Music: The Universal Language and the miracle of Notation

“Music is the universal language!”

So begin countless speeches and essays. It is a popular sentiment, spoken and written by musicians, music lovers and community leaders the world over. It may be a rallying cry to save music education; it may be the opening salvo at a gala; it may be the first line of a dissertation or biography. Music is the universal language–the, not a. It is an absolute. 

Music is the universal language–even western art music, so often referred to as ‘classical music’ and increasingly maligned as elitist and out of touch. In fact, despite this accusation, one may say that it is especially western art music which is universal, as it seeks to express human emotion and idealism through sound. But it is the frequency and often casual nature with which the sentiment of universality is expressed which tends to detract from the power of that very message. Are we fully aware of just how awesome this force is–and how lucky we are to have such a system of codification?

Musical notation is often considered by non-musicians to be a mystic language.Even trained–and, dare I say it, professional–musicians some times take it for granted. Musical notation contains a vast amount of information. It has certainly evolved over the centuries, not least of all due to reasons of practical culture. To read one of the preludes and fugues of Bach’s encyclopedic ‘Well Tempered Clavier’ would seem to a lay-person to be devoid of direction, especially if it were being compared to a page of a symphony by Mahler; but this is where oral tradition would have taken precedent in the age of Bach, as he would expect the musician playing his work to understand the style and thus be able to make informed decisions almost instantly. Returning to our comparison with the latter is perhaps a bit unfair, speaking musicological, given not only the century and a half between the creation of Bach’s magnum opus and the symphonic career of Mahler, but the radical shifts in culture and practice, musical and general. Allowing ourselves this comparison, for the sake of argument, we are taken from a single musician playing in a style to a society of musicians playing his (Mahler’s) style, with the composer now willing to leave nothing to chance and therefore providing an encyclopedia of his own.

In each case, however, we have been left more than a simple guide to the music. We have been given a map, complete with topographical detail, landmark histories and even weather reports. We are given everything, even where information seems to be missing. A universal language indeed! We are reminded that the universe is not merely the physical expanse of space, but also time (past, present and future), dimension and the world of the metaphysical. 

How often do we stop to realize how lucky we are for this gift of notation? This has been a recent realization for me. In doing research for an upcoming concert, pouring through recordings and articles, I kept coming across videos of ‘reconstructions of the original (choreography.) Ah–reconstructions! How often must we reconstruct other art forms? We can often only guess at the choreography of a 19th century ballet, or what a completed painting of a great master lost long ago would look like, or what Shakespeare’s pronunciations would sound like–and then we must create a context for that. It makes for wonderful scholarship, of course, and a fine exercise in empathy and understanding–but it also leaves us with little more than conjecture and speculation, sophisticated though it is. 

How fortunate we are, then, to be able to know exactly what Bach meant? Or Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler–the list is endless. Scholarship (formal or informal) is essential, naturally, to become a well-rounded musician and to understand style. But when starting to rehearse a Beethoven symphony or Mozart opera, we do not have to guess; we do not need to start from scratch. The map exists, and we may spend our time interpreting–and understanding–rather than trying to remember through reconstruction.

This is not to say that the musician is reduced to an animated scholar. Imagination is crucial. Through a knowledge of style, history and the individual’s own virtuoso technical ability, music springs from the page and is brought to life. And what life! Each performance, when given the proper attention and enthusiasm from ensemble and audience alike, may become a premiere. What an opportunity for time-travel and empathy. For even in the 21st century we may find ourselves astounded by the invention of Bach; by the endless wonder of Mozart; by the raw power of Beethoven; by the epoch-making (and forward-looking) Mahler; and countless others.

Style could easily take up a series of articles and I cannot begin to delve into such a complex subject in such a modest essay, but I will allow one brief comment concerning musical responsibility.

A musician has two responsibilities: understand the style and honor the intent of the composer. Style is the realization of notation while intent is the interpretation and manifestation of empathy with the soul of the composer. Any good musician may master style but it is in the search for intent that we may become artists.

Notation allows us to communicate in spite of our human limitations. Yes, it truly is the universal language.

The orchestra: An introduction

Looking for a way to introduce children to the orchestra? I’ve written this as a guide. This is intended for middle school students, though it may be suitable for high school students as well. 


