Sunday, December 4, 2011

Jason Segel's Secret to Success

Maybe I did Google Jason Segel upon return home from the new Muppet movie tonight. What of it?

From a GQ interview he did a while back; let's just call it Jason Segel's Secret to Success:

...I just spent two years being terrible at it until I was good at it. That's just me. There's no way I'm actually intrinsically talented at writing, acting, playing music, puppeteering. It's that I'm willing to be shit at them for a while, until I'm good at them. It's like when you watch a kid in math class—at some point, they just shut off, like, "I'm not going to be good at this, ever." I don't ever reach the "Fuck it" point in anything. I'm willing to be bad for as long as it takes, until I'm good.

GQ: Where does that willingness to push through come from, you think?

I don't have a sense of shame. I just don't. If I've hurt someone's feelings, if I'm mean to somebody, I'll lament over that for days. I'm
that dude. I'll lose sleep over mundane stuff. But I don't really have the thing of, "Oh, I've embarrassed myself." I just don't understand why I would stop trying to play piano even though I'm not good at it. I want to be good at it. So why wouldn't I keep playing?

GQ: You never think, This is silly, what I'm doing?

Never. That's how you get three songs deep into a Dracula musical.
Yeah, and that's also how you get to write and star in a Muppet movie! I am so inspired, and was misty-eyed throughout. Walter that very manly Muppet is my hero.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It is enough: tintinnabuli

It is a choral piece I've been working on — my first — and so I am listening to and studying the choral works of Arvo Pärt.

This is interesting. After a particular period of self-imposed silence and contemplation, Pärt emerged with a new approach to composition he calls "tintinnabuli" (little bells) and this epiphany:  "I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played."

It is enough, it is enough, it is enough. I do think that one of the hardest things for me when writing music is trusting that simplicity is enough. It is enough to be singing a simple note, possibly repeating it or repeating the phrase, playing a simple chord, a simple melody, with a simple harmonization. It can be hard to sit with just one word or phrase. It takes enormous amounts of patience and confidence to let it have itself, without quickly distracting the listener with the next phrase just in case this one isn't good enough.

The piece I'm working on hasn't figured out what it is yet. On the one hand, it's tugging to be an old-time American call and response hymn like I'll Fly Away or In the Sweet By and By yet it's also pulling to be a modern choral piece through-composed, working in fragments and phrases rather than ABABAB repetition. I feel the tug in these two directions every time I sit down to work on it. I haven't found the answer yet so I'm listening, listening, listening. To Ives, to Pärt, then Bach and Billings.

I already know Fanny Crosby, Isaac Watts, Philip P. Bliss, Lowell Mason, and William Bradbury by heart. I have been singing them all my life. Maybe I should just follow the obvious and see where it leads me.

Here are two samples from each side of the spectrum:

American call and response hymns:

Arvo Pärt's "O Morgenstern" from Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I Never Met Charles Ives

I've been listening to "alot" of Ives. From his biography via the immensely useful Charles Ives Society, Inc.:
...Charles Ives came to associate everyday music with profound emotions and spiritual aspirations. One of his father's most resonant pieces of wisdom came when he said of a stonemason's off-key hymn singing: "Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds--for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds."

Charles Ives grew up determined to find that wild, heroic ride, that music of the ages--the spiritual power he felt in the singing at outdoor camp meetings and in bands marching during holidays. It would take many years of struggle and experiment, however, before he fully possessed the musical language to transform that spirit into orchestral and chamber music.
A man before my own heart. I hope it takes me fewer years of struggle and experiment to fully possess the musical language to transform that spirit into songwriting. Because Ives started at the age of 13 and I've gotten off to very a late start.

Orchestral Set No. 2 - III - From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voices of the People Again Arose

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jury Rituals & the Stemless Polka Dotted Wine Glass

Last night, while nibbling a late dinner and playing Candyland (new version stinks) at Dram Shop, I was rushed by sudden waves of intense nausea.Ugh. Am I sick? No. Hungry? No. Pregnant? No. Thirsty? Maybe. Nervous? Blleeeeeuuuuuuuuhhhhhh [huge wave of confirmation nausea] YES. Yes, I am nervous. Nervous because the next morning (this morning) was to be my first time standing up in front of people, performing one of my own songs.

I started brainstorming at the table with Lemon Peele and Professor Lime about ways I could trick myself into not being nervous. Alaska sarcastically suggested the whole underwear thing but that has never worked for me. Suggestion, nausea, suggestion, nausea, suggestion, then AHA!

At the end of each semester, music majors are required to play a "jury" in front of the faculty for her/his instrument family. Voice majors in front of the entire vocal faculty, oboe majors in front of the full woodwind faculty, French horn majors (like myself) in front of the brass faculty. As you might guess from the fact that these are called juries, the student's entire grade for the semester is on trial in this 30 minute slot. S/he plays two prepared pieces (fast and slow in contrasting styles), the faculty "calls scales" of all stripes (F# harmonic minor!) and s/he plays them on the spot. It's the kind of thing that can make music not at all music-y. Anyhow, I developed a few rituals in undergrad that helped me cope with and even enjoy juries.
  1. I would always sign up for the first available slot after the faculty's afternoon break, in their final stretch for the day. (They sit through juries all day long.)
  2. The night before, after practicing my brains out, I'd make two or three batches of cookies and prepare a baggie full of treats for each member of the faculty.
  3. I'd arrive about 30 minutes early for my jury, and when the faculty members went out for their coffee break, I'd go into the room and take over. Drop off the cookies. Warm up on my horn. Play and sing my favorite Sarah McLachlan songs at the piano. Make that space mine all mine all mine.
  4. When the faculty members returned from their break, we'd chat, they'd munch cookies, and we'd all happily get started.
Now: the power was not in bribery. The brass faculty at JMU had the wherewithal to withstand the pressure of delicious oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip cookies. The power was in ownership of the room. You walk into a room and see a panel of judges behind a table? It's their room and they hold the power. You're sitting at a piano, playing your favorite songs and sharing cookies, when a few folks walk in and sit down at a table? That's your room and you hold the power.

So, I asked myself last night what I could do to make the PSUMC sanctuary my room today and I set a plan in motion. Get there first. (Easy, had to be there at 9AM for sound check anyhow.) Bring my very favorite drinking glass from home (for water in case of cotton mouth) a stemless polka dotted red wine glass that The Duo got us at Big Lots a few years ago. Walk around and talk to people before the service. Say a few words at the mic. And the biggest, most important declaration of ownership is built-in!

This is my song. I wrote it. And you weren't there when I did. It's mine. And there's no such thing as messing up because it doesn't exist until I sing it.

I'm thinking this is going to be a very powerful thing about songwriting for me this is music on which I am the world's best and only expert. And, as I stood there with my special polka dotted wine glass full of lukewarm water, I thought: "Aha. So this is how divas are born..."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Feldenkrais! Learning to learn.

This is not Missy Mazzoli.
Milestone: I have started composition lessons.

