100 Day Project

How I Became A Composer

33031-how-i-became-a-composer-rebecca-hass.png

My path to becoming a composer has been roundabout, but I thought I’d share a bit about how I got to the work I’m doing today - and it’s not through a whole lot of training specifically in composition!

Much to my regret, I don’t remember many opportunities to be creative in my piano lessons as a child - improvisation and composition weren’t part of my experience. (That’s why I have all of my students do both, and even improvise at the very first lesson!) Looking back, I remember more of a perspective of right notes vs. wrong notes. I can’t remember my early piano education fully, but I know that I was a very shy kid, and could have used more encouragement to create my own music, instead of just playing others’ music (although, that is great, too).

My first experience was an elective music theory/composition class in high school, in which we were given very little guidance - the class was basically spent going through modules of music theory software (most of which I’d learned already in piano lessons), and working independently on our pieces. I don’t remember any criticism that I received on my writing, constructive or otherwise (and I would remember that, since I was such a perfectionist back then), so I assume that we just got a few comments on our final projects. I learned something from trying to write, but didn’t get to develop my skills like I would have if there were feedback throughout the whole semester.

My path to becoming a professional musician had some fits and starts, too - I actually quit piano lessons with my longtime teacher after 11th grade, with the idea that I was going to switch to a jazz piano teacher, but I never followed through on that, and when it came time to apply to colleges, I didn’t consider majoring in music because I didn’t believe that I could do it. Back then I had a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset (read Mindset by Carol Dweck!) - despite years of practice and learning on the piano, I didn’t have confidence in my abilities to grow. I eventually decided to audition to be a music minor at Ithaca College, started with the required theory, sightsinging, and lessons, while trying out other types of classes, too. Toward the end of my freshman year, my advisor had commented to me that she thought I had too many classes in my minor, which then solidified my feeling that music was indeed supposed to be my focus. I decided to audition to be a music major soon afterward, was officially admitted into the program, and still managed to graduate in 4 years! So, even though I didn’t initially choose music, it kind of chose me.

My lack of confidence about my playing abilities at that time also extended to my composing abilities. I didn’t do much more writing, if any, after that high school class because I still didn’t feel “qualified” - I hadn’t yet gotten comfortable with the idea that you have to do something more (and more!) to become better at it and gain confidence. During my last semester of college in 2005, I decided to sign up for another composition class, which was (unsurprisingly) much more helpful, since we wrote weekly assignments, and got useful feedback. (I was going to show an example here, but sadly, I think that those files are lost, and my office closet is too scary to dig through and maybe find a paper copy!) I do remember that my style back then was to overcomplicate things because I didn’t want it to be TOO EASY - I used some interesting rhythms and melodies, but things often got too clunky because I tried to cram too many ideas in - I was using my brain too much, and not trusting my ears enough.

I still didn’t continue the habit of composing after college, but every so often, I would write down a snippet of something. I was pretty intimidated by the thought of writing something for real, so this felt like a safe way to collect ideas.

Then, about 5 years ago, I applied to play at a faculty recital at one of the schools where I teach, with the proposal that I would write a couple solo piano arrangements of Brazilian choros. Before that, I’d written many arrangements for my students (mostly simplifications), but it was the biggest arranging project I’d taken on thus far, with a deadline to motivate me to finish (let’s be real)! Over the next few years, I wrote more arrangements of Brazilian songs for these recitals - this felt like a safe entry point because arranging gives you a sort of template - and began to take on other arranging projects. Each year I got more and more adventurous with my writing, while in the meantime, I would still write down original snippets of things occasionally, but rarely do anything more with them.

In October 2015, I was tired of not taking myself seriously enough, and decided to give myself a personal challenge to write a little bit every day in the month. Although I wasn’t brave enough to share my work at the time, one of these snippets eventually turned into my Brazilian choro Anelante!

