In Praise of Music-COMP!


This is a story about how I began composing, and a love-letter to the organization that led me to do so.

I went to a public high school in a small town in the region of Vermont locals refer to as the Northeast Kingdom. The school is, in fact, a “union” middle and high school – students from five very small towns attend, bringing the total student body to about 350 (grades 7-12). Despite being in a primarily poor, rural setting, I was lucky to have two truly fantastic music teachers at my high school – they’re a married couple; he taught band and she taught chorus. They worked as a team, and were unwaveringly dedicated to the students’ needs. Over a third of the student body was in chorus, and each student (in both ensembles) received a private weekly lesson in addition to daily rehearsals.

My brother and I were among a handful of kids at our school who had taken private music lessons at any point – and because we had been homeschooled until high school, we’d had more private study than any of our peers. We quickly became friends with the other music nerds, and spent every free moment of every day in the auditorium and practice rooms, playing songs, listening to music, and goofing around. Even in such a microcosm of the music world, this was a male-dominated space, and the singers-as-secondary-to-instrumentalists stereotype seemed to go unchallenged amongst the music kids. I was very serious about playing the flute back then, so I thought of the serious instrumentalists (all of whom in my age group were boys) as my most serious and talented peers. During the fall of my sophomore year, I got wind that some of these Serious Music Boys were participating in a mysterious extracurricular they referred to as “Opus.” I didn’t know what it was, but when the band teacher asked me if I’d like to miss a day of school to come hear a concert I didn’t have to think for a second. I hopped in his car – just us and the kid whose piece was being performed – and off we went.

What it was, it turned out, was the Vermont MIDI Project (Now Music-COMP)’s Opus 15 Concert. That day was the culmination of a semester’s work; students from middle and high schools all across the state had been writing chamber pieces on Sibelius (in those early days, Sibelius must have sponsored Music-COMP – I remember T-shirts with a huge Sibelius logo on the back and a tiny “Vermont MIDI Project” logo on the front – and so schools had access to the software; now they use Noteflight and Muse Score). Every week or two, the novice composers sent their Sibelius files to their online mentors – local professional composers and composition students at the University of Vermont – and received feedback, primarily about playability and notation. The day-long festival featured a chamber ensemble who played each student’s work – in a rehearsal early in the day, and in a (professionally recorded) performance that evening.

At the time, I was not appropriately blown away by how fantastic this program is. However, the idea of having a music-centric independent study at school (i.e. an excuse to be in the music room and not wasting my time with, say, gym) – and then getting to miss a WHOLE DAY of school at the end of the semester – had piqued my interest. I asked the band teacher if I could participate in Opus 16 that spring. Each semester the ensemble was different – there were always 4-6 instruments available, and students could write for the full ensemble or any subset. My first piece was a string trio, I believe. After that I wrote for solo piano, solo flute, and brass quartet. By my senior year of high school, composing was one of my favorite parts of the day. For logistical/financial reasons, I was not able to participate in Music-COMP’s concert during the spring of my senior year – instead I wrote a piece for concert band, which was performed at our spring concert and again at my high school graduation. Ah, the joys of being a big fish in a small pond.

In the few years that I took part in Music-COMP’s Opus program, it grew enormously. The first time I did it, all 15-odd students who had composed pieces got a performance on the final concert. By my final round, there were 75 participants in grades 3-12 (yes, you read that right), and only about 20 pieces were selected to be performed. The organization has continued to grow – according to their website’s FAQ Page:

“Our mentors work with young composers year round on a number of different types of projects. Right now we have students working on pieces for the Vermont Symphony, student-designed projects of all types including a composition for their school’s orchestra, and silent film scores. . . . Every year our young composers have their music performed by the Vermont Symphony, the Vermont Philharmonic, the Northern Third Piano Quartet, and more. They are also regularly featured on VPR with Kari Anderson and our Student Composer Showcase.”

