Alex Shapiro, composer email
Words on Music

Cousin It?...
...as a gardener...?

Composition 101  

"Get up out of your chairs and stretch!"
The students looked at me, mystified.

se undergrads don't know what to make of this strange guest lecturer from the outside world who has, obviously mistakenly, been invited to speak to them this afternoon about composing. So far, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of material about... composing... being presented.

"Everyone, up!"
They all rise, if reluctantly.
"Make a stupid face."
I demonstrate. I
'm met with a sea of giggles and silliness.
I can tell they feel embarrassed and ridiculous.
I got them up and bending their bodies, now I want them bending their self-conscious psyches. It’s time to loosen these pups up.

Too many hours on their butts in these hard seats. Too many classes listening blindly to professors 1, 2 and 3 tell them all sorts of things that they may or may not even absorb, depending on the weather patterns and their hormone levels that day. Blame it on the buzzing fluorescent lights and the stuffy close-windowed classroom, but I sense something stagnant. Fresh thoughts, like air, need to circulate freely.

"Yeah, get up! That's it! Streeeetch! Mooove! Breeeathe! That's right, I'm hijacking the classroom and turning this into an aerobics workout. All of us music nerds who did everything we could to dodge gym class in high school are now sentenced to this!!"

A few laughs.

  Human beings under the age of, say, thirty, are notorious for their lack of humor about themselves; bring something as potentially serious as art into the picture and watch out— a passerby might think we were at a funeral.

"I want you to mooove. I want you out of these
metal chairs. I want you to feel your bodies and your spirits and most of all I want you to remember why you decided to become composers in the first place."

Puzzled looks. Why is this strange woman questioning our existence?

"I know you all feel really stupid standing there. But there's a reason
I'm doing this. Yes, you are all composers. But before that, you are all mammals, living and moving on the planet earth, as base and animalistic as any other mammal prowling around. In all our intellectualism, we lose sight of this. We use our brains too much and we forget about our bodies. But music, of all things on this beautiful planet, is the most basic, fundamental, physical entity there is! You all know this— you can easily cite me the rules of acoustic physics, the overtone series, and lots more of that cool stuff. Those are real, physical truths; you've absorbed and accepted them. So how is it that we, as such informed humans, can sometimes become so removed from these natural sciences?"
"Music is sex. Passion! Love. Joy. Pain. Tears. Agony! More joy. Communication. Y'know, making music is a helluva lot like making love."  

Sudden silence. I appear to have snagged their attention, for the moment.

"Yeah. It's just like lovemaking. We're trying to please ourselves (sheepish giggles emerge from the class). We're hoping to please at least one other person (more self-conscious giggles). And, we are in fact, communicating. Passionately."

Delightful ponderous silence.

"I wanted you out of your seats, stretching and being aware of your bodies, because as important as the classroom is for gaining the knowledge we need and, often despite our best efforts, miraculously absorb, well, as important as this sacred space of higher learning is, it's also a mental death trap."

(Wow. The school brought in some interloper whose sole purpose is clearly to destroy the blessed foundation on which it's built. Cool.)

"We all have spent days upon weeks upon years sitting in these hard chairs, and with each passing hour, something in us tends to become numb and gradually forgets just why we came here in the first place. Either it forgets altogether, or it misplaces our initial priorities, so that our youthful ideals of "Making Wonderful Music" are traded in over time for "Beating Out the Competition," "Winning the Next Grant," "Getting Better Reviews than My Colleagues," etc. Get it? Do you see what I’m

The music-filled heads in front of me are nodding.

"The joy. The passion. The sheer delight and utter happiness we feel when we're in the midst of writing a new piece that's going well. The excitement and energy in a room when you hear your piece performed by wonderful players. These basic pleasures are what being a composer is about. It's a given that the real world of commerce— and that's a big, important gaseous planet which we'll visit later— can obscure the underlying reason we all got into this mess to begin with. Yes, you'll worry about getting awards, performances and good reviews. And you'll wonder where the next rent check will come from. Art and commerce have at once everything to do with each other, if you really want a successful music career, and they also have nothing to do with each other, if you intend to stay sane and focussed. Your job is to be able to distinguish between those pendulum swings, to know which is which and to hold on to your personal principles, regardless of the business dealings you're pursuing. I'm all for school and I advocate that you stay in college and get your degrees. But enduring this process means that you run the risk of losing sight of the primal, base reason you're driven to write music, and that's why I'm talking about these things with you so  directly."  
Yup. Still nodding.
I pushed forth.

