Advice for my younger self

Filed under:Personal reflections — posted by admin on May 18, 2015 @ 12:08 pm



If I could send a note to myself in the past, it would say something like this . . .

1. Don’t quit piano lessons after 4th grade.
2. Keep playing catch with dad in the backyard, but don’t play baseball. It’s a great sport, but no matter how much time you put into it, you will always be horrible at it. You’ll only get on base when you get hit with pitches.
3. Write lots of music.
4. Listen to more jazz.
5. Listen to more Bach and Beethoven and Brahms and . . .
6. You love to read. Keep reading.
7. Turn off the TV.
8. Don’t take the magnet out of your stereo speaker and press it against the TV screen
9. Foam rubber is a petroleum product. Don’t make a diorama out of it with your army men and then set it on fire in the middle of the back yard.
10. Try everything good for you, but trust me . . . don’t taste gammel dansk . . . and liver is a filter, not a food . . . Just trust me.
11. Don’t be embarrassed when you fail and don’t be afraid of failure.
12. Breathe.
13. Listen more. Speak less.
14. Never be unkind.
15. Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t make it not true.
16. Tempus fugit.
17. Don’t get a perm . . . ever.
18. Tongues actually DO stick to cold metal.
19.When playing kickball on the playground, be sure to account for all tetherball poles BEFORE running to chase a fly ball. Concussions hurt!
20. Do instead of regret.

Indiana Jones and the Sanctum of Wisdom

Filed under:Personal reflections — posted by admin on April 23, 2015 @ 3:17 pm



I changed my applied area of study to composition after one unnoteworthy (pun intended) semester as a saxophone major. I was tasked by my mentor, Professor Robert Beadell, to compose something for the student composer recital that spring. I decided to write a piece for tenor voice and piano.

The search for a text was a journey. I wanted to find a text that was unfamiliar, or written by an author who was relatively unknown. I considered asking a friend to compose a text for me, but decided to simply start exploring.

For whatever reason I am a research addict and, prior to the internet, that required me to head to the library. I was most at home in the Keene Memorial Library in Fremont since I had spent the better part of my childhood summers there avoiding the heat and humidity of June and July. I devoured the variety of reading materials contained within and, quite frankly, enjoyed viewing the displays of the “human form,” in photography and art books inside that climate controlled sanctuary. Forgive me. My curiosity apparently knows no bounds.

I began my research by grabbing a large pile of books from the poetry section and started exploring. I felt like Indiana Jones dodging literary pitfalls and linguistic snares. This treasure hunt was, like many, one in which the existence of the prize was expected, but not guaranteed. I would simply have to double-check that I was still donning my trademark fedora and press on.

The heavy, dust-covered anthologies received my initial attention. I labored through page after page of classic ballads, sonnets and rhymes. I was even willing to give haiku a chance. Nothing spoke to me. I wasn’t looking for the Ark of the Covenant, but I couldn’t settle for a bottle cap discovered with a metal detector either. I spent a long weekend hunkered down in my favorite Fremont hot spot and wondered if I should beckon the spirit of Hazel M. Keene, after whom the library was named, to aid me on my quest.

Without fanfare I came across a thin, unassuming, “modern” collection of poetry. I can’t remember the title of the book now, but I remember the moment I found my Golden Idol, “A Progress Without Trumpets.” As a musician, I adored the title of the poem, but thought the author’s name was too pedestrian. Leroy Smith Jr? Smith? SMITH? It’s about as bad as Schmit. Then I read his work.

A Progress Without Trumpets by Leroy Smith Jr.
“Summer died one morning while we slept and we were in autumn before we missed her.
And recalled with that affection which is remorse for half-indifference towards the dead we loved.
We were in autumn and a skin of ice taunted our blood and broke while we remembered stock-scented, sultry noons and summer’s eyes warming our own to sleep where paradise mused in the sea-voiced leaves.
And so we slumbered past knells for spring and nod.
Now the autumn dies.”

Adventure complete! I photocopied the page from the book and headed back to Lincoln, Raiders of the Ark theme playing in my head, satisfied. The song came together very quickly and I was fortunate to have a wonderful young man, now my good friend, Scott Herr premiere it.

A few years ago I went back to the Keene Memorial Library to find that book. The librarians and I searched diligently. It has never been found. I contacted Mr. Smith’s widow to learn more. She said all his works are in the archives at Penn State University. Maybe someday Indiana Jones will visit State College, Pa.

