Katelyn Holub

blogging about music, art, and creativity

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Are You Satisfied With Your Approach to Composition?

Have you ever heard the riddle about a man, his boxes, and the bridge? A man had three boxes. Each box weighed 5 lbs. The man weighed 190 lbs. The bridge could only support 200 lbs. How did the man make it across the bridge with all his boxes?

*Photo Credit: Tom Thai, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Tom Thai, Creative Commons

This is from a scene in one of my all-time favorite television shows—Joan of Arcadia {a show about a high school girl who talks with God and learns from the various “assignments” God gives her}. In this particular episode, Joan learns that the only way the man can get across the bridge is by juggling the boxes.  Life is full of all kinds of juggling acts:

people carrying more weight than they alone can bear;

the delicate proportion of predators and prey in an ecosystem;

the forward motion of a planet offset by the pull of gravity on it by another planet.

This past week I had the pleasure of attending a talk about the art of composing by Augusta Read Thomas, a professor of composition at the University of Chicago and former Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1996 to 2007. In hearing her speak, I noticed a theme to her approach to composition:

making art is all about juggling.

Just as our lives and nature balance several inter-connected variables, music is full of distinct parts that are balanced by the composer: flux, harmony, rhythm, flow, density, resonance, counterpoint, ornamentation, spontaneity, form, etc.

*Photo Credit: Jesus Solana, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Jesus Solana, Creative Commons

Depending on the purpose of the art, the balance amongst the musical variables will differ. For example, Thomas meticulously plans and revises her compositions, focusing often on the balance between nuance and spontaneity. A unique quality of her work is what she calls a “captured improvisational” sound that she creates through writing highly notated music. She strives to create “the feeling that [her music] is organically being self-propelled.” Listen to Thomas’ “Double Helix” for two violins for an example of her captured improvisation style.

The next time you sit down to compose, write, or sculpt, consider what you are juggling. How well are you balancing your art-form’s variables? Are all the parts working together to form a cohesive work of art? Taking the time to recognize your work’s unique balancing schema will help ensure your art meets your aims.

Have you struggled with balancing different variables in creating your art? What kinds of practices have helped you in your compositional process?


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How to Write Attention-Grabbing Lyrics

I have a confession to make.  It really irritates me the way some people are glued to their smartphones.  Recently, I was eating lunch with a classmate at my externship.  We were sitting across the table from one another and I was trying to make small talk, but instead of carrying on a conversation with me, she just pulled out her iPhone and glued her eyes on it the entire time.  Whether she was texting, surfing the internet, or just staring at her menu screen, she preferred doing that instead of talking to me.  At first I was shocked that someone could be so rude, but unfortunately I’ve discovered these kinds of situations are becoming all too common.  [This funny youtube video by Rhett and Link called “Get Off The Phone” encapsulates this problem well.]

These days, it’s getting harder for real-life relationships and conversations to compete with some people’s digital worlds.  With the growing amount of available information, capturing someone’s attention is an increasingly difficult task. 

*Photo Credit: Janne Hellsten, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Janne Hellsten, Creative Commons

This is especially a challenge for musicians.  We have a limited window of opportunity to connect with an audience before they choose to skip to another song or click off our webpage.  Having great lyrics is one of the key ways songwriters can grab the listener’s attention.

After reflecting on feedback from songwriting contests I recently entered, I’ve come to realize that in order to become a better lyricist I need to become a better storyteller.  Amid all of the things vying for people’s attention, what stands out?  As the Heath brothers pointed out in their bestselling book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” stories do.  (Specifically, ones that are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and/or emotional.)

Lyric writing is just one of many ways we tell stories, and the unique challenge it presents is the need to be concise.  Unlike a novelist who can take a paragraph (or more) to describe a Hobbit’s foot, a lyricist must convey ideas through limited words.  And one of the most important parts in telling a story is capturing the audience’s attention at the beginning.

*Photo Credit: Marc Cornelis, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Marc Cornelis, Creative Commons

How do you write lyrics that capture the audience’s attention?

