7 minutes reading time (1384 words)

DIGITAL ONLY CONTENT: Speak out! Five-and-a-half minutes with composer, Glenda Austin

Glenda Austin

What kind of composer are you? 

I would say I am a "fly by the seat of my pants" composer. At least it's been that way for the last several years. It seems I have very little time to just sit down and compose. I teach general music in school, accompany several choirs and vocal lessons at the local University, and play weekly at a Methodist church. My composing usually comes after all of that.

You began composing for Willis in the 1980s. Can you tell us the story about how this came about?

I was teaching private students and I clearly remember one summer, (in the early 80's) that the idea came to me, "I think I can compose some of these little pieces for students to play!"

What was your early music training like? 

My first piano teacher was Barbara, a teenage neighbor. My older sister took lessons and I played her little pieces by ear, so I got to start lessons early. Then in grade school, I took from Mrs. Phillips, our music teacher at school. I loved her, and at a young age I decided I was going to be a music teacher just like her! She improvised a lot. 

I started accompanying our school musicals. After grade school, we went to Mrs. Holden, and things got a bit more serious. We started playing for recitals and festivals. Prior to that, I don't think I was ever on a recital. At the University of Missouri, I studied primarily with Raymond Herbert. I learned a lot, quickly! A few of days before my first jury, Professor Herbert casually remarked that I should be prepared to play any Major or Minor Scale or Arpeggio (four octaves up and down) I was totally unprepared for this. Somehow, I managed to learn them fast, and survived. It was the most nerve-wracking part of my jury.

What did your early music career entail? 

I got my start playing in a small Baptist Church. My sister and I played piano and organ and we had a lot of fun improvising and "adding on" to the hymns. I believe that was some of my best training and it improved my sight-reading skills! Those Baptist Hymns! Then when I was around 16, I played in a local pizza parlor. It was ragtime style music like Five Foot Two, Carolina in the Morning. Peg of my Heart and the diners would sing along. 

In college, I continued playing in pizza parlors with a Dixieland band, The Shingle Shakers. But since graduating from University of Missouri with a bachelor's in music education and a Master's Degree in Piano Performance, my primary job has been a general vocal music teacher. I've taught all ages from pre-school through high school. Also, I've taught, prepared, and accompanied hundreds of students in solo and ensembles as well as choirs. So, my piano playing/composing has always been secondary to my teaching.

What type of projects do you find yourself doing for Willis these days? 

I'm flexible and open to whatever they want or need. I do come up with my own ideas for collections, arrangements or sheet solos, but if they have a project, (such as arranging a collection of their choosing), I certainly enjoy doing that, too. And I've been fortunate to receive several requests for commissions from state and teacher's organizations. In fact this month, (March, 2018,) I'll be "premiering" a commission, Stars in the Sky, for the Newton, Kansas Piano Teachers Association.

You live in the relatively small town of Joplin, Missouri. Do your friends there appreciate what you've done in the piano world? 

My lifelong friends know that I've been in music most of my life. As far as "appreciating" what I've done for the piano world, I'm not sure very many of them know exactly what I do with composing. They know that I travel quite a bit to conferences, present workshops, and adjudicate festivals, but other than the local piano teachers, my outside friends probably don't know the extent of my composing.

Who was the first person to steer you towards composing? How did he encourage you? 

Without a doubt, William Gillock. I had the good fortune of meeting him in the early 1980s. This was just about the time I was fancying myself a budding composer. He certainly encouraged me and listened to many of my early pieces. And he didn't hesitate to give me stellar advice. We developed a friendship that lasted until his death. I often think of him when I'm composing and smile. I've had opportunities to arrange some of his music for simplification and as duets (New Orleans Jazz Collection and Fountain in the Rain). In my workshops and showcases, I always include his music. He's been gone almost 25 years and I'm meeting younger teachers who are not familiar with his music. Of course, when they hear it, they instantly LOVE it. His music is timeless and everlasting.

Who discouraged you along the way? 

I cannot think of ONE person that discouraged me along the way, either in pursuing music education or composition. My parents, even though they didn't play any instruments, were my biggest fans. My older sister, Gloria, also went into music education. We grew up playing piano together and to this day, we play piano and organ at First Methodist Church in Joplin. (for more than 40 years now). And now, in my later years, my husband, Dave, is very supportive and encouraging.

Which "lost-child piece" do you wish people played more? 

March of the Wee Folk by Jessie L. Gaynor. When I was in kindergarten, I played that at our school talent show and won! I think I won about $10.00 and that was a LOT of money back then.

How about one YOU wrote that you wish people played more often?

I've heard many students play Jazz Suite 2. It is often included on the NFMC repertoire list as well as several state repertoire lists. But I don't think very many teachers know that there is also a Jazz Suite 1. And it's a personal favorite of mine. I wrote it many years ago, thinking it was 3 separate solos. Mr. Gillock suggested I put them together as movements and call it Jazz Suite. I hope teachers will listen to Jazz Suite in the video.

What is your proudest moment as a composer?

This is the toughest question! I am very pleased that I've been able to pursue a little bit of composition in my life, but I think my "proudest" moment might be every time I write something. I think about the actual process, the first notes, motifs, sequences, chords, and all the ingredients needed to create a work. And since I'm never sure when the next piece will come into being so I'm very grateful for each composition.

Do you improvise or play off the page more?

If I am accompanying for the choirs at the University, I pretty much stick to the written music. However, I am known to throw in a note or chord occasionally, especially if it's a jazz piece! But at church, I always improvise on the hymns, while staying true to the chord progressions.

Please tell us your process for composing, including any apps or software/hardware you use regularly.

I write at the piano. Before anything is notated, it's almost completely composed.I play by ear and improvise and that is how it comes into existence. Once it is notated, I return to the piano and start tweaking. It may take several tweaks. (Ask my husband about that! He hears it all!) And ideally, I put it away for a while. Often when I return to it, I see and hear measures and passages a lot differently! I am still working from Finale 2003! I've mastered it to the best of my ability and at this point, not sure I want to start all over with a new program.

What part of the compositional process do you dislike the most?

Without a doubt, the worst part is putting the notes on paper!! The next would be editing, because I probably play it differently each time. And I like to leave some of the "editing" to the teacher and student. It's give them an opportunity to use their creative instincts.

Can you let us know what products you have on the market and where the readers can purchase them?

Sure! Click here. 

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