The Orchestra: An Introduction

A symphony orchestra is a complicated instrument. Made up of anywhere from 20 to over 100 musicians, it plays a very wide variety of music, written from the year 1600 to the present day.


The orchestra has 4 groups–families–of instruments. These include the woodwinds, the brass, the percussion and strings.

The woodwind family includes flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. The brass includes French horn, trumpet, trombone and tuba. The percussion includes timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and xylophone–though there are literally hundreds of percussion instruments. The percussion also includes the piano and a piano-like instrument called the celesta. Finally, the string family includes two groups of violins (called first and second violins), violas (which are slightly larger than violins), violoncello (often just referred to as ‘cello’) and double bass (also called contrabass, but usually just called ‘bass.’)


The orchestra has been around since about the year 1600, but it has changed dramatically over the centuries.

From about 1600-1750, the orchestra was anything but standard. Many pieces of music called for just strings–violin, viola, cello, and bass–and a harpsichord (another piano-like instrument and an older cousin of the modern piano) or organ which was called ‘continuo.’ Sometimes the music would include parts for winds and brass, most commonly flutes, oboes and bassoons (clarinets had not yet been invented!); trumpets and timpani were called for fairly often, with French horns and trombones being less usual.

This was referred to as the ‘Baroque’ era. It was typified by very ornamental–fancy–music, with a lot of improvisation expected by the performers. What we now refer to as concert music–music written just to be listened to–was rare. The Catholic Church was the main power throughout Europe and had very strict rules about what kinds of music could be written, so many of the important composers writing music would only compose sacred music (music for religious services). When not writing this kind of music, composers would write music for dancing, or music based on dances. Sometimes they would be very clever and write dance forms in their church music.

Some of the most important composers from this era include Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, from Italy; George Fredrich Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, from Germany; and Henry Purcell, from England.

The next so-called musical era began roughly around 1750 and lasted until about 1815. This became called the ‘classical’ era. Instead of the excess and fanciness of the Baroque, music from the Classical era focused on simplicity, order, elegance and logic. Dance forms were still written and religious music was still very important, but a major step was taken forward as a new musical form was developed. This new style, called ‘sonata form,’ would give rise to string quartets (works for two violins, viola and cello), concertos (a work for one solo instrument accompanied by an entire orchestra, which replaced the Baroque concerto grosso, which featured multiple soloists playing with the orchestra) and, most of all, the symphony. The symphony was a four movement work which was almost always structured the same way. The first movement was in ‘sonata form’: a slow introduction, an exposition (in which the themes were ‘exposed’), a development (in which the exposed themes were played around with in many different ways), a recapitulation (in which the exposition was repeated) and a coda (a totally new section of music that ended the movement.) The second movement was a slow movement, sometimes song-like. The third movement was a minuet, a courtly dance. The fourth movement was in ‘sonata allegro’ form, a modified version of the sonata movement used in the first movement.

Symphonies were being written by many composers all over Europe, and the orchestra was adapting to be able to perform them. Orchestras had once been the sole province of courts (the houses of royalty) and opera houses (which were funded by and catered to the very wealthy); that was slowly beginning to change, with orchestras still attached to courts but finding themselves a little more independent.

The orchestra was now starting to become more standard. The ensemble typically included 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and a larger string section (usually 6 first violins, 6 second violins, 5 violas, 4 cellos, and 2 basses.) By the end of the Classical era, clarinets had become more widely used and were added to the orchestra permanently. The orchestra also began to use trombones around this time; trombones had, to this point, been used almost exclusively in religious music and opera.

Some of the greatest and most well known composers lived and worked in the Classical era. These included Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert, all of whom were Austrian or German and spent a large amount of their careers in Vienna, Austria.


By the end of the Classical era, Europe had changed a great deal. In 1750, the beginning of the classical era, popular opinion was that royalty–which controlled most of the money in Europe and were the unquestioned heads of state in their countries and territories–had been selected by God to lead their countries. Royalty had all the power and made all the decisions, controlling even which religions their subjects followed! By 1815, however, Europe–and other parts of the world–had changed forever. Revolution in France had unseated the crowned heads and shown that the people could bring about change–and that the people could also become royal, or close to it. In addition, a former colony of the British Empire had led a revolution of their own and become the United States of America–while declaring that every human being had a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These ideals were spreading quickly across Europe, and musical life was changing with it. Beethoven had become not only world famous, but had also become a darling of the royalty that patronized him (that is, paid him to write music for them.) For the first time, a musician was almost considered an equal of the elite–quite a change indeed!

