How could I be a composer if I couldn’t even compose?  Would I ever be able to write anything good again?  I legitimately started to wonder if I had permanently lost my composing.

But somewhere, deep down, I knew I was still a composer.  I didn’t know how or when, but I knew that someday, I was going to get my composing back.  I just had to keep trying…

A few weeks ago, the breakthrough came, and I’ve since been finding myself writing more music than ever before—and once again, finding the joy in it.  Although it seemed like I would never get over that last bout of composers’ block, I finally have.  I’m writing music unlike anything I’ve written.  I venture to say that I’m now the most prolific I’ve ever been.

And somehow, this semester turned out to be my best one so far.  I found out that a piece I just finished will be performed by one of my university’s ensembles in the spring.  While still experiencing composer’s block, I was chosen to present my piano piece “Agitato” for a composition master class with a Pulitzer-winning composer who came to my school.  I was honored with the chance to perform two different piano pieces in both of the Composition Department recitals this semester.  And then came the opportunity with Musinc.

Debuting "Agitato" in the Student Composers' Recital

Debuting “Agitato” in the Student Composers’ Recital

My conviction that I am a composer has finally been vindicated.  There is no longer a single doubt in my mind about whether I’m pursuing the right career or whether I belong in the composition program.  Now that I’m composing so much again, I will never look back.

But how in the world did I not give up on my musical gifts through it all?  What motivated me to stubbornly insist that I was a composer even when I was hardly composing?

I’m a composer.  

I can’t explain it.  God gave me a gift that is so much a part of who I am that I cannot possibly deny or avoid it.  No matter what happens on the outside, there will always be something deep in my soul that causes me to keep making music—or that at least tells me to try.

Going through an extreme case of composer’s block and subsequently regaining my composing has given me a clarity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.  Composing is what I was meant to do.  Imagine where I can go now that I have gotten past these walls.  I see a whole new world of pieces to be written…

I don’t understand why things had to go the way they have, but surely, there is a reason that I’m composing more than ever in spite of it all (or maybe because of it)…  I’m still writing because I have a call on my life: I’m a composer.


P.S.  I’m releasing my new piano piece “Lirio” on December 17.  Stick around for more about this!

Starting a New Chapter!

I’m excited to say that I have just been brought on as a composer by the production music library Musinc!  From now on, anything I write and record, once accepted into the library, will be available for licensing for film, TV, and other media.  The material from Airborne is already in the catalog.  There will also be opportunities for filmmakers and music supervisors to commission me to write custom pieces.

This is the beginning of a new chapter in my career.  I’ve always wanted to get into writing for film and TV, and now I have the chance to do that.  As an engineer, it is also a tremendous compliment, because I will be responsible for all my own recording, editing, mixing, and mastering.  In other words, this means they believe my engineering is good enough for recordings that will potentially be used in movies or TV.

I’m still trying to process all of this.  Wow!

So maybe you’re wondering, how is this going to affect my everyday life?  Well, not too much right now.  I’m still going to be staying in school to graduate from college.  I’m still going to be doing all of my work either sitting by myself in my tiny apartment at school or recording in my piano studio at my parent’s house back east.  I may be a professional composer, but at the same time, I’m really still just a nineteen-year-old music major trying to figure out life and make it through the semester—while composing and recording as much as I possibly can.

At work in my dorm studio

Working hard… In my dorm-room studio.

The thing about writing for production music libraries is that there’s no guarantee anyone will ever license your music at all.  It is quite possible that my tracks will just sit in the library, no one will use them, and I’ll never make a dime.  As a library composer, to avoid this, the best thing you can do is write as much music as possible to increase your chances of someone using something you wrote.  And that’s what I’m going to do…

I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity, and I can’t wait to see what will happen next.  Thank you, to all of you who have supported me along the way and who have shared my music and spread the word about it.  I couldn’t have made it here without you.

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 music. 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?