That December, my trio played a composition by our cellist Aaron Kerr at the New Ruckus Composer Night, a monthly event for sharing original music (of any kind) here in St. Paul. I thought to myself, “Hmm, I don’t have anything written, but I should get in line anyway - a deadline will be motivating.” (Are you seeing a theme here?) I eventually got programmed on a July 2016 date, and had finished the first section of what is now Anelante to perform, as well as another contrapuntal mini-piece for piano. Performing my music was really scary at first, since I didn’t quite believe that I was officially a composer, but it was a great experience, and to my delight, I got lots of positive feedback.

Showing up in public to share my work was the push I needed to write more - I began to actually feel like a composer, and decided to start calling myself one, which felt like a big deal. I also started to notice my self-critical brain’s grip loosening - less often asking “is this good?” than “do I like how this sounds?” (Still a work in progress, but I do believe in growth mindset - anything can improve if we give it our attention.) I had finished the B section of Anelante over the winter (Brazilian choros typically have 3 major sections), and signed up for another New Ruckus date in April 2017 to force myself to finish it.

The real turning point that increased my output and commitment to the creative process of composing was signing up for the 100 Day Project in 2017 (which I wrote about a lot here), a global art project in which people do a project of their choice for 100 days in a row, and post it to Instagram. I decided that I would write 8 measures of music each day, of any type - the main point was to show up every day and do it.

Showing my work daily was also scary at first, but I quickly became desensitized to it, so it became much more fun. After the 100 days ended in mid-July, I found that I actually missed this daily habit of writing music, so I did another 100 days at the end of 2018, too! (Thoughts on that here.) 

I’ve now shared a lot about how I became a composer, but not yet why - I’ve known for a while that it’s not enough for me just to interpret others’ music (which I also have great respect for). Also, as a recovering perfectionist, I was most often in a right vs. wrong mindset when playing classical music, which felt unhealthy for me. I remember moments of practicing for a concert or audition, playing a “wrong” note or chord, thinking, “Ooh, that sounded cool,” then shutting down that creative spark because I was supposed to be learning that piece, not making up my own stuff (which sounds super sad to me now!) All aspects of solving the creative puzzle that is writing a piece of music are engaging for my brain, and most importantly, it just feels like fulfilling a deep need (that maybe I can’t exactly explain - how do you explain anything that you fall in love with?)

Even though I did go to music school, a traditional path, my path to composing was not academically traditional at all - when I was in school, it didn’t even occur to me that majoring in composition was something that I could have done. Sometimes I wish that I had done it back then, but all I can do is accept where I am right now, and go from there, which is actually kind of liberating - just move forward, whatever that looks like.

It’s a little scary for me to admit that I don’t have a long history with being a composer, but I don’t really think that matters. What matters is that I like the work I’m producing (and hopefully others do too), and that I’m committed to continuing to work on it, and to the experience of the creative process. The way that we build skills is to keep composing, keep improving, look for feedback from trusted sources, and get people to play our music. Anyone can do this - you just have to decide that you will.

If you're a musician who has thought about writing but didn't know where to start, if you're looking for some idea generation, or camaraderie with other creative musicians, I have just the thing - if you're interested, sign up below and join us! Don't wait for years, like I did!

If you're a composer, musician, or creator of any kind, when did you feel like you could call yourself that title? How did it feel when you did? 

What I Learned From My 2nd 100 Day Project

08f78-what-i-learned-from-100-more-days-of-writing-music-rebecca-hass.png

If you follow me on Instagram or my Facebook page, you couldn’t miss my 2nd 100 Day Project while it was happening, but I didn’t write about it on the blog as much as the first one. Although I finished it right at the end of 2017, I haven’t taken the time to reflect on it until now. My observations about the 1st 100 Day Project are here

Both projects had the same parameters: write 8 measures of music each day, of any kind, for any instrument. Some ended up continuing from day to day, some were picked back up later, and some never went anywhere (but were still equally important to do!) My favorite pieces that I finished during the 2nd 100 Days were: an as-of-yet untitled maxixe/samba; Centimonk, a 100th birthday tribute to Thelonious Monk; an autumn-inspired waltz, a funky ostinato about a crime-fighting manatee; a Bartok-esque piece for solo violin; and another piece about Rusty the Cat (his superhero identity).