This is an organization that has grown organically (and through hard work) into a very substantial part of the music education landscape in Vermont. They have a page on their website that enumerates their Key Composition Tenets:

1. Composition is an essential element of a well-rounded curriculum

2. Using notation software develops music literacy

3. Begin notational composition with structured guidelines

4. Reflect and critique frequently

5. Encourage revision

6. Promote personal composition for the teachers

7. Provide opportunities for live performance of student work

I think this list is brilliant. For more detail on each tenet, visit the page.

If I had not participated in Music-COMP, I don’t know if I ever would have started composing. As a moody teenager, I loved shutting myself in a practice room and writing music (not much has changed), but it was not a totally isolated experience. I began each piece knowing it would be played by real, human, high-level musicians, and this knowledge pushed me to broaden my understanding of the instruments I wrote for and to think practically about every note and rhythm I wrote. In addition to turning me into a composer, Music-COMP led me to believe that composition can, and indeed should, be taught to young students. My piano students write pieces and then play them, an incredibly effective exercise to help them truly understand notation – especially of rhythm.

In a nutshell, I just love Music-COMP. It is a nonprofit organization (if you’re feeling inspired to donate to their awesome cause, you can do so here), and it exists because of the dedication and passion of the people who run it. I am so grateful for all they have done and continue to do for contemporary music. What an inspiration.

Me, a moody teen.

Networking While Introverted

Composer Musings

What I Have Learned in Grad School About How to Be Around Other Humans

Note: this article is targeted towards members of the [academic] contemporary music community – but I hope the principles it presents are applicable to introverts in any field. Furthermore, while it comes from the perspective of an introvert, this advice may be helpful to anyone trying to network.

Last summer, I was lucky to be accepted to a two-week composition festival.* I had only applied to two, so I wasn’t sure I would get into any, and while attending was not a financially responsible decision, I felt it would be worth shelling out for the benefits I’d get in return: I was “commissioned” to write a piece for a professional new music ensemble, and would have the opportunity to write a second piece (also to be premiered by professional performers) while at the festival; I would have one-on-one rehearsal time with these professional ensembles; I would get to take lessons with highly accomplished composers; and, of course, those two weeks would be full of endless opportunities to network.

I had been to a summer festival before, and was excited to learn of my acceptance to this one. Several of my colleagues at school had attended it in past years, and had only good things to say about it. One of my favorite classmates was accepted to attend along with me, and I looked forward to spending time with him over the summer. I wrote my commissioned piece as the spring semester wrapped up, and looked forward to hearing it come to life.

As the beginning of the festival drew nearer, though, I found my excitement waning, and slowly being replaced with a very different feeling: dread.

I was still burnt out and homesick after my first year of graduate school, and nothing sounded less appealing than spending two weeks sharing a dorm room with a stranger, and spending long days in close quarters with thirty other strangers, all of whom were eager as could be to connect with everyone else in a meaningful way, while doing their best to show off their musical talents. I tried to enter the program with an open mind and a positive attitude, and while the benefits I had anticipated were real, my overall experience was one of self-doubt and discomfort. I felt like an outlier in an otherwise like-minded group; I felt less enthusiastic and less capable than anyone else in the program. While I did connect with some wonderful people, I felt pessimistic about my interactions overall, especially with the professional musicians I’d been so excited to meet just a few months earlier.

My summer festival experience was in some ways a microcosm of my overall graduate school experience (though the latter has been significantly more positive). I started my two years as a Master’s student with the intention of focusing on my own art and my own academic career. I rapidly discovered how important Other Humans are to any one artist’s success, and how necessary it will be in my life for me to get along with these Other Humans. Here are some pieces of advice I have picked up in the last two years about how to navigate the wild world of networking as an introvert:

Get Close With the People Around You

            You could get the commission/performance of your dreams, but if you haven’t been going to your peers’ recitals/events, they are not really going to care. Support the people you interact with every day. They will remember that you did that, and will thank you for it someday. If you are never around to support them, they will remember that just as well. When I started school, I was intimidated by the fact that my professors were mentally taking attendance at every event they attended. Now, I take attendance myself. Paying to attention to who shows up to support not only me, but my colleagues in general, helps me know who I’ll be able to count on in the future when I need a favor (many of which are mutually beneficial). So – go to your friends’ recitals. In fact . . .

