I met Lynda on FaceBook about five years ago and life has brought us together in real life many times since. The harmony in her compositions is a refreshingly unexpected departure from much of the pedagogical literature, and my students (young and old) all know who Ms. Lynda is. She mentions "Coal Miner's Lullaby" from Alaska Sketches in the following interview, which my favorite of her compositions.
If you follow her on Facebook, you will see her "Pedagogy in Real Life" cartoons every Friday.
What kind of composer are you?
It is said that there are four types of composers: The spontaneously-inspired composer, the traditionalist, the constructionist, and the pioneer. Without question I am a spontaneously-inspired composer. I do have an idea of how I am feeling, or the person or idea that lights the spark, but don't think about the actual theoretical components of what I am to compose until I sit at the piano. When my fingers touch the keys, they lead me into the music, and I follow, taking notes as fast as I can as the new piece introduces itself to me.
You began composing for Hal Leonard in 2012. Can you tell us the story about how this came about?
I'm a member of the Alaska Music Teacher's Association, and in August of 2010, the highly regarded composer, Jennifer Linn, was scheduled to be the conference guest presenter. I had always felt connected to the style of pieces that she had composed, and I was interested in what she had to say as a composer. I decided to travel 1200 miles from the Aleutian Islands to Sitka to attend the conference, connect with colleagues, and to meet her in person. I felt an instant connection with her style not only on a musical level, but personally, as well. In a relaxed moment at the end of the conference, I presented a gift to her, a CD recording along with the accompanying self-published book of compositions written and performed by my students. The final piece in the collection was one I had composed. I remember telling her that the gift absolutely not hoping for publication, but instead just a token to say thank you for the inspiring presentation. Jennifer seemed to like the project as she played through it, and noticed the piece that I had composed. She suggested I might consider sending something to Hal Leonard for consideration sometime.
To be honest, I did not yet see myself as a polished pedagogical composer, but feeling inspired from the conference, I decided to see this as a challenge—and I got to work!
For the next 18 months, I emailed her pieces that I'd written for my students, and each one was turned down. Jennifer did, however, give the reasons for the rejections. Usually, it had to do with challenges in my pieces that were not pedagogically in agreement with the levels in the Hal Leonard Student Piano Library I was trying to match. So, I purchased around fifty pieces of sheet music from the their collection to add to what I already had in my personal library, and studied them. In January of 2012, in an effort to write a pupil-saver piece for a teen student, I composed a piece called Williwaw (Editor's note: a williwaw is a sudden violent squall blowing offshore from a mountainous coast). Feeling pleased, and a bit impulsive, I sent it to her without even the proper editing process. In it's rawest form, Jennifer recognized its potential and responded immediately. After a few necessary edits, Williwaw was ready to go and to my great delight, Hal Leonard published the piece. Two months later, in March 2012, it debuted in New York City at the MTNA conference (Editor's note: a video of this performance is featured here). I was thrilled to fly half way around the globe to perform it at the conference for one of the Hal Leonard Showcases. In time, it was selected by the NFMC as one of their recommended festival pieces, and since then, it has been performed by students around the world.
For a small composer like me in the Aleutian Islands, Williwaw took off like the natural phenomenon it was named for. It was a perfect example of being at the right place at the right time, one of patience, and of listening to cues from a very wise and patient mentor. I feel so fortunate and grateful every time I look back on that experience.
What was your early music training like?
My piano teacher, Mrs. Corky Pricer, was the joyful and energetic pianist at our Baptist church. Her first introduction to improvisation was showing me how to "make hymns fun". Like many students, I began lessons at 5 and started composing right away. My first "memorable" piece was when I was 7and I will admit—it was highly influenced by the music of Fiddler on the Roof, my father's favorite LP vinyl record. My family moved across the country and back during my teen years, so my instruction was sporadic and varied. However, as an emotionally uprooted teen, I poured myself into my songwriting—both on piano and guitar. I continued to play piano and compose, and my sophomore year found me in Camarillo, California in a composition class that had me composing for orchestra. Our next move, to Oregon, pointed me toward accompanying an award-winning jazz choir, where I also discovered I had a knack for creating vocal jazz arrangements by ear. At college, my first "serious" classical studies began. My most influential classical instructor was Dr. Jill Timmons at Linfield College, where I transferred my sophomore year. Her dynamic and passionate approach to teaching piano led me to my life's work.
Enjoy seeing Dutch Harbor through Lynda's lens
What did your early music career entail?
My freshman year was spent at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. After this, I traveled for a year with the international performing group, Up With People as a singer, dancer, and member of the band on keyboards. I then returned to my hometown of McMinnville, Oregon and enrolled at Linfield College, where I majored in music and studied with Dr. Jill Timmons. In addition to studying music, I played with the idea of writing music for jazz choir, and started a small off-shoot group that sang a few of my choral compositions. I continued to play music in the local theater, for dance classes at the college, for church, and around town . I taught piano lessons to supplement my waitressing income to pay for tuition. As I was working my way through college, I ended up taking years off to earn money, to perform, to travel abroad playing gigs. I worked for the piano sales company, Moe's Pianos in Portland, Oregon, for several years as their promotions facilitator. (Moe's is now Classic Pianos, one of the most successful and largest piano stores in the world.)
