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7 Life Lessons from a Summer Composer’s Workshop

Today’s guest blogger, Jessica Marlor, is a composer and student and at Smith College in Northampton, MA (right across the street from our offices!)  This summer she traveled Europe studying opera composition and was kind enough to write a guest blog post for us.

A few weeks ago, I packed my bags and set off for Dublin, Ireland for the 2015 Irish Summer Composition School. I arrived at the airport, ready to start my new adventure, ready to delve into my work and learn from the amazing teachers and colleagues. As I waited in line to check my bags, I was alerted that there was a problem with the online ticketing server, causing anyone who downloaded an e-ticket (hint: just me) to be put on a waitlist for the next flight. Furious, I huffed and puffed my way to the ticket office and demanded a seat on the next flight. Outraged, I waved and waggled my finger, trying to sweeten this particularly sour situation.

After an hour of arguing, I secured a seat on the next flight, and they even upgraded me to priority boarding. The only catch: The next flight was not for 8 hours.

The first hour was filled with texting, reading, and wandering around the tiny Luton airport. The second hour, was spent sipping coffee in a starbucks. And the third hour was spent chugging water to placate my caffeine jitters caused by hour 2.

By the fourth hour, I started to ask myself: Is this a sign?

I couldn’t get it out of my mind that this might be one of those moments where  mysterious benevolent forces are screaming at me from the heavens: GET OUT NOW, RUN FAST, RUN AWAY.

But I went, I made it to Dublin, and I went to the Summer Composers School, and now, I cherish those jam-packed, cerebrally intense 10 days. It taught me so much about how to write music well. There is a difference between having the physical capabilities to write music, and writing music in a way that is idiomatic and logical. The latter is a paradox that I will be trying to understand for my entire life, but what I learned at ISCS was a nice, logical, and friendly introduction.

I learned so much from ISCS, that I needed a full week and a half to digest all of the lessons. I retreated to organize my thoughts in the only logical way I know how: Writing more music. While writing the opening chorus for my opera I realized that I had learned much more than I bargained for. The lessons that advisors, relatives, and my parents had been trying to instill in my thick, and extremely stubborn skull for my entire life—- the kind of lessons that are only learnt through hard-knock, real-life.

(and excuse the amount of Beyonce/Nicki gifs, I’m still not over The Pinkprint and will not be for a long time.)image03

1. Ask Questions, let your will to learn be insatiable

As the resident least-qualified composer at the workshop, I accepted my place by keeping my mouth shut, and avoiding the hotseat. BIG MISTAKE. The first couple days, I held my tongue whenever a question came up, fearing that if I answered incorrectly i would void my credibility and be thrown out the front door by my ankles. Let me make something really clear: most of the seemingly ‘highly talented’ people have no idea what they are doing. It is a big mistake to ignore your burning questions. Go for it. Ask a question, take a stab at a problem, put yourself out there. You will learn much more than you ever expected.

Take it from me. On the first day of the workshop, we met with the musicians who would be premiering our pieces. Before us stood a soprano (ok, yeah I know how voices work…fine), a piano (yeah ok, bang on a key, get a pitch, easy-peasy), a violinist (bow across strings=gorgeous sound) and a french horn (maze-like mess of tubes and valves and HELP I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING). As I gawked at the seemingly impossible instrument, the other composers asked questions about the newest advanced techniques, essentially one-upping one another to show off.

While this was all very well and interesting, I realized that I didn’t really know how to write for the horn. Yes, I studied my orchestration textbook, I knew it was a transposing instrument, I knew its range, but I had no idea how it worked. How could I ever hope to write something for a horn if I didn’t even know how to produce a single note.

As a person who makes a fool of herself on the regular, I eventually got up the courage to ask how a horn worked. The horn player quickly demonstrated how mouth position changes the pitch in a french horn along the harmonic sequence, and how pressing the valves changes the harmonic sequence that is being utilized. Immediately, it was clear what kind of passages are idiomatic and which would be near-impossible to play. Asking one question gave me the tools I needed to compose an effective piece.

The best part? One of the directors of the program pulled me aside afterward to let me know how grateful he was for my question. Even he did not understand exactly how a horn worked.

So yeah. Asking questions really is a PLUS even if it makes you look stupid for 10 seconds.image06

2. Don’t ever doubt yourself

Do you know what the imposter syndrome is? It’s this annoying psychological syndrome that you must memorize to get above a 4 on the AP psych test. It’s a number that’s generated from a series of questions that puts self-doubt into a neatly-organized set of categories. Its a personality trait that a shocking number of highly successful people also have. Turns out, having the imposter syndrome is extremely normal, and the normalcy of this syndrome is directly linked to your privilege in a specific situation.

Flash forward to me: an incredibly blonde, incredibly weird, baby-composer without even a bachelors degree under her belt, plopped in a classroom full of bright eyed, successful, fast talking, deeply theoretical white men with PhD’s and masters degrees. You better believe I’m going to feel like an imposter.

