Symphony No. 1 – A Blog: Choosing to Succeed

May 21, 2013: This has been a difficult post for me to write. I have second-guessed myself countless times as to whether or not I should make this public. Frankly – even as I type these words I am still not all that sure. However, I can say with 100% confidence that I needed to write this – if not for everyone to read, then at least for myself. Publishing it may not be the wisest decision of my life, but sometimes what we need is not particularly wise.

These past few weeks I have read a couple of rather insightful blog posts by other artists on what it means to be a “success.” These articles – Anthony Lanman’s “Redefining Success” and Seth Godin’s “Getting Picked” – have filled my head with a ton of thoughts regarding this matter. These thoughts range from my own insecure feelings regarding personal success to larger issues – such as how our whole society views success and failure, whether or not validation by one’s peers is a requirement for success, if a job is a measure of success, and other topics on success both large and small. (N.B. I consider Anthony Lanman to be a good friend in the composition community, so reading his post really hit home…)

I should mention that this post is not a tangent – it directly relates to the question of “why” I am writing the Symphony. Also, for those of you who want to know – progress continued to go well this week. I believe I am about halfway through completing an unedited draft of the whole work. Not bad for six weeks!

Anyways – the reason I feel it necessary to discuss this rather personal topic is that I need to make a confession. You see, by most normal measures I am a “successful” composer. On the job front, I have a tenured position at a good university. This job affords me time to consistently compose – in fact, as part of the job it is *expected* that I consistently compose. Quite the perk! As a professional composer I have received notable commissions in the past few years, and continue to pick up more – most recently, a commission with the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music New Music Ensemble (Indiana being my Alma mater). I have a rather nice list of awards, honors, and performances, and managed to accomplish most of this before even hitting the age of 35 (which, for those of you counting, was last year).

And yet…up until recently I felt like a complete and utter failure. Like Anthony’s post though, this article is not about failure but rather how I’ve finally come to see myself as a success.

Now, before I go any further I need to come clean here. I know just how whiny and pathetic it probably comes across for me to type about how I’m “not a success” despite everything I’ve accomplished. Please – it is not my wish to diminish any of my accomplishments. I am highly appreciative of all of the opportunities that have come my way these past several years. However, it is important to point out that having these opportunities – being honored with awards, selected for performance from calls-for-scores, and granted paying commissions – do not on their own merits make one a success. You cannot be a success if you do not feel like one, and up until just a few months ago I did not feel like one at all.

So, where to begin? I suppose it would be best to go back about eight years, to May of 2005 – a very good month in my career. I had just been hired to a tenure-track position in Music Composition at Fresno State, but not only that – I was on my way to New York City to attend the American Composers Orchestra Underwood Readings. My work PULSE MUTATIONS had been selected as one of the works to be read, and I couldn’t have been more excited. In my mind, it felt like I was finally on my way towards having an incredible career as both a music academic and as a big-wig orchestra composer – two goals that I had long sought after as a starry-eyed music composition student. Yes, things definitely felt like they were looking up!

My experience with the ACO was certainly positive, although in hindsight I may have been a bit too eager to share my other bit of good news – you know, about being offered a job and all. During my few days with the ACO, I must have mentioned at least 2,147 times (give or take a few) about being hired tenure-track at Fresno State. Yeah – I was bragging. At one point during day two of the readings, I was talking with one of the conductors – not the one conducting my work, but one of the other ones (who’s name will not be printed here). He asked about where I was from, what I was doing, etc. – typical small talk. With a healthy dose of naïve excitement I once again mentioned my job and how excited I was for my move to Fresno! The next thing he said has been seared into my memory. He simply glared at me, and with that biting tone that only a true New Yorker can pull off said simply “You’re excited to go to Fresno?”

I truly didn’t understand his contempt. I mean, sure. Fresno isn’t New York. But it is still a great city to live and work in – the fifth largest city in the largest state in the U.S. There were bound to be plenty of opportunities for a young composer, right? At the time, I believed that this conductor would have had a similar reaction to any city that didn’t meet a certain cultural threshold. “You’re excited to go to <insert any mid-tier city>?” I was sure that in his rather lofty opinion I was committing career suicide, a viewpoint that I dismissed as narrow minded.

I was a touch naïve.

So, after my experience in New York and a wonderful last summer in Indiana, Jennifer and I packed up and moved out to California. And then, something rather unexpected happened upon beginning my career at Fresno State.

I stopped writing for the orchestra.

Over the next six years my focus shifted from choosing what new and exciting composition to work on to what any new academic inevitably focuses on – getting tenure. This involved figuring out on the job how to teach (ironically, one thing you really don’t learn when getting a doctorate in music), getting a select few compositions published, being a team-player in my department, and composing for every opportunity that presented itself. Which, at least for the first few years, did not involve the orchestra.

