Healing Music and Ramblings

I struggle a lot with my musical career, always wondering if I am doing the right thing or if I went into the right field of study. I never formally finished my degree as a pianist and becoming a composer was not something that I anticipated when I first entered school to study classical piano. I have always had a fascination with the avant-garde side of music: I was obsessed with Cage and Ligeti early on in my life. John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes as well as Ligeti’s “Fanfares” from Études come to mind as works that truly blew my mind when I was in high school. I would find myself overwhelmed by their output and engraving style and because of this thought I could never write real “new” music. Despite some initial self-doubt in my undergraduate, I eventually switched majors to pursue Composition and completed both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree. Since finishing in 2015, I have been freelancing as a professional composer and pianist ever since.

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Early on in my writing career, I learned how to write complex and dense music. It is a skill I am grateful to understand and happy to have in my back pocket, but especially as I traversed academia. One of the biggest lessons I remember from my graduate school professor Stacy Garrop at Roosevelt University, however, was that I did not have to limit myself to this way of writing. I had originally been taught that this style of writing was the proper - or even the only - way of acquiring work and becoming a “successful” composer in the academic field. After a year of grappling with this, I had a major breakthrough in my writing style and began composing music I not only felt proud of, but I also wanted to hear.

For some background: I employ a very eclectic style of composing ranging from theatrical music, sound-based composition and noise improvisation, to minimalism. I’m going to focus on minimalism for a little now for the purposes of this entry. I recently started a series at St. Vincent DePaul Catholic Church called “Music, Stillness, Solidarity.” It happens every Tuesday night for an hour in the evening and is meant to be a sanctuary for those looking for a moment to collect themselves after a long day. The church is a large, beautiful, resonant space that lends itself to introspective thought and meditation. The project has been slowly gaining steam, and I have begun inviting musical guests to improvise with me or to play for an hour themselves.

For the musicians performing, it becomes its own form of meditation since the music tends to be soft and relaxed. One fellow collaborator, tubist Akshat Jain, commented:

Jon’s meditation hour allows both the performers and those in attendance to break from their surroundings... you’ll find a mesmerizing soundscape, entirely improvised, using any combination of instruments and featuring their beautiful organ...  Jon’s open mindedness and curiosity allow for a very free space for the instrumentalists to collaborate in.

I have been so happy with this series as of late because everyone who walks in leaves more at peace in some way or other. What is even more exciting is that people from all sorts of backgrounds have started to come into the space to meditate. It’s not just for musicians, but becomes a safe space for people in completely different places in their lives, from those recovering from abuse to those seeking a moment to themselves. In addition to the individuals embracing the quiet, I’ve seen entire families walk in and stay for more than half an hour just to sit in the quiet as we improvise, with our youngest participant being only a few weeks old. Among regular attendees is a person from AA who was among the first to come to the series when it began. They told me they felt more centered and at peace with themselves as they navigated their own issues. They then said they would tell their friends about it and now there is a regular group of people who come in to meditate and heal. I know that life is difficult and this meditation hour is not a solution to all problems, but hearing feedback like this inspires me to continue to provide this space for my community.

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Since starting this series, I’ve seen movement towards a more relaxed sound in my own writing style. For example, in my first solo piano album, I am using my meditative improvisation style to compose a set of piano études that are challenging to play, requiring rhythmic control and virtuosic movement on the keyboard for the performer, but are meditative in nature for the listener. Rhythmic play is very stimulating and engaging to me, and I’ve found it’s also something that centers me. Transferring the complex language of writing I was originally taught into music that is also accessible to any listener is my ultimate goal. My wife and fellow Trade Winds Ensemble member Suzanne and quite a few of my friends have been encouraging me to write these improvisations down. It’s finally happening and it’s the most excited I’ve been to compose for quite a bit now!

My love for the avant-garde hasn’t left and I certainly still improvise in the “noise music” scene in Chicago, but this new form of writing has given just a bit more meaning and drive to my life as I navigate how to best contribute to my community as an artist.