One assumption that I made young is that a songwriter cannot be taught, a songwriter is either born or not. One can go to school to learn to play pro football, but to write songs a person has to just know how to do it. To be a natural. Because who taught Paul Simon? Who taught Stevie Wonder? Who taught Joni Mitchell? Sufjan Stevens? Nobody, right? Right??

Wrong. Or right. It doesn't matter. It's totally unrealistic! I don't care how they did it anymore. This is how I'm doing it. I am learning to learn. In a conversation with singer/songwriter/composer Sasha Siem last Friday, she referenced the Feldenkrais Method. I'd never heard of it but she followed up by sending me a fascinating article from Feldenkrais' Learn to Learn booklet, and I've excerpted some curious bullet points here.
  • Do everything very slowly
  • Look for a pleasant sensation
  • Do not “try” to do well
  • Do not try to do “nicely”
  • Do not concentrate
  • We do not say at the start what the final stage will be
  • Do a little less than you can
 And then there's this. See? Looks like even Yoda took some lessons...

"Learn to do well, but do not try. The countenance of trying hard betrays the inner conviction of being unable or of not being good enough." - Moshe Feldenkrais

So I have my manuscript paper. I have some new exercises to help me forward. Some listening assignments. Some tactics. I'm going in, folks. I'm going in. And I'm not trying to do anything.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"I was cranky, and I lost my high notes"

Dearest OMG sent me a few copies of October's Classical Singer magazine, for which she interviewed me on the topic of dealing with negative reviews. And, after flipping through her well-spun narrative, my eyes settled on a piece entitled "Does Size Matter?"

At first I wasn't sure whether I'd forgive the title.

But speaking of body image and singing careers . . . gee, it's validating when a trade magazine covers something mere weeks after I've blogged about it. Vocal teacher and CS contributor Michelle Latour surveyed singers at the 2010 conference in LA regarding body image, body size, and the impact of both on singers. Check out this gem:
"Dramatic soprano Barbara DeMaio Caprilli revealed, 'I was forced to lose 60 pounds under the threat of being fired when I was in a Young Artist Program in the early 1990s. At the time I did not know that I had Celiac Disease. I had to go to 900 calories a day in order to keep my job. I was cranky, and I lost my high notes.'"
You have to understand us: there's something especially crazymaking about gluten and thyroid-related diseases. My doctors and my nutritionist all tell me that I have one, yet I still suspect that I'm exaggerating or making all of this up, or that I've simply somehow misunderstood how to lose weight. Like, even when I'm counting all of my calories, fiber, protein, water, etc. and exercising like a monster, my body somehow knows that I like the 1280 calories I'm eating and if I could just like them less, then nutritional math would apply to me. Come on, Scarlet, it's easy! If you just forever cut out wine, cocktails, dessert, dairy, soy, grains, breads, sugar, chocolate, baked goods, cruciferous vegetables, strawberries, and meat, you could totally be in shape. You're just not trying hard enough.

I know it's harsh. But if you get it, you get it, and I want to be 'gotten.' On the upside, I am a powerhouse from all of my exercise. If you are reading this, chances are I could detach my left leg, leave it in the middle of the floor, and it could single-leggedly destroy you and your entire family in a cage match. Apply here.

But more to the point, 93 percent of singers surveyed agree that body image influences their singing and ability to communicate on stage. Laura Ockey points out, " is difficult for the audience to concentrate...if the body-type is too wrong... ."

Meaning, bottom line, that it's about stage presence and stage presence is about belief. Am I communicating the joy, rage, comfort, humor, sensuality, and wistfulness of my songs or am I communicating insecurity, unease, failure, guardedness? Can the audience believe what I'm singing in this singer/songwriter role, as I look, dress, sound, and act?

Or, the harder question: Can I believe myself? YES. Yes, I can. And this is the work, the work, the work.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

the progressive (de)petrification of Scarlet K

It's time for another round of what-terrifies-me-next!


I now have 5 songs in roughly singable shape. I have a basic awareness of my real, stripped down, nonclassical singing voice. It is now time to start, what may possibly be, The Most Terrifying Step of Them All:

Live performance of my own ******* music.

Which, if my imagination is accurate, will feel something akin to being strip-searched with latex gloves on a fat day while someone's mother reads the full transcript of all the terrible, stupid, and generally embarrassing things I've ever said or done in public or in private, as all of my (formerly affiliated) business contacts, family, and friends watch in horror.

Imagination, you are so thoughtful! Thank you for always (always) being there to help me!

I am going to ease (ooze?) into this. First step: find a safe place. Which I've already done. I'm very happy to say that the fully arranged "premiere" of my first completed song will take place at the safest place in all of Brooklyn: Park Slope United Methodist Church. Appropriate, since it was the music minister (poet/author/activist/pianist Pam McAllister) who got me singing and playing both horn and piano again after 9 latent years. "Ask Seek Knock" will serve as the Offertory in PSUMC's November 13 worship service. It's also appropriate considering that this song is a doubter's prayer, offered up by a wishful but lonely 20-year-old me, in a time of recovery from significant emotional trauma.

After that step, I will be taking my few songs to the streets, to sing in local all-original open mic nights. I plan to do all of this in complete secret, which is naturally why I'm publicly blogging about it. But seriously, I plan to do this first without anyone I know in the room. Not even Alaska.

So, if you're tempted to be kind and supportive: thank you, thank you. For now I'd ask that you do so by not coming out to see or hear me.

Scarlet K,
the anti-publicist

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

to have courage you must first be afraid

It is always a surprise to me when someone says "You are so brave" or "I am not as brave as you are" because I spend a great deal of my time feeling afraid. It doesn't feel cinematic --- the heroic horns of  Howard Shore.

So I started thinking last night about what it really feels like when I do something "courageous," and this is the poem that came out of that.

you have to be

(so afraid)

you cannot be allowed


you cannot be allowed
to even think it

you can't be allowed to start:
or else!

you cannot be allowed to start
to step

you have to be, terribly
you have to be, terribly
you have to be terribly
terribly bored

terribly bored

terribly bored
terribly bored
(st - ep)



have to s.t.t.t.t.and
and steady your breath

while accused
(steady your breath)

ri. di. culed.
(steady your breath)

mis. con. strued.
(steady your breath)


. . . . . . . . . . breath . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . breath . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . breath . . . . . . . . . . .

still alive?
still alive!
still alive!!

you have to need the entire room to turn and face and hold you
be a vacuum for the air, the world's dome, the atmosphere

all of it.


NO. not the end.

you have to first forget all of this
like it never happened

start over, begin again.
again. again.


terribly bored
(terribly bored)



(you have to be afraid to say it)

perhaps humiliated, and ashamed

you have to be afraid to say it

first, it has to be so far away it doesn't exist
impossible, impractical hazy mist

you have to have wasted all your time

you have to be so angry. and so sad.

to have wasted all your time


you have wasted all your time




Monday, October 17, 2011

The Scarlet Test: Big Red A+

Thanks to those of you who submitted comments to last week's post. I really appreciate it.