Here is the premiere of “A Progress Without Trumpets.” It was the first time I heard one of my original compositions. Thanks for letting me share.…/ew…/a_progress_without_trumpets.mp3

Beautiful Gifts

Filed under:Personal reflections — posted by admin on April 20, 2015 @ 7:00 am


I recently had the pleasure of judging a composition contest sponsored by the Lincoln Music Teachers Association. This was the first time I had judged a contest of this sort. All of the adjudicating I had done up to this point was for performance-based contests. A composition contest was a new experience. It was a joy.

When I received the compositions, a stack of over forty scores and recordings, I admit I was a bit overwhelmed. That’s a lot of music! However, once I got into the mindset for evaluating, it was quite enjoyable.

A composition contest is a strange thing. Rating different pieces of art is a seemingly unavailing undertaking. There are two areas of evaluation: the quality of construction and the value of the work. Certainly one can be objective about the construction, the understanding and application of music theory, and the way in which a piece is crafted, but as far as its objective worth, that is much more difficult.

Obviously, we all have different likes and dislikes. Attempting to encourage everyone to agree on any one thing is a futile endeavor. It is not simply a matter that some folks are trying to be disagreeable, but the undeniable fact that humans are all wired differently. We experience the world individually and one’s reality is impacted by the events of one’s life. I might like steak and you might prefer kale. (We can argue the objective superiority of steak at another time.) Ten judges could look at the same forty pieces of music and come up with ten different sets of results. While they might find some commonalities, especially with regard to construction, what they personally value or “like” about each piece would arguably be different.

Beauty or meaningfulness is, undoubtedly, in the eye and ear of the beholder. These students created many different types of pieces in a variety of genres. Each was beautiful in its own way. Each piece was meaningful in its own way. Even pieces that were dissonant or disjointed embodied a certain beauty. I found beauty in the fact that children composed most of the works. It was beautiful to see and hear their efforts and to know that they were sharing a part of themselves with an audience.

At the awards concert, I was able to sit and listen to the contestants perform their works and I finally put faces to the anonymous compositions I had evaluated. It was a delight. When I was given the opportunity to speak, I felt it was important to acknowledge a few points.

First, the greatest value of the contest is not the place they finished or the award they won, but the fact that the contest provides students a time, a date and a venue for which to write. It can be difficult to write with no imminent performance scheduled. It is discouraging to write something and leave it in a drawer to gather dust. A live performance is an invaluable gift for a composer.

Second, it is important to thank the teachers and parents, because they invest a great deal of time, energy and money into the endeavors of their students. A friend recently reminded me that they’ve never met a middle-aged person who has ever said they were happy they quit music. Thank you parents and teachers for your encouragement and persistence. Encouragement is another priceless gift.

Third, it is important to thank the students for writing. It is easy to look at world events and find ugliness. It is not difficult to become discouraged and frustrated with the news on TV and to view the world through a negative filter. People who create art, however, make their lives and the lives of others richer, and they add beauty to the world. The world needs more beauty and I am grateful to the students who composed these pieces, because they did their part to make the world a better, more beautiful place. Thank you for this treasured gift.

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

-Leonard Bernstein

Keeping it fresh! Renewing the mind, body and spirit!

Filed under:Advice and Tips,Announcements — posted by admin on June 1, 2009 @ 10:38 am


One of the biggest concerns I hear from other composers is “I have such a hard time finding the time to compose. I have to work a regular job and seem to run out of hours in the day.”

With the exception of those fortunate few who have the privilege of composing full-time, most of us are in the same boat. We all have to pay the bills by often working a job that isn’t directly related to our love of writing music.

Finding time to write is a challenge for many of us. We all have the same twenty-four hours in the day, but how we use that twenty-four hours is drastically different from one person to the next.

I’d like to say there is some magic formula to add a couple of extra hours in the day, but I’d be lying if I did. The reality of it is it comes down to certain choices. We need to set priorities and spend our time doing the things we truly value. It really defines who we are. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” If we want to “be” a composer, we need to compose. The problem is, we don’t always feel energized and consequently we are not always fruitful in our compositional endeavors.

We can’t add hours to the day, but we can renew our mind, body and spirit. We can make choices that help us to be refreshed and ready to create.