I spent much of my twenties traveling the world, gigging both as a singer/songwriter, and accompanist. I composed a film score for a movie director friend. I worked at summer music camps including Young Musicians and Artists in Oregon, sponsored by the Oregon Symphony. I recorded CDs of my music, and enjoyed the thrill of being a young musician and hearing myself on my favorite radio stations. My background is varied—a hodgepodge of experiences that add up to where I am now. Because of my background, I suppose it is no surprise that I ended up willing to devote my life and career to a community in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. Because, it was, you know, different.
What type of projects do you find yourself doing for Hal Leonard these days?
I have very much enjoyed arranging a few pop pieces for elementary to early intermediate levels including Lala Land's City of Stars, Pharrell Williams' Happy, and others. However, what I have enjoyed most is honing my craft for composing elementary to intermediate piano solos for Hal Leonard's Educational Music department.
I know you want to be known as a composer first, and a composer from Alaska second, and a composer from Dutch Harbor last, but can you tell us some of the inspirations along with the limitations you face living remotely (our readers are interested in knowing!)?
Physical limitations include no medical specialists and no hospital. For any medical emergencies we have to rely on a 2 hour flight—providing the planes are flying—to Anchorage for emergency medical care; I had to fly there for the birth of my sons. Our internet is expensive ($25 per gig, purchased a la carte), so Skype lessons and online workshops are cost prohibitive, even if the internet is strong enough that day to facilitate a meeting. Planes are often canceled due to mechanical problems, fog, wind, volcanoes, or, "twilight". Unalaska city is a work camp; people come here from all over the world to work in the fishing or shipping industry. It is not an "arts and culture Mecca", as there is no theater and no orchestra. However, it is surrounded by untouched islands, rare birds, close-up encounters with humpback whales and other sea life. Our freezers are filled with the bounty of our back yard—king crab, salmon, halibut, and more. Our community members learn how to survive together and support each other despite philosophical or cultural differences. Together, we go beyond the ordinary to make opportunities happen for our youth. Our school system, believe it or not, is rated as one of the best in the country for its academics. It is a great place to raise children.
On a professional level, living 800 miles from the nearest city cuts off regular in-person interaction with colleagues. Though I am intrinsically an introvert, being "the piano inspiration" on this island without being "fed" has left me painfully burned out and professionally lonely, at times. The best decision I ever made was to join MTNA several years ago, enabling me to develop relationships with Alaska music teachers, albeit at first via only email and annual expensive trips for conferences. In time, however, that association has been the pivotal point in my career in terms of the friendships and contacts I've made, and the professionals opportunities that have resulted.
In an effort to answer your question, I see that I have certainly listed quite a few limitations. Ironically, the challenging life in this community is also my current, and greatest inspiration.
Who was the first person to steer you towards composing? How did she encourage you?
Corky Pricer, my first piano teacher. I don't recall her words. I recall her joy. That is all.
Who discouraged you along the way?
I am, and always have been, my worst critic. I can remember faces and words, I can even remember a name or two of those who said or did things that hurt. But, ultimately, it is how I chose to receive that criticism that affected my emotional direction. This still holds true today.
Which "lost-child piece" composition do you wish people played more?
It's hard to say. I do know which pieces have been played quite a bit. Of the hidden gems, Combat in Space from the Awesome Adventure Book is one I absolutely love. In my book Alaska Sketches, a quiet treasure is Gold Miner's Lullaby, which is one of my personal favorites. For my new book, For the Birds, it is too soon to tell which pieces are going to get the most attention. I will have to wait a while to answer this question for that collection!
What is your proudest moment as a composer?
When I finish a piece that completely encompasses me, that I feel so personally convinced that it was written the way it was intended, then I feel the most proud. I've come to a point in my life where I realize that my proudest moments come before any outside compliments or professional affirmations, and that in and of itself brings me great satisfaction.
Do you improvise or play off the page more?
I improvise more.
Please tell us your process for composing, including any apps or software/hardware you use regularly.
Often, a piece begins with a fun improvisation with a student, and I write it (from start to finish) on the spot and record it on my phone to transcribe later. Other times, I start with a pencil and score paper, where I scratch notes and explore the relationships between melody, harmony, and form until the pieces fall together. Until recently, I would record the piece and listen back, at which point I'd hear the "holes" or parts that were "asking" to be written. Now, when writing at home, I enjoy having the Disklavier Mark IV to play it back for me live. For notation, I rely on Sibelius 7 and have been a Sibelius user since 2001.
What part of the compositional process do you dislike the most?
Proofreading and editing.
Can you let us know what products you have on the market and where the readers can purchase them?
All of my published music is available to preview and order through the links presented at www.HalLeonard.com
Books composed by me:
Elementary piano solos: An Awesome Adventure
Early Intermediate piano solos: For the Birds
Intermediate Piano solos: Alaska Sketches
Books arranged by me:
Late Elementary Arrangements: (Selections from) the Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Sheet music: Available from Level 1 to level 4, originals and arrangements. Check them out at Hal Leonard.
Where would you like to go next?
Various cities in Cuba - with Elizabeth Borowsky
Brazil/Oklahoma - with Linda Christiansen and Simone Borete Machado
Barcelona, Spain - with Kristin Cahill
Kenya/Georgia - with Pete Jutras
Sichuan, China - with Matthew Quick
Various Cities in China - with Deborah Rambo Sinn