The growth of a composer is much like the growth of an athlete. It requires a set of carefully honed skills that develop over time and through practice. There is always a temptation to skip a few steps in the process to get to the fun part, but this usually results in an unrefined performance. As a young composer in college, my aspirations grew after having my first composition, “Vieni nel Mio Cuore,” performed by my college choir. I decided that it was time to push the boundaries of choral music and become an innovator. 10-part harmony and tone clusters became my best friends, but then I realized that I was not yet properly equipped to use these tools.
There are two pieces of advice that I give to every person who asks me about composing.
1. Become an expert in music theory – Music theory will not make you a great composer but it will give you the tools to anticipate what should come next in your music.
2. Simplify – You will not be able to properly write a quality complex piece until you can write a quality simple piece. Complexity should be something that is used to enhance important moments in a piece. It should not the basis of your music. Even though I was fortunate to have my complex “Vieni” published, I look back and see things that I wish I had done differently.
It is almost comical to reflect on some of the decisions that I was making in my compositions during my early years. Many of the concepts were valid but the execution exposed my inexperience. I have a list of compositions that were indefinitely shelved during my novice attempts and resurrected into some of my finest work once I had the experience to fix them. One of these compositions is “Do Not Fear,” which was musically complete but required a lyrical overhaul.
From its conception in 2010, “Do Not Fear” had a solid musical structure. Its introduction exuded the power contained in the lyrics “Be strong and courageous,” I was able to use the opening ascending octave as a motive throughout the piece (including in the parallel major), and the climax of the piece is sure to give you chills. But the piece simply did not say enough through its lyrics. I chose to bury the piece because it completely missed the mark. Three years later, I stumbled upon it and realized that I could resurrect it using what I had learned. I printed it off, took it with me to a piano gig, and chaotically brainstormed new ideas all over it.
Within a few days, the piece received a new lease on life. By shifting the text into the first person as spoken by God, it took on an entirely new meaning. The original lyrics appeared to say nothing at all and were almost comical in their repetitiveness.
Now that the piece delivered a strong message (and was no longer embarrassing), I sent it off to my friends at the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers. They breathed life into the notes on the page, created an amazing interpretation, helped the piece to get published, and now it is being performed all over the country. There was a time when I had given up on the piece but now I know that sometimes, we just aren’t ready to complete a piece.
Enjoy this recording of “Do Not Fear” recently performed at PMEA District 5 Honors Chorus below! In my next blog post, I will take a look at “Grant Us Peace,” a composition that was 10 years in the making.