"Why do you compose? Is it to unearth deep psychological angst and pathos, is it a personal diary? Or do you put notes next to other notes with the hope that someday someone will hear the results of your labor and... gee... really like the piece? Do you write to communicate with an imagined audience, or do you write to communicate with your own soul, with no concern for others? I pass no judgment either way— far be it for me or anyone you know to tell you why to compose. But I think that it's important for you, the perpetrator of the crime, to know why you're doing it. As they ask in acting class, "what's your motivation?"

"How do you find the answer?" A young woman’s voice rose from the edge of the room, attached to a student I hadn’t made much eye contact with.

"I think it’s all around us, and we just have to give ourselves permission to tune into it. Nothing gives me more joy than what I refer to as the magic triangle: the relationship between composer, musicians, and audience. There’s a connection, a vibration at the intersections of these three elements that is absolutely electrifying at times. Palpable.

My arms draw wide to span the angles of this intangible triangle I see in front of me.


"During a performance, everyone knows when that electricity is arcing, and that only increases the intensity of the moment. Communicating my visions and emotional experiences to others is a profound joy and challenge. This is why I get out of bed every day; the feeling that not only do I have something to say with my music, but I’ve been given the sense, from past positive experiences, that others are interested to hear what my music has to say, too. And when the elements align just right, it is indeed magic. Each of you can have those same experiences, and you should each feel worthy of them. They are yours to create."

The room has become very quiet.

"Like love, and passion. You find them, or perhaps they find you. But when they’re for real, they don’t come from here (I point hard to my skull), they come from here (as I brace my hand against my sternum). And that truth is electric. You don’t make love to someone from your intellect and cleverness. You adore and connect with them from your heart. Everyone can tell the difference; it's not something we can fake. Your music at its best will always come from that same honest place. And you will always posses the ability to summon it in your mind, if you simply take a moment to connect with your body and your spirit. It's permanently inside of you, just waiting for an opportunity to come out."


A few small light bulbs lit up over some of the students' heads. I swear I saw them, glowing brighter than those buzzing fluorescents. The young composers were given validation for their music and for their desire, and with a little luck, those bulbs stayed lit through the night which followed, and for many days and nights thereafter. It was a privilege to be able to communicate to these future colleagues the joy that I feel about a life in music. And by telling them, I reminded myself.

©2008 Alex Shapiro


Four Letter Words from a Maestro

The renowned conductor Erich Leinsdorf was giving a master class to a handful of students at The Aspen Music School, and for some lucky reason I happened to be among them. An intimate group in a semi circle, we sat outside under the trees with the Rocky mountains as backdrop to the scores of various Beethoven symphonies that the Maestro presented and discussed with us. It was an extraordinary opportunity for this eager 16 year old composer.

Although I must admit that over twenty five years later, I don't recall the pith of his musical analysis that day, what I distinctly remember is even more valuable. There was a moment in which Mr. Leinsdorf put down the heavy scores and looked directly at each of our young faces and proclaimed (and I paraphrase): "If you are planning on pursuing a professional career as a musician, you must know with every fiber in your body that this is what you must do and that you believe that you are the best at it. Sometimes we act as though such an arrogant term— best— is a four letter word. But there are too many dilettantes with failed careers out there; if you are going to follow this path, then you must know in your heart that you are undeniably compelled to do so and that you are very, very good at what you do. Otherwise, stop now."

He was absolutely, brutally, correct. Step one: Be passionate about the work and the pursuit of it. Step two: truly believe that you are worthy of success. If you do not inherently and deeply believe this, then you are setting yourself up for failure, because if you do not have this faith in yourself, how can you possibly project your assets to others? I thank Mr. Leinsdorf for speaking so honestly, and for teaching me about self assessment and truth, neither of which are four letter words.

©2008 Alex Shapiro



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