Going with the Flow: Scattered Thoughts of a Redhead

Meeting new people is one of my favorite things to do aside from trying all the flavors of bubble tea I can find on the island of Oahu. But of course as a child I was totally opposite of this, too shy to even go ask the concession guy for popcorn at the movies. Literally the nerdiest little redheaded girl with huge retro glasses, bangs, horse head sweaters, and a fear of every other human on the planet. There was even a time in my life that I wore an eye patch over my right eye because of a certain condition, which didn’t really help me become the coolest kid in preschool. I’m sharing this backstory of me because it is hilarious just how opposite of this I am now, like unbelievably opposite. Now I’m loud, proud, and blunt to a fault.

It took me close to 25 years to even get even a glimpse of who I really want to be, but I got to that point because of the amazing people on this planet and my life motto of going with the flow. Yeah, I know, I sound super millennial with that as my life motto but it has seriously kept me sane through all the rejections I’ve faced as a musician and as a girl in her mid twenties trying to find real love in this “tinder dating” age. But let’s not get on the subject of the dating scene because I could write a 100 page essay on the matter… But honestly, there are a huge number of amazing humans on this planet that go out of their way to help others day in and day out, and I try to go out of the my way to find those people wherever I go and bring them into my life and never let them leave. And that’s exactly how I joined Trade Winds Ensemble; I met Midori, saw her big heart, and decided I had to keep her close so she would rub off on me. Now she and everyone else in Trade Winds don’t have a choice and are stuck with me, literally, forever. Like most people, it’s been the connections I’ve made that help me decide who I want to be, don’t want to be, and discover all the possibilities life has to offer.

Now about this life motto—does everyone else have one? I guess most have religion, family, or dreams that drive them every day, but sometimes it’s hard to live by those things on a day-to-day basis. For me going with the flow means trying to stay in the present moment which of course seems simple on paper but even as you read this silly blog post you might be thinking about what to cook for dinner or what Netflix show to watch after reading this. I don’t want to assume; maybe you are amazing at keeping the past and future from controlling your present self, and if so, I bow down to you.

I never gave much thought to having a life motto of living in the present until I began going to yoga classes in Houston, TX at a family studio called Yogaleena. If you are ever in Houston, please go! Yoga isn’t for everyone but it is my drug of choice. My love for yoga was mostly thanks to a certain instructor, Frances, who would not only help my body feel like jell-o but, as cheesy as it sounds, she helped to detox my soul. She had this super positive energy that almost made me want to vomit but admire her at the same time. A few people would end up in tears (including myself) after class because Frances knew just how to speak to the deepest depths of your heart and hit that vulnerable sweet spot while you were sweating and struggling doing vinyasa. Yoga is the time during my day that I do my best to forget everything else, focus on my breath, and leave the anxiety and stress at the door. Now, through practice, it has slowly started to affect my consciousness on the daily.

This is my first ever blog post and I feel a little scatter-brained and weird because I actually prefer hearing about others’ thoughts on life, but surrounding myself with positive people and trying to live by going with the flow are, at least for now, my biggest thoughts on life. It’s how Trade Winds Ensemble finds success in the challenging situations we find ourselves in around the world. You can’t go to an unfamiliar country and expect everything to go according to plan ‘cause someone is most likely going to get sick and end up in the hospital…. which has definitely happened, or baboons are going to climb through the window of your car and steal all your food, or you’re going to end up teaching a class of around 100 children by yourself. Like good friends do, we support each other and together overcome any challenge.

So that shy little redhead turned into what some have called a foul-mouthed, opinionated, and aggressive woman. I embrace it because I love myself and have a lot of love to share with this world since so many amazing people have shown me how to (including my loving family). Now I keep searching for more amazing people to teach me new and fascinating things, such as a journalist I met at a yoga studio in upstate New York who shared my passion for travel and love for experiencing new cultures, food, and language. We became quick friends and she wrote an article on Trade Winds in the “MainStreet Magazine” so check it out! Thanks for reading this, you the best.

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Growing Pains: Leaning into the Unfamiliar

Art is a language that does not need to be translated.
Back Pocket Duo performing “Empathy” by Ivan Trevino Video by Toko Shiiki

Back Pocket Duo performing “Empathy” by Ivan Trevino
Video by Toko Shiiki

This quote from Jose, a clarinet student from Trade Winds’ 2017 music camp, still echoes in my ears every time I approach a new project, and working with Trade Winds for the past few years has really helped me better realize just how accessible and impactful music can be as a tool for transcending social barriers—language being just one example. This idea has evolved into my philosophy of teaching and has inevitably become more entangled with my composition projects, most recently, through a collaboration with the Back Pocket Duo called “The Empathy Project”.