Here are 3 things I’ve learned:

  • Utilize the first-person point-of-view, which can be easier to follow and will immediately immerse the listener in the head of the character who is singing the song.  “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding is a good example of this technique.  The song starts out: “Sitting in the morning sun, I’ll be sitting when the evening come.  Watching the ships roll in, then I’ll watch ‘em roll away again.”
  • Make a catchy declaration that will be repeated throughout the song as a “hook.”  Use the verses to explain and elaborate on the sentiment.  “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line is a great example of this.  The song starts out declaring, “Baby, you a song—you make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise.”
  • Ask a question as part of the singer’s dialogue to someone else, which propels the reader into the action of what the singer is doing.  “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” by Jim Croce is a nice example of this strategy.  He starts off singing, “Operator, could you help me place this call?  See the number on the matchbook is old and faded.”


Do you think it’s getting harder to get people’s attention?  What other ways can you capture the audience’s attention through lyrics?  What techniques do some of your favorite songs use?  

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Mozart’s Biggest Influence

As a pianist, I’ve always had a fond appreciation for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At my monthly piano recitals growing up, I would gaze in awe at the high school students as their fingers glided over the keys playing Mozart sonatas. Eventually I got to study and play Mozart piano sonatas, and, in college, I got to learn even more about him through an inter-disciplinary Mozart seminar that focused on his life, times, and compositions.

One of my favorite discoveries about Wolfgang was that he had an incredibly musically talented sister, Maria Anna (fondly known as Nannerl), who not only was his favorite playmate as a child, but was one of his biggest musical influences later in life.

So who is Nannerl and what kind of impact did she have on her brother’s musical future?

Maria Anna Mozart (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Maria Anna Mozart (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Nannerl, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sister, had a large effect on her brother’s musical development and output.  Nannerl’s wild imagination and playfulness made the long touring trips around Europe more exciting for Wolfgang.  Although she was five years older than Wolfgang, Nannerl fostered his creativity and imagination by playing pretend with him on their trips in their made-up world called the Kingdom of Back.  This sibling playfulness lasted into Nannerl’s twenties, as she and Wolfgang wrote letters to each other using multiple languages, word plays, and riddles.

In addition to Nannerl fostering an imaginative and funny side of Wolfgang, she served as a skillful musical role model for Wolfgang.  Because Nannerl was a talented musician in her own right, she and Wolfgang were able to make music together, exchange ideas for musical compositions, and share compositions with each other.  Wolfgang recognized his sister’s talent and knowledge, and often included his thoughts on her compositions in his letters to her.  Many times, Wolfgang composed piano solos and duets specifically for Nannerl and sent them in the mail to her.

When Mozart was about 18 years old, for example, he wrote piano sonata in D, K381, which was a duet he composed specifically for his sister to play with him.  It is noted for being “punctuated with wit and cheeky humor,” and reveals some of that playfulness the two of them shared.  See Jane Glover’s book “Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music.”

Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, 1780-1781.  (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Nannerl & Wolfgang sit at the piano. Their mother, Anna Maria, is pictured in the portrait on the wall because she had passed away by the time this portrait was made. Their father, Leopold, stands on the right. Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, 1780-1781. (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Nannerl’s story reminds me of the importance of developing and feeding a big imagination, which can serve as inspiration for future artistic creations.  Her influence on her brother’s life as a composer also shows how valuable it can be for artists to have friends and/or family with whom they can share parts of the creative process.

How are the people around you influencing or impacting your creative process?


Using Art to Convey a Theme

Remember all those literature classes where the teachers asked you to write a paper describing the theme of a novel and analyzing the different literary tools the author used to develop that theme?

I used to groan at the thought of having to pick apart a piece of literature like that. Often I felt like I was reading way too much into things the author did in order to be able to say that the use of such-and-such literary device was part of the author’s grand plan to develop the theme. Do authors really plan so extensively how they will foster a theme?

Now that I’ve started composing, I think the answer is usually “yes.”

*Photo Credit: kellinahandbasket, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: kellinahandbasket, Creative Commons

One of the most important stages of composition for authors and artists of all kinds is choosing a theme and giving thoughtful consideration as to how that theme will be developed. For musicians, we have both the medium of words and music at our disposal, and we should not overlook the powerful tools available within each of those art forms.

Over the past several months I’ve been slowly working on a new song about recognizing my weaknesses and crying out to God for strength, help, and purpose. The first couple verses are written, and I’m currently deciding what direction to take the second half of the song and drafting a transition/interlude section to guide the listener onward.