HOW THE 2ND PROJECT WAS DIFFERENT FROM THE 1ST

  • 21 days of the 2nd project were spent doing a different piece every day, so that I could test out some composition prompts that I wrote (along with a small group). Many of these didn’t develop into anything more, but the manatee one and one designed to accompany this piece of art definitely will!

  • I stretched my comfort zone a bit with these prompts, by trying out some different styles, and also, by writing a piece for solo violin toward the end of the year.

  • Toward the end of the challenge, I started to get tired of having to post something every day, and I felt a little boxed in my 8-measure requirement (even though there was nothing stopping me from writing more.)

SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE 2 PROJECTS

  • Every day is not going to be profound (as in music, as in life), but accepting this fact makes it so much easier to show up and do the work every day

  • It was still hard to think about form (something I want to try focusing on more), especially without feeling like I was boxed in by groups of 8 measures.

  • I ended up with tons of ideas, and many finished pieces - lots of material to work with.

  • Editing pieces and finishing them is the hardest part of the process for me, probably because the perfectionist part of my brain wants a flawless finished project. I thought that easing the requirement of having to generate something every day would help with this, but I still need to create some structure around it, both through scheduled work time and having a list of pieces that I definitely want to finish, then dedicating my writing time to those.

OTHER INTERESTING OBSERVATIONS

  • Even though finishing pieces is still the hardest part for me, I am now really comfortable with generating ideas and starting things, from doing it so many times over the course of these projects. Oddly, I don’t worry about running out of ideas (which definitely surprised me) - I proved that I could show up on 200+ days last year and come up with something. Running out of good ideas, on the other hand, might be another story, but I’ve developed a lot of trust in the process.

  • Even though I did need a little break by the end of the project, my daily habit has lapsed since then. Although for good reason - I have other projects I’m trying to launch, on top of my normal teaching and rehearsal schedule, I don’t like that. I want to have a mostly-daily habit (I am always pro-days off when needed) without the hassle of posting something every day. But, committing to a daily habit is part of the motivation for me, and public accountability certainly helped, too. I’m still figuring out how to re-structure my practice habit this year, and writing should be easy to roll in with that.

  • Looking back now, choosing to do the first 100 Day Project was an amazing decision because it has totally shaped the direction of my work and my decision to focus on composition and sharing composition resources with other musicians, which has been SO FUN!

You can also listen to all of the pieces from my 1st 100 Day Project here, and many from the 2nd project here - other projects like launching my 5-day composition prompt course (which you can sign up for below), and my sheet music store (coming soon!) have eclipsed it lately, but I will finish soon!

Have you ever embarked on a daily creative project or challenge (of any length)? If so, I want to hear about it - the good stuff, the bad stuff, anything!

100 More Days of Writing Music: What I'm Noticing So Far

79ff9-100moredaysofwritingmusicday13.png

I recently completed Day 25 of my 2nd 100 Day composing project this year: 100 More Days of Writing Music. I’m writing 8 measures of music a day, and posting it on Instagram under the same hashtag as the first time around: #100daysofwritingmusic. You can read about my experience with the 100 Day Project earlier this year here: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4, and listen to recordings of my compositions on SoundCloud below! 

How is this time the same/different from the first 100 days?

  • I’m finding the same level of difficulty in showing up to write - it’s a daily obligation, but one that I enjoy, and the length (8 measures) is very doable. Consistency is queen!

  • I tend to be either continuing the same piece day after day until it’s finished, or the total opposite, often bouncing over to something new after writing one day’s snippet. I’m generally deciding to work on whatever feels right that day, a sense that I developed during the first 100 Days, and continue to evolve into now.

  • Sometimes working in groups of 8 measures is limiting - it tends to make me group phrases this way (which is common), but not always. There’s nothing stopping me from writing more each day, but I often don’t have much extra time and stop at 8.