At the same time, the newly liberated and empowered people of Europe had more time to enjoy themselves and more money to enjoy life, too. More people were able to attend the opera; commoners had the time to study music and the money to buy printed music and bring pianos and other instruments into their homes. Opera and orchestral music was now joined in popularity by lieder (German for ‘song’) and a wider range of ‘chamber music’ (music for small ensembles, such as string quartets, that could be played in small rooms.)
But the symphony orchestra was growing. Beethoven died in 1827 and left a large shadow over the rest of Europe; he had been regarded as a giant, a living legend, and had made the symphony (and the orchestras which played them) equally gigantic. Some questioned whether anyone else would ever be able to write symphonies again!

But the symphony not only survived; it thrived. New composers continued to compose music that was even more complex, long and involved than the great symphonies of Beethoven. When Haydn and Mozart composed symphonies, they usually lasted 20 minutes. Beethoven’s last symphony lasted over an hour. Symphonies in this new era, called the Romantic, were often 45 minutes to one hour in length. They also called for a larger orchestra; now there were usually 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion and a large string section of 14 first violins, 12 2nd violins, 10 violas, 8 celli, and 6 basses.

Classical music was built around simplicity, elegance and logic. Romantic music took a different course: it focused on uncontrolled emotion, raw power, and wild passion. Stories (called programs) were often included, and usually involved the supernatural; magic, dreams and spirits found their way into everything from string quartets and symphonies.

Some of the composers from this era included Richard Wagner (who wrote mostly operas); Robert Schumann; Felix Mendelssohn (who also conducted and took a great interest in music of the past); Johannes Brahms (who idolized Mozart and Beethoven and urged restraint instead of uncontrolled passion); Franz Liszt (who invented the ‘tone poem,’ a symphonic work which told a definite story); and Piotr Tchaikovsky.


Towards the end of the Romantic Era, around 1880-1900, came another shift. In this ‘Post-Romantic’ era, the orchestra became even larger (including 4 of each woodwind, 4-8 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani and a large percussion section, harps, and a larger string section) and symphonies were often 45 minutes to one hour long. In this time, the symphony or philharmonic (as orchestras had begun to call themselves) were thought of as ‘societies.’ The musicians in the orchestra were part of a musical family, and the people who attended the concerts and who helped to organize concerts were often called ‘The Society of the Friends of Music.’ In the beginning of the Romantic era an orchestra was usually the resident musical ensemble in an opera house. Now, in the post-Romantic, symphony orchestras were usually independent from opera and gave many ‘subscription’ (orchestral) concerts.
Another change was the rise of the conductor. In the Baroque, music was led by the person playing the harpsichord. This continued in the Classical, though the first-first violinist (called the concertmaster) usually led. It was not until the end of the Classical era that the conductor as we see him today–standing on a podium, directing the orchestra with a baton–became common. Throughout the Romantic, the conductor gained power and influence and by the end of the era the conductor had become a force, the leader not only of performances but of the orchestra itself. Conductors had usually been something else within the orchestra (a pianist or violinist); conducting had now become its own, independent profession.


The 20th century continued the trend of an expanding orchestra and ever growing conducting field. Symphony orchestras were now, finally, equal to opera orchestras. At present, the orchestra is an indispensable part of concert life throughout the world, with many professional orchestras giving concerts every week of the year.



The Hierarchy and Structure of the Orchestra

The best orchestras are musical families, small societies within society. Although each and every member of the orchestra is important, there are some ‘chairs’–positions–that carry special importance.


Concertmaster – Sometimes called the  ‘leader’ or the ‘first violinist,’ the concertmaster is the first chair first violinist. Many regard this as the most prestigious position in the entire orchestra. He (or she) is certainly the most visible: the concertmaster is the last person (other than the conductor) to come onstage before the concert begins. The concertmaster tells the principal oboist when to tune the orchestra. The concertmaster also plays any solos that a composer writes for a violin. The concertmaster is also the leader of all the violins, and really for the entire string section; he or she is the person whom the conductor will ask for advice on string matters during rehearsal.


Principal Oboe – As the concertmaster is the leader of the string section, the principal oboe is regarded as the leader of the woodwind section. At rehearsals and concerts the principal oboe will sound the tuning note–a very important job. He or she sets the standard for the sound and color of the woodwind section. The oboe also has many important solos in orchestral music.