It wasn’t until my third year that our department hired our current orchestra deity, Herr Professor Doktor Thomas Loewenheim. Now, when I say deity I am NOT exaggerating – anyone who has worked with Thomas Loewenheim knows what a remarkable person he is. He is truly a miracle worker – an amazing pedagogue and musician. Still, an orchestra does not magically come into existence over night. It took a couple more years for our orchestra program to be built-up to a point where it could handle having a new work thrown at it. So – again for those of you counting – it was about four years from the time I was hired until the time the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra was ready to have a new composition written for it. And throughout that time, not a single new opportunity to write for any orchestra manifested itself.

Finally, after those first four years an opportunity came my way. Thomas Loewenheim approached me to write a new work for the rapidly growing Fresno State Symphony Orchestra, and I quickly jumped at the chance.  I wrote JEFFERSON RISING (2009) believing that this was my chance to once again reassert my strength as a composer for the orchestra, but in my eagerness to return to the ensemble I unfortunately failed to notice that I was throwing EVERY idea I had into one work. This work was thus a wasted opportunity for me – a flawed work that had way too many ideas and lacked cohesion.  It is possible that I am being a bit hyper-critical of myself here, but the fact remains that to this day I am not all that satisfied with this particular composition.

I did manage to land one other notable orchestra opportunity during this period of time, although it did not involve writing a new work. In 2008, I was selected as one of nine young composers to be included in Meet the Composer’s MUSIC ALIVE: NEW PARTNERSHIPS program – again, for my work PULSE MUTATIONS. I remember looking at the names and locations of the composers with whom I was included. Six from New York or Boston, one from South Carolina, and two – including myself – from California. As a result of this program I was invited out to Cornell University in the Fall of 2010, where I spent a blissful week in Ithaca working with the Cornell Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Chris Kim. It was a wonderful experience that reminded me just how much I missed writing for the ensemble.

After returning from Cornell, I felt renewed and ready for my next orchestral opportunity. However, there was just one problem – once again no opportunities for the orchestra manifested themselves. I continued to write the pieces that came my way, writing on commission, writing pieces for friends and colleagues, and ignoring the fact that my desire to return to the orchestra remained unfulfilled.

In early 2011 one more opportunity did arise – an opportunity to compose a two-minute fanfare for Thomas’ other group, the Youth Orchestras of Fresno. This work, JUBILATION FANFARE (2011), ended up being a moderately more successful work for me than JEFFERSON RISING. However, it was also over way too quickly. I mean, come on – it was two minutes. Some people write orchestral introductions that are longer than two minutes. Still, this work was hardly a failure – but it did make me wish for a larger opportunity, something with a bit more gravitas. I know – I’m greedy.

It was during this time that I started to sink into a rather irrational hole of self-pity. Despite racking up quite a few notable successes, I started to compare my successes to the successes of others – a dangerous pastime if there ever was one! While I was certainly gaining my own share of performances, I wasn’t being performed by “big acts.” You know: Bang on a Can, Chicago Phil, the Jack Quartet, Kronos Quartet, Eighth Blackbird, THE New York Philharmonic, Alarm Will Sound, Los Angeles Phil, etc. Additionally, I lacked recordings. None of my music was on any of the big new music labels – New Amsterdam, Canteloupe, Innova, etc. By comparison, it seemed that all of the up-and-coming composers coming out of New York were all being performed by major ensembles, were all having major new recordings released on name-brand labels, and had all won the Rome Prize. Simultaneously.

Again – I need to stress that this was all very irrational.

Out of this, I convinced myself that I had somehow become a failure. I frankly became convinced of all sorts of things that were not true: I was a hack and a fake. I was a victim of my location. I didn’t have the right connections. I did in fact commit career suicide moving to Fresno, and that I should pack it up and move to New York. I did not deserve the successes that I have had. These were just a handful of the irrational thoughts I conjured up to somehow confirm a belief that was in fact completely unfounded and without any sort of evidence whatsoever. Nothing happened that made me a failure, except for the fact that I somehow began to believe it. (It didn’t help that my professional composition opportunities started to dry up in large part because I stopped submitting to calls for scores and other opportunities – which was, in retrospect, itself a symptom of the larger problem.)

Which brings me back to writing for the orchestra. It is true that I enjoy writing for many ensembles. I find writing chamber music exhilarating, writing for the voice enlightening, and writing for the wind ensemble a hell-of-a-lot of fun. In my heart, though, I am an orchestra composer. I always have been. I remember my teacher Sven-David Sandström telling me this – that when I was composing, I was always thinking of the orchestra. My irrational depression was connected directly to the fact that I wasn’t feeding my passion – my compositional soul. In short, I completely lacked any recent “success” in writing for the orchestra, and it was killing me.

As many of you out there in “composer-world” know, being emotionally attached to the idea of becoming an orchestra composer is a big problem. It is not like there are many orchestras out there eagerly programming new music, especially from relatively untested emerging composers. I knew this – it was in large part why I wasn’t writing for the ensemble. I mean – why write a piece if it is only going to receive, at best, one performance (and at worst, none)? This is the logical argument that we all make at one point or another. However, no matter how much I could logically argue why I wasn’t writing for the orchestra, it didn’t change the fact that not writing for the orchestra was in itself the problem.