  • This approach can make it hard to do big picture planning. I usually feel the need to write continuously, so that I have 8 measures to show, but otherwise I might not write a piece exactly in order, or might lay out repeated sections roughly where they will eventually go. This feels like cheating in terms of the daily challenge because, well, I already wrote those same 8 measures, but that is actually what’s going into the piece. Thinking about this project as idea generation is more helpful, then I can edit later on, which is always easier once you get some distance from the time of creation.

7edfe-rebecca-hass-composer-12.jpg

What else have I learned/noticed so far?

  • It’s more fun when I make and share videos, (either on Instagram Stories, regular Instagram posts, or on YouTube), for me, and probably for everyone else. I haven’t been doing that as much because my piano is horrifically out of tune and I’m waiting for the weather to change more drastically before tuning it, but I should just do some IG Stories anyway (you can follow me here).

  • I’m really excited to be keeping up this habit, sharing what I’m writing, and strengthening my skills and identity as a composer, but doing it only online is starting to feel kind of insular, as is constantly writing only for piano. I’m ready to start writing for other instruments and having other people play my music (a little bit daunting, but I feel excited about it!) I’m also wanting to work on finding ways to expose my music to a wider audience, since most people who have been following along with my 100 Day projects have been people that I already know.

I’m working on coming up with a set of composing prompts for myself, to stretch out a little, and you can join me, too! (More about that soon.)

  • Ideas beget ideas and inspiration begets inspiration - this is the reason to show up every day to write, but also to seek out new music by other composers. I played a concert of local (MN) composer Chris Granias’ music on October 8, and was very inspired by the amount that he’s written, and how themes interweave through different works, etc. It made me want to come home and write all night (sadly I did not, I was too tired - #reallife).

  • The first 100 Days made me feel less precious about the creative process, since I was writing something new every single day, but I’m starting to take that attitude further through the process to performing, as well. It was super helpful to test-drive a new tune during my solo gig at Shipwrecked Studio over the weekend, although I’m not sure it’s 100% finished. It was easier for me to view it as “I’m trying this out”, rather than “This must be a finished work that is GREAT.”

Now that I’ve accumulated so much work, it’s time to do something with it!

I plan on starting to record the pieces from 100 More Days in the next couple weeks (which you can find in the same playlist on SoundCloud as posted above. I am also working on notating and publishing some of my works - look for that on my website soon!

100 Days of Writing Music - Update #2

f1aa4-100-days-of-writing-music-update-2.png

It’s hard to believe, but I’m over halfway through my 100 Day Project, 100 Days of Writing Music. Since April 4, I have written 8 measures of music daily (okay, I missed one day, but that’s okay, I’m adding a day on the end), and today I’m on Day 58!

I’m still really enjoying it, and it doesn't feel like a burden - I could continue for an indefinite amount of time (maybe I will!) All of the observations I made in my first update on Day 23 are still true, and I’m excited to be accumulating more music and more finished pieces, including Rusty’s Dream, about this guy:  

This is our album cover. Just kidding, he's not on the album.

This is our album cover. Just kidding, he's not on the album.

I’ve also recorded more of the pieces from the last 58 days, which you can listen to on my SoundCloud page here. I just uploaded 6 more today! There are a few I’m waiting to record until I finish them, but I’ll plan to keep uploading more each week.

You can follow along on my Instagram here, with the hashtag #100daysofwritingmusic, and watch Instagram Stories for videos of me playing them.

Have you ever taken on a specific daily creative challenge? If so, tell me about it in the comments!

100 Days of Writing Music - Listen on SoundCloud

95a11-img.png

It’s finally May, my favorite month! I happen to have been born in May, but I actually love it because in Minnesota, it’s the first month that we can be pretty sure it’ll feel and look like spring. (Although, it snowed on Monday - memo to Mother Nature: we didn’t appreciate that. As long as it doesn’t snow for the May Day Parade on Sunday, I’m all good.)

