Guest Composer Residencies and Horse Poop by Kim Archer

I just finished three guest composer residencies over five weeks:

1. A CBDNA Southern Region performance of Common Threads (Florida State University Symphonic band in Tampa, FL),

Andrew Boss, Jennifer Jolley, Patrick Dunnigan, John Mackey, and Kim Archer at CBDNA  in Tampa

2.The world premiere of American Labor Songs (Nicholls State University Wind Ensemble in Thibodaux, LA), and

3. The world premiere of The Pipers (Desert Winds Freedom Band in Palm Springs, CA).

It was all euphoric, exciting, intense, emotional work, where I made new friends and the music roared into life. Every time, it’s like giving birth … but without all the screaming and messy goo.

Artist residencies are fun and I’ve been doing them for two decades, but even my family and faculty colleagues don’t exactly understand what this means for a composer. They note that I go away for a few days, babble out excited emails or Facebook posts while I’m gone, and then abruptly either go radio silent for several days after I get home, or they end up wishing they’d let me stay radio silent because I’m so grouchy.

Knowing I had three trips coming in a row, I started thinking about this phenomenon. How to explain it? It turns out there’s nothing magical about the process and the solution for grouchiness is simple:

Horse poop.

A guest composer residency starts with getting on a flight to a new place to meet strangers. I’m always nervous, even knowing conductors and bands treat composers so well – in fact, sometimes a bit like a mythical creature, since most people think composers are dead European guys. Really, it takes about three seconds to shake hands, smile, and realize we’re all nervous but we have plenty in common as musicians. Sure, we’ll feel each other out on heavy artistic matters eventually, like favorite craft beers and whether Star Trek II or The Empire Strikes Back is the better sequel, but not right away. On the rare occasions that it takes more than three seconds to break the ice, a colorful story like, “Hey, I just saw airport police hauling away a guy who was screaming profanity – spread eagled and everything!” certainly works.

Second, a residency usually involves several guest lectures and/or private lessons, sometimes including visits to other local schools from 6th grade through graduate students. Each event is akin to a traditional conference presentation, so imagine doing two or three of those in a single day! I have learned how to pace myself, eat healthy (no matter how Wisconsinites rave about cheese curds or how much I want another New Orleans beignet), conserve my energy across several days, and not be shy about asking for caffeine or escaping to the restroom, if only to have a few moments to myself. (This works well for job interviews, too, btw.)

These events are also rare opportunities to speak on topics that don’t come up in day-to-day teaching. What a treat! People actually want to know how I go about composing. They want to hear about the Scottish history that attracted me to the traditional bagpipe music I studied in order to recreate the sound with a concert band, or the strikes I read about that inspired the labor protest songs I wove into a five-movement suite. They want to know what I think about form in the modern era because they’re studying common practice form of the 18th century, or how I know that doubling a tuba with an English horn is going to work if I’ve never heard it done before. They want to hear my stories about other composers and the time I sat down in the wrong seat, next to strangers, after speaking to an audience. Practically never does anyone at home want to know what I think! Also, if I accidentally say something dumb at home, I can be sure someone will call me on it, but guest artists have diplomatic immunity.

Third, people used to believe that composers were too busy listening to the Muses to match their socks or brush their hair, much less speak lucid sentences. The bar for graceful sociability is a lot higher now! As a shy introvert (honestly), it’s sometimes challenging. I can talk forever – after all, I’m a professor – but it’s still quite different from my normal solitary routine. On the other hand, it’s so worth it because there is always something for which I’m needed in these new places. There’s always a bigger reason why I’m there, even if it takes me a while to figure it out. There’s a student or colleague who needs affirmation or rejuvenation, or the ensemble doesn’t yet realize how much more it can accomplish and needs help to negotiate the next step.