Go to All of the Concerts/Events (and As Many Bars as You Can Stand To)

This is the most basic advice you can receive as a new music enthusiast, and you will hear it over and over again. I’ll try to give an introvert’s spin to it: yes, your bed/couch/floor is comfy, and yes, you are exhausted because you’ve already had three classes, six meetings, and two rehearsals today – but you will never regret attending a new music concert. Even if you hate the entire program, recognizing that will help you to better understand what you do like. It’s much more likely, though, that you will hear something amazing and exciting and will find yourself totally inspired! And – here’s the key – you don’t even have to talk to anyone. If you’re up for congratulating the performers/composers after the concert, go for it. If not, you’ll have something to say to them three months from now when you find yourself unexpectedly needing to make small talk with them (which will happen. The new music world is tiny, and your own community within that is tinier).

If the performers invite you to join the crowd for an after-concert drink, grit your teeth and say yes. You might sit silently at the bar (secretly enjoying the hell out of doing so) all night – but you also might connect with someone you didn’t expect to. Keep an open mind, accept that sometimes it will be fun and sometimes it will not, and just go for it. That being said, only you know your limits. It is okay to stay in if you are really not up for all that socializing – just don’t make a habit of saying no to things because it’s the safe and easy option.

Be Professional

Yes, go to the bar – but don’t get so drunk that everyone remembers that about you. Alcohol is a delightful social lubricant, but your colleagues/classmates are likely people you will know in a professional capacity for the rest of your life (because once again, this is a small world), so don’t turn them off by sharing too much personal information or acting excessively crude.

Don’t Try to be Friends With Everybody

It’s not going to happen. It’s easy to accept that you don’t like everyone you know; become just as comfortable with the fact that not everyone is going to like you. This doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you, it is just a fact of life – people are all different, and we aren’t all going to get along with each other. This also doesn’t mean you should write anyone off as “not worth your time” (more on that later) – but don’t waste your time trying to become best friends with someone just because they have a talent you’d like to capitalize on, if the two of you just don’t click. Find people whose music speaks to you and who you get along with easily. Collaborate with those people. It is so much more valuable to form a few strong bonds that to give everyone the impression that you’re trying to impress/suck up to them, without actually making any true friends.

That being said . . .

Never Dismiss Anybody

            You never know who you’re going to need a favor from someday. You never know who might want to commission all the composers they know for an album, or who might recommend you to their filmmaker friend for a score. Recognize that you can’t be friends with everyone, but still be courteous to those people you don’t get along with. In addition to keeping doors open, by staying professional you are showing your colleagues and superiors that you are mature and trustworthy.

Use Social Media

            I hate posting anything even remotely self-promotional online. I waited two months after that summer festival to post the recording of my piece. When I did put it up, I posted it on Facebook with a status about how self-conscious doing so made me, and then spent the entire day regretting my decision and cringing while the supportive comments rolled in. Despite the overwhelming kindness and genuine interest that post received, I still felt like a jerk for taking up that tiny amount of space on the Internet. It was worth it, though – that piece has more listens than any other on my Soundcloud page, and every piece I’ve posted since has been a little bit easier to share. Set aside five minutes a day to do something that builds your online presence – update your website, post on social media, blog about a concert you attended recently. Oh, and then follow every ensemble, performer, and composer you can think of on every platform.

Be Honest

Don’t pretend to like a composer you don’t like. Don’t pretend you’ve heard of a composer you haven’t heard of. It is okay to respectfully disagree, to ask questions, and to admit you don’t know what somebody is talking about. All of these things are better than smiling and nodding uncomfortably, and either not contributing to the conversation or saying something that reveals the dearth of knowledge you were trying to hide. A person worth knowing will not judge you for having different experiences than they have had.