Role models! Here's my Top 10 gallery of leading ladies who pass The Scarlet Test with a big red A+. Dangerous talent ahead.
10. Cameryn Manheim - Actress
9. Queen Latifah - Actress, Singer, Rapper
8. Sophie Guillemin - Actress
7. Adele - Singer/songwriter  
6. Breezee One - Rapper
5. Melissa McCarthy - Actress, comedian
4. Ann Wilson - Singer (Heart)
3. Carnie Wilson- Singer/songwriter (Wilson Phillips)  
2. Christina Hendricks - Actress
1. Scarlet K - Singer/songwriter
That's right: Move over, bacon.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

High School Drama & The Leading Lady

Hello, Knights!

Partially inspired by this from The New Yorker and this from Facebook, I've created what I'm calling the Scarlet Test. (And I need your help!) But first, some inaccurate assumptions and a back story.

In high school, I was up for lead roles in two of the four annual musicals. I made third round call backs both times but didn't get either role. Instead, I was cast consistently in elderly, matronly roles. I remember my high school drama teacher giving all the auditionees a big talk about "looking the part" before awarding the lead roles to a dancer and a cheerleader, respectively, even though I was arguably the strongest singer. I really really loved musicals and wanted to be a performer, so one day I asked her what I could do to improve. She said something about looking the part, stage presence, and how I didn't have it. Again, I asked her what I could do about that and she said: "Some people have it and some people don't."

It was so final. Now I understand that the real answer was that she probably didn't know how to teach a student to improve his/her stage presence (I certainly don't) and was probably more interested in drawing the cheerleader/jock crowd to performances than my already-converted band friends. Or maybe I reminded her of some family member she didn't like, or maybe she had once been overweight and hated herself for it, so she wasn't interested in teaching me. Whatever. But I was 15/16 and I took the statements about my appearance on stage to mean a lot more than they should have.

I thought it meant: "My body looks matronly, possibly elderly. I am not eligible for lead roles because of my size/body type. Nobody wants to see that on stage. To realize my dreams, it doesn't matter how talented I am or how strong my singing is if I don't, first of all, lose a lot of weight." And, the thing is, I wasn't really even aware that I had absorbed these assumptions; I just made them tacitly and behaved accordingly. I didn't audition for the musical my senior year (Charlie Brown stars six kids! What's an elderly 17-year-old to do?), I didn't pursue musical theater in college (I had plum forgotten the dream by then), and that even crazier dream I had of getting up on stage and singing my own songs? Well, that was perhaps the most absurd of all!

So I buried that all down deep deep deep. I remained paralyzed by these misconceptions until, pretty much, last year. Except, well, the body type thing isn't so much a misconception when it comes to show biz. Them's the breaks, right?

Per Dr. Pamela Peeke via WebMD:
"The average starlet is wearing a size 2 or 4 which is the sample size designers are making presently."
For me, that possibility is right out, though I've tried so very very hard for a long time. I'm not built that way, for starters, but I also have hypothyroidism, which is unforgiving of my love of baking/cooking/going out with friends. (If you want to understand the body-madness involved with thyroid conditions, read this.)

But the point is, I am not going to let this keep me off stage anymore. I can't keep waiting until my body complies -- I've got songs to sing! And, after all (again, per WebMD):
"Today, the average American woman is 5′4″, has a waist size of 34-35 inches and weighs between 140-150 lbs, with a dress size of 12-14."
So, I need some performing role models! They've got to be out there, right? I'm running my own twist on the Bechdel Test. Let's call it the Scarlet Test. I am looking to compile a list of:

1. Leading ladies in a film, TV show, or band (that will be me!)
2. Below the age of 40 at the time of popularity
3. Of average size (let's say anywhere from 8-16, to be generous)
4. Where she is of romantic/sexual interest or, at the very least, the size of her body is not the punchline

Where are those average-bodied leading ladies? On your marks, get set, GO.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Jesus is so lucky to have us

Having grown up in a religious sect that does not believe it is a religious sect --- a denomination that bends reality and the annals of history to claim that it was established in 1AD, when in fact it was started by Alexander and Thomas Campbell, Walter Scott, and Barton W. Stone, as part of the Restoration Movement in mid-1800's America.... soul leaps up in laughter.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My father was a barber

Great bangs have great beginnings.
For my birthday, I would like to tell you a story. I recorded it last night.

First, you have to sit down and close your eyes. Imagine the sound of a marching band drumline cadencing onto a crisp wet field. Imagine a drone in the low brass. Imagine a fiddle double-stop, the sounds of banjo and strings joining in, loaded with a full battery of percussion in the chorus.

And then... press play.*

  My father was a barber 

*Please forgive the recording quality. I am making these rough draft recordings to give would-be band members a sense of my songs. Until then, most of the instruments must be imagined. I am seeking a drummer/arranger, fiddler, cellist, and an upright bassist. If you're into this, by all means drop a line.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Charlene's Ordination Song?

It's true that, from time to time, I do some creative writing during church services. Stand up and sing a hymn, back to the notebook, take my place in the choir, to the notebook, pick up the French horn for the offertory, to the notebook, to the notebook, to the notebook. It's my own private call and response.

And it's a happy coincidence that today, during the ordination of the new Reverend Charlene Han Powell [WAHHOO HUZZAH!], I finished writing my latest song [YAAAAY]. What's unusual about this song is that it is finished and I still really like it. (Usually, now would be the repulsion stage in my process.)

You know how rappers will often start with an exposition, like "My name is ... and I'm from ... and this is what I'm about ... so I'm here to say..."? It's like that. Sort of. This is definitely an album opener and a show opener. Also you hafta hafta hafta imagine that it opens with a drumline cadence, then perhaps a brass pedal drone and/or a double stop in the violin before the voice comes in. And there's a banjo. And harmonies and lots of strings and drumline action as it picks up.


my father was a barber / and my mother made our home
in the sweet idyllic country / Wilderness and Locust Grove
honeysuckle spring and summer / maple leaves in early fall
without fail one day the truth prevailed I somehow lost it all

so long I've tried to say it / but I couldn't find my words
displaced Americana / hymn sings and hope deferred
fantasy or pure conviction / you can claim that I am wrong
but i do not need your third degree to put this into song

lay low, let it go
there are stranger works of fiction that I know
since then, where I've been
is the place where grace moves in

studied Carter, Ives, and Barber / dropped the needle one by one
symphony and private lessons / Theory IV and Methods I
it took several years of schooling / just to finally learn one thing
that I do not need a third degree to stand up here and sing

lay low, let it go
there are stranger works of fiction that I know
since then, where I've been
is the place where grace moves in

----- instrumental break w/ much drumline ------

my father was a barber / and my mother made our home
in the sweet idyllic country / Wilderness and Locust Grove
honeysuckle spring and summer / maple leaves in early fall
without fail one day the truth prevailed I somehow lost it all

----- transition to 3/4 time + 4-part harmony ------

I thought it was over
I thought I was done
some kind of an old soul
found out I was young
(repeat x3)

----- end humming the coda + add drumline to finish -----

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

An album and two shows; I am not a sitcom.

