BWW Blog: Writing in Quarantine - Rediscovering My Voice
Every time I see a blank piece of paper, I have a little mini stroke. It mocks me because it tells me the last thing I wrote wasn't good enough to get people to love or respect me. I don't write for that gratification but it's that little voice, that little kid in me, that yearns for the approval of others. It sucks that I have this annoying little voice in my head, but imagine for a second: You're a freshman year in college and you are told that you're less than and "bottom of the barrel. You bet your ass that you will show them that they are wrong, but those aforementioned people will never come or make an attempt to watch your performances. From creating an electric rock fugue to organizing a twenty-three-piece pit orchestra song called Lost in the Mainstream (wrote the Music/Lyrics and Orchestrations), everything I did was "ehh" while they're praising the next composer. One of my peers made the argument that this discrepancy was based on race, but I dismissed those claims for my own sanity and naive optimism. I always try to force myself to remember that these are the same people that refuse to say "you did a good job," because in their head I will always be"that freshman who cries too much."
Why do I try to impress these people? Because most of my work ethic derives from that spite.
I took a break from writing musical theatre songs and film scoring, to "write serious art music" to appease one of my university professors who stressed that for my senior recital I had to write other types of music. Thank god my private teacher Douglass Cuomo, who was hired by the university as I was one of the students that expressed interest in music for film, made the process fun and let me create within those confines. When my university announced that all students must leave immediately due to the inevitable pandemic, I just finished the third and final movement of my Brass Suite entitled The Miniatures. I still had more lessons to do, and Cuomo challenged me to write a solo piece as my next project. In my spirited nature, I agreed despite not having experience writing solo pieces. You have to start somewhere right? I had the idea that it was going to be for cello as I wanted to dedicate it to one of my dear friends who makes that instrument really sing. When I moved back home, with everything from my dorm sprawled on the floor, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror that hasn't been cleaned in a while and said:
"How the hell am I going to do this!"
For the first few days, before Governor Andrew Cuomo (no relation to Douglass Cuomo) announced a statewide quarantine, I was honestly creatively drained. I put my heart, sweat and tears for this at least one of my movements from my Brass piece to be performed. I dreamt that this was going to be the piece that will get me taken seriously as a composer, but those dreams got unexpectedly deferred. I had other responsibilities other than compositions as I was stressing about my final projects for my sound design class, my short story and script for my creative writing class and even the multiple projects that I had to do for my orchestration class. Everything done remotely!
Sometimes, I log on to social media and see these other people thriving in this newfound environment and I always get myself down as I wished I could be like them. I forced myself to write at least a phrase a day to at least get a taste of one of the people on my "For You Page" on TikTok who claimed to be writing a song a day! I struggled to write a bar and I knew I could just cheat a scribble notes/rhythms down and call it a phrase, but that not how I work; I knew that if I did that there wouldn't be logic to it and it will not have my heart in it--something that I take pride in when I write every melody I write.
Then it hit me one night at 2 AM. Can I compose without spite? In my house, I had no one on my ass or questioning my prowess. I only had myself.
For the next couple of days before my first zoom composition lesson, I reevaluated my purpose, my place in the cannon of music and rediscovered my love composition free from all exterior pressures which caused me to lose my love for playing the saxophone. (I will be damned if I let them take my love for writing music). My refreshed vigor for songwriting, led me to take the advice of one of my favorite composers Justin Hurwitz, who said that the music of Michel Legrand inspired him to create the score for one of my all-time favorite films, La La Land. So, I searched on eBay and bought the Jacques Demy Film Essentials film box (for very a really great deal I must add) and rewatched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and discovered new films like The Young Girls of Rochefort and Lola. All these films had a score by Michel Legrand. I became engrossed that I downloaded all the songs from these films into my Spotify so I can take a shower, go for a walk and do some light gardening with the music.
The music started to flow out of me during this process. On my first zoom lesson, before the film box set came, I presented this garbled mess of a melody and passed it as a cello line. I was honestly embarrassed to show it, but I had to show my teacher that I wrote something. My teacher was very nice with my futile efforts and encouraged me to strive for more. After a few days of rewriting the mess of a melody - if we can even call it a melody - and listening to Michel Legrand (and a multitude of other artists such as Megan Thee Stallion to discovering the beauty of the cast album of The Girl from North Country) I came up with a melody that I really loved and was proud to present. That melody became the basis of the cello solo which I hope to have performed next semester and at my recital if we are lucky enough to go back to campus.
If at least one good thing can come from this pandemic is that in my solitude I rediscovered my voice not just as a musician but as an artist.