Browsing Tag



Key People: Interview with Wynn-Anne Rossi

August 30, 2011
Wynn-Ann Rossi

Wynn-Ann Rossi

Crystal Desch and I had the honor of interviewing Wynn-Anne Rossi, and we think you’ll find her as we did, an inspirational composer, pianist and teacher.  Among her many musical roles, Wynn-Anne is a highly creative composer of student-level piano music and instructional books on composing.  We hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as we did.  

How many piano students to you have?

I have about 25 private students, ranging from beginner to advanced.  We focus on all the various piano skills, but my favorite part is teaching them original composition.

Tell us more about the structure of your piano/composition lessons.

I teach weekly private lessons, followed by keyboard lab for creative projects (under earphones).  Once per month, I hold group lessons with different areas of focus.  Every third recital is an original composition recital.  These performances are totally exhilarating, with themes that the students choose.

What do you enjoy most about teaching piano?

I love the deep relationships that build over time with my students.  I’m sure I am not alone in this answer.  Sharing music builds amazing, lasting friendships.

You have a real talent for inspiring young people to compose.  Where does your inspiration come from to work with young people in this way?

I suppose the inspiration comes from the students themselves.  They are so curious and eager to express themselves.  Students’ lives are so full of feeling, and they have so much to say through music.  It’s invigorating and inspiring to work with them.

Do the students you work with ever influence your more advanced compositions?

Absolutely.  Each year, I do composition residencies in the schools where I create orchestra and band works using student musical ideas.  Some of my most complex pieces are linked to students.  I can think of other examples as well.  Students are closely linked to my music.

What were you able to do with your new Creative Composition Toolbox  series that hasn’t been done before?

I’m pleased with how streamlined this composition method is.  “See, then do.”  It’s that simple.  In addition, I designed it to parallel major piano methods.  Certain concepts come up at appropriate times, ready to be expressed in original compositions.  I’m also thrilled that the first book is free of traditional notation.

You have a bunch of fabulous Halloween titles.  Is Halloween your favorite holiday?

You found a soft spot.  I love crazy costumes, I love saying “boo” and I love candy.  Yes, it just may win as my favorite holiday!

As a composer, do you have a “muse?”

I have lots of muses.  Dark chocolate, petting my cat, modern art, funny jokes, coffee with a friend … small breaks from life allow flashes of inspiration to leap in.  It’s everywhere.

Who have your greatest musical influences been?

The reason I’m a composer today is because of my mom.  When I was very young, we would create animal stories and conversations at the piano.  The piano wasn’t just about music.  It was about imagination.  I have admired so many composers along the way, but my mom influenced my approach to sound.

If it’s not confidential, will you share any new publications on the horizon?

Three more books are coming soon in the Creative Composition Toolbox  series.  In addition, I’m working on three Latin music books.  They will be very accessible and fun to teach.

Do you have a favorite non-classical artist?  Does this person influence your compositions?

I am constantly exploring new artists, wondering what’s new.  Hiromi certainly has my attention right now.  I think every artist I admire has a certain amount of influence on me.  Listening refreshes my perception of what can be done with harmonies and rhythms.

We know at one time you were composer-in-residence with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.  Do you still create in that capacity?  If not, what are you up to outside of teaching piano/composition and composing for Alfred Music Publishing?

This fall, one of my student-inspired band pieces will be choreographed and premiered at a national dance conference.  In the coming months, I will have two student composition residencies, one with a string orchestra and another with a 120-piece high school band.  Both include commissions.  Plus, I’ve started weekly composer workshops at a local arts center.  I like keeping busy with a variety of projects!

What was one of the most unusual projects you did this year?

I was a surprise guest at a summer piano camp and taught young students to compose “alien space music.”  Before we composed, we put on aluminum foil caps with antennae for galactic inspiration!  That was a day to remember …

What is one thing folks might not know about you?

My family life!  I’m married to a gregarious guy named Greg, and we have an adventurous son, Nick.  Nick was in Africa for three years in the Peace Corps, and now he is going to China.

What is one of your favorite things to do?

I like to dance.  Right now, I’m exploring Latin dancing, but I also make up silly dances when nobody is looking.

What makes you happiest?

Surprises.  I love surprise moments, surprise activities that I’ve never done before, surprise comments that make me laugh.

For more about Wynn-Anne Rossi, “Like” Wynn-Anne Rossi Music on Facebook and check the interesting discussion board.

For books and collections by Wynn-Anne Rossi, click here.

For solo sheets by Wynn-Anne Rossi, click here.

Click here for spooky (and fun!) Halloween pieces by Wynn-Anne Rossi.  Have them right now with e-Print!


Porgy and Bess Turn 75!

May 10, 2011
Porgy and Bess

Gershwin's Porgy and Bess

It seems like there are a few opera productions such as Bizet’s Carmen, Delibes’ Lakme, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, and Verdi’s La Traviata that have stood the test of time.  George Gershwin’s classic opera Porgy and Bess is another all-time favorite, and has been performed on many stages around the country since 1935.  That’s right, the long-running show has turned 75 and is still bringing joy to thousands of people, not only nationally but on an international level as well.  It has made a memorable impression in the opera genre and is a distinguished American masterpiece.