To quote the sensible words of a 5-year-old I once met:


I have been at this blog journey thing for over a year. I have been squirreling away into dark basements with laptops to write and record songs that I timidly post in hopes that someone somewhere won't mind listening to them once. But tonight I watched the premiere of Zooey Deschanel in The New Girl and a) I was embarrassed to identify so strongly with the lead in a Fox sitcom b) I was pissed that she stole* my "Thanks, they help me see" line regarding her glasses c) I was most pissed that everybody was paying attention to her, a caricature of me, because really I want everybody to pay attention to me.

*Yes, this is childish of me to say.
** I know you are but what am I.

AMERICA, if you want a gluten intolerant brunette who sings songs to/about herself during the course of a normal conversation, has boundless nervous energy expressed in unusual mannerisms, is painfully awkward in bars, and still owns both Dirty Dancing soundtracks on cassette tape (covered in purple glitter puffy paint heart stickers) THEN LOOK NO FURTHER. I GOT THAT B-ROLL! And I have been here the whole time. Since 1978 even! Put me on the cover of your New York magazine! Yes!

I mean, that's it. I can't take it any more. I'm writing this blog because I want to sing and dance and make music and I want you to listen to me and watch me do it. WATCH ME.

I am beating my swords into French horns and my spears into pianos. I am learning the ukulele. I am writing songs. I am finding my own voice and I am telling you all about it. There will be marching bands, there will be hymns, there will be shouting and dancing. And in the end, or possibly the beginning, there will be at least one album and two shows.

I need musicians, I need a collaborating arranger/producer, I need some more vocal coaching and I need some composition/arranging lessons. But I will NOT be out me'd be a Channel 5 sitcom.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Progress Report. Or the effects of 3 acts of God on 1 active songwriter.

To quote Heavy D & The Boyz: "Now that we found [F6] what are we going to do / with it?"

Well, I don't know.

I've been playing around with that upper range a bit since discovering it but I've also been busy digesting new music and writing press releases for projects that I'm promoting this Fall. I mainly went back just to make sure the whole F6 thing wasn't a fluke and that it was/is still there. It is. So strange.

At this point, my super upper range, as with my chest voice, has two volumes: ON and OFF. Fine. I can work with that. Mark Baxter gave me some interesting exercises to build strength in volumes pp p mf f ff:

one          two               three               four               five

I've been working on "you're an old man" such that it ends appropriately on a D-minor arpeggio from D5 up to D6. So there's that.

Otherwise, I feel like I've hit a bit of a lull. I was working on combining two of my songs (january ballet song and la plus belle but I haven't been able to find a suitable transition from one to the other (one as verse, the other as chorus). For that song, I also wanted to visit and possibly record a class at a ballet studio but, after asking around and emailing Dance New Amsterdam, I've waited for weeks with no reply. I did find a potential translator/collaborator for the French lyrics and collaborating sounds like fun. This feels broader in scope than other songs I've recorded so far, and I'm feeling like I need to equip myself with some composition lessons in order to actualize what I'm envisioning. The same goes for the 4-part hymn "i will grow old and grow apart from all that's dear to me." I got my first copy of Sibelius and started learning it but an earthquake outside of my home county happened in the middle of my tutoring session, then my dad had a bunch of surgeries, then there was a hurricane, then my fall PR projects started. I'm feeling like I could use some guidance. [HELP ME.]

Meanwhile, I've circled back to "laundry" and "you're an old man" because they are more straightforward -- me + guitar or me + ukulele. That'll do for homemade demos, at least.

If I record both of those, that'll be 6 completed demos with about 13 songs still to finish/demo, and about 13 beyond that that I think I'll just let go of. My vocal coach says about 30-50 songs are typically written for each album of music, only 12-ish make the cut. 10 core songs + 2 novelties.

Also worth noting, watching Season 1 of Mad Men is so much easier than writing music.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Am the Queen of Night! F6! F6!

I'm not saying that Royal Opera House is going to fly me in to replace Diana Damrau as Queen of Night in its next production of Mozart's Magic Flute (or that I'd be auditioning for any such thing), but this is important (to me): please listen to this aria. Go ahead. It's Sunday night, what else are you doing?

OK, so here's why it was important to me that you listen. You heard those high F's? (F6's to be exact?) Out of the spanking blue I suddenly have that. Yep. I got it. It's allllll mine.

Ten-fifteen years ago when I was actually in classical vocal training/ensembles, I was a very resentful mezzo soprano who always whined about preferring to sing alto where 1) my voice was comfortable 2) I could harmonize = much more fun. Because, after all, my only "training" beyond that had been singing shape note hymns with regular folks in church. (No choral program in my rural high school.) But both of my voice teachers shoved a mezzo version of 26 Italian Songs and Arias in my face and made me sing very uncomfortable things in very uncomfortable ranges. I once, at age 18, sang a painfully strained, gasping version of Samuel Barber's "Sure on This Shining Night" for a recital and thought my voice (sure on my shining life) wasn't built to sing above a D5. Hitting those F5s and G5s was like wriggling and pretending to attempt pull-ups in front of the entire gym class. And I hated it. And I hated singing that way. Such was the case until last summer.

The irony is this happened quite on accident, while working with a pop vocal coach, while focusing on my lower register/chest voice, while on a mission to declassically train my voice. (If you're just catching up, here is the post about how this guy made me cry before my first lesson and another about how he told me why nobody was going to bother to listen to me sing in my second lesson. No, really, it's some of the best stuff anyone's ever said to me. Check it out.)

And here's the story in pictures (click to enlarge! because I want you to!):

This all happened with three voice lessons and regular vocal exercises over a period of one year. All of this focused on making use of my lower register (chest voice) and producing a more me-sounding, unpolished tone. And it's crazytown because, now that I'm not trying to be able to sing arias or art songs, I magically can. And now that I'm trying to unearth a more raw, speech-like quality in my voice, my voice can sound as clear as a bell. So . . . what am I going to do with that? That is the question.

I have some ideas. On that note, I had my fourth lesson today. I'll write about that next.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Song Alert: Nothing to do with you

A Summer Night. Credit: Keru
Here's the "rough draft recording," as I've been calling them: Nothing to do with you. (It's also in the SoundCloud widget above.)

To quote my favorite New Yorker cartoon: "This song is very difficult for me, emotionally. Plus, the chords are hard." No no no, it's not true. The chords are actually very easy. A simple harmonic ostinato.

This is the song that I wrestled with all through July (that didst bring a most grievous spirit upon me). Last Thursday I sat myself down at 11 AM and decided I was not going to shower, leave the apartment, or focus my attention on anything else whatsoever until it was finished. It was pretty grueling. While the hook came to me in a flash at the beginning of July, I'd tried many times to hash out the verses but I wasn't getting any ideas. Every line was a real struggle. But finally, by about 4 PM, all holes had been filled and I decided it was Good Enough.

Which means, as it does with all of my songs when I've just finished them, that I thought it was terrible and boring and I hated it. I sent off the lyrics to a trusted songwriter friend who cheered with me for finishing it (THANK YOU, DANI!). A composer friend added, with French accent, "Today, you've just given birth. You don't know yet whether this one will go off to college. Just, you know, give it some time and let it grow."

Half a bottle of Grenache on Friday night, and what-the-hell-it's-beautiful-let's-record-it. It's a song about love, God, sex, on a backdrop of cicadas, crickets, katydids, frogs, and other insects ... all the good stuff. Notice! It becomes gently NSFW in the fourth verse.

I'm a lyrics girl.

Two things:

1. Alaska and I listened to this This American Life segment on our most recent drive to my sweet Virginia homeland. Phil Collins talks about the divorce behind his break-out solo album and its role in his songwriting. (Yet Taylor Swift got a lot of flack for writing songs about her exes. Hmm.)

(I'm sorry about the messy embed. Something's screwy with the code.)

2. The Fleet Foxes album and its title song, "Helplessness Blues," just stopped me dead in my tracks. Had to back it up and listen again:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

The lesson from Phil Collins? Don't try to be too clever. The best songs are simple and honest. And the lesson from Fleet Foxes (and, by the way, Mumford and Sons)? Ask your questions. Everyone else has them to.

So, in response to my previous blog post, I've spoken with some trusted friends/mentors (some in the music industry), consulted Phil Collins, inferred from the Fleet Foxes, and I've come to some conclusions:

  • Not everyone listens to lyrics, so many won't even notice if I'm saying intimate things.
  • Those who do pay attention to lyrics will not care that these words represent my feelings. They will attach the lyrics to their own lives and make the words about their feelings.
  • The music business is full of people who have varying levels of skill as performers, promoters, writers, presenters, listeners. A great curator is a mild composer. A great record producer is a mediocre guitar player, etc. A music critic who writes bland songs. There's room for me in all this. It's really no big deal.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rabbit stole fire from the Weasels (I want to be that Rabbit)

I have not read Stealing Fire from the Gods but I am familiar with the Prometheus myth. More importantly, I saw Sufjan Stevens again in concert at Prospect Park on Tuesday night.

Laying in bed before falling asleep, I looked over to Alaska's pillow and asked:

"Do you think I can do that?"

"Do what?"

"What Shara [Worden] and Sufjan just did this evening."


"Are you sure?"


"It takes so much courage. I have to have that courage."

And I can't get it off my mind. No longer waiting for someone else to appoint me to the position, no longer assuming others' ideas are specialer, no longer satisfied to keep from realizing my instrumental arrangements because of logistics ... new hurdles. How will I get my instrumental ideas into arrangements? How will I develop my voice so that I can express every last drop? But then these questions: How do I write honestly and sing my songs with respect and care for the friends, family, beloveds who emerge in those songs? Some of what I have to say is not cute and it's not pretty. How do I allow myself to be publicly heartbroken, weak, sexual, vengeful, irrational, furious, spiritual, joyous, and uphold a professional profile as a publicist? Will people still hire me if I am, in my own songs, a mess? And will critics and clients trust my taste and judgment if my songwriting skills are simple and fumbling but their music is complex and expert?

And hearkening back, if I tell the truths about my experiences growing up in and leaving an exclusive religious sect, will the harassment start again? Will I start a whole new round of "talking tos" from relatives, eruptions and arguments from those close to me who are still in The Church™, spiritual sympathy cards ("So sorry to hear you are going to Hell! We're praying for you! Remember, the world could end tonight!")? I know I'm fine but will it disrupt my family? Can I go through all of that again? Do I want to?
I just ... I think I have to. John 8:32 and all that.

But will people misunderstand me? Or, maybe worse, will they understand exactly?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Song Lyrics: You're An Old Man (You Don't Know What You Want)

I've been to finish off two recent songs -- both of which smacked me upside the head initially, and one of which didst bring a most grievous spirit upon me.

Yet this morning, while hustling through the shade of Prospect Park, trying to appear as powerful and unaccost-able as possible, I got an idea for a third song and rushed home to test it out on my voice. It's right powerful. Our Dotdotdotmusic intern was stationed with me today, so I put it aside for several hours to do expense reports (gah tax man! gah! gah!) and some tweeting, but then picked it up and finished it lickety-split this evening.

So . . . why can't I do this with the others?

Anyway, here it is. The lyrics, at least. I can't quite record it at the moment because it's "scored" for guitar, upright bass, and maybe castanets but I don't play any of those instruments. Grr.

you're an old man
you don't know who you are
you're an old man
you don't know who you are
you think that I'm nobler
you think I am better
because I am poorer
because I'm not lettered

dress me up and slap me down

you're an old man
you don't know who you are
you're an old man
you don't know who you are
you say that you want me
you say that you need me
but drunk on your ego
you don't even see me

tie me up and cut me down

I'd like to think
with each turn of the page
I'll find the missing links
I'll get wiser with age

but you don't
but you don't

oh old man
you don't know who you are
let them bow down
let them worship their star
you won't be my idol
the lesson that I've learned
from being up closer
to see just how you burn

you're an old man

Monday, July 18, 2011

All squares are rectangles but you should feel ashamed.

A few weeks ago, I popped a question to Twitter while "Stenven Rheinsberg" and I were plunking away at Dotdotdotmusic: What is different about songwriting as compared/contrasted with composing?

Blam, blam, blam, blam! The @ replies came pouring in. By the end of the conversation, I'd received around 60 responses. Almost all addressed matters of form: songs are shorter, the importance is more likely to be placed on the text/lyrics rather than on the development of the music. And, from what I could tell, everyone believed the two have a square-rectangle relationship: all songwriters are composers but not all composers are songwriters. OK. But there was something else that I was getting at that wasn't being answered.

So I asked a second question: What do you, as a listener/fan, want and expect from a song or singer-songwriter versus a composition or a composer? And a third question: Your favorite songwriter is who and why?

The line went dead. What had been 30 minutes of rapid fire tweeting came to a sudden halt. A colleague dropped out of the conversation, noting that the topic was "weirdly incendiary" (great way to put it) and he didn't want to be attacked (again) for his musical tastes. After a bit of nudging, a small handful of folks did respond (and thank you to those who did) but I'm going to pause right here for a moment.

Take a walk with me. I was raised in a religious sect that believes instrumental music in worship is wrong. God only likes a cappella. Dancing is a sin because it might cause your brother to lust after your body. The same goes for wearing shorts or skirts above the knee, tank tops, tight or low-cut clothing. Not only is it a sin to drink alcohol, it is also (to some) shaky ground to go to a restaurant that serves alcohol because what if your brother sees you there and thinks you're drinking and it causes him to stumble. My grandparents didn't come to my wedding and, though the reason I was given had something to do with a bad back, I am fairly certain it was because my wedding reception had both drinking and dancing (neither compulsory, by the way, but nevermind). I heard sermons on the sin of anger and, once, on the sin of depression. So it is not only a sin to do certain acts, it is a sin to even think about doing them or to cause someone else to think about doing them, and it is a sin to have certain emotional responses. All of this is to say: I am familiar with the use of dogma and shame in order to force and protect community (groupthink). The hours and hours of four-part a cappella shape-note singing were positively heavenly, but at some point my heart could not rejoice in the music-making for all the endless red-foreheaded frothy-mouthed dogmatic hair-splitting arguments among the men. (Women do not have the authority to speak publicly on such matters.)

