“Do you sing?” was my teacher’s first question when I showed my atonal piece for cello and piano to him.
“No.” I replied.
It was the 4th of September when I started writing vocal pieces for my lessons. Dr. Young is my composition teacher in Westminster Choir College who gives great mini lecture recitals in his introduction theory classes. One day, I got a phone call from the school office because I have no F or any failing grades in his class. He usually considers our progress for the semester most especially our test scores. He has the ability to play and memorize any piece that we ask of him regardless if it is an orchestra piece or a 20th century flute piece. He is absolutely an amazing musician and teacher who truly understand his students. I wrote over 50 Kyries and 1000 counterpoints on my freshmen year under his supervision. At first, I wondered why he made me do lots of counterpoint exercises where I would usually sing and play. I would play Cantus Firmus and at the same time sing counterpoint. He also made me write a large number of pieces for voice.
Due to the repetitive nature of the work, I felt bored at the end of the year. However, during the summer break, he asked me to analyze the 16th century Palestrina’s music and copy them on my notes. Upon my first lesson with him on my sophomore year, he told me that copying master pieces might seem to be a waste of time but he pointed out that it is important that my hands remember the feel and sense of what a good piece is all about. Gradually, I started to feel comfortable with writing vocal music.
Our school does not have enough variety of musical instruments. There are few organ, voice, and piano majors. However, despite the few instruments, the International Contemporary Music Festival 2008 in Darmstadt was refreshing to me. Various instrument workshops were held to provide great opportunities for students to study the instruments and think about expanding the sound. The sound of music there seemed like a whole different genre to me. Listening to living composers’ works were very pleasing but at the same time challenging; because I was not be able to understand some of the works and that gave me a bad feeling.
The students were also able to sign up to have private lessons and observations with composers. For me, the idea of having a lesson with Wolfgang Rhim was quite exciting. After looking through my piece, he asked me, “Can you sing the rhythm in measure 64 which is right after la la la la la?” I replied that I cannot. He asked me again, “How many audiences can remember at least a measure of your piece?” It reminded me of the question that Dr. Young asked me our very first lesson. Composers should sing, he said. We sing by the use of our voice, the notes on our head, and sing through our hearts. Finally, I also understood the reason why Dr. Young keeps pushing me into doing counterpoint exercises as many as I can—it has something to do with the balance and control of the music.
In Darmstadt festival, there were not only unique and beautiful pieces, but also pieces which were full of extreme techniques, overloaded ideas and philosophical statements. Whether the composer writes tonal or atonal piece, it has to be controlled to avoid going too far away from the original ideas horizontal gesture which is the melody, and vertical gesture which is the harmony.
My summer in Darmstadt in 2008 helped me open my ears widely. I often get inspired from paintings, scientific facts, books most especially the Bible. Writing music is like me communicating with the world. That is why, by sharing my music with listeners, I am communicating with others. That is what I learned most from Wolfgang Rhim. Composition is like a thinking tool for me. Like what I have mentioned before, our school does not have many kinds of instruments, so there is a limit in expressing ourselves. What I actually figured out in Darmstadt is that I truly enjoyed studying instruments and thinking about new materials which can expand more sound.
I choose to apply in this school because professors communicate their thoughts and share personalities with masses in various ways. Sharing more makes people rich in their lives and it also gives me the purpose of life. As for me, it is very impressive that they are not only amazing teachers but also active music messengers. I would like to continue to study in Juiiliard School with great performers and professors who appreciate music a lot.