Principal Horn – French horns are technically part of the brass family, but they’re really sort of musical free-agents: they play an important part in the woodwind family, too. The principal horn is a link between the two families, and will often play very, very important solos, especially in music of the Romantic era and later.


Principal timpani – The timpani have been in the orchestra as long as the orchestra has existed. In Baroque and Classical music they were often paired with trumpets to add extra rhythmic emphasis. In the Romantic they began to take a more prominent role–even getting solos! The timpanist is the ‘2nd conductor’ of an orchestra, a foundation for the entire ensemble.


The conductor – The conductor is the most visible part of the orchestra. He or she is in charge of leading the entire group in both rehearsal and performance. A conductor is also in charge of leading the orchestra as an organization: choosing what music the orchestra plays, deciding how rehearsals are run, helping to select the musicians who play in the orchestra, choosing which soloists play concertos with the orchestra, and helping to bring the orchestra closer to its community. The conductor has to know every note played by every musician in every piece of music being played. He or she has to know how all the instruments work; how music is composed; how the different parts of music go together. He or she must also be an effective communicator, a good teacher, a strong leader, a good problem solver, and firm yet respectful to the members of the ensemble.



The Concert Experience

Concerts have evolved over the centuries, but they have always had one thing in common: they are social events, a chance for people to experience music together.

A symphony concert will usually last 2 hours and includes 3-4 pieces of music separated by an intermission. The pieces of music may include overtures, concertos, suites, tone poems and symphonies; works with chorus, such as oratorios (a story, usually taken from the Bible, performed by chorus, vocal soloists and an orchestra) and masses, may also be included. A ‘typical’ concert will open with a short (10-15 minute) overture, be followed by a concerto (20-30 minutes) and, after a 20 minute intermission, the program will end with a long work (30-60 minutes) such as a symphony.

There is a tradition and ritual that accompanies most classical music concerts. The orchestra begins to take the stage about 20 or 30 minutes before the concert is to begin. The musicians come out one by one or a few at a time, take their seats and warm up on their instruments. By the time the concert is about to begin, 5 or 10 minutes before ‘downbeat’ (the start of the concert,) there is a lot of noise–disorganized and seemingly chaotic! There is agreed to be an unusual beauty about this, however, and the audience is by now in their seats, eagerly awaiting the start of the concert.

When the concert is to begin (often at 7 or 8 in the evening), there are two people missing: the concertmaster and the conductor. At the appointed hour, the lights are dimmed, the audience stops murmuring, and there is silence. At this moment, the stage door opens and the concertmaster walks out. The audience applauds as the concertmaster walks to his seat, and the concertmaster faces the audience and takes a bow. He or she then turns to the orchestra–the principal oboe, to be precise–and nods. The principal oboist then plays a single note–an A-natural–and the orchestra begins to tune: first the woodwinds, then the brass, then the strings, each group one at a time. When the strings have finished tuning, the concertmaster takes his seat and the silence resumes. A moment passes, then another. At last, the stage door opens again, and this time the conductor walks out. The entire orchestra stands up; the conductor walks to his platform (called a podium), shakes the concertmaster’s hand, takes a bow, and then stands on the podium. The silence returns as all the musicians take a moment to prepare themselves. Then the conductor raises his hands; the orchestra readies their instruments; the conductor gives a downbeat, and the concert begins.

It is customary to clap at the end of a piece. In musical works with multiple movements, the audience is encouraged to wait until the final movement has finished to clap (that is, not to clap between each movement.)
In the case of a really fine performance, the audience will stand at the end while they clap, called a ‘standing ovation.’ In exceptional performances, they audience may shout ‘encore, encore!’ an Italian term meaning ‘again.’ In this case, the orchestra may have a different piece of music (usually short and very exciting) which they will play–sort of a bonus track.