Be Realistic

Earlier this semester, one of my favorite new music ensembles visited my school. In one of the Q&A sessions they held, they had fairly in-depth conversation about how they each got started as freelancing musicans, and how their ensemble had formed. Hearing them break down their fruitful careers into a handful of simple steps was beyond inspiring for me – I suddenly felt like I could realistically end up where there are if I keep trying. But alongside that came a revelation: I am never going to end up exactly where they are, and that should not be my goal. Yes, I got to talk to a few members of that group during their residency, and it was exciting to have meaningful conversations with them – but in the long run, those conversations pale in comparison to the one I had with my classmate immediately following the panel: we turned to each other and said, “hey, let’s try doing [that thing they recommended] together!” What I realized (as obvious as it sounds) is this: I am never going to join that ensemble. That is not even a far-reaching goal of mine, and it shouldn’t be. I am so inspired by those musicians, but they are further advanced in their careers than I am in mine, and I will never be a part of their success. Instead, I need to make my own success. I need to start my own ensemble or festival, to get my own commissions, to make art that is genuinely and uniquely my own. It is fun and sometimes productive to talk to famous people when you get the chance – but connecting with your classmates and colleagues is going to serve you in much more direct and tangible ways.

Be Confident (but Humble)

            Making self-deprecating jokes, or even just playing down your talents, can be so tempting. But here’s the problem: if you tell someone who you hardly know that you’re a mediocre composer, they are going to believe you. Why wouldn’t they? After my first year of grad school, I felt like I was so far behind so many of my peers – in terms of my portfolio, my commissioning experience, and even my technical skill. I went around (both at the summer festival and afterward) telling performers I met that I was a “baby composer.” I meant it as an expression of humility – something like, “I am not at a level where I could possibly write music for you, O Great Musician, but please tell me how I can get to that point.” The result? More than one contact from that festival later expressed that they thought I was “talented for an undergrad” – when I was halfway through my Master’s degree! Impostor Syndrome (the feeling that you have not earned your place in your academic/career field, that everyone else around you is succeeding but you are a “fraud”) is such a real part of life as an artist – but casually voicing those feelings out loud will only make them closer to reality, and saying such things to people you admire and hope to work with can be truly damaging. You earned your status; be proud of that.

When you do own your accomplishments, though, be sure not to brag. Name-dropping famous musicians you have met or worked with, commissions you’ve received, or fancy programs you’ve attended is a sure-fire way to bore your colleagues. If you have a legitimately relevant and interesting story you simply must share about one of these impressive experiences, go for it – but gauge people’s reactions, and if they seem stand-offish, accept the fact that you’ve just tooted your own horn a little to loudly (and don’t bring that topic up again for a while).

Be Patient

If there is one thing I have learned about networking during the two years I’ve been in graduate school, it is this: it takes time. As I have slowly built up my online presence, I have found myself more connected with emerging artists I admire. But more significant are the bonds I have made in person. By simply being eager and willing to listen to and perform my classmates’ music, I have made musical connections over the last year and a half that I know will last for decades to come. I have friends who I respect as musicians, with whom I will continue to collaborate after we graduate. My friends are not necessarily more successful than I am, nor am I more successful than they are – we are not trying to benefit from each others’ accomplishments. Instead, we are just making music together because we want to. By being honestly interested in and respectful of one another’s talents, we are all lifting each other up and becoming better, more successful musicians.

*While I have deliberately avoided identifying the festival I attended, it wouldn’t take much digging to figure out which one it was. I would like to emphasize that my experience as described in this article is just that – my own experience. The festival itself was well-organized and widely enjoyed. All of the organizers and guest artists were friendly, welcoming, thoughtful, and immensely talented; the other composers who attended were much the same. My own negative perceptions and attitudes are in no way a reflection of the festival itself.