  1. Try to compose at a regular time. If you work 8-5, there are only a few choices. Can you find an uninterrupted 1 or 2 hours?
  2. Make a realistic plan. Don’t set yourself for failure by saying, “I’m going to get up and compose from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., jog from 5 a.m. –5:30 a.m., eat, shower and go to work, pick the kids up from school, write again from 9-11 p.m. and then get up and do it all over again. Make a realistic and doable plan.
  3. Be willing to adjust as you go. Life has a certain ebb and flow. Realize that if you run into a conflict, you may need to adjust your schedule to accommodate life. Maybe you have to move your time for a few days from the morning to the evening or to a Saturday morning. Go with the flow. Just avoid putting it off altogether. An adjustment here and there is just fine.
  4. Understand that you CAN’T do it all. If you try, you’ll get your life turned upside down emotionally, physically, spiritually, professionally and musically. For myself, if I have a deadline, I give up the non-essentials for a while. For instance, I may give up television for a week or two, sometimes longer, in order to free up another half hour in the day.
  5. Be sure that you don’t run yourself ragged. Sleep well and sleep regularly. The value of sleep is underappreciated. You can keep yourself going for a time with coffee and Red Bull, but eventually you are going to crash, AND CRASH HARD! At that point, you will become completely unproductive and end up wasting a week or two recovering or, worse, become ill. It’s very much akin to giving up candy for Lent and then gorging yourself for the 50 days following Easter until you weigh 60 pounds more than when you started.
  6. Find balance in your schedule. Do things that make you feel good in the long run. Rest, recreate, eat well, sleep well, compose, etc . . . If you sit in front of the TV or Playstation for 2-3 hours every night for 6 months, you will start to think only about TV and the Playstation. Trust me! I know this from personal experience. You probably will be able to compose odd unimaginative ostinati that sound strangely familiar to you favorite television theme or game, but in other aspects of composing you will be lacking. Ultimately, you have to make the choice of what is important to you.
  7. Get out of the house or apartment. Find a green space. Walk! Really examine the world around you. Read a book outside. Enjoy a 7-Up or sparkling water in the park. Breathe and take it all in! Remember garbage in = garbage out. Fill your body, mind and spirit with good things. The mind/body/spirit connection affects “the Muse.”  Nurture all three!

Most of the time we can’t “find” time to compose because we are “exhausted” from our daily schedule. We run ourselves ragged and by the end of the day all we want to do is crash in front of the TV and eat Cheetoes. By regulating one’s life, we create new pockets of energy in our day and, if you choose, develop new priorities.

Take care of your mind, body and spirit. Feed your mind with knowledge, wisdom and challenges. Nurture your body with rest, exercise and healthy eating. Renew your spirit through, meditation, quiet time or prayer. You will find that by taking care of yourself, you undoubtedly will desire to do things that are creative and artistic.

Good luck in your renewal and in your writing!

Attention Composers!

Filed under:Announcements — posted by admin on June 12, 2008 @ 12:26 am

If you would like to be a contributing author on THE COMPOSERS NOTEBOOK blog, contact Nolan Schmit at:

Any topic relating to composing music or songwriting is welcomed!


Nerves and New Music: Does the audience’s opinion matter?

Filed under:Personal reflections — posted by admin on May 29, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

Recently a friend asked me, “Are you nervous when you are about to have a new piece premiered?” I wanted to answer honestly, but the honest answer seemed less than courageous and less than sophisticated. You see, when I was younger, I had an impression that all accomplished composers are supremely confident in the purpose of and quality of their own music. I guess that impression has affected my judgment and attitudes as an adult and I feel that I should be supremely confident as well. Don’t get me wrong, when I write, I’m confident in my work and I believe I’m being honest about what I’m composing. I just know that the more I compose, the more I learn about composing. The more I learn about composing, the more I discover how much more there is to know and learn.

When I write, it is an offering of myself to others. Most of what I write is for the pleasure and enjoyment of my audiences. It’s a gift to them. Sometimes I write something with the intent of being shocking or unsettling, but it is always with the intent of evoking emotions or sharing something I value with the audience. I hope they enjoy it.

I have met a few composers who don’t seem to care what an audience thinks and appear to have no doubt that EVERYTHING they write is a little slice from the genius cake. For these composers, their reaction to those who don’t respond favorably to their music is one of insolent condescension. Their behavior suggests that they believe the listener simply isn’t insightful or intelligent enough to grasp the music’s profound nature, or that the work is an example of such true genius that it won’t be understood and appreciated for it’s brilliance until the next generation of concert-goers experiences it. How can they feel so confident about everything? Is it bona fide genius that results in this extreme self-assurance or something else?