Gershwin’s opera creation is a famous, brilliant and beloved piece of artwork but has not been without its share of controversy throughout its history.  Set in a vibrant African-American community in Charleston, South Carolina, it tells the story of a crippled beggar and the woman he loves.  Their lives are touched by poverty, violence, and drugs.  The work “was introduced as a folk opera, occupying a midway between opera and Broadway musical,” according to John Edward Hasse, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution.  “At the time of its debut, the subject matter of Porgy and Bess was considered daring,” Hasse said.  “During the era of racial segregation, U.S. audiences were unaccustomed to music that gave serious artistic expression to the lives of African Americans.”  Perhaps equally daring for the times was the all-African-American cast  — a choice that made it possible for African Americans to be involved in a major production and be cast in principal roles in an era that provided few opportunities to do so.

Mr. Gershwin created the opera after reading the 1924 novel Porgy, written by a gentleman by the name of DuBose Heyward.  Gershwin actually traveled to Charleston, South Carolina and immersed himself in African-American music in order to depict the amazing spirit found in the Deep South culture of that era.  The Porgy and Bess characters are able to deliver an exciting, powerful, funny, and at times heart-wrenching storyline sure to leave the audience wanting more.  Porgy and Bess also displays an eclectic music style comprising blues, jazz, and traditional spirituals, but still expressed in an operatic format.

One of my all-time favorite arias from Porgy and Bess songs I enjoy hearing and singing is “Summertime” — such a pretty musical piece.  Last summer I performed Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess in a classical recital.  Years before, I was fortunate to see the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s production of Porgy and Bess starring the very talented Gregg Baker and one of my favorite sopranos, Ms. Angela Brown.  Porgy and Bess is definitely a show worth seeing whether you’re an opera lover or not.  Be sure to check out to find Porgy and Bess music for you to enjoy.  Congratulations to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess on celebrating 75 years — may it have many more years of making people happy.  I know I’ve enjoyed having this Gershwin classic in my life!

Click here to read more about the show.

Click here to see music from the show available for purchase.


Band Composer Series: Michael Sweeney

April 26, 2011

Mike Sweeney, Hal Leonard

A graduate of Indiana University (Bloomington), and Director of Band Publications for Hal Leonard Corporation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Michael Sweeney has over 500 publications to his credit. As a winner of numerous awards from ASCAP, his Imperium (1992) and Ancient Voices (1994) are featured in the acclaimed GIA Publications series Teaching Music Through Performance in Band. Some of his other compositions such as Black Forest Overture (1996), The Forge of Vulcan (1997) and Distant Thunder of the Sacred Forest (2003) have become standard repertoire for middle school bands. He has received commissions ranging from middle and high school bands to the Eastman Wind Ensemble and Canadian Brass. His works are included on many state contest lists and his music is often performed worldwide. Mr. Sweeney is in demand as a conductor and clinician for festivals and honor bands alike. Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Sweeney and asked him to share some insight regarding his musical background with our readers.

When did you begin in music? What instrument did you begin with?

I started piano lessons when I was in the 2nd grade, then when band became an option in 6th grade I jumped at the chance to play trombone.  For a while I took lessons on both, but before too long I dropped piano and focused on trombone.  I still played piano, mainly for fun in groups, then studied piano again briefly in college.

Did you have a specific “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?

I can’t say there was a definite “a-ha” moment.  I grew up in a musical family.  My mom was a band director for a few years, then focused on elementary music and general music.  She was a sought-after accompanist as well, so there was always a steady parade of instrumentalists at our house around solo and ensemble time.  My dad was an optometrist, but had played baritone when he was in high school.  Both of my parents were active in the church choir.  So it seemed perfectly natural and logical that I’d go into music at some point, although I had a brief interest in art, math, and architecture.

What inspired you to become a composer?

I was fortunate to have a piano teacher who encouraged creativity. Along with the weekly exercise and etude assignments, she would encourage me to choose a current pop tune and learn it by ear.  (I learned a lot of Beatles tunes this way!)  Once I became comfortable playing by ear, I began plunking out my own little tunes and chords, experimenting with different sounds.

When did you start composing and what kind of ensemble did you start writing for?

When I was in junior high, a bunch of us in band wanted to form a rock band. This was back in the ’60s so there wasn’t really anything published for a trombone, couple of trumpets, and drums.  I took it upon myself to create arrangements for us to play, and quickly learned (the hard way) about instrument transpositions and ranges.  In high school, I continued to dabble with piano pieces, and with the help of our band director started doing arrangements for the marching band and jazz ensemble.

Do you have a mentor – or someone you would say has influenced your style of writing the most, and if so who would that be?

Several people have been encouraging and helpful along the way (piano teacher, band directors, college teachers, etc.), rather than me being influenced by a just single individual.  I studied composition in school with three very different composers (Bernhard Heiden, John Eaton, and  Donald Erb) and all of them encouraged their students to find their own style and voice rather than how to imitate their particular styles.  While in college I wrote for various chamber groups including brass and woodwinds, string quartet, vocalists, and percussion, but interestingly nothing for band (other than arrangements for the marching and pep bands).

What things inspire your writing?

You’d be surprised how “inspiring” a deadline can be!  But seriously, this is a very difficult question to answer.  I get ideas from sounds, events and images that surround us every day.  Sometimes musical ideas will be a natural response to strong emotions or feelings, but many times it’s just a matter of getting into the habit of writing down musical ideas on a regular basis, then sorting, organizing and editing at a later time.