There’s often a little tension when I arrive, too, partly because I’m a stranger but also because my music is challenging. I’ve heard a lot of, “We didn’t like this music at first but then we got into it and it grew on us. It’s so cool! But … you know it’s butt-hard, right?” I used to get defensive about it, but the truth is performers and conductors pretty much always rise to the challenge, deliver a powerful performance, and then are stunned by it – elated after conquering frustration or maybe fear. I’m not saying every performance is perfect, only that growth and courage are so much more interesting and important. I think sometimes people invite composers because they need our reassuring presence for encouragement – permission – to try (and potentially not succeed, right?, that’s the risk, but always to try).

Courage changes people; it changes the world; it changes me. By now, I trust growth and courage can happen, will happen, and intuitively feel my responsibility to facilitate it in the guest artist process. It’s an intense, patient act of faith every single time.

And the payoff!

I once worked with a conductor in personal crisis who was ready to leave the profession. He thought our collaboration might be his last performance and told me how difficult rehearsals had been. We worked together to reassure his band, as well as reassure him, that they had all done impeccable preparation, that their music making was strong and good. Just believe, just go for it! After a hot, wonderful concert – a huge burst of energy and enthusiasm from the stage, and best of all, from the audience – this conductor talked about building an entire concert theme around another work which had touched him. He almost began to cry and blurted out, “I haven’t wanted to do this in such a long time!” His performers needed him to pass through his darkness and rejoin them. He needed to see that he could go on and reclaim the joy in music making. Maybe he was ready anyway, or maybe my being there had something to do with this – if so, it’s an honor and a blessing to be of service in this way. It feels Good.

Then there’s the music.

Waiting in the hall before the first rehearsal, there’s nothing more flattering than hearing performers practice passages from my music as they warm up. It’s like a private game of “Name That Tune.” I sit off to the side and play it cool, don’t watch too closely, like I don’t notice, but it’s one of the best parts of being a composer: someone thinks enough of my music to practice it! It’s an appetizer or a first kiss.

There’s practically palpable vibration in the room at any first rehearsal with the composer. The ensemble has been waiting to show off, probably this visit has been hyped up, so although it’s a rehearsal, it’s also almost a concert by itself. They want to play for me and I want to hear it! It’s fun to note who sneaks a look over their stand to watch my reactions vs. who’s too shy to risk eye contact.

The first complete run-through, if I’ve never heard the piece before, is amazing closure – in that I may have written the piece weeks, months, or years ago, and then it finally bursts from its cocoon inside my head to become real sound in other peoples’ ears. Maybe this seems strange, but music is different from other arts. When someone paints a picture, you see it immediately. When someone writes a book, you can read and discuss it immediately. But when a composer writes music, it goes like this:

1. Write the music, alone. Most people can’t “hear” a MIDI demo very well so there’s no good way to share drafts.

2. Find a conductor who’s interested in performing the music, which means devoting their rehearsal time (their “curriculum” for their ensemble) and their own artistic efforts to something unproven.

3. Extract each individual player’s part from the whole score and make each part look impeccable. (usually 20+ parts, 2-6 pages each)

4. Send score and parts to the conductor for rehearsals.

5. Answer questions that come up early on, like “Could you check if this note is correct?” or “Are you sure it should be so fast?” (always blame the notation software)

6. If invited, travel to where those rehearsals are happening. (see above)

7. Finally hear the music!

Clinics, lectures, and lessons can be fatiguing no matter how much fun, but rehearsals are totally exhilarating. Even if it’s a work I’ve heard before, it’s like meeting an old friend after years apart. Have they lost weight, changed their hair, gotten married since last we met? All of that is likely, since good music morphs to fit each context and every band has its own sound and interpretation.

After a day or days together in rehearsal, I can never hear a recording of the concert the same way I heard it live. Composer, conductor, and ensemble work together intensely, usually under the pressure of an impending concert, to shape and polish the performance. At the moment of the concert, it’s like looking at two overlapping X-rays. I remember where we started, but also see how this one passage sings out, now, with more dynamic contrast, or how that tough lick came together so well after we isolated it, or that soloist really blossomed with confidence after a few run-throughs. Energy radiates off the stage when the performers and the conductor are having fun and working hard, smiling, attuned to all the details, and when the audience has been drawn into full attention with them and the music. It doesn’t translate to recording but it’s shimmery and resonant and unforgettable if you were there.