Cut back to scene. I left this religiously dogmatic community with its rules about acceptable and unacceptable music, and while, for the most part, I have found the professional music community to be omnivorous, I am fascinated and disappointed when I see the use of of dogma and shame regarding musical output or taste. Depending on the decade and source, I've observed that it is/has been wrong/shameful to write or to like: expressive music, modernist music, mainstream music, beautiful music, atonal music, sincere music, ugly music, pop music, new music, catchy music, old music, music that doesn't take itself seriously enough, music that takes itself too seriously, it goes on. And the shaming! The snubbing! The snark! A famous example is when Ned Rorem wrote that "nobody really likes the music of Elliott Carter: his many admirers only pretend to like it." But I also see it on blogs that tell me what bands I ought to be embarrassed by and which artists I should feel guilty listening to. Then, of course, there's the ritual one-upping and slamming amongst commenters who pronounce things to be "overrated" and "underrated" (for lack of any better vocabulary?).


Whenever I read a tweet, comment, blog post, or review that claims someone else's music or musical taste is Wrong/Shameful, I wonder by what dogma this is being measured. But more than that, I just don't care.You'll forgive me if I maxed out on dogmatic arguments and shame many many years ago. This house is clean.

That is not to say that I do not value critical listening or rigorous discussion. I learned what that looks like early in my days at Boosey & Hawkes. I once made a dismissive comment regarding a certain composer's music and I was swiftly and kindly corrected. "Nope. That's not what we do here." The staff, led by Jenny Bilfield, was a group of people with extraordinary listening talent. People who loved a broad range of music, supported creativity, and who had the uncommon ability to hear music thoroughly and deeply for what it is, rather than for what it is not. In our listening sessions, music was never dismissed. The question was never "Is this music good or bad?" The questions were: "What do you hear in these sounds? What did the composer set out to do/say? Did s/he achieve that end effectively? What is interesting/special/significant about this? Who would find this interesting and why?"

With so much else to talk about, there's not much room left for shaming. So I will answer my own questions about songwriting. I love songs and songwriters because they provide a soundtrack to my life and put words on experiences that I had not considered. I love singing along. I love Patty Griffin's story-telling, her raw illustrations and elaborate articulations of American life from the eyes of clearly defined characters. I love Paul Simon's poetry, his unpredictable phrasing that dangles, the worlds he captures via instrumentation and meter in Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. I love Rufus Wainwright's sloppy drunk voice, the theatrics, his careless way of progressing through remote chords. But most of all, I love the songwriters I do because of their honesty, their vulnerability, their intimacy.

Still, the time came for me a few years ago when other songwriters' words were no longer saying for me what I wanted to say for myself. And so I've picked up my pen in hopes of putting my own words and songs on my life, voicing my own truths, telling my own stories. As I write and record homemade demos I am trying to keep only the good questions in mind. Questions that bring me forward rather than stopping me in my tracks. What am I hearing? Am I being honest? Am I allowing myself to be vulnerable? What am I trying to say/do here? What do I need to do to say it most effectively?

But most importantly, I am shamelessly enjoying doing it and sharing it. Because this woman has given herself the authority to sing honestly and publicly on such matters.

Friday, July 8, 2011

French Hornist Escapes in New York City

I'm on the loose! Brooklyn-based French hornist looking to infiltrate the world of indie rock. (It's a French Horn Rebellion, y'all.)


I will:

  • Play in your band, your friend's band, or some other band that you heard needed a lady horn.
  • Make up my own parts or play the ones you've meticulously written.
  • Be down with extended technique, chance music, social experiments.
  • Do strange things in the name of art. If your tune requires me to play horn from the center of a giant hamster ball, I will do that. (I will also sit in a chair. Your call.)
  • Wear whatever costumery you might require: clothes pins, ball gowns, chucks, feathers, yellow rain jackets, all black, no black at all, etc.
  • Play very expressively and with great musicality.

I will not:

  • Be able to leap from the bottom of my range to the top of my range with a great deal of accuracy. Nor will I be able to do the brass equivalent of "shredding." I'm just not that fast. If you only write for horn in the upper register I will likely start to sound like a repressed elephant. Same goes if you write everything fff.
  • Play standard orchestral/band/brass quintet repertoire. Nothing wrong with it, I just don't want to. I want to rock out.

I have:

  • An undergraduate music education degree from James Madison University with a concentration in horn.
  • Experience playing most other orchestral instruments + ukulele on a 7th grade level.
  • Decent piano skills.
  • A super ear for harmony, which makes me a great back up singer.*
    *I cannot play horn and sing at the same time. I can however play ukelele or piano and sing at the same time. I am very good at that.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

25 or 6 to 4 (put the trombone here)

I had a quick conversation in May with a producer who advised me to make very basic demo recordings + lead sheets for a host of songs, before I bring a band together so that the players have starting points for rehearsal. Fine.

So: I now have two demo recordings done from the list plus a third new song that wasn't on the list. Check check check.  I'm going to be plugging away at the rest over the summer -- most of these songs need some polishing/finishing before demos can be recorded. As I'm going along I'm getting ideas for new songs that I want to work into the mix (like "My Baby's Gone to Vegas").

Also: Sibelius has arrived! The time has come for me to learn how to use notation software so I can produce lead sheets (usually just the melody line + chord changes + comments like "trombone here," instead of writing out every note for every player).

Also too: My grand scheme is to prep demos + lead sheets for songs (July/August?), bring the interested band members together (see image!) to rehearse and find the strongest pieces (September?), and play a show sometime around my birthday (October). This may be too ambitious in terms of time. We'll see how it goes.

songs in line for treatment:

ask seek knock (1999)
boats and snow (2010)

+ my baby's gone to vegas (2011)
one two/january ballet song (2010)
microbiology (2010)
laundry (2009)
la plus belle (2008)
when it rains (2002)
ft. lauderdale first date song (2003)
rescue (2010)
my momma says (2009)
i am a projector (2010)
god only knows (2004)
naked/good man (2004)
regret robot/defense chicken (2010)
red leaf falls on old virginia (1998)
i will grow old (2011-)

second string songs i don't think i'll do anything with:

pale blue horizon (2002)
raindance (2000)
birds (2008)
red sky (2001)
pluto (2000)
no reason to doubt (2000)
sinking (1994)
another round (2002)
shu-sha (2000)
rita's song (2005)
dandelion (1998)
blessed is the man (2005)
lay you down (1998)
feel the breeze (1998)
red sky (2002)
oh see thats fine (2001)
she flies (2002)
uncle Sam (2004)
crepe myrtle (2000)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How It Went: LOL

So, the song was released. The report:

"Catchy as hell." (Stenven Rheinsberg, Dotdotdotmusic)

Snippets of the song have been absent-mindedly hummed by Alaska while: drying his hair, packing the suitcase, driving, washing the car. This is good. After carrying around loads of my own songs in my own head for decades, I can't explain how surreal and satisfying it is to hear them coming back at me from someone else's voicebox. Yes, please, you carry it for a while.