Back Pocket (Annie Jeng, pianist and Colin McCall, percussionist) commissioned several composers to develop new works which focus on the theme of empathy to create an hour-long narrative concert experience which aims to blur the lines between traditional roles delineated in concert music: performer to performer, performer to listener, composer to performer to listener, etc. Back Pocket explains that “ultimately, we want audiences to walk away with a new perspective, hopefully with a newfound awareness for the way they treat others.” When we first sat down to discuss my piece for the project, they invited me to incorporate text, improvisation, movement, or anything else in an effort to approach empathy from as many interdisciplinary art forms as possible.

To explore this scary (to me) pursuit, I started somewhere familiar, by reading. Be it poetry, screenplays, or scripts, there’s something about reading words to myself that switches on my internal sonic space. Time and time again, I find myself looking to the poetry of Geoffrey Nutter for inspiration—the way he uses language and the way his words appear on the page and knock around in my mind’s ear, stretching my imagination and reality in a really satisfying way. I’ve always loved that at times his arrangements of words sometimes don’t make sense right away, but still inspire such a clear feeling or mood. To me, the “meaning” behind Geoffrey’s poetry is interpretive and subjective, derived from the overall essence of the words working together as they appear vs. standard linguistic rules. It’s a kind of comforting discomfort that is both gratifying—and confusing—to experience when you’re in an unfamiliar place. For the resulting work which I’ve named Crystals, I settled on one of Geoffrey’s poems that I broke up by stanza into four movements which can be arranged by the performers and placed throughout the concert in whatever arrangement they choose.

What if we were born immune to fire?
Some, I’ve heard, were born that way.
Others might become so over time.
You can’t understand them,
but they bear you up in their hands
through the flame.

To live in time is to watch all thoughts
the god of Love has posed
arrange themselves into star-like crystals—
You can’t understand those thoughts
but you can see them.

The shifting, brilliant patterns
big as the sea
fall into place;
then, like the sea,
shift and fall into place again.

And they all fall into place yet again.
And they bear you up in their hands
yet again.

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And for the unfamiliar “outside-of-the-box” element of the piece, I turned to a space in which I have been most challenged as an artist and teacher. As a group, we work together to develop creative games and lesson plans for our students which, more and more, have incorporated elements of improvisation and composition. One particularly exciting activity utilized In C by Terry Riley as its model. The radical 1964 work has inclusivity built into its framework in that it can be performed by any ensemble of musicians, allows choice for when to play, and is all about participation and communication. Our students at RefugeeOne, non-musicians and non-native English speakers, created their own version of In C by using blank cells (a single measure with an open-ended repeat sign), basic solfège and note letter names, a simple rhythmic notation system, and iPad keyboards to contribute to an overall communal piece. The final work was given a public performance, and we highlighted each students’ cell by projecting their composition onto an overhead and acknowledged each as the cells were introduced into the texture. This exercise was inspired by our belief that anyone, regardless of native language or background, has the ability to create and express themselves using music composition and improvisation.

In a similar vein, Crystals explores the idea of musical “games” and uses improvisation in each of the four movements, inspired by those we play with our students. This includes providing loosely-written musical material on which the performers are asked to improvise, moments where the performers have to choose a mutual physical or musical gesture that is used throughout the piece as a motif, and on-the-spot decision making about various parameters throughout the piece. By building the work’s framework around aleatoric and improvisatory elements, my goal was to feature empathic responses, verbal and non-verbal communication, ambient sound, and meditation while inviting audience to do the same. In addition, Anne and Colin ask the audience to participate in the concert by contributing answers to thought-provoking questions, inviting audience members on “stage” to improvise alongside them, and reading aloud their reflections on question prompts. It is Back Pocket’s belief that “this communal participation helps the audience to feel as though they are part of the performance.”