I felt like there was some sort of mix-up. Like, perhaps they had seen my name and thought, “Hmmm, maybe we should let this little girl in, she should round out our diversity quota.” Or maybe they had just given me a spot out of pity. Regardless, I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like if I spoke up, or voiced my opinion, I would be deemed as ‘intellectually incompetent’ for this line of work and quickly shown the front door.

But as the days went on, I realized that although I didn’t have the training, and accreditation that the other students had, I certainly had earned my place. I’m certainly not good at counterpoint, nor am I some sort of prolific music theorist. Frankly, I’m still pretty green at writing music, but the bottom line still stands that I have a lot of passion, a lot of drive, and a fresh, DIY approach to making meaningful music. While the boys may have been great at what they did, I certainly overshadowed their talent with my ability to tell a universal story. There, I found it, something I’m great at. It only took me 3 years of composing to figure it out.

You certainly may not know what you are good at now, but you will. Give it time, pay attention to your work-ethic, your passions, and your ideas. Being observant of your tendencies will allow you to better understand your strengths and weaknesses. Doubt it difficult to ignore, but the sooner you understand and own your value, the sooner you will be able to kick that nasty self-doubt habit


3. You will not get along with everyone; but that does not mean that you treat them with disrespect

Truth bomb: You will not like everyone you meet, and not everyone you meet will like you in return. Ok, Ok, So this is not the most earth-shattering truth bomb, but sometimes you have to put on your big-girl pants and accept this fact. Truth is— you will probably feel indifferent or disgust towards MOST of the people you meet in this world, but that gives you no rationale to treat them poorly.

Case and point: A few weeks ago I met a man who we’ll call Frank. He was a composer, just like me, and seemed pretty talented albeit a shallow name-dropper. I swallowed my disgust to learn a little more about him. Who cares right? Although he annoyed me a bit, I definitely could learn a thing or two from Frank. He was an established composer,conducting his OWN choir and producing his own music. I was pretty impressed. As the program went on, I realized how different our views on the music world, and life itself differed greatly. So I, being the grump-tastic feminist that I am, called my mother and complained about him. For a week.

I kept finding reasons to hate him, and his music. But he kept surprising me with his talent. He eventually sent me a hand written card, to tell me how much he enjoyed meeting me and learning about my music. Making me feel like a gigantic ass-hat, and I realized: Its perfectly fine and normal to dislike someone— but don’t let it ruin your life. If someone is in your way, you cannot continue to loathe his or her presence, rather, you must extend an arm. Get over yourself, because honestly, High School Musical definitely had it right


4. Be your own mentor first

Someone I deeply respect once told me, “You will never find the mentor you are looking for”. Yikes, talk about tough love, but at the end of the day, once I accepted that I needed to be my own trailblazer, the mentors I needed came out of the woodwork. I couldn’t possibly consider myself my own mentor— certainly I’m not qualified enough. So I took to reading Elizabeth Swados’ book about becoming a composer, Listening Out Loud. It was a baby step that I took in order to become my own mentor. At the end of the day, You know your life better than anyone else, so find ways to forge your own path. Study the lives of those you admire, and learn from them; do not simply try to be them. There will come a time when you are in need of advice, or a hug, or both, but you cannot guarantee that there will be someone there to pick you up, dust you off, and send you on your way. You must learn to do this yourself, it is a skill that takes time and patience.

When your perfect mentor comes along, your backbone will be strong enough to accept the challenges of your own life’s journey. Remember: when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others

Probably the most-given, and most-difficult advice ever given. ever. But still this life-lesson is an important one to learn; a skill that we must continue to fine-tune throughout our lives. This never gets easy, but the reward is well worth the suffering. I’ll keep this short and simple since I’ve chewed your ears off with my other points. C’mon kids, this is a biggie. Do Not. Compare. Yourself. To. Others.

Your voice is important and unique, and if you disagree with me now talk to me in 10 years. End of point.image05

6. Your path is your own, there is nobody else that has a path like yours. learn to embrace your unique path

And THIS is why you must learn to not compare yourself to others. Why compare yourself when your circumstances, skills, and outlook differ HUGELY from one person to the next? Sure you may feel as talented as Rihanna, but you are not Rihanna. period.

Embrace your weird, squiggly, awkward path. It’s yours, so flaunt it. By accepting the reality of your individual path you can learn and flourish.

My music is my music. It is unequivocally, and unflinchingly me. If I were to try to sonically impersonate the composers I looked up to, i wouldn’t be doing myself any favors. I would just be known as the ‘girl who sounded a lot like so-’n-so’ or ‘trying too hard to be what’s-his-name’ which is just a losing battle.

Trust that you’ll put the pieces together soon, and that you’ll find that your path (although perhaps daunting and lonely) is exquisitely rich and full of new opportunities.image01

7. Your voice is worthy of being heard

Period. You are valuable. Your work is valuable. Who you are is valuable. Remember that especially when your voice feels silenced. So say it with me: I am valuable. Periodimage00


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