Then, everyone’s emotions flying around afterward become overwhelming: OMG, THE PERFORMANCE ROCKED!!! It was SO MUCH BETTER than the last rehearsal!!! Listen to the applause – they LOVE the music!!! There’s a lot of hugging and smiling in the afterglow of a concert. There’s an intimacy to the whole experience, really, and a lot of new Facebook friends. The conductor and I usually exchange emails or texts for days afterward, even about non-musical things. Having grown so close so quickly, it’s weird to separate at the airport and be done with a snap of fingers.

It’s a big experience. It’s intense and multifaceted, both physical and emotional.

And then, invariably, there’s a massive LOW when I get home. First, it’s plain old physical exhaustion. Everything aches and I can barely hold my eyelids open. There’s also mental and emotional exhaustion, mixed with a jarring recalibration from being an Honored Guest Composer to “plain old Kim” who teaches freshman theory in the basement of Dunham Hall to students who might not even realize I am a composer. It’s a tremendous letdown of artistic energy and focus into the pedestrian reality of grading papers and paying bills. It’s weird to drive myself in my own car again, too.

My family says they can set their watches by this cycle: I’ll go away, send epic, excited emails and Facebook posts, then come home to days of abrupt, utter silence. They don’t bother to call anymore during this time; they know I’m face-planted on my couch, narcoleptic – and oh my, the depression lingers long after the aches and fatigue subside. Then I’d complain about my day job, let things get under my skin too easily, and neglect housekeeping and correspondence. It wasn’t safe to be around me again for at least 3-4 days.

David Maslanka used to tell me if I did a better job managing the highs by not letting them become too euphoric (whatever that means), the lows wouldn’t knock me over, either. What would be the point of not fully enjoying the highs?, I used to wonder. Composing is hard, frustrating work – the highs are the only payoff! Anyway, it was hard to take him seriously because he so often complained, himself, of fatigue and emotional exhaustion after residencies. Then David’s wife, Alison, told me how she learned to deal with his coming home so ego-inflated he could barely get his head through the door, followed by terrible crashes: she insisted that as soon as he put his suitcase down, he had to take the wheelbarrow out to their pasture and pick up all the poop deposited by their four horses. David smiled and shrugged when I asked. It’s hard to feel like King of the World whilst holding a shovel full of horse poop, right? It was also a routine chore in the Maslanka household that reestablished normalcy for him.

I have a dog now, who celebrates my return from residencies as only a dog can. That helps. She also keeps me anchored to reality: I can’t fall into depression when she needs to be fed, walked, and played with. Still, with three residencies in a row this spring, I knew I was headed for a terrible crash. For the first time, I left myself a Horse Poop List:

  • pick up prescriptions
  • pay bills
  • clean gutters
  • change the furnace filter
  • iron the laundry

I won’t even pretend I escaped the siren song of my couch, but this time I did it with my dog snuggled in my armpit and backlogged episodes of “Young Sheldon” running. I think I’ll always feel, when coming home, a little like the recruit on first leave from military boot camp: I’ve seen things, I’ve changed in powerful ways, I’m different from the people at home now, yet nobody at home was there so they can’t see it and they can’t understand. Still, home is home and life is in the horse poop. It’d be nice to live in the perpetual world of the Guest Composer, but when would I get any actual composing done?

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The Choral Composers Workshop by Renae Eldridge

renae“You got in?!”

“Yeah…” I barely had breath to give my husband a better answer, as I sat staring dazedly at the email which I could hardly believe I was reading.

I remembered the “stay-at-home mom” I had been only a few short years ago, before my return to school, how I would scribble analyses all over the music I brought home from our church choir, how I would secretly write my own choral arrangements which I was never going to show to anyone, because “What if they were no good?” I remembered the girl who sat and her piano and wept because she wanted someone to teach her to write music.