While it may be difficult in the moment, I've learned to use poetry, empathetic teaching, “scary” artistic requests, and collaborations to embrace those uncomfortable, vulnerable moments in my work as a composer. And in those unfamiliar+uncomfortable spaces, I’ve found a surprising sense of comfort and clarity that allows the music or the teaching or the performance to be placed secondary and the human element of the work to come first; be it student, audience, participant, performer, or anyone else. It’s in this space that one might reflect on and wrestle with complicated topics such as “empathy” or “language” and thus come out on the other side as a changed person.

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Can We Achieve More by Slowing Down? The Case for Rest, Reflection, and Quietness in a Busy World

#lookingup

As the daughter of two incredibly hardworking academics, I was aware of “overwork culture” in the United States long before I fully understood it. But this trend goes far beyond the bounds of academia, and I know I’m not alone when I say I feel very real feelings of guilt if I’m not working all the time. Statistics show that the average American, regardless of their profession, takes only 53% of their allotted vacation time. Beyond that, two thirds (66%) of Americans report working while they are on vacation. Technology connects the world in beautiful ways, but can also make it exceptionally difficult to disconnect when that’s called for. Anecdotally, I know very few people who feel comfortable relaxing, even when they are stretched to their breaking point.

The “hustle economy” (or “gig economy”, a term that resonates particularly well with me as a freelance musician) feels very real to me, both because I can see it consuming my artist colleagues and because I consider myself a part of it. I’ve spoken with colleagues often about how we all admire and uplift one another for our hard work, and while we would never dream of begrudging someone else vacation time or time off, we often find it incredibly difficult to allow ourselves the same rest.

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I know I am personally guilty of occasionally wearing my busy-ness as a badge of honor, and I also know I’m not alone in doing so. And like many others, I am fascinated by the productivity industry;  I’ve read books by David Allen, Timothy Ferriss, and Carson Tate, and love implementing new methods for time management and focus. But I fear that I have been overworking for a long time, and it’s an extremely tough habit to break. Research shows that there are massive benefits to taking breaks (including an increase in energy and focus) and yet most American workers resist taking downtime, preferring to power through the day/week/year without slowing down. I’ve noticed this to be especially true in the world of nonprofits and the arts, where long hours are often assumed and expected. When we are doing work that we’re passionate about, it’s especially easy to push aside recommendations to rest, even if we know it’s better for our health (and our creativity!) to take regular breaks. I’ve been lucky enough to have had supervisors and colleagues who see that behavior and tell me (very lovingly) to “scram” when I need to be reminded to stop, and a partner who has been known to pry my laptop from my hands and announce that it’s time to take a break if I’m showing signs of having worked nonstop for too long. I know I can’t always depend on external forces to interrupt the habit of overwork, so I think it’s imperative to practice resting.

What if we finally begin to listen to what science is telling us? What happens if we change the way we think about downtime, and allow it to help us succeed? Some of the most objectively successful and influential people in the world, past and present, have embraced taking mindful breaks from their work. In an article he wrote for Medium, author Michael Simmons makes note of characteristics and practiced habits some of a wide range of successful figures have in common. He considers a varied group that includes Oliver Sacks, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Benjamin Franklin, Gandhi, Steve Jobs, and Arianna Huffington, and something all of these people have in common is their commitment to taking time away from their work:

Despite having way more responsibility than anyone else, top performers in the world find time to step away from their urgent work, slow down, and invest in activities that have a long-term payoff in greater knowledge, creativity, and energy. As a result, they may achieve less in a day at first, but drastically more over the course of their lives.

Whether we take a break to call a loved one, to make soup, to dream, to read something new,  go on a brisk walk, to nap, to journal, or to simply reflect — the impact of taking time to slow down could dramatically improve the way we work. As we prepare for the projects, performances, and adventures ahead, let’s commit to giving our minds and bodies the breaks we need to fulfill our potential.

Tapping Imagination: from Chicago to Guangzhou

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Hello from Guangzhou, China! I am here now teaching and performing at the Youth Music Culture Guangdong festival with Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble musicians, other former Civic Orchestra of Chicago members, and many young performers from around the world. Every day, I coach chamber music groups, rehearse in the orchestra, practice improvisation in Silkroad style bands, and eat as many dumplings as I can.