Since concerts are social events and usually involve serious music in beautiful (and often famous) places, people will often dress up to attend. Once upon a time, men would wear dinner jackets or full evening dress (called ‘tuxedos’ and ‘tails’ in America) and women would wear very fancy and elegant ball-gowns. More recently the trend has been for men to wear a very nice dark (navy blue or gray) suit and tie and for women to wear a nice dress. Most recently, however, people have dressed down even more, sometimes wearing khakis and a button down shirt or even a t-shirt and jeans. This is no longer frowned upon the way it once was and people are encouraged to dress comfortably. This author will admit a preference to the less recent trend of seeing concert-goers dressed in elegant, sartorial splendor. Not only does this demonstrate a respect for the dinner-jacket and dress clad musicians, the music they are playing and the elegant venue in which they are making the music, but the author is of the conviction that when people are well dressed, they feel better themselves. In the end, however, whatever the attire, classical music concerts remain a wonderful human and social experience for all involved and the symphony orchestra continues to both represent and serve its community as a very pleasant duty. 

Composition: Inspiration, craftsmanship and identity.

I know the precise moment in which I became a composer.

It was the fourth in a string of events–hardly well paced–that set me on the path to this life in music; for while I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a musician, it took me some time to learn how to truly live music. The first three events led me to believe that I’d arrived, that I’d achieved something; but they were only sections of a prelude, elegant and naive phrases with clumsily written cadences.

The first came at the age of 14 or 15. It is not much of a story to tell, in all honesty. I was a violinist at the time, or at least I tried to be; I’d been playing for 7 years and had a modest repertoire, as well as a seat as principal second in my youth orchestra, so I allowed myself this delusion. And I was becoming quite a good timpanist; my talent for this particular instrument had emerged and, as my passion was somehow equaled by my work ethic, I was starting to prove my worth. And yet I somehow felt musically incomplete, as if part of me was not expressing itself with any satisfaction. So it was that I awoke one morning with a simple thought: I need to compose. So simple and seemingly innocent was this thought (which would give me little rest in the following days) that I did not realize the terrible danger it posed to my well-being. For to compose may lead, in some cases, to becoming a composer; and to be a composer means to live for music–and live through music.

And so I began to write. First, some clumsy attempts at a Requiem–a natural choice for a reasonably well-adjusted teenager. Then, after an argument with an older classmate who happened to be a trombonist, a terribly naive solo sonatina which was embarrassingly inoffensive in its simplicity. And then came the first hint of danger: the desire to compose a string quartet. I gave into this temptation without protest; and in a matter of a week or so, I had composed my first complete work.

By the time my last days of high school arrived, I found myself in a strange place: I was to study composition at a major conservatory with a renowned composer. I was quite terrified; besides being entirely self-taught in this discipline, writing what I had through a process of trial and error, I had no idea what it really meant to be a composer. I knew what it meant for Beethoven and Mahler, of course; but what did it mean for me? At the moment, it meant that I would no longer be a full-time performer, and having intended to pursue a career as an orchestral timpanist, this was no small change.

Then came the second event. I found myself seated by a composer of some reputation and accomplishment, a man who had lived an admirable life. I had in my possession a few of my works, including some preludes for piano and a movement of the symphony I was desperately trying to finish. I was 17, and felt compelled to finish it before that dreaded milestone of 18. I had little more than a month to go and had found myself needing to work harder on this trifle (which had begun as a serenade for 8 instruments and would end up as a 40 minute symphony for chamber orchestra) than I had planned. My world was filled with potential, but also uncertainty; this made me quite uncomfortable indeed. I’d come to this discussion, which was largely informal, hopeful that this great composer, a man who had worked with Ravel, would critique my work. My hopes were dashed unceremoniously when he informed his audience that it was a policy of his–and had been his entire career–not to critique or peruse the works of other composers. I hid my disappointment as best I could and stuffed most of my music hastily back into my bag. And then came the miracle. As he fielded questions and listened to others speak, he began stealing glances at my bag. One page, then another, and a smile played over his lips. Very discreetly and gently, he motioned to me to lean towards him. With a subtle, kind smile and a friendly but very serious look in his eyes, he said in a voice barely above a whisper “Keep writing.” He leaned back again, gave me a wink and a nod, and resumed his business of fielding questions. There I sat, stunned and encouraged, my doubts erased. I might become a composer yet.