Fast-forward a few years: I am very gratefully studying music composition with Dr. Kimberly Archer. I have been given the job of directing our church choir whose music I still scribble all over. In the process of choosing music for my choir, and through singing with SIUE’s concert choir, I have been exposed to lots of choral literature, and of course, I have found several favorite choral composers to fall in love with. So, when I stumbled across an advertisement for the John Ness Beck Choral Composers’ Workshop and saw that the featured composers just happened to be Craig Courtney, Dan Forrest, and Howard Helvey – some of the very favorites – the composers whose websites I stalk when looking for music for my choir to perform- I knew right away that I had to apply.

“Apply” that’s the key word. I did apply – twice. I was rejected for the 2016 study group. This was not at all unexpected, as the workshop only accepts a small number of applicants nationwide. I was therefore rather in shock when I received the email informing me that I was one of the twenty choral composers chosen to study with Courtney, Forrest, and Helvey in the 2017 workshop.

In a household consisting of a working father, a student mother, and five children, funds are extremely limited. I had no idea how I was going pay for the tuition, travel, and hotel expenses for the week-long event. I only knew that I was going – even if it meant that I had to sweep mud in the streets for a year. However, Drs. Archer and Michael Mishra were very kind in helping me to apply for school funding, which helped to ease the financial burden.

How grateful I am for this opportunity! I was able to spend the better part of a week getting to know other choral composers and learning from some of the top composers and editors in the genre that I am most interested in writing for. Along with teaching seminars covering topics including melody, form, lyrics, dealing with composer’s doubt, the business side of composing, the individual writers’ creative processes, etc., each student was allotted twenty minutes in which their own compositions were read by a group of hired singers and critiqued by Craig, Dan, and Howard. I thought my pencil would ignite as I to catch every word. Lunch breaks were spent in small groups with each composer, so that we could get to know one another, and could ask questions.

I was surprised to learn how many of the composers who have attended the John Ness Beck Workshop ended up being published by Beckenhorst Press, the company for which Craig and Dan are editors. In fact, two of the students in my own group have already signed contracts for their pieces. I think that it is not an exaggeration to say that this workshop has been life changing. I am very grateful for the opportunity to get to know and learn from some wonderful people. From the bottom of my heart, I wish to thank not only SIUE, Drs. Archer, and Mishra for their helping me to finance this trip, but I want to thank all of the wonderful professors who have and are still helping me to learn so much.

Mentors by Kim Archer

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David Maslanka in his home studio

Most of us became musicians because someone mentored us. It’s not easy to guide a young musician, but that’s why our mentors are special, why they inspire us. They care for us and they know us — and because of that, we flourish.

When I was first-year doctoral student, composer David Maslanka visited UT-Austin. He was already famous — I’d already been taught how he revolutionized the concert band world forever with his Symphony no. 2. He was alive, in person, on my campus! I couldn’t wait to meet the guy whose music left me exhausted and joyful, tearful and energized at the same time.

To my surprise and dismay, he turned out to be Weird, capital W, even compared to most composers. He mumbled about his dreams, about meditating and having conversations with creatures there, about reaching into a space beyond oneself that I simply wasn’t prepared to accept. He had such a strict diet it was impossible to find restaurants for him. He rambled at the microphone before his performances. Still, I offered to drive him back to the airport to have time alone with him, to get another measure of him.

There, gripping the steering wheel in the silence, I finally blurted out, “Dr. Maslanka, I love your music and I heard every word you said while you’ve been here but I think you’re full of <bleep>.” (I didn’t say “bleep.”) Looking back now, I can’t believe I did that. David just smiled and asked, “What don’t you believe?” Those 40 minutes flew by. We shook hands at the airport and he said, “You’re going to call me someday. You’ll know when and here’s my number.” I drove home thinking he was a nice enough guy but no way would I ever call him.