What would you say defines your style?

I’m probably too close to the process to be a very good judge about what defines my style.  I’m always intrigued by very active and rhythmic patterns, but I also like to explore unusual harmonic structures and textures even when writing for young players.  Although every composer has a tendency to fall back on trusted devices, I try very hard to make every piece individualized and somehow unique.  That being said, I’m sure there are similar elements that can’t help but show up from time to time in my music.

Tell me something people don’t know about you (that they might find surprising).

Given my long-standing love of percussion and ancestral affinity to Celtic music, I purchased a Bodhrán (a type of Irish drum) a while back and have been learning to play it.  I’ve been frequenting a local Irish pub, having a blast sitting in with the musicians and trying not to get in their way.

Are you in the middle of any writing projects currently, and if so, would you mind telling us about them?

Currently I am working on a grade 3 concert band commission for the Zionsville, Indiana Middle School program.  Their former director, Sandra Graef, had commissioned Kinesis in 2004.  Sadly, she lost her battle with cancer and this new piece will be in her honor.

What would be your favorite band piece (by another composer)?

I know it’s a cop-out, but how can it not be Holst’s First Suite in Eb? I never had the opportunity to play many of the band classics when I was in high school, but I do remember several pieces leaving a lasting impression when I was exposed to them later: George Washington Bridge (Schuman), Incantation and Dance (Chance), English Folk Song Suite (Vaughan Williams), Music for Prague, 1968 (Husa).

Do you have one of your own works that you would call your favorite?

This is like asking which of your kids is your favorite! What a devious question! I usually respond by saying my favorite is always the one I am currently working on.  At any given time, this is the one I’m most emotionally attached to.  Given the luxury of several years of reflection, I can reluctantly mention a few specifics (but don’t tell the others!).  Ancient Voices always seems to hog the most attention, and while I’m pleased with how this turned out, it is not one that I very often program myself.  For the easy level I tend to favor Imperium or one of the two Celtic Air & Dance settings.  For grade 2, The Forge of Vulcan, Black Forest Overture, Knights of Destiny, and Silverbrook are like trusted friends.  And for sheer goosebump effect and drama, I can’t forget Rumble on the High Plains (with humble apologizes to all my other “children”!)

What advice or tips would you give to an aspiring composer?

As with most things in life, you need to follow where your natural abilities and interests lead you.  Be true to your heart, and doors will be opened for you.  Don’t pursue anything in the music business seeking fame or fortune.  You will end up disappointing your inner self, and most likely annoy your family and friends.  If composing music becomes an irresistible obsession, then learn as much as you can about all types of music and instruments.  This is best through firsthand experiences of learning to play the instruments, but also from working directly with musicians who can give you immediate feedback and suggestions on your creations.  Be willing to self-edit.  Freely discard material that upon examination does not fit or work as nicely as you originally thought.  I often throw away about as much as I keep when writing any given piece of music.  Be critical and exacting of your own work, and be willing to judge objectively.

Does your music come to you through slow, careful planning, or by sudden inspiration, or a combination of both?

Every piece develops differently.  Sometimes ideas seem to be just waiting to come out.  Other times the process seems endless, with multiple rewrites, revisions, etc.  Even though I try to establish a clear goal and overall design when starting out, it seems that each piece has its own timeline that must be followed.  If I find myself getting stuck, it is often helpful to set the music aside for a time, then after a few days or weeks away, ideas often come more easily.  I suspect my subconscious is working on the music in the meantime.

Do you a specific type or style of work you prefer to write for?

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to write for a wide range of students, from beginning level up to college.  I thoroughly enjoy all age groups, but as evidenced by the number of pieces I’ve done at the younger levels, I have a special place in my heart for middle school.  This is such an important age group, and I’ve always felt that providing interesting and substantial music for them is especially important.  Most of my writing now is for concert band, but I also enjoy writing for jazz ensemble.  I enjoy a variety of styles as long as I’m able to bring a sense of emotional depth and value to the music.

What is your favorite aspect about composing?

Music is a way of communicating without words, and can actually go beyond what we are able to communicate verbally.  Composing music can be a lonely activity, and is always very personal.  Sharing the end result with young people is very rewarding, and even more so when I’m able to do this in person as guest conductor or clinician.

Do you have the opportunity to rehearse and/or conduct your works with various groups, and if so, do you enjoy the experience?  Why or why not?

I always enjoy working with school groups and honor bands.  I was a band director before joining Hal Leonard full time in 1982, and the daily interaction with students is one of the things I miss the most.  One of the most valuable parts of the commissioning process is being able to communicate with the composer, either via phone or email, or ideally in person.  Whenever possible I try to visit the commissioning school for rehearsals and discussions, and often attend the premiere performance.  I’ve been fortunate to have several opportunities each year to guest conduct, and this is always an absolute treat for me!

“Rapid Fire” Questions:

What is on your iPod?

What’s an iPod?  Believe it or not, I don’t own one.  My car does not have a CD player either, and I used to listen to cassettes until the cassette player broke!  Now I listen to talk radio and NPR.  I find that after a long day at the office working with and listening to music, then composing in the evenings and on weekends, I rarely listen to music in my leisure time.

If not composing or performing, what profession could you envision yourself doing?

That prospect seems so far from the realm of possibility it’s hard to imagine.  Maybe a railroad engineer.  I could definitely see myself teaching again, but that’s still related to music.