Then came the third event, the moment at which I was certain I’d finally made it. In my first lesson with my professor at conservatory–the second semester, as he’d been on sabbatical in the first– I brought the four works I’d completed in the previous few months. I’d worked with particular obsession on two of them: a Symphony in One movement, and the first movement of a concerto for piano. Another seemed trivial by the work I’d completed since; it was merely a set of dances for piano, not very innovative at all. It was the fourth work, however, that I knew I needed to begin with: a string quartet. It was a strange work to me, very different from any of the others, living in a completely different sound world. I set it before him, and he took it to the piano. Sitting there, he paused, and then began to play. He played the entire first movement, an expansive adagio which lasted 12 minutes, and when he concluded, he sat silently. I waited…and waited…and waited. Terror had taken a new meaning now, and I was quite ready to slink out of the room. Finally he turned to me with a serious look. “This has a…certain lyrical beauty,” he said to me. “It is deeply felt…expressive. And I’m not sure yet what it means. Are you sure you’re only 18?” I was stunned–not to mention relieved that he had something good to say. When I recovered and was able to reply, leading to a wonderful conversation and my first true lesson as a composer, I realized what this moment meant: nobody had ever told me how they felt about my music. The work was performed a few months later, then withdrawn and reworked, with the revised version receiving its premiere a few months later under its new title: Symphony for Strings, Op. 2. The Op. 2 would lead to the fourth event.

The lead up was dramatic, at least to my mind. I was preparing for my first lesson with Dr. A, a renowned, celebrated and highly influential teacher whose former students were household names in the composition world. I was to study with him for three weeks at a festival, and I knew it would be intense: two lessons per week, plus master-classes, and I’d been told that while he was very kind and encouraging, he was also no-nonsense and extremely tough. The Symphony for Strings had been one of the works I’d submitted as an audition, and I was eager to bring it to him along with my most recent misadventure composition, a tone-poem for baritone and chamber orchestra which can only charitably be described as heavily influenced by certain late-romantic German composers. As I sat down with the good Doctor and handed him my scores, I recalled the horror I’d felt in similar situations over the previous few years; I came to the conclusion that they didn’t measure up to the anxiety I felt at this particular moment. The pedagogue spent a few minutes flipping through the scores, moving from expressionlessness to a visage of great thought, even consternation. Finally he came to the Op. 2, and smiled a bit. “Ah, yes, Joseph. I remember this!” I perked up. “Yes, Joseph–this work is why I accepted you. Very good, very good. Now, tell me, Joseph: who are you trying to imitate?” Time stopped. My heart pumped its last. My breath would not come. I hoped against all hope for the floor to open and simply swallow me, and it rewarded my faith with stubborn inaction. My career, I knew, had just ended. “Um…Dr. A…I…I never try to imitate anyone!” I stammered. “I try to write with my own voice, you know, and of course don’t try to…” He smiled. “Poppycock! Absolute bull. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear! Now tell me–who are you trying to imitate?” I was speechless. Was my acceptance, then, a cruel joke? Was he regretting his invitation? Did he not even think me worthy of mercy?! He sighed and stood up, clapping his hands together, and exclaimed “My dear boy, everyone tries to imitate the composers they admire, especially when they are young! You’re how old? 21?” “Twenty,” I managed to croak. “Twenty years old!” he cried. “You are a baby! You have a lot to learn yet–and you can, you will! It is good to imitate others–it is a way to learn, and for you to realize what it is about their music that moves you, that makes you who you are–because your love for their music is part of you, an important part! But to become a composer, you must learn how to find your notes and to move beyond imitation. This ‘Vagabond,’ a clever tone poem–but it is not you. It is well written–but it is not you! That is why you are here. I will teach you to stop imitating and to be you. Don’t worry–I know you’re a good boy. Now, let’s get to work.” The three weeks flew by, and I completed three short works in that time. When I returned to conservatory that fall, I presented them to my teacher, who responded with this: “Well, you accomplished in one summer what I wanted to do with you all of this year. Joseph…you sound like you.”

The words of Dr. A have stayed with me all these years (and it is hard to believe that this happened nearly a decade ago.) They will stay with me my entire life, I’m sure. That was the moment in which I realized what it meant to be a composer, not merely one who writes. But just as importantly, it taught me the value of personal heroes. Lists are arbitrary and offer little insight; a top 5 or top 10 can be interesting, to be sure, but are fraught with the peril of value judgments and subjectivity. But to have admiration for someone–not idle, but active inspiration–can serve to drive us forward. We aspire to match them–not in their achievement, but in their desires, curiosity and ideals. As I continue to work and grow as a composer (not to mention as a conductor,) I will focus on these men (and women), their ideals and contributions. And perhaps, from time to time, I shall write about it.