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Kim and David at a rehearsal

Then my best friend was killed in a car accident and I found myself writing a symphony. I was overwhelmed by rage and grief, unable to handle by myself the new kind of music that was pouring out, frightened at how different the whole world felt with the loss of my friend, and even within myself. Who could I talk about this with who would understand?

I called David … and a mentorship of almost two decades began.

I didn’t always like that mentorship. When I went through a phase of writing commercial music for a publisher, David told me to either honor my musical power or not waste his time anymore. He told me once that if I wouldn’t name myself as “composer” first, rather than “teacher,” then I ought to accept that my contribution to music will be grading 4-part chorales. I loved David’s frank sarcasm when it wasn’t aimed at me, but he could really sting me about blunders in craft that sure, I should’ve known better than to commit, but had succumbed to out of impatience. Which he knew and wouldn’t tolerate. I asked him once how he could stand that I’d make progress with his help but then screw it up, make progress again then screw it up — never a straight line of development. He smiled with that mischievous glint and asked me to name one person I’d ever known who developed in a straight line. I told him once that he saved me; he responded, “You’re worth saving.”

With David as my mentor, I became aware of bigger pictures, of the universal and cyclical nature of things, from composing to politics to life and relationships. I didn’t believe everything he professed, but some of it started to seem possible. Over the years, David and I corresponded sometimes weekly about doubt, complacency, and fatigue, which are normal but must be faced and overcome. We talked about passion and energy, about connecting with like-minded people and working in solidarity to change the music world, the education world, or any part of the world for the better. He encouraged my skeptical attempts at meditation and both interpreted and praised the results. He shared his love of history and drew me in. I tried to interest him in science fiction but gave up after his comments like “glacial.” We never discussed anything so concrete as harmony or counterpoint, but my sharing a sketch and asking for feedback resulted in the most intense musical discussions of my life, spanning craft and heart equally. We attended performances of each others’ music. He stayed with me in Edwardsville a few times. We took innumerable walks together and cooked good food. I have never laughed so hard, or felt so vulnerable and safe at the same time. I loved David and he loved me. I occasionally beat him at Scrabble.

Earlier in the summer, David told me he was ill but felt certain it was not the end and he had more music to write. He responded with pride about a new, non-musical role I recently adopted and told him about. I was afraid he’d criticize another distraction from composing; instead, he reached back almost twenty years to analyze how inevitable and perfect a step it was, that I had finally learned to face fear and anxiety, and he mused that when this personal power someday combined with my musical power the world will be amazed. This, while he surely knew that his wife was going to pass away soon and that he was far more than just “ill.” He never let on.

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Kim and David walking on trails in Missoula, MT

When David died earlier this month, just a few weeks after his wife, I suspect he went peacefully and with acceptance. For me the grief is still fresh. He often likened me to Luke Skywalker (with his “laser sword”), so it’s fitting to point out that like Obi-Wan Kenobi, he remains all around me, in everyone he mentored and in all the lives he touched. His music is part of my music. His power, his surety in the world, his hope, his sarcasm and humor, is now part of my power. He gave it to me in every thought, every kind word, every hug, every mischievous glint, and yes, every stern admonishment. He was my mentor and I am better for him. That’s what mentors do.

In a matter of hours I will stand in front of a new class on their first day as music majors. For some of them, maybe I will be a mentor. Regardless, I bring them myself and David, and that makes me less sad. These new students very well might start out thinking I’m full of <bleep>, too, and that’s okay. That’s how the cycle works. I will smile and be there for anyone who calls.

Alumni Spotlight: Adam Hucke

Adam Hucke is an Assistant Professor of Music at Southwestern Illinois College. He is the director of the SWIC Jazz Band and teaches music theory and history classes. Adam performs regularly in the St. Louis area and is a member of many bands including The Funky Butt Brass Band, The Blu City All-Stars, Musica SLESA, Sophisticated Babies, Street Fighting Band, and The Circus Harmony Orchestra.

