Out of Ashes… Again?

Since I last posted on here, so much has happened that I can’t possibly put it one post, so I’ll just keep it short.

To start out, my first serious orchestral piece, “Out of Ashes” had a fantastic premiere by the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra in May. Huge thanks to all of the musicians for their hard work in making it a success! There are no words to describe that night, so I’m just going to post the recording here for you:

 

Then, after a brief, but adventure-packed time studying abroad in Eastern and Central Europe, and while still riding the high of my orchestral debut, I participated in the Charlotte New Music Festival in June.  There, my trio, “Precarious,” was premiered by Bent Frequency. Again, the musicians did a wonderful job, so it was yet another successful premiere:

 

And this is where I wish I could end my post telling you about having the rest of the summer filled with productive composing and performances and rainbows and unicorns. But, that’s not how life went.

Without getting into too many personal details, suffice it to say that life completely pulled out the rug from beneath my feet shortly after Charlotte. It doesn’t matter how certain you feel about your life—sometimes, bad things just happen for no apparent reason, through no fault of your own.  And so, this summer, I found myself back in the ashes all over again.

I don’t need to elaborate further, because what matters now is that the Lord gave me the grace to get through and prevail over it.  No matter how bad things were, I really do believe that God can make good come out of it somehow, just like the phoenix. (Not that I believe God sends bad things on us in the name of “doing good,” but anyway, this post isn’t about my theology…)

Indeed, these days, I’m writing more music and being more productive than ever, finding more and more doors opening, and just enjoying the goodness of being alive and able to make use of my musical gifts. This weekend, I finished my first piano trio, after having only a couple of weeks to write it (that’s a whole other story to which I’ll probably dedicate a future post).  I believe that now, just as before, I’m going to keep writing music inspired by it all that only exists because it came out of the ashes. Today, I’m happy to be moving on from the ashes of the summer, excited for everything that’s up next, and looking forward to sharing all of this new music with you all very soon.

I’m back at Belmont as a senior now, and every day, on my way to class, I happen to pass this statue of a Phoenix:

FullSizeRender.jpg

Although there are plenty of times when I wish I could take back the diffictulties of the summer, the statue and the phoenix legend remind me each day of this truth: that some kinds of strength and beauty and opportunity can only come out of ashes.

 

“Out of Ashes” Premieres Next Week!

Ashes
Since I last wrote, I’ve received some big news: I won the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra’s Composition Competition with my new work, “Out of Ashes.”  The premiere is one week from today, and to say I’m thrilled and excited and honored doesn’t even begin to express how I feel about this!

The premiere will take place at 7:30 PM on May 3rd, at Brentwood United Methodist Church in Brentwood, TN.  Also, there will be a second performance on May 10th at 7:30 PM at the Gordon Jewish Community Center.  All of you are invited, and admission is free.

I’ve had the chance to attend a few rehearsals, and it was wonderful to hear live musicians playing what I’ve heard in my head for months.  Honestly, hearing an orchestra play it for the first time was one of the best feelings in the world…  And based on what I’ve heard, I can tell you that the NPO is going to give a great performance next week, so I hope those of you in Nashville will come.

There have been so many things that had to fall into place perfectly to make this performance possible—and somehow, everything has worked out.  When I think of it all, I really feel like there’s Someone out there looking out for me….

Most of all, I know there wouldn’t even be an “Out of Ashes” if it weren’t for the difficult times I went through a few years ago.  I used to wish I could take it all back, but now I’ve realized that to do so would take away the depth in my music.

I don’t want to give away too much about “Out of Ashes” before the premiere, but I can tell you that it picks up where my solo piano piece, “Agitato” left off and then goes to places you might not expect.  There’s a lot of agitation and chaos in parts of it, but there are also a lot of soaring melodies.  “Out of Ashes” is centered around two main musical themes: Hope and Despair, and one of them slowly emerges and swallows up the other.  Which one wins?  Well, you’ll have to come to the premiere to find out!

Simply completing “Out of Ashes” has been a victory for me as a composer because of how much I’ve grown through writing it and because of the story behind the piece.   But now, to have also won this competition and to have the opportunity to hopefully move others with my work—it shows that beauty really can come out of ashes.

What Comes Down Must Go Up

Workspace.JPG

After finishing “Out of Ashes,” this is how my workspace was… And my life!

With the completion of my orchestral piece, “Out of Ashes,” last month and my submission of it to several competitions, I could finally exhale for the first time in weeks.

While you might think I’d be overjoyed at my work and celebrating everything I’d just accomplished, instead, the opposite was true: I found myself fighting post-composition depression.

For weeks, I’d poured my heart and soul into the project.  I’d hardly slept.  I’d barely left my room.  I’d intently studied many orchestral scores and orchestration textbooks to gather ideas and learn new techniques.

While working on the piece, I wasn’t tired.  Sometimes, when I get really involved with a composition and the creativity is flowing, I can thrive on four hours of sleep and focus for hours and hours at a time—and this is what I did with “Out of Ashes.”  Many times while composing it, although what I was doing was difficult, it didn’t feel like work.

While still writing “Out of Ashes,” I’d even begun imagining my next composition. I had no intention of slowing my blistering pace when I finished.

But what goes up must come down.

The day after I completed the piece, I tried to start another project.  But understandably, I instead fell asleep at my workspace and then slept for ten hours that night.  I’d given “Out of Ashes” everything I had, so with it finished, I had nothing left for myself.

In the days that followed, I had no interest in doing anything at all (music-related or otherwise), I began to doubt my abilities as a composer, and it took all my willpower to make myself open Finale and try to compose.

You see, when you’ve poured your whole being into something for so many months, and then it’s all over, you suffer a loss—a loss of what you were most passionate about for so long.  You have to find something else to structure your life around.  You have to figure out what you’re going to do with yourself next.  You have to deal with the everyday things that fell by the wayside during your intensely creative period.  You have to move on.

Since then, I’ve made progress on a new piece—a work for SATB a capella choir.  I got through my dry spell of composing by spending a lot of time applying to festivals and competitions, because these can be great opportunities for advancing one’s career and sharpening skills.  I ended up being rejected by some of what I applied to (which didn’t exactly help my spirits at the time), but I did get accepted to study at the Charlotte New Music Festival’s Composers Workshop this summer, where I’ll have two new pieces premiered.  So I’m thrilled about that and greatly looking forward to it!

At the end of the day, I’ve seen again and again that composing can be a roller-coaster.  Sometimes, you strike gold and are unnaturally productive and creative, and you churn out something like “Out of Ashes.”  Other times, you finish “Out of Ashes” and need some time to recover after having given it your all.  And then, sometimes you lose competitions with that piece, you don’t get into festivals, and people tell you that the work your most proud of isn’t quite “good enough.”

But this weekend, I got some incredible news that more than makes up for the post-composition depression and the losses and rejections I’ve had related to “Out of Ashes.”  What’s happening is so exciting I can’t even stand it, so I can hardly wait to share the news with you!

For now, all I can say is that, sometimes, what comes down must go up. 

What I’ve Learned from Orchestral Composing

IMG_4609-small

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.  

IMG_4101

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.