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Composing-The Ultimate Treasure Hunt

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

Practice Challenge Update Week #7 of 20

An abandoned, crumbling home stood shrouded in overgrown grass and weeds. The old summer home that once held laughter and music now sat, vandalized, with broken windows, sunken floors and a hole in the roof where a tree branch had crushed it. But in 2009, an Illinois couple, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood began to renovate the home. As they cleaned up the hundreds of crumpled papers strewn around the floors, one name kept popping out: Florence Price. An internet search uncovered that Florence Price was an American composer who had passed away in 1953. Price was the first Black female composer to have a symphony premiered by a major American orchestra. (Price's Symphony No.1 was featured by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933.) The abandoned home had once been Price's summer home and what the Gatwood's discovered was a treasure trove of music-unpublished compositions by a remarkable composer.

The question, "What will you uncover in yourself?" has been our guiding theme this year at Brillante. As we dove into the unknown waters of composing these past couple of weeks, the discoveries have yielded a lot of treasures! (I will be featuring some of these student compositions in next week's blog.) Composing can feel awkwardly personal and uncomfortable. But those who travel those vulnerable passages will ultimately reap the greatest rewards.

Florence Price started composing finger technique exercises for her students when she was a piano teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas. Wanting to expand her musical life, Price applied to the Arkansas Music Teacher's Association, but was denied because of her race. In the meantime, racial violence was escalating in her community. After a public lynching of a Black man just a few blocks from her house, Price decided to move her family to Chicago. While in Chicago, she decided to boldly embrace the part of herself and her family that made many other people so uncomfortable-her heritage. She composed her first symphony, infusing it with both African-American and European traditions. The first movement glistens with Cathedral chimes and is followed by African drums that accompany a syncopated dance, a folk tradition that started in the country of Angola and moved with slaves to American plantations. Her unapologetic self-discovery was noticed and her music was celebrated. Her recovered symphonies went on to win awards in prestigious music circles and are included in the western music canon.

Florence Price's best music existed long before it was discovered. It's a reminder for us to keep digging-not only inwardly, but to excavate for the gold mines in other people