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The SIUE Music Dept. was the perfect size for a student like me. SIUE gave me the opportunity to learn and perform a wide variety of musical styles, and the resources and skills to focus on my individual musical growth.

Student Testimonial: Alfredo DeLeon

DeLeon.jpgI came to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville because of its affordability and convenient location from where I live. The campus is beautiful, and the feel of it is relaxing. The positive interactions I had with the professors at various events such as the Bi-State Band festival also helped me in my decision to attend the university. In my short time here at SIUE, I’ve made some great connections, met good people, and made some incredible friends. The professors make it a point to try their hardest to help each individual succeed, and to make time to help outside of class. I’ve had many great experiences at SIUE, and I’m sure there are many more to come.

Alfredo DeLeon

Music Education
President of NAfME, SIUE Collegiate Chapter
Class of 2019

Student Testimonial: Renae Eldridge

Renae.jpgI first studied music at Lewis and Clark Community College, where I fell in love with music theory.  However, shortly after completing my associate’s degree, my husband and I started a family, and it was important to me to be at home with my children while they were small.   I therefore put my formal education on hold.

Though I continued to work on my musical skills during my sixteen-year scholastic break, I positively ached for someone to teach me more.  Once all five of my children were old enough to enter grade school, I decided it was time for me to get back to my formal education.  Words can not describe how grateful I am for the opportunity to learn that SIUE has provided me!  Sixteen years of being away from education produced in me a deep hunger to learn and to grow.  So grateful was I to be back that I literally teared up while sitting in a music theory classroom for the first time in so many years.

I am of course grateful for the opportunity to earn a degree, and to further my employment opportunities, but for me, education is not just a hoop to jump through in order to gain a career.  I am here because I positively crave to learn everything that SIUE has to offer me.  I am profoundly grateful to the wonderful teachers and staff here at SIUE.  I have found the music program at SIUE to be just what I was looking for.  The staff is full of wonderfully caring and experienced professionals. The music department is big enough to provide plenty of opportunities for growth, and the class sizes are small enough so that every student is able to receive personal attention.  I cannot say enough about how happy I am to be able to study here. 

Renae Eldridge

Music Theory/Composition

Class of 2019

Faculty Insights: “I Wish You Would Compose” by Kim Archer

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Dr. David Maslanka, Dr. Kim Archer, and Dr. Chris Werner at the world premiere of Symphony no. 3 (Central High School – La Crosse, WI)

I was 32 in 2005, when I started as an Assistant Professor at SIUE. I was so fatigued from the process of finishing a doctorate, hopping across two temp jobs, and finally starting the tenure track that I couldn’t compose anymore and thought I might be washed up. Frustrated and impatient to have the whole rest of my life resolved as soon as possible, I called a mentor composer – David Maslanka – for a diagnosis. David chuckled good-naturedly and invited me to spend a week’s retreat at his home in Montana. He said I needed rest.

David had a bigger plan than that, though: he also invited a young conductor who had just finished his first year in a new job in Wisconsin, and was equally fatigued and frustrated: Chris Werner.

We both needed David, but we needed each other more. Chris and I bonded over sneaking away for coffee (not allowed at David’s house) and dissecting episodes of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. We suffered devastating Scrabble losses to David. Mostly, we lamented the deteriorating state of our shared profession – the wind ensemble and its repertoire. David suggested we try collaborating.

The next year Chris commissioned my Symphony no. 3. By doing this, he held open a space for me to fully and freely create. I, in turn, delivered a worthy conducting challenge for him: a 30-minute monster, requiring all manner of special equipment and color instruments, alternately laughing and roaring from the page. I spent two weeks in residence with Chris and his high school band, where both of us chafed at our colleagues’ certainty that it was impossible for high schoolers to negotiate such lengthy and difficult music, that neither of us had the skill or maturity to undertake such a project, and that we were hotheaded youngsters who would soon know better, if only by failing.