*Photo Credit: Jamie McCaffrey, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Jamie McCaffrey, Creative Commons

Throughout this drawn-out process of composing, I’ve reflected more deeply on the theme I want to develop through this song, why it matters, and how I can best convey my message to listeners. Here’s a preview of some of my lyrics so far:

“I might stumble but You’ll bring me back again/to the One I’ve been holding to”

“My flaws, my Achilles’ heel, they’re all that I see/but I know You can.”     

What are your thoughts about developing a theme?   How do you go through this part of the planning process when you are creating a work?


Overcoming 3 Common Lyric Writing Stumbling Blocks

When I began writing my own songs, I wanted to dazzle everyone with exquisite lyrics and beautiful melodies.  I wanted people to be able to connect with my music, and for the lyrics to engage them, linger in their minds, and make them think.  Choosing just the right words was all it took.  I knew what I wanted to say, so how hard could it be?

*Photo Credit: Walt Stoneburner, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Walt Stoneburner, Creative Commons

Boy, was I naïve.  Lyric writing soon became a daunting task.  I had put too much pressure on having the absolute perfect lyrics that I froze up and went nowhere.

I should have considered the broader picture—that I had lots of options and plenty of time to write.  That would have relieved much of the paralyzing pressure preventing me from writing more lyrics.

What are the common stumbling blocks?

1.  Trying too hard to get it all done in one sitting.  Don’t be in a rush.  Even if you were just on a roll, it’s okay to stop if the rest of the words don’t come to you all at once.

Don’t try to force the words because you’ll probably end up with worse than mediocre lyrics.  Be patient and give your mind a chance to ruminate over thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

When you return to the song later in the day or over the next few days, you’ll have a fresh perspective and the natural words will just come to you.

2.  Thinking too narrowly and literally.  Say it’s the end of a phrase and you just need one word to finish it off, but that word has to be the proper syllable count, sound right, and fit within the meaning of the song.  That can feel like a lot of pressure to choose the best word, but back up.

Maybe there are more options than you realize.  Can the meaning you are trying to convey be shown through non-literal, figurative, metaphorical, or symbolic language?

Can you use a word from a foreign language to get your meaning across?  Can you re-word the existing lyrical phrase or insert words earlier?

3.  Overlooking the power of pacing.  It’s easy to get caught up in the details of choosing the right words to convey a message, but pacing can be a powerful, helpful tool in lyric writing.

If you want the song to have an energetic feel, think about choosing short, punchy words that can be sung rhythmically and quickly.  If you want to create a slower, relaxed feel, consider longer words, or short words that have vowels in places that you could hold onto and draw out.

How do you overcome lyric writing challenges?   

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Waiting on a Melody

Good composition can’t be forced.  I’ve learned this lesson well.  It’s a letdown to realize I can’t just write a song when I want to, when I have the time to devote to it.  Maybe if I were a more talented composer I could write music on command, but so far, composition creeps in when I least expect it.

For me, a song begins with melody.

Melodies come to me embodying an emotion that I’ve been carrying around either from my own life or from empathizing with others’ experiences.  It is that melodic expression of emotion that gives life to my songs—guides the backdrop chord structure, harmony, and rhythm.

Some of my most prolific melody writing has come to me upon waking, taking a shower, and cleaning the dishes.  At first, I was confused by the seemingly random time melody ideas pop in my head.  Then I thought perhaps it is in instances that I am more relaxed I am better able to receive musical inspiration, to allow emotion to surface.

Whatever the reason, when melody arrives, it waits for no one.  It can be so fleeting that I’ve learned to immediately record the idea on my phone or computer so that I can return to it later on when it is more convenient for me to sit down and compose.  I can’t tell you how many times I failed to record a melody line because I thought, “This is so great, there’s no way I’ll forget it.”  Ha ha ha.  Oh, irony.

These days, finals are near and I’m spending most of my time studying and hardly any time at my piano.  It is the least ideal time for me to spend composing, but if history is any example, it is exactly these inconvenient times a melody will drift into my life and demand my attention—at least for a little while.  So here’s to the season of finals!  May it bring unbelievably beautiful melodies to life!

How do you compose melodies?  Do they come to mind first for you when you write a song?