Fortunately for me, Thomas Loewenheim continued to support my efforts to write for his ensembles. It wasn’t long after JUBILATION FANFARE that Thomas approached me and asked “So when are we going to premiere Froelich’s Symphony No. 1?” I blinked – was he serious? Did he really want me to write another work – a Symphony, no less? This despite everything inside me telling me that I was this huge failure with the ensemble? I hesitated. My recent shaky experiences writing for the orchestra, combined with my perceived belief that opportunities were closing up all around me gave me pause. I knew that as much as I wanted to write this work, I was not in the right mindset to take it on. I first needed to get my head out of my proverbial ass.

I managed to land a sabbatical last Fall, which at the time felt like a godsend. One can’t argue with some time off as a way to heal the psyche! The sabbatical was a very relaxing and productive semester, full of composing works for the wind ensemble – which as I mentioned earlier is a tremendous amount of fun to write for! However, upon completing these wind ensemble works I found myself in a rather unusual place. I had no works lined up. No new commissions or projects. In front of me was a blank slate – the first time I was confronted with one since, well, since I began working at Fresno State.

I began to consider the possibility of writing a few works for myself – not for a commission, not for a colleague – but simply writing a work that I chose (what a concept – writing for oneself!). And what I chose was to compose a work that I frankly should have written eight years ago. When we first moved to Fresno I had promised my wife that I would write her a Sonata for Clarinet – and then the opportunities started to pour in. Before I knew it, it was eight years later. Funny how time flies. The thing is – choosing to write this work helped me feel more successful than I had felt in years. For once, I was in control of what I was writing. I chose to write this piece, rather than waiting for someone else to choose me for an opportunity. It was liberating, and after an almost two-year period of self-pity and doubt I began my long road to recovery.

I knew that to continue this healing process I needed to be proactive. I first had to accept that moving to Fresno most certainly prevented me from becoming a huge name in the orchestra world overnight. I cannot continue to be naïve here – location does matter. However, while certain doors may have closed, just as many have opened. I have had numerous opportunities directly related to working in Fresno, such as meeting Fresno State alum Mark Carlson (leading to a commission with his Los Angeles-based Pacific Serenades), to composing my NERD SONGS for San Francisco soprano Ann Moss (who came to Fresno State during our two CSU Summer Arts sessions), to writing for all of Fresno State’s wonderful student ensembles and faculty members. And of course, I have a huge backer here in Thomas.

I needed to identify my own network of professional musicians and composers, and to nourish that network daily. Like many other modern-day artists, my network is based everywhere through the magic of the internet. Facebook has become an invaluable tool for me (as I’m sure all of you reading know!) allowing me to maintain my connections to the new music world remotely. New music news sites – New Music Box, Sequenza 21, I Care if you Listen, SoundNotion – became daily must-reads for me. These sites continuously remind me that while I may not be located in a major music center I am always connected to it virtually. There is no excuse for me not knowing what is going on outside of the San Joaquin Valley.

I may not have had the “New York Career” that I never knew I wanted until two years ago, but I did begin to recognize that I had in fact a wonderful and successful career here in California. And, as I mentioned above – the internet was giving me the opportunity to make sure everyone knew about it – that I was here, and I was not going to quietly retreat to the “sticks of Cali.” I admit that at times I feel a bit shallow constantly shouting out my successes as a way to drum up my own limited form of press. However, it is a necessity of this career – no one else is going to talk up your successes if you yourself don’t do it first.

Upon returning from my sabbatical this past Spring, Thomas once again asked me about the Symphony. This time, I enthusiastically said yes. No – check that: I CHOSE to accept the opportunity. You see, even before Thomas asked this second time I already knew I was going to write the Symphony one way or the other. It felt right, and to this day it continues to feel right. I made the conscious decision to dive head first into writing for the orchestra, throwing all caution to the wind. I finally took control of my own artistic path – I chose to write for the orchestra, rather than waiting for a big opportunity to land squarely in my lap.

As a result I now feel more successful than ever. I know this work may end up with only one performance (although I am working hard to prevent that from happening). That is OK. And sure – this work may not be for the New York Philharmonic – or even the Fresno Philharmonic. Maybe those groups will play this one day. Maybe not. It really doesn’t matter. Likewise, there is no commission. There doesn’t need to be one. I know that our orchestra at Fresno State will play the tar out of this Symphony, performing with as much passion and verve as any group could muster. And – on the day of the Symphony’s premiere – I will be proud to stand on the stage here in Fresno alongside my friend and colleague Thomas Loewenheim, knowing that simply choosing to write this work was the most successful decision that I could have made.

And then I will chose to write another work for the orchestra, and not think twice.

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One response to “Symphony No. 1 – A Blog: Choosing to Succeed

  1. Beautiful post! I think everyone has had a very similar lull of despair at some points. I come in and out of them all the time, and i am not, in traditional terms, a successful composer in much of anyway. But it never stops me from writing the next piece.

    Thanks for the words and for sharing what truly is a very personal experience.

    And if you think Fresno is a career killer, you should try moving to Bakersfield.

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