Not one chance, we decided. After all, there was nothing magic about demanding the best of yourself and being brave enough to expect it of others. Chris was a force of nature – a black hole whose sheer gravitational force dragged out every ounce of effort and musicianship from his band. He railed and shouted and sweated buckets from the podium, practically calling down the lightning, as if he could elicit their sound from his own body. He stormed and praised in equal intensity. He scared me, even! We spent our off-hours half in an exhausted stupor, and half barely speaking to each other. Often, a rage simmered between us. It took me a long time to realize this was a rage he’d assimilated from the music, which he was living in himself so he could conduct it and shape it. He was terrifying. He was amazing. It was a mad dash from the day I arrived to the final ringing note of the premiere, all hot with electricity. Chris swears he remembers nothing from that night, but I remember every second. That symphony wasn’t as much a “birth,” as Chris always called a premiere performance of new music, but more of a nuclear blast!

For years after that, we sat in coffee shops sketching the book we were going to write. We’d experienced – more like survived – something incredible and it had to be shared. Over those years and our work together, Chris developed a new model for building a band program in high schools, for training student teachers, and for bringing an entire school district into sync for fostering true, independent artistry. Kids can do so much more than most educators think, he insisted, and some of this plan hinged on the collaboration between a conductor and composer. So we were just going to write a book, just like that, because doing the right thing is so simple if you are fearless and willing to work hard. Obviously, all that was missing in the world was somebody’s saying that. We used to look up at each other from over our laptops – excitedly mapping out a table of contents, a paragraph here or there – to promise each other that we would never become complacent like the ranks ahead of us. We swore we would always push each other to the next big thing. We’d be 70 years old together, retired, and still showing the world how it’s done.

The problem was I couldn’t call down the lightning at will, the way Chris could. I have always struggled with insecurity and writer’s block. Then, Chris was there urging me on – you have this, you’ve done it before, it’s there, keep going, creativity is messy. I was in Chris’s gravitational pull and there was no escaping it. Next came a piano concerto. Then a symphony. Then a song cycle. It was painful and terrifying; it was slow, messy work; it always will be. But how could I give less to my art than Chris gave to his, or believe in myself less than he did?

Somewhere around 2012, we both began to discuss perhaps leaving education and maybe leaving music, too. We were both tired again, both burned out. Up in Wisconsin, Chris felt isolated. Conducting didn’t always feel fun or challenging anymore. He wondered if he’d rather become an administrator. I suggested he try to rejuvenate his creativity by feeding his other interests, like cooking or playing the clarinet. Down here in Illinois, I understood exactly what he felt. Composing is difficult. It was easier to talk with him about dumb meetings and academic politics.

We stopped being crusaders and became middle aged and complacent. It was so gradual we didn’t even notice.

***

13442496_10101504177757888_196651960539315342_oOn the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I sat at Chris’s bedside. The cancer took most of his digestive system a year ago. It had invaded his liver and brain. We had college football on TV, as was always our habit together, but I almost couldn’t recognize the man next to me. This wasn’t the same vibrant, energetic guy who helped paint my house a few summers ago, who trekked through Scotland with me, or who used to invent gourmet meals when we’d visit. I almost couldn’t recognize him – but there were still his eyes. They were the same.

“What about our book?” I asked.

“It’s percolating in your brain now,” he replied.

“Are you scared? Do you know what’s going to happen?”

“No, I don’t know. I think I’ll just go to sleep and that’s it. But I’m not scared. I’ve had a long time to get used to this idea.”

A long pause. “Did you have a good life?”

“I think I made a difference. Yes. I like to think I did good things.”

We were quiet for a while, watching Nebraska lose to Iowa. I thought about his many student teachers who’d gone on to careers in music and about a restaurant he used to love called “Diggers” where we’d talk for hours about new band music.

Finally, I asked, “Give me advice, Chris. What do I do now, without you?”

A small smile. “Have patience. Make other people feel heard, even when you know you’re right. I should have done that more. Be patient about your music, about life. Things will come, but only when it’s time. You have to be patient.”