The theme of this year’s festival with Yo-Yo Ma is inspired by his belief that “nature has the greatest imagination”; nature created everything, and for that, it is the most creative and imaginative thing in the universe. Humans can then approach nature by expanding our imaginations through experimentation and experience. And expanding our imaginations makes our music more communicative, more expressive, and more impactful.

In this exploration of imagination, Yo-Yo has asked all the faculty and participants involved to draw on our own experiences. So (of course) I have been constantly drawing on my experiences with Trade Winds. Working with children—playing with them and making music with them—has given me the chance to expand my imagination. I specifically have been recalling the time my Trade Winds life directly intersected with my job here in China: when Yo-Yo visited RefugeeOne in 2017. I organized this exciting afternoon of music making with the help of the Civic Orchestra as part of their annual Bach Marathon event, that brings performances of the Brandenburg Concerti to spaces and audiences across Chicago for a day. When Yo-Yo arrived, he began from silence, playing solo Bach music, and the children were fascinated. Soon, they began to chat, probably about what they observed, and clapped along with what they heard. In an instant, I watched Yo-Yo move into his imagination to adapt to the energy of the room, and he began to improvise a dance tune. The children danced in their seats, and he looked at them, encouraged them, and invited them to join him onstage, all with his body language and playing. Children drummed on their chairs, and he began to respond to what they were doing. He created an original piece of music with them; all of this seamlessly flowed naturally out of his Bach Cello Suite.

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After this symphony of joyful collaboration, Yo-Yo invited one child to the stage to tell a story. Simultaneously as the story went on, Yo-Yo improvised a cinematic soundtrack as accompaniment to the boy’s imagery. Here were two imaginations at work together—the boy telling the story of a monster that lived in the dark corner of a house, and Yo-Yo’s in real time responding to the boy’s words, with cello sounds and colors that no one in the room had ever heard before. As a musician, it gave me a whole new reason to be virtuosic on my instrument: to expand my color palette to be able to collaboratively communicate a story.

Having seen this performance just over a year ago, I am able to collaborate with Yo-Yo more effectively here in China. I’m also constantly learning more to take with me into future Trade Winds activities. Working with our students in Trade Winds has given me the ability to tap into my imagination.  It also has taught me that musicianship gets better when I’m tapped into the imagination through experimentation and experience. My students have given me new glimpses into what music is, further than my imagination could ever take me on its own, and I continue to use this perspective in every aspect of my life!

it’s more than #newyear #newme

Since returning from Haiti, we’ve been meeting regularly as a group to reflect on the past and dream for the future; we’ve also started putting the infrastructure necessary to continue our workshops in place during these meetings.  

One of the results of these meetings was the decision to be more intentional with our community, and one of the ways we’re going to accomplish this is through new weekly updates.  Each week one of us (or a special guest!) will update this page with insights, fun memories, pedagogy tricks, etc. – all so we can be in better touch with YOU! It’s more than a New Year’s Resolution, but we’re taking advantage of the energy and anticipatory vibes the new year brings to kickstart this project.

You’ll hear from each of us eventually, but I’ll start us off!  It’s so hard to pick a favorite memory, so I’ll probably sprinkle a few in here and there throughout the course of my blog posts.

During our summer project of 2017, we were working 2 separate residencies: one at The People’s Music School (Albany Park location) and one at RefugeeOne.  On that first day we had no idea what to expect from our new students but went in with a general outline of what we would be working on for the day. We did accomplish what we planned to accomplish, but we were so overwhelmed with just how different the needs of our students were at the end of the day!  We sat down around some food and some drinks and re-hashed our entire plans. We restructured our curriculum into 2 different and flexible tracks that were specialized for each of the communities. It was my first day working with Trade Winds and I remember feeling honored to be part of a teaching group that put its students’ development first.

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We may live all over the country, but that means more of the country can easily come meet us and see us perform!

January Dates:

1/17 12:00pm (Suzanne and Jonathan Hannau) Cassidy Theatre Cultural Center, Chicago - 78 E Washington St, Chicago, IL 60602

1/27 8:30pm (Suzanne and Jonathan Hannau) Constellation Chicago - 3111 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60618