Composing with an Accent

Music is a second language to me. That is to say, it is not a first language. I am not a native speaker, and will probably always feel like I’m composing with an accent. I believe some musicians are native speakers because they started cello lessons at two, or piano lessons at three, or grew up in a home filled with classical music.

I had a decent ear when I was a kid, but didn’t start piano lessons until I was ten. My home was filled with classic rock, and being the early 90s, a regular pairing of Billy Joel and Elton John. I’m grateful that I was able to have piano lessons at all, as they are a luxury many families can’t afford, but even at ten, I knew I was behind. I knew other kids started music at younger ages, and that I would have to catch up, knowing I probably never could. Even at ten, I knew this would probably stop me from getting into the big-named conservatories, if not any music department. Never wanting to practice didn’t help, but that’s beside the point. I used to think not being a native musical speaker would stop me before I got started.

Some days I think I am a pretty good music teacher, whether in a theory classroom, having a private lesson, or giving a pre-concert talk. The older I get, the more I notice the thing those days have in common is not echoes of my formal education, or my experience as a composer, although those things are handy too, but rather my musical accent. That I am not a native speaker, I think, makes me a better translator. I often discuss musical ideas with students by resorting to external references, not other musical ones. For students just getting their feet wet, who, like me at eighteen, knew very little about the western classical tradition, those external connections can be huge. One of my favorites is my, by which I mean Matthew Schoendorff’s, description of the original Star Wars trilogy in sonata form, but that will have to wait for another blog post.