Since Easter, I’ve finished writing the choro I was working on, performed it at the New Ruckus, accompanied for 4 violin recitals and numerous rehearsals, played a gig of Brazilian solo piano at St. Paul Art Crawl, and had a meeting to plan a future concert, all on top of my regular teaching schedule, planning my summer schedule and writing blog posts. Next up this weekend: a school concert with my trio, more teaching, more rehearsals, another violin recital, and marching in the May Day Parade (one of my very favorite Minneapolis events) with Batucada do Norte! No wonder I feel like I need to nap for a month.

Even though I'm still in the midst of almost a month without any time off, I managed to sneak in some time to record many of the pieces I've written over the last 30 days of my 100 Day Project, 100 Days of Writing Music. Nothing too high-tech, just my iPhone and a nice piano, but that way you can hear what they sound like if you don’t read music. I’ve made a SoundCloud playlist here:

And of course, you can always follow along on my Instagram, with the hashtag #100daysofwritingmusic, where I post photos of each day’s piece, and watch Instagram Stories for videos of me playing them.

If you’re doing a 100 Day Project, or have ever taken on a similar daily creative habit/challenge, tell me about it in the comments!

100 Days of Writing Music Update #1

87dbb-100daysofwritingmusic28sofar29.png

I’m nearly 1/4th of the way through my 100 Day Project (100 Days of Writing Music), so today I thought I’d update you on how it’s going so far.

Observations:

  • It’s been easier than I thought it would be!

Although I’ve been extremely busy lately (on a stretch of 25 work days in a row 🙄), it’s been easier than I expected to keep up with this challenge. I think that there are three major factors in this:

  1. It’s work I really enjoy doing.

  2. Public accountability - it’s easier to skip a day if no one’s watching.

  3. Manageable length - 8 measures is an easy length to accomplish.

One of my challenges for myself this year was to show my work more, and this is a pretty perfect way to do it, in terms of fitting a new habit into my life.

  • It feels great to be keeping a consistent daily creative habit.

Showing up every day to write, even a little bit, is so helpful in “turning the faucet on”, so to speak. I haven’t worried about not being able to think of anything good, because ideas come more easily when I’m accustomed to coming up with new ones every day. Also, especially with the quantity of this project, I don’t feel much pressure to make each one great (as I do when a deadline or performance is coming up), I just listen to my mind and let the notes flow. It’s been really good practice in turning off my inner editor.

Although, I don’t mean to make it sound super easy - keeping habits is hard, especially when you’re busy. In a way, being tired is helpful because it prevents me from overcomplicating things when I just don’t have the energy.

  • Whole pieces (shorter ones, at least) get finished more quickly than I thought.

When I started this project, I thought that I would like writing a different 8 measure snippet of something every day, and accumulating tons of variety. I have been experimenting with playing different styles, but much of the time, there’s a resolution waiting to happen, or I’m just excited to continue forward with the same piece. I found this happening early on - during the second week I wrote a short piece about anxiety over 6 consecutive days when I was feeling particularly anxious (coming back to work right after spring break, of course). Or, if I start a piece and leave it at 8 measures, it’s still waiting there for me to finish it later, so I'm excited to have these snippets on hand for later. 

  • Planning ahead isn’t necessary.

I have never been much of a long-term planner (short-term planner, 100% yes!), so I’m not surprised that my daily composition approach isn’t that way, either. My favorite way to compose is to go along and just listen to what I hear as the next logical step (which takes trial and error along the way) - I am not a person who has the form and structure all planned out, and not usually a person who writes conventional chord progressions. (Maybe that should be a challenge to myself soon - keep it really simple.)

LISTEN ON SOUNDCLOUD

I’m starting to record these pieces to put on Soundcloud, but this busy season has slowed my pace considerably! A couple of them are now posted here, but look for more soon - I'll do more on Monday when I'm at MacPhail with a nice piano!

You can follow along on my Instagram here, with the hashtag #100daysofwritingmusic, and watch Instagram Stories for videos of me playing them.

Have you ever taken on a specific daily creative challenge? If so, tell me about it in the comments!

Spring Break Recap and Hermeto Pascoal at SFJazz

3e398-img.png

I’m still re-acclimating to the Central Time Zone after being in California for only 3 days, and I’ve been back for 5. Jet lag is real (and maybe I'm just bad at sleeping). Since I still feel like a total zombie, this post will be on the shorter side. But, I had a very musical spring break last week!