However, I still can't get it out of my head. I suppose this is what I get for writing catchy songs.


Both parents and in-laws gave audible LOLs. As did my bro-in-law, and some of "your parents friends" referenced in the song. We basically did a tour of Lake Chautauqua, stopping at homes, inviting folks to our car (The Silver Fox), and playing it from my iPod over the Fox's speakers with doors open like some kind of Old Time peddler show. Alaska mentioned that I like to stop time to play my songs for people. Yes. And so?



I've so far had one person say they think I should crank up the oom-pah with a carnival of instruments and one say they think I should smooth it out with ukulele. I'm going to use Sibelius to do both. I've also been informed, by the second aforementioned person, that Sibelius playback instruments sound like "angels who got into mushrooms + machine gun attacks." I am certain that I've already heard that band.


Those who are related to me and/or friends with me on Facebook say "Great Lakes Boy (Boats and Snow)" is: "Totally awesome. Gorgeous. Witty, affectionate, heartfelt. Fun!! Sweet and romantic."


The stats on Soundcloud plus the number of Likes/Comments on Facebook might indicate that I am in a sophomore slump on the most micro of levels. I released my first song, Ask Seek Knock, in December to and, between MySpace and Soundcloud, it has now received about 400 plays and 11 downloads. My second song, My Baby's Gone to Vegas, has received 79 plays on Soundcloud, and 1 download. In third place but rising is Great Lakes Boy (Boats and Snow) with 71 plays on Soundcloud and 3 downloads. It seems, as time goes on, people just expect me to release songs as a matter of course. In other words: it is no longer news that I am an active songwriter. The real question is: Now what?

Other factors: Timing. I released this on a holiday weekend (specifically tied to the holiday, as it's a road trip love song about the 4th of July weekend). I released "Ask Seek Knock" as a Christmas gift but I released it on Christmas Eve Eve Eve Eve, so there was more time for people to listen before traveling. In the case of this last one, I released it on a Friday morning before a big outdoor summer holiday, so it's possible that folks just simply weren't on their computers to see the posts or hear the song. Quality: my first song was arranged and mixed by collaborating musicians and a real audio producer from CorbinSound. These last two are just rough demos.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Great Lakes Boy - it's the 4th of JOO-ly!

  03 Great Lakes Boy (Demo) by Scarlet Knight

First songwriting deadline: met. The demo is up! I now have recorded demos of THREE original songs  = it's happening.

This tune is about July 4th weekend, 2006. I got the idea of "two seasons: boats and snow" last August while rollicking on Lake Chautauqua in the Toy Knight.

The piano/vocal feels extremely obvious to me, too elbows-out-OOM-PAH-yukk-yukk-yukk for my taste. I'm thinking of softening it with different instrumentation (ukulele in place of piano?) OR just embracing the oom-pah and making the whole song a carnival with tuba, French horn, Ragtimey piano, but then adding some dissonance/oddities to make it off-kilter a la Beatles or Tori Amos (Mr. Zebra).

The overall effect I'm going for is somewhere between Rufus Wainwright's Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, Feist's 1-2-3-4, and Joni Mitchell's Carey.

Brand new Sibelius is due to arrive any day now and I'm excited to finally be able to play around with different arrangements OUTSIDE OF MY HEAD. Speaking of outside of my head, I will be playing this for Alaska + the in-laws this weekend (hence the deadline). 'Bout time this earworm infiltrates someone else's head. Hopefully even yours?

Biographical footnote: The songwriter's mother (we'll call her by her CB Radio handle, "Nature Lover," from now on) did, in fact, ask Alaska if he would take a bullet for me. Response: "Why? Do you have a GUN??"

Everyone's hilarious.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Though your sins be as Scarlet

I've been toying around with different stage/pen names over the past year, trying on different dresses to see which fits. And, while Virginia BK has served me somewhat to this point, I don't think it's quite "it" for me. It's too limp. Innocuous. Considering the things I have to say and the places I want to go, I need something bold. A name that gives me license to do and sing as I please.

Then I thought about it: Alaska's best friend, Don Gato, nicknamed me "Scarlet" some time ago and, you know what? I think that's it.

It's audacious. I like the associations:

Scarlet fever. Hot, sweaty, delusional, slightly old-timey America, throwback. Little Women.

The Scarlet Letter
. Audacity, secrecy, intensity. Women being out of line, suspicious, witchy. America.

"Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." Blood. Sin. Whiskey. Sex. Dancing. Christianity. Southern gospel hymns. America.

Scarlett O'Hara. Spoiled, rebellious, Southern, woman. America.

Scarlet (the actual color). Even though it's technically halfway between red and orange, I picture something much more bloody in hue. (See above.) I love bold, saturated colors. Persia. (OK fine. Whatever.)

"If love's a red dress / I wanna walk in the rain."

Scarlet. Scarlet Knight. Seeing if this dress fits.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pictures of Me Doing It

Some handsome reward!

Many of you know that I picked up my French horn again this past year, took a few recovery lessons with Peter Reit last summer (thanks, Peter!) and have been getting my chops back by playing at PSUMC, some rock bands. When I signed up via the MATA Festival to play horn with TILT Brass (pros!) as part of Super Critical Mass' sound installation, SWELTER, I was able to allow myself to believe that I could participate without anyone seeing or hearing me. Until the day before Tuesday's Make Music New York performance around Central Park Lake, when I saw the press list: NPR Classical, The New York Times, The Big City/Classical TV, the New Jersey Star-Ledger.  UM!

I didn't bail, though I was tempted to. Lemon Peele and Alaska talked me down from the ledge, so I showed up hyper and ready. And the funny thing is, once I got there and saw the critics it honestly just felt nice to see them. I mean, I like them. They're good peoples. Musicians themselves and music lovers, so Hey! Thanks for coming! Right? Right. Plus, it felt so good to be playing with others again that my focus was there.

I knew that our French horn formation on the rocks would give photographers some interesting visual content, and was aware of the cluster of folks snapping shots of us throughout, so I wasn't completely surprised to see us on the NPR Classical blog or The New York Times Arts page but — this is some handsome reward for my first time out in a decade!

Here is Anastasia Tsioulcas's Make Music New York wrap on NPR Classical (see photo #4 in the slideshow complete with My Real Name):

And the photo, gigantic and wall-to-wall above the fold on the cover of yesterday's New York Times Arts section. (!!) Click to read Tony Tommasini's full review.

I am doing it. And I've got pictures to prove it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Doing "It"

Again, speaking with my biz partner (who henceforth will be known by his NPR name, Stenven Rheinsberg) after an event, (this an intimate gathering hosted by Sō Percussion with Tristan Perich's glorious and sonically brilliant number for crotales and electronics (Observations), Daniel Wohl's graceful and lyrical St. Arc — I heard Bach Cello Suites infused with Webern — played by the darling Ashley Bathgate, and Sō Percussion's thumping Extremes, which only renewed my commitment to incorporate drumline elements into my own songwriting) we were talking about the generous composer commentary on my previous blog post, especially Matt Marks's brutal but liberating philosophy.