He started to fade into sleep, but mumbled, “Compose. I wish you would just compose.”

Then, asleep, he began conducting. I couldn’t believe that’s what I was seeing, but I know his gestures so well: the pointing cue, the curl of his fingers, the interplay of his hands. He was humming a faint note now and then, his emaciated face rising and falling with dream music. I don’t know how long that went on, but I was stunned, devastated, fascinated … and most of all, grateful to have witnessed something important even though I didn’t understand.

He surfaced for a moment and looked surprised, as if I’d caught him talking to himself.

“Was it good music?” I asked. “The Chicago Symphony?”

He shrugged. “I don’t remember. Maybe it was the Medford Middle School Band.” His tiny little hometown. A small knowing smile, almost a wink, and he was asleep again.

Chris never wanted to leave music, any more than I do. He certainly never wanted to stop conducting. It was all that other stuff: paperwork, meetings, politics, evaluations, bills, groceries, family squabbles, laundry, etc., that got in his way. That stuff was simpler and easier to talk about than the demands of being an artist. Even cancer was easier, perhaps. I realized, though, that when all the noise is stripped away, what’s left is what matters. When everything else was taken from him, including his body, Chris held on to his music and to conducting.

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***

A few mornings later, in the long hours before dawn, I held my best friend’s shoulder while spasms wracked his body. The first MP3 I could find on his laptop, hoping music might soothe him, was Maslanka’s Trombone Concerto. It sounded terrible through laptop speakers, but it brought Chris up from the fog. Lucid for the first time in many hours, he looked straight at me, smiled that broad smile of his, and whispered, “Serendipitous, that.”

I’d remembered the Trombone Concerto was beautiful and affirming, but had forgotten it was written in memory of someone who died of cancer.

The morphine started to work. He was quieter then, maybe listening. I asked, “Do you remember that day, Chris? We went to that first rehearsal together, and heard the first measures, and we were stunned at how beautiful it was.”

His eyes went glassy again, but he whispered, “It was amazing … lonely,” before he slipped back into sleep.

It was amazing. The work features a cello on equal standing with the trombone soloist. All those years ago, overwhelmed by a power we didn’t expect in a mere rehearsal, Chris had leaned over to me and said the cello was “the embodiment of loneliness.” Afterward, sharing a tub of cookie dough with spoons, staring at the television, we were too stunned to even talk about how that music showed us that we, ourselves, were lonely. All we could do was allow an unspoken poignancy and be together, present in the moment. Very shortly after that rehearsal, though, I began to write for Chris my Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble. It was a work worthy of being “his,” a work speaking to our shared loneliness. I put a cello on equal standing with the piano soloist. Symphony no. 3 roars; that piano concerto contemplates and weeps.

Chris never was able to conduct it. He never had a band that could do it. Maybe he does now, on that stage in his dreams.

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Chris conducting the U. Nebraska at Lincoln’s high school summer camp

***

The hospice nurse came later that day. She said he had 48 hours left, maybe 72. I didn’t think Chris would wake again, but knowing I had to leave for home, I sat one last time at his side. Patient. Listening. He did wake and looked right at me, took my hand and held it to his chest, squeezed it as hard as he could between his. We didn’t speak … sharing an unspoken poignancy, present in our last moment together, as tears rolled down my face. He never wanted me to cry when he talked about what was happening to him; in fact, the day he called with the diagnosis, he threatened to hang up on me if I cried.

This time, he smiled and said, “Thanks for the visit.” That’s what we always said to each other, after every premiere, at the airport.

You can’t go, Chris.”

It is what it is, Kim.”

 “I love you, Chris.”

 “I love you, too.”

He drifted back into sleep. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t go. Then he released my hand and began conducting again. I kissed his forehead, whispered “goodbye,” and left.

I will never see my best friend again, but I hope I, too, can come back — as he did — to focus whatever time I have left on what really matters.

Be patient.

Listen to others.

Compose.