On Monday I went to my friend Lauren’s DMA trombone recital and a Brazilian jazz show at Jazz Central, which featured three of my friends, both very fun and inspiring. On Tuesday I ran around packing and planning for my trip to San Francisco, and managed to find time for starting my 100 Day Project (more about that below).

I had a great time in the Bay Area, but it was certainly a whirlwind. I landed on Wednesday and went straight to Half Moon Bay to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins, then headed to Oakland to meet friends from California Brazil Camp for dinner on Thursday. I stayed with one of them that night, in her lovely little house with a piano. We did some jamming that night, and went for a walk in the beautiful Mountain View Cemetery on Friday morning, between thunderstorms.

Then, I went to another Brazil Camp friend’s house to rehearse for a show that we have here in Minneapolis in August, at the National Flute Association Convention. From there I headed to yet another Brazil Camp friend’s house to drop off my bags and head to the Hermeto Pascoal concert at SFJazz (the main reason for my trip). I got to stay in his studio with a Steinway grand piano, too! (Piano lodgings are pretty sweet.)

Piano lodgings #1 and #2!

Piano lodgings #1 and #2!

To say that the concert was amazing would be an understatement. It’s really clear that all of them have played together so much that they almost have a psychic synergy. The core group was made up of piano, woodwinds, drum set, auxiliary percussion (including squeaky animal toys), and Hermeto on various instruments (including a teapot filled with water, and an animal’s horn - Hermeto believes in everything and anything being musical!) Jovino Santos Neto, who used to be the pianist in Hermeto’s Grupo, was a guest and played on most songs, and guest appearances by Rebecca Kleinmann on flute and Claudia Villela singing were also great. The joy was palpable, and Hermeto is as playful and spontaneous as ever, even though he’s 80! This video is a really good example of the spirit of Hermeto.

I had a great time reconnecting with friends from Brazil Camp (one of my pianist friends was sitting next to me, by total coincidence - so fun!), and am so grateful that I got to go to this concert.

9a6de-img.png

On Tuesday last week I also started a 100 Day Project: 100 Days of Writing Music. Every day from April 4 until July 12, people around the world are undertaking various creative projects for 100 days. I've been wanting to get a better composing habit going, so I'm going to write 8 measures of music every day, post it on my Instagram with the hashtag #100daysofwritingmusic.

Today is day 10, and I’m really enjoying it so far. Even when really tired or otherwise occupied, I’m glad to have this commitment to creativity, and some interesting things are already happening.

I’ll be recording these and uploading to my SoundCloud page soon, and also will be putting up video on Instagram Stories - follow me here to keep up! 

Also, if you're doing a 100 Day Project, let me know, and post a link in the comments!

Spring Break and 100 Days of Writing Music

I'm on spring break this week, taking a much needed break from teaching and most other work. I'm spending half of the week at home, and leaving tomorrow for 4 days in San Francisco! The impetus for the trip was seeing Hermeto Pascoal, one of my favorite musicians, play at SFJazz - he hardly ever plays in the U.S., and is 80 years old, so I knew that a concert during my spring break was perfect timing, and had to happen! I'm so excited to see him live, and to go to California Brazil Camp this year, since he'll be teaching there! (I signed up on the first day of registration, of course.) I'll also get to see family and friends, and even make some music while I'm there. 

I'm trying my best to relax this week, but I am actually starting a 100 Day Project today: 100 Days of Writing Music. Every day from April 4 until July 12, people around the world are undertaking various creative projects for 100 days. I've been wanting to get a better composing habit going, so I'm going to write 8 measures of music every day, post it on my Instagram with the hashtag #100daysofwritingmusic, and also record them and upload to SoundCloud or YouTube. (More on the last part soon.)

The last day before a trip is always a whirlwind of packing, last-minute errands, and finishing up work, so now it is actually time to relax!

If you're doing a 100 Day Project, I'd love to follow along - post your hashtag in the comments!