When 91Classical’s Student Composer Fellows had to cancel their meeting with composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Nashville Symphony conductor Giancarlo Guerrero due to “Safe at Home” orders, the class was thrilled when Frank and Guerrero agreed to a video conference instead.
Before we knew just how frazzled the entire fine arts community would shortly be, Kevin Ou asked a question about avoiding burnout. Frank pointed out that all four of the fellows have found the joy of composing, and that holding on to that joy is a matter of self-care.
Frank: Now you know you have this joy for composing. It is yours to mess up. A lot of people don’t even get to that point where they discover something that brings them joy, and that the world needs. That’s privilege, to me. That’s a wonderful privilege. So, the way to not mess up is to manage your time better. And that means different things at different stages of your life. You start managing your time like that, and you’re starting to grow up. Really – you’re starting to manage and make choices. And I love it. I love being a grownup in that way, and making my choices.
Guerrero found gratitude to be a key element of his self-care.
Guerrero: Think about the fact that you’re gonna get paid to do something that you love to do. That is a privilege and it’s absolutely insanely crazy. But, as Gabriela was saying, it comes with responsibilities and you have to take care of yourself. That’s just the reality of it. But the one thing that is constant, at least in my life, the one thing that has never let me down is the music. Whenever I am up there making music I forget about everything else.
Herrenbruck had a related question about writer’s block. And Frank’s perspective on the condition was eye-opening.
Frank: Stage fright, to me, and writer’s block are pretty similar. I think stage fright is what composers get, and we just call it writer’s block. So if you take that attitude, both of them are symptoms of what else is going on in your life. Getting burnt out is a symptom that you might get writer’s block coming up. So the best way to prevent writer’s block is to be super vigilant to your own state of mind. Are you burnt out? Do you have a lot of stuff going on?
Frank also had a suggestion for recalibrating during a bout of writer’s block.
Frank: I’ll do something like take The Rite of Spring and I’ll rewrite it. I’ll take that famous bassoon opening, and I’ll give it to the flute. And then I imagine a story in my head where the bassoon section is totally insulted. And then I will change around the percussion, and then I’ll change tempi, and I’ll take things out and I’ll add in my own music – and I’m actually composing. But I’m composing with a lot of safety nets. And the safety net is Stravinsky – that’s a pretty good safety net! Or maybe Bartok. You’ve got to create, but create in a joyful way.
She also suggested composing side-by-side with someone else – especially a teacher.
Frank: By composing side-by-side, you may see how a more experienced composer produces. Writer’s block is the inability to produce. When you see somebody that has a really fertile brain, who is able to produce and not repeat themselves? They have all these tricks they learned over the years.
Guelcher asked about Frank’s first commission. By pointing out that “commission” can mean many different things to a composer, Frank helped the fellows realize that they have all indeed had their first commissions already. Because it isn’t (at first) about money – it’s about the invitation to compose.
Frank: I was a freshman in college, and I composed a clarinet and piano piece for Jonathan Gunn. We were in ear training together, and I remember it was my one and only twelve tone row piece. And the row was:
(Note: A twelve-tone row is a compositional tool that was part of the so-called “Second Viennese School” of composers. Using all twelve chromatic pitches an equal number of times took away the use of scales, and all of their melodic function, thus changing the structure of music altogether.)
Frank: And we did it and I played the piano part. And it was a hard piano part – it would be hard even now!
You’re gonna write for your roommate. You’re gonna write for the person in ear training class. You’re gonna write for the people around you. You’re gonna write for the people you really feel good around. I wrote for the people around me, and the first time I was paid I got paid in pizza.
Guerrero’s first commission experience was on the other side – as the performer. Going back to his days as a staff conductor with the Minnesota Orchestra, he described working with a then lesser-known composer: Jennifer Higdon.
Guerrero: I ran the education programs. And believe it or not, back in the day at the Minnesota Orchestra, they had a small budget, a very small budget, to commission pieces for these children’s concerts. Write these very short 5-6 minute pieces and play them in children’s concerts. My first commission was actually in 2000. I did not know the composer but it was somebody that was recommended to me, and her name was Jennifer Higdon.
And it was the educational director who said, “Hey we heard about this young girl, and she’s out of her mind because she’s actually publishing her own pieces.” When we were waiting for the music, I remember the librarian coming to me, he was this older fellow, and saying, “By the way, I heard we’re going to be getting her score by email.” He started reading the email and said, “Have you ever heard of PDFs?”
I thought it was the coolest thing when the guy downloaded the PDF and he said, “You can choose what size you want!”
Of course, this was the beginning of a great friendship between the two, and Higdon recently visited Nashville when the Nashville Symphony recorded her Low Brass Concerto.
Duncan asked for any final piece of advice from these two professionals. And both Guerrero and Frank delivered. Guerrero urged the students to bring out their inner nerd and fanaticism for music.
Guerrero: You must love this more than you can imagine.
And Frank drove home the point that while there are many professions that keep the world turning, these young composers should never doubt the importance of their work as well.
Frank: Things seem so dangerous right now out in the world. I know. Everything that’s been going on for the last few years has been truly chaotic. Historically chaotic. And we can sometimes think, “Well, what am I doing to make things better? Should I just become a lawyer or a police person?” You think of these other jobs that sound more obviously useful. But, you’re very needed. And your creativity is very needed. And you must never doubt how important your mission is as an artist.
There is very little that can unify people the way a piece of music can. And it cuts through all the noise. It cuts through all the resistance. It cuts through all the anger that people have. And you must do it very, very, very well. And then you must have that vision – that elusive vision. Vision is who you are.
The 2019-2020 class of Student Composer Fellows will premiere pieces throughout the month of June. Stay tuned to 91Classical for details.