I always thought that songwriters, composers, and professional musicians were so because they were either born with marks on their foreheads or because, at some point between the ages of 6 and 16, someone had emphatically dubbed them so. And since neither seemed to be the case with me, I subconsciously surmised around the age of 17 that I was not one of them and that my only option, as a music lover, was to teach music.

But in past months, as I've made the decision to take my music-making seriously, I have discovered a miraculous truth: there is no mark or naming — songwriters are self-appointed. They take their own ideas seriously. And the real dividing line, the absolutely critical distinction between those who are songwriters/composers/performers and those who are not is this:

Those Who Are Doing It / Those Who Are Not

(Just like high school. (Nevermind.))

Because, if you are doing it then you are taking it seriously.  You may be overwhelmed but you are getting your questions answered. You are racing, and pacing, and plotting the course, fighting, and biting, and riding on your horse. You are setting up whatever lessons, performances, networks, framework, studio space, funds necessary in order to make the music you want to be making at the highest caliber possible/necessary to succeed. Maybe that means studying composition formally, maybe that means vocal coaching, maybe that means moving, maybe that means finding people who've put out a successful album and asking them how they fundraised, found a producer, dealt with the brass, etc.

And the amazing thing is, now that I have appointed myself a songwriter/performer, friends, acquaintances, critics, and fellow performers seem quick and happy to call me that as well.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

i will grow old and grow apart from all that's dear to me

Naturally, my biz partner and I were discussing religion and the impermanence of life on the F train on the way home from the MATA Festival last month, when he paraphrased a mantra from his vipassana meditation that first broke my heart before I saw its beauty and peace:

"I will grow old and grow apart from all that is dear to me."

Immediately, the phrase had a melody to me. I raced home, flew into the basement, and recorded myself singing some ideas and plunking chords at the piano. It's an a cappella Southern gospel hymn. It has to be.

I will grow old. I will grow old. It's true. This is as young as I'll ever be and I'll not loop back this way again. But all of this awareness of my transience sure doesn't seem to be helping me get this music-making done any faster. Or, at least, not in any helpful way. I just feel anxious.

As of June 1, I am on summer break. Spring projects finished, reports delivered. High fives exchanged. I wanted this. I constructed my whole season in order that it would be interesting and satisfying and then come to a distinct and recognizable END. And for the first time in my entire life, if someone asks me "What are you doing today/this week/this month/this summer" my answer is "Writing music."

That's it. I am composing. I am songwriting.

And now that I am here I have a big fat question to ask anyone who might capably give me an answer:  "HOW THE EFF DOES A PERSON GO ABOUT DOING THAT?"

I have never had a composition lesson.  In college I took an educational arranging course as part of my music ed degree for which I did a wind symphony arrangement of an Indigo Girls song. (That was a Terrible Idea.) Otherwise, songs have always kind of written themselves at me accidentally. I don't understand where the ideas come from or why they come to me. Many of them are unfinished songs because I get ideas I really like but I lose my way because there are no rules for what to do first, second, and third. There is no doing it right. There are no rules for what to do when you don't know what you want to do next. Or when you want to do something but you don't know how to do it.

I am floundering.

But I have spent a great deal of time around composers over the past few years. And so I take some comfort in having witnessed "Today's Most Important Composers" go through similar aimless flopping and self-doubt when beginning a new piece. I once asked John Adams how a new piece was coming along and he said it was like "feeling your way around in the dark." I saw it with Steve Reich. The frustration when starting a new piece, not knowing where he wanted to go with it. But in both of those cases, I know that they sat down in their studios every day, tried things, trashed them, until one day came a CLICK followed by a white hot period of fierce and inspired composition until BAM I was sitting in the audience at the premiere.

At Ojai a few years ago, Steven Mackey said that he finds most composition students don't need a teacher, they need a therapist. In which case I need to look into some kind of amazing musical health insurance.

For now, I will self-medicate with a list of admonitions (rules?) I've gathered from those I've observed:

1. Show up at the studio regardless of how inspired you feel.
2. Don't "listen up" for far away ideas, just "write down" the ones that are already there.
3. Follow the thread. Doesn't matter where it goes, or whether you don't think it's going anywhere, or whether you end up tossing it all in the end. You can't skip steps.
4. Play around with whatever seems musically fun/attractive, even if that means doing something "unproductive" like singing along with Bonnie Raitt for 6 days in a row without writing a single new note.
5. See #3. You can't skip steps. You may end up throwing away the first week of work but you can't write the second week's work until you've written and thrown away the first. (Suck! I want to skip steps! I want to skip steps!!)
6. Study, copy, steal. Listen to and note (study) things that other composers/songwriters have done that you really like. Practice doing those things with your own music.

To those capable and more experienced composers/songwriters who may be reading this, I turn the question to you: HOW IN THE WORLD DOES A PERSON GO ABOUT COMPOSING?

Any words of wisdom for a very late beginner will be much appreciated.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Composers & Candy

We are back from our Summerversary vacation! Alaska's work took us to Hamburg whereas generalized Wanderlust took us to Berlin. I just realized upon returning home that I have only two photos: composers & candy.

And then there's this one, snapped by Alaska at my request.

Telling. Fortunately, the professional documented much more of our trip than I did.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Thank you, you sweet puffy white sheep

One year ago this week, I posted my original blog entry on Spotsylvania's Marching Knights, stating my intentions as I launched a journey into my own musical voice. Oh! the places we have gone! The adventures!

From dragging my old wooden Holton horn case through Times Square for rehab lessons, to using the Google to find a vocal coach who strips away the lacquer and makes me cry time after time, to the moment when I realized I needed a major lifestyle change, to the flow chart I created in order make the Big Decision, to the announcement that I was leaving my job.

Tracing my origins, I easily uncovered my own musical homeland: marching band, a cappella hymns (in the shape note tradition), and acoustic singer-songwriters from the 70's and 90's.

I got brave and took a baby step by posting some lyrics about Justin Bieber's news cycle in July and about my husband's laundry in November, before admitting that I'd been wholly insincere for months.

Then I put my Courage Tights on and posted my first-ever recorded song (newgrass!) in December. It was enough to make me want to do it again, so I cataloged my existing 30 songs or so, and was in the process of getting a band together (we look like this in stick figures), when a blues tune called My Baby's Gone to Vegas wrote itself at me last week, so I just went ahead and recorded it even though I don't know how to use the recording software or play the ukulele.

In all this, I'd braced myself for the viper's den but instead landed in a barrel full of puffy white sheep. Within two days of posting my first song, I was contacted for a hometown press interview and realized I need to learn how to speak in better sound bytes. Most importantly, however, I got sweet personal notes from all over — friends and friends of friends far and wide — who heard my song and were moved by it, touched by the words I wrote all those years ago. My parents cried, my in-laws cried (!), one of my super tough lady grandmas listens to it every day and cries (!!), my older brothers finally admitted I'm not adopted . . .

And that is all I've ever wanted. So thank you. Super extra thank you. And this is the year that I intend to get a band together to play a real live show, so please stay tuned and hold on to your ******* hat. (Period.)