For pioneers of unique, progressive work, audience acceptance may not be important. True genius is often not understood or appreciated at first. Those forward thinking individuals who see the world differently than the majority are sometimes looked upon as crazy or non-conforming. For those composers, supreme confidence is something they exhibit, because they DO have an understanding that transcends the ordinary and the average.

I suspect there are also a fair number of composers for whom the desire for audience acceptance is so extreme that it manifests itself in what appears to be antithetical behaviors. In other words, they so desperately want people to like their music, and they understand that for a variety of reasons they won’t get that universal acceptance, that they feign disinterest and arrogance.

Whatever attitude the composer exhibits regarding the importance to himself/herself of the acceptance of his/her music, I would suggest that every composer writes with the intent of making an impact on the audience. The reasons for writing a particular piece of music are as varied as the composers themselves and have differing degrees of significance, relevance and worth. For some, the purpose is simply to get the music out of their heads. For some it is to complete a commission or publisher imposed deadline and to make a living. For some it is to express a personal, political, religious or philosophical conviction. For some it is to fulfill an intellectual aspiration. For some it is to create great art. For some, unfortunately, writing may be reduced to some empty, contrived exercise. Hopefully composers are writing intellectually, emotionally and aesthetically honest work that truly reflects their beliefs and convictions.

 For those of us who fall somewhere between the extremes of paralyzing insecurity and absolute confidence, the desire for the favorable regard of an audience is a perfectly natural human response. Fair criticism of one’s work is not only acceptable, but I think, desired. Cruel, unwarranted disapproval, though, is what is hard to deal with, and without proper perspective, can be debilitating to the younger, less experienced composer.

Obviously, composers, artists and authors need to develop a thick skin in order to deflect the overly critical and unproductive rants of some, and a welcoming attitude for the feedback that is intended for personal and professional growth. If one is willing to put his/her work on display for others, he/she must be ready to accept the inevitable critique of others.

Back to my friend’s question: “Are you nervous when you are about to have a new piece premiered?” The honest answer is, “Yes I am, and I don’t think there will ever be a time when the approval of the audience won’t matter to me.” Will it stop me from writing? No. The need to write outweighs the fear of failure. The compulsion to create is more important than the concern of criticism. Some pieces are going to work and some pieces aren’t. Some pieces will be well received and some will be ignored. Music is not about absolutes. The creation of new music is about offering something honest of your self to others. Whether the gift is accepted graciously or not can’t be the only reason for giving it.

Forge ahead, nerves and all!

Episode 11-Chapter 6-My Motivic Makeover: Manipulation and Modification

Filed under:Announcements — posted by admin on May 23, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

Want some advice on ways of varying your cells, motives and melodies? Listen to Episode 11 of THE COMPOSERS NOTEBOOK podcast. In this episode, Nolan discusses expectancy in music and methods of varying motives by using the following techniques:





•Meter changes

•Rhythmic changes

•Pitch substitution

and the importance that the choice of keys and tempi has on the character of a composition.

UPDATE: As of 4/20/15 the audio podcasts are currently offline. Stay tuned for their return.

The Nebraska Composers Alliance

Filed under:Announcements — posted by admin on May 20, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

The new Nebraska Composers Alliance web site is up and running! From this web site, you will be able to make connections with Nebraska Composers, learn about commissioning a piece of music, and connect to resources for integrating composition into school music programs.

Check it out at:

Television Interview

Filed under:Announcements — posted by admin on May 16, 2008 @ 10:17 am

Hey friends!

Here’s the interview I did with NTV from this past Wednesday. We discuss my new work for brass quintet called, “PRISM: The Dance of Light.”

Check it out here:

Podcast: Dr. Timothy Mahr

Filed under:Announcements,Podcast — posted by admin on @ 10:07 am

What’s next on The Composers Notebook podcast? Look for the interview with Dr. Timothy Mahr that is posted at THE COMPOSERS NOTEBOOK podcast page. Dr. Mahr is an internationally respected composer and is a professor of music at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, where he is the Conductor of the St. Olaf Band and teaches courses in composition, conducting and music education.


You’ll find the podcast here:

UPDATE: As of 4/20/15 the audio podcasts are currently offline. Stay tuned for their return.

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace