Beautiful Gifts

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

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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

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace