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.