What is your favorite composition? (of any composer, in any medium)

There is not one single piece that has remained my favorite throughout my lifetime.  It changes through the years, as indeed I change.  Early on maybe Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, then a Beethoven symphony, or Barber’s Adagio for Strings, followed by something by Count Basie, and eventually a tune by The Beatles.  Impossible to narrow this one down.

Is there anyone, past or present, that you would like to have the opportunity to meet?

Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven…

If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would that be?

How about I answer that with a writing team:  John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Favorite pastime?

Fishing.  My idea of getting away from it all is sitting in my canoe on a quiet little lake away from the noise and crowds.

Performer or composer?

I don’t go to concerts much anymore, but in recent years the most enjoyable concert experience for me has been watching the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra perform live.  John Clayton has such a warm and personal rapport with the audience, and members of the band are clearly having a great time performing — and the music itself is fantastic.

Our thanks goes out to Mr. Sweeney for taking the time to share the story of his musical journey with us. 

Click here  to see a list of Michael Sweeney’s works.


Band Composer Series: Robert Sheldon

March 31, 2011
Robert Sheldon

Robert Sheldon

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Robert Sheldon, Concert Band Editor for Alfred Music Publishing, and was able to gain some insight into the types of things that inspire his writing style.

An internationally recognized clinician, Sheldon has conducted numerous Regional and All-State Honor Bands throughout the United States and abroad, is Conductor of the Prairie Wind Ensemble in residence at Illinois Central College, and teaches Composition at Bradley University.  He holds membership in several organizations that promote music and music education. 

When did you start composing and what kind of ensemble did you start writing for?
My first pieces were for my high school jazz band when I was in 10th grade.

Do you have a mentor, or someone you would say has influenced your style of writing the most, and if so who would that be? 
My composition teachers who influenced me the most were Clifton Williams, Al Reed and Richard Bowles.

Are you currently in the middle of any writing projects, and if so, would you mind telling us about them?
My next commission is for a group in Texas.  The working title is Spontaneous Combustion, so as you can imagine the piece is rather aggressive and robust.  I only work on one commission at a time, but I try to continually keep ideas flowing for the next commissions coming up as there are many others scheduled over the next four years I need to be thinking about as well.

What is your favorite band piece (by another composer)?
Wow… so many… but Eric Whitacre’s October really speaks to me.  I love the lyricism and opportunities for expression that can change subtly every time you conduct it.

Do you have one of your own works that you would call your favorite?
My favorite piece is always the one I am currently working on!

What advice or tips would you give to an aspiring composer?
Don’t write until you have something to say.  Then, be organized.  Plan your writing project as you would a travel experience.  When I plan a trip, I want to know where I am going, how long I will be gone, who is going with me, what I want to do, see or accomplish on the trip, and when I will return.  Same thing when I write – I want to know what I want to say, (where I am going), the duration of the piece (how long I will be gone), instrumentation (who is going with me), the message behind the piece (what I want to see or accomplish), and how the piece will end (am I coming home or going somewhere to stay?). 

I would like to think that the music is a travel adventure of a sort, and that anyone who hears the music will in some way be transported or changed by it.

What is your favorite aspect about composing?
I am continually energized by the beauty of sound, and trying to figure out ways to create new and different sounds using colors and textures while still being true to my “melodic” predisposition. 

Do you have the opportunity to rehearse and/or conduct your works with various groups, and if so do you enjoy the experience and why?
I am continually out conducting various groups, and they usually request I include one or more of my pieces in their performances.  I very much enjoy sharing my thoughts and feelings about the music, and using my years of high school and university band conducting experiences to help them achieve higher levels of performances. 

 “Rapid Fire” Questions:

What is on your iPod?
David Sedaris reading his books, tone poems of Richard Strauss, and the entire Alfred Music Publishing concert band catalogue!

If not composing or performing, what profession could you envision yourself doing?
Teaching (since I have done it for so long).

What is your favorite composition? (of any composer, in any medium)
The music to the ballet Daphnis and Chloë  by Ravel.
Is there anyone, past or present, that, if possible you would like to have the opportunity to meet?
Rachel Maddow
If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would that be?
Percy Grainger
Favorite pastime?
Exploring great cities (Paris, London, Moscow, San Francisco, Sydney, Vancouver, Tokyo, Chicago, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Rome, Stockholm, New York, Barcelona, Toronto, Berlin, Copenhagen, etc., etc.) and enjoying the art, culture, music, food and entertainment they have to offer.

Sheldon received a Bachelor of Music degree in music education from the University of Miami and a Master of Fine Arts degree  in instrumental conducting from the University of Florida.  He has also taught instrumental music in the Florida and Illinois public schools, and has served on the faculty at Florida State University where he taught conducting and instrumental music education classes, and directed the university bands. 

Click here for a selection of Robert Sheldon’s works.


“For His Contribution to Music”: Sir George Shearing, 1919-2011

February 16, 2011
George Shearing

Sir George Shearing

The 2011 Grammy Awards have scarcely ended and the music world mourns the loss of jazz pianist and legend, George Shearing.  Recognized for orchestrated and inventive jazz, he created 300 compositions, but is most well-known for Lullaby of Birdland.  Among his many awards and honors are honorary doctoral degrees (Westminster College, Hamilton College and DePauw University), two Grammys in 1982 and 1983, respectively, and knighthood bestowed in 2007 by Queen Elizabeth II.

When the letter requesting his appearance before the Queen was read to him, George simply said, “I don’t know why I’m getting this honor… I’ve just been doing what I love to do.”  And, when asked by the press how he felt about receiving the highest honor the Queen can give, he replied, “My mind keeps flashing back on my beginnings as pianist playing in a pub for the equivalent of $5.00 a week.  What a journey it has been from that pub to Buckingham Palace.  Receiving such an honor as a knighthood might also show young people what can be achieved in life if one learns his craft and follows his dreams.”

While many of us, as musicians and students, may not achieve the status of knighthood, perform in the presence of three U.S. presidents, win Grammys, or actively perform until the age of 85, may we all learn our craft and follow our dreams.

Click here to see a list of music by and books about George Shearing.

*Quotes and biographical information taken from the George Shearing website.  For further information, please visit his website at


Choral Conversations: Mary McDonald

January 12, 2011

Today I had the pleasure of speaking with Mary McDonald, a multi-talented musician from Knoxville, Tennessee.  In addition to her work as a composer, arranger, producer, pianist, and organist, she was a sacred choral editor for The Lorenz Corporation for nearly twenty years and currently serves as the organist for Central Baptist Church in Knoxville.  Her music and talents have blessed choirs and congregations across the country for more than twenty-five years.

Mary is the composer of more than 700 published choral anthems, several Christmas and Easter cantatas, and numerous keyboard collections, and still serves as an editorial consultant for Lorenz.  She is also active as a choral clinician, traveling throughout the United States conducting workshops and concertizing.  Her unique blend of heart, hands, and humor, combined with a wide range of writing and performing styles, keeps her in constant demand.  One of Mary’s greatest joys has been serving as accompanist for the Tennessee Men’s Chorale since 1985.  In 2000, Mary served as the first woman President of the Southern Baptist Church Music Conference.  She is a member of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).  Mary was recently awarded second place by the John Ness Beck Foundation for her composition Yes, My Jesus Loves Me.

Thank you so much, Mary, for taking time from your busy schedule to answer a few questions for us! 

When did you begin in music?

I have been playing piano by ear since I was five years of age.  I have a sister who would work the pedals for me since my feet wouldn’t reach the floor.  At first, our mother thought it was one of my older sisters who had been taking lessons but soon realized it was her youngest, playing with both hands the hymns from the church services earlier that day.  I have never had piano lessons.

Did you have an “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?

When I was in high school, I walked to Central Baptist Church many afternoons while waiting on my mom to get off work.  In 1970, our church installed a lovely Shantz pipe organ and our organist was practicing most days when I was there.  When she left, I asked our interim music minister for a key, telling him I was “studying” organ (just watching, actually).  The first time I rolled back the lid, I put my Algebra book on the rack  and began playing music.  I tried to make it sound like church music but was playing Elton John, movie themes, and improvised classical literature.  I loved the power of the pipe organ and the freedom to express myself through music.

What kind of things inspire you?

I am inspired most often by the text.  Once I read a scripture or hymn text, I begin forming music around the words and finding a style that best shapes the message through music.  At that point, either the text or rhythmic hook becomes the seed from which the notes spring forth into a song.  It’s an art form in that the creation of one part leads to the next until it feels complete.

What inspired you to become a composer?

After graduating from Carson-Newman College in East Tennessee, I took my first organ position at Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Knoxville.  Since I could not read music very well, I would improvise the service music.  My music minister gave me a cassette of several offertories and encouraged me to write them down.  With my husband’s help and theory knowledge, we literally drew lines on paper and transcribed five organ arrangements and submitted them to the Baptist Sunday School Board.  They were accepted for publication in Pedalpoint magazine.  A couple of years later, John Purifoy moved to Knoxville to begin a publishing company and was introduced to me by my music minister at Central Baptist.  He asked me if I had composed choral music and I told him of my inability to write texts.  He suggested scripture or hymn texts and, taking his advice, I penned my first choral anthem, Seek First the Kingdom in 1983.

What would you say defines your style?

I don’t limit my creativity to one particular style of music.  I love to write big, traditional hymn settings for piano or organ (or both), and feel equally at home with contemporary choral settings of praise and worship choruses.  The gospel arrangements are always fun to score and play but I enjoy venturing out beyond those styles on occasion and just letting the music guide the way.  Regardless of musical style, my accompaniments will always be full, supportive and sometimes challenging!

Tell me one thing that people might not know about you.

I am married to my high-school sweetheart.  Prior to dating my husband, Brian, I actually went out with his brother for nearly a year.  Poor Brian had to sit in the back seat when his dad would drive me and his brother to school dances!  What can I say, it’s Tennessee. 🙂

What are you working on now?

I am collaborating with Pamela Martin and Larry Shackley on a new Christmas cantata for Fall 2011.  After this is completed, I plan to go back to my roots and write some organ music.  I haven’t written any organ solos since the late 1970s.

What is your favorite choral piece (by another composer)?

Then Will the Very Rocks Cry Out  (Hayes)

Do you have any advice or tips for those interested in composing?

Follow your passion and gifts.  God has been my personal GPS in putting the right people in my path at the right time.  It takes dedication and perseverance and an open mind.  There is a difference between composing and publishing, and it’s easy to lose focus.  If you write your heart and gain pleasure and satisfaction from doing it, publishing doesn’t matter;  it’s the icing on the cake.  Too many people write to get published and are missing the greater purpose.

Would you say that music comes to you more often through slow, careful planning or by sudden inspiration?

Both… I have worked weeks trying to craft an anthem and others have come in ten minutes.  I wish I knew the secret… but there’s usually a reason one takes longer than another.  In the end, each anthem is like a page in my diary;  a story for that moment and a part of the journey.

What are your favorite texts to set to music?

Hymn texts.

What is your favorite thing about composing?

When I finish a song that I’m excited about and only me and the Lord know about it!  I thank Him and ask His blessings on it… then send to the commissioning church or a publisher.

Inside the Actors Studio-Type Questions: 

  1. What is your favorite word?     Peace
  2. What is your least favorite word?     Hurry
  3. What sound or noise do you love?     Laughter
  4. What sound or noise to you hate?     Scottish bagpipes (not Irish)
  5. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?    Politician
  6. What is your favorite composition?     Be Still  (new with Beckenhorst)
  7. What is on your i-Pod?     I need to get one!  Anybody feeling generous?
  8. Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with, living or dead?     John Ness Beck
  9. If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would it be?     John Williams

Is there anything else you would like to share with us? 

I am so grateful for Geoff Lorenz, Larry Pugh, and my extended family at Lorenz Corporation, who gave me an incredible opportunity to serve as Editor of Sacred Choral Music from 1991-2010.  Their patience, trust, support, and encouragement carried me through almost twenty years of music composition, editing, and publishing, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without their influence.  We are all grateful to the incredible work of J.W. Pepper for giving wings to our products and for all you do for the cause of sacred and educational music.  May God continue to bless our collective efforts.  

Thank you, Mary, for your time and for letting all of us get to know you a little better.  If you want to get to know Mary even better, the best thing would be to check out some of her many compositions.  You can find them here . 


Choral Conversations: Joel Raney

December 14, 2010

Joel Raney

Joel Raney is an incredible pianist and composer.  He is part of the editorial staff at Hope Publishing Company, has studied piano and organ at the University of North Alabama and has his Master of Music in piano performance from The Juilliard School of Music.  We are thankful Joel took time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.

When did you begin in music?   Sometime between learning to walk, and learning to read… I really don’t remember not being in music.  I grew up on the piano bench… an old Story and Clark upright, pounding out things I heard, and playing the hymns in boogie-woogie style, which my mother absolutely hated!

Did you have an “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?   Several, actually.  The first was at age 14, winning the North Alabama State Fair talent competition with my rendition of “Alabama Jubilee” on the Hammond organ.  I took my shoes off, wore red socks, and did a little pedal solo that killed.  Then a few years later, I was playing my first Bach 2-part invention, when suddenly, both hands started working, almost as if by magic, on their own.   Wow, that was a great feeling I’ll never forget.   Crossing that first bridge to a new level.  That’s when I started actually getting serious.

What kind of things inspire you?   People inspire me.   Memories inspire me.   Nature inspires me.   My wife and kids inspire me.   Just waking up in the morning and realizing I have another day, and another chance to create something… that inspires me.  Sometimes that inspiration doesn’t last long, but I usually start the day with it!

What inspired you to become a composer?   It just happened gradually.  Performing and improvising leads to arranging, which leads to composing. 

What would you say defines your style?   I’m still working on that, but there are three kinds of music that I love, and I guess they all find their way into  my writing.   1:  Classical, of course.  Three years and a masters from Juilliard, and listening to hours and hours of the masterworks… that has an impact.  2:  Film scores.  I love hearing how the music actually directs the emotion;  the same is true of musical theater, which is also a passion.  3:  Southern soul, and gospel.  Listening to Ted Smith and others play that evangelical piano, and playing in a rural church.

Tell me one thing that people might not know about you.   I’m married to one of the best singers you’ll ever hear.  She’s got a lot of soul, and sells a song better than anyone I’ve ever heard.  When she sings a ballad, I usually can’t get through it without dripping a tear  or two on the keyboard.  Oh, and I performed in Pump Boys and Dinettes  in Chicago for a couple of years where I wore red cowboy boots, and tap-danced while playing the accordion and singing a song about having a farmer tan.

What are you working on now?   A gospel choral for SATB and childrens choir, a handbell setting of  “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came,”  an arrangement to close our church Christmas program, and a jingle for Rent-a-Center. 

What is your all time favorite choral piece (by another composer)?   Impossible question to answer.    “For the Beauty of the Earth” by Rutter“A Jubilant Song” by Dello Joio; Eric Whitacre’s “Cloudburst“;  Rutter’s “Te Deum“; “Hear My Prayer” by Mendelssohn.

Do you have any advice or tips for those interested in composing?   Listen to everything you can, study with whomever you can, and pray for a way to earn a living.

Would you say that music comes to you more often through slow, careful planning, or by sudden inspiration?   One or the other… never in between.

What are your favorite texts to set to music?   Psalms,  and anything about peace.

What is your favorite thing about composing?   Being creative is, in my opinion, what connects us with our creator.

 Quickfire Questions (partially stolen from James Lipton on Inside the Actors’ Studio)

1.  What is your favorite word?   Hope

2.  What is your least favorite word?   Can’t

3.  What sound or noise do you love?   A baby giggling

4.  What sound or noise do you hate?   Anyone talking loudly on a cell phone in public

5.  What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt?   Being a chef

6.  What is your favorite composition ?  Whatever I just finished

7.  What is on your iPod?   Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, the complete piano works of Chopin, John Rutter, Eric Whitacre, Ray Charles, The Messiah, Andreas Wolenweider, dozens of film scores, Stephen Sondheim…

8.  Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with, living or dead, that you haven’t yet?   I’m open to anyone.

9.  If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would it be?   Mozart… because there’s a lot of it, and lots of it is cheerful, and I’d need a lot of cheering up.

Joel is a talented, gracious person and a gifted composer.  If you have the chance to attend a concert that he is performing in or a workshop that he is giving — RUN, don’t walk — to get there.   And Joel, thank you for your time!

Click here for a sample of Joel’s compositions.


The Great American Songbook

November 4, 2010
Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein

When I was in college, one of my music theory professors would begin each class by sitting at the piano and singing a standard – one of the great songs by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Jerome Kern, et al.  I developed a love of those tunes that has lasted ever since. Michael Feinstein is also passionate about these songs that make up the Great American Songbook.  Like my professor, he uses his performances as an opportunity to educate as well as entertain audiences.  He is raising awareness about this wonderful music among younger generations.

 The PBS documentary Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook  chronicles Mr. Feinstein’s efforts to preserve this music, which he refers to as a national treasure.  The documentary’s companion website, which features in-depth information and even provides free lesson plans for teachers, can be found at 

Mr. Feinstein is also the artistic director of the new Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana, which will house the Michael Feinstein Foundation for the Preservation of the Great American Songbook.  Click here  for information about the foundation.

As educators and musicians, I hope we will all be inspired to share these celebrated songs and pass our love for them on to future generations.  Preserving America’s musical heritage while enjoying beautiful music – what could be better than that?

Click here  for more information about Michael Feinstein and the Great American Songbook.

Click here  for a list of Michael Feinstein’s songbooks.


Choral Conversations: Mary Lynn Lightfoot

August 31, 2010
Mary Lynn Lightfoot

Mary Lynn Lightfoot

Mary Lynn Lightfoot is the Choral Editor for Heritage Music Press, a composer, an educator and an extremely funny woman.  She has over 230 published choral compositions, and has received an ASCAP Award annually since 1988.  Mary Lynn graciously agreed to be interviewed for our Choral Conversations blog in between her many clinics and events this summer.  Here are highlights of the interview: (All answers are paraphrased)

When did you begin in music?   I started taking piano lessons when I was four and continued up through high school.  I was actively playing piano all the time.  I played at church and I played for the local Kiwanis club every Tuesday.  I also accompanied my high school choir.  My mother is a retired music teacher, so that is where the musical influence directly came from.  Her parents were very musical as well.  It all started with learning how to play piano, which I think is the absolute most important tool any musician can possess.

Did you have an “ah-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?   I was so involved in music throughout my entire school years that it was such a part of me.  When I left to go to college, my intent was to be a doctor, actually a surgeon.  I went to college on a French Horn scholarship, and was so involved in the music department, I ended up staying there and I never looked back.  Music is such a part of me, it is just who I am.

What kind of things inspire you?  First and foremost, young people.  I began writing because I was a music teacher, and  started writing out of need for my kids to have something decent to sing, especially at the middle school level.  During the early to mid ’70s, there wasn’t a lot out there for that age.  Art also inspires me.  I am an avid fan and love many things, from the classics to the very modern.  I love the glass sculpture of Dale Chihuly.  In music and in art, I like things that cover a really wide and diverse spectrum.  Very eclectic.

Do you miss teaching?  Absolutely! I didn’t stop teaching because I didn’t like it.  Geoff Lorenz called me one day and said “I’d like to hire you,”  so I moved from teaching to explore a part-time editorial position with Heritage Music Press.  I miss the kids and I miss everything about teaching.  I sometimes have an intern that I work with, and of course work with singers in festivals and honor choirs that helps satisfy that need.

What would you say defines your style?   My style is accessible quality and features melodic lines.  I hope my style is interesting, and that it incorporates quality lyrics.  I write for where I think there is a need.  I am very careful and concerned about the lyrics as well as my accompaniments.

Tell me one thing that people might not know about you.  I’m a huge college basketball fan, I just love watching it.

What are you working on right now?  As we speak, I am working on a commission for a high school in Texas.  It is going to be a celebratory piece to honor the first graduating class of this new high school.  It is SATB with children’s choir, trumpet and keyboard.

Do you have any advice or tips for those interested in composing?   Certainly!  How long do we have?  First, I would encourage those that have the interest to avidly pursue it.  It is a very fun and interesting journey.  I love to encourage new writers.  New doesn’t necessarily mean young.  Maybe there is a retired teacher that has always wanted to pursue writing.  New writers first need to have a grasp of the style in which they write.  They need to be able to answer some questions.  What kind of music do I write?  What market do I write for?  What age group or groups are my specialty?  Then you need to familiarize yourself with the music of different publishers, because each publisher has for the most part a specific style.  For example, if you’ve written a pop tune, you shouldn’t send that to Heritage Music Press, we don’t do that.  Vice-versa, if you send a concert piece to a publisher that mostly does pop, that’s not going to work either.  So, study the different publishers and then send your piece to the one that most closely resembles your style of music.  Don’t think that what you write is set in stone.  Be flexible and willing to make changes and work with an editor.  I did an interview for the ACDA Choral Journal that may be very helpful for new composers.  It is in the February 2009  issue and it is called Perspectives on Publishing Choral Manuscripts. We talked about how to get a piece published.

Would you say that music comes to you more often through slow, careful planning or sudden inspiration?   I think it happens both ways.  I think it depends on whether what I’m writing is something I want to write, that can just be sudden inspiration.  When you’re writing a commission, you have to plan and set down the parameters — you have to know: What is the voicing?  What is the purpose of the piece?  What do they want?   Next you find or write the text and then, of course, inspiration is going to hit.

What is your favorite part of composing?   Now, this is something else people might not know about me.  I love the solitude that composing provides.  Now, that may be a little selfish, but I love what I call “going into lock-up” — finding that text, and then when I’ve found the melodic part of the piece that I think people will walk away humming or whistling, that excites me.  When the piece finally comes to fruition, it is a huge emotion for me.  Writing for me is an extremely emotional experience.  It is in a very positive way, draining — always in a positive way.  To think that I can be a vessel through which musical ideas flow, well it is extremely comforting.

Quickfire questions (partially stolen from James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio)

What is your favorite word?   Possibilities

What is your least favorite word?   Negativism

What sound or noise do you love?  Mountain streams

What sound or noise do you hate?   Disrespectful ones

What profession other than your own, would you like to attempt?   I would love to be an art dealer

What is your favorite piece that you have composed?   Each piece I write is special, but I would have to put the commissioned pieces at the top of the list because you become so involved and connected with those that have commissioned your work.  For me to list one of those, I just can’t.  Non-commissioned, I would say my Pie Jesu  has to be at the top of the list.  It was a gift to the Putnam City Honor Chorus in memory of the children who perished in the Oklahoma City bombing  in 1995.  There is another piece that I wrote as a gift and it is a setting of Sara Teasdale’s Life has Loveliness to Sell — actually the name of the poem is Barter, but I called it Life has Loveliness to Sell, which is the first line of the poem.

Is there anyone, living or dead, that you would like to collaborate with, that you haven’t?   I’ve never really thought about it.  I’m not sure.

If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have the music of one composer, who would it be?   Wow! I’m not a person that can narrow it down like that.  I love so many different things!

(The following questions Mary Lynn suggested to me later, and they are great, so I am stealing them too)

What is on your iPod?   James Taylor, Miles Davis, New York Voices, Tony Bennett, John Mayer, Nanci Wilson, Black-Eyed Peas

What are your favorite TV shows?   HBO’s Treme;  Psyche;  Burn Notice;  In Plain Sight;  Modern Family;  Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations;  Real Time with Bill Maher

What are your favorite foods?   Thai, Asian, seafood, Italian, my brother-in-law’s burgers

Mary Lynn is by far one of the funniest, kindest, most genuine people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.  Do not pass up an opportunity to meet her or see her in action at a festival.  Many thanks to you, Mary Lynn, for the gift of your time in creating this blog.

Click here for a sampling of Mary Lynn’s published works.


Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter

August 19, 2010
Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter

Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter

For anyone who lived through the turmoil of the 1970s, songs like Close To You, Superstar, and Rainy Days and Mondays are a part of your history. Some people openly enjoyed the music of the Carpenters, others called them “cheesy” and “bubblegum” — but secretly listened to and fell in love with the velvet voice of Karen Carpenter. The way she sang so effortlessly of life and love betrayed the fact that she was barely more than a teenager. She was my first crush, and I am not ashamed to say that I still love her and the music that so deeply touched my heart as a youngster.

A biography on the late Karen Carpenter was recently completed by my dear friend Randy Schmidt, a music educator in Texas. The title of the book was taken from a Rogers and Hart tune of the same name, an unreleased track that Karen Carpenter recorded for a television special in the late ’70s but wasn’t released until years after her death. The book is called Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter.

Little Girl Blue is an honest, intimate look into the tragic life and death of Karen Carpenter. She has been called simply “The Voice” and described as being “phonogenic”; and while there have been many documentaries produced about the music of Karen Carpenter, there has never been an honest, in-depth look at the life of Karen Carpenter. Now for the first time, we can see inside this beautiful woman, through the eyes of those closest to her. This book reveals many poignant details about her – about the performer, and about the little girl inside who so desperately wanted to be loved.

We all know the music; it is a tapestry of our childhood, our adolescence, our life. Most of us have heard the story, we know about her battle with anorexia nervosa. Now, we can learn about the person who gave us the beautiful music – the drummer who always thought of herself as an instrumentalist who happened to sing, rather then the tender vocalist she was. Karen Carpenter will go down in the annals of music history as one of the greatest vocalists of her generation and will join legends like Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald as one of the greatest vocalists of any time. While it may sound cliché, when she died at the age of 32, she had “only just begun to live…”   It is an honor and a privilege for me to recommend this new biography to you.

Click here to get more information about the book.


Randy Schmidt is considered an expert on the music of the Carpenters and has served as creative consultant for several television documentaries on their lives and music, including the E! True Hollywood Story, A&E’s Biography, and VH1’s Behind the Music. He has also previously published a book entitled Yesterday Once More: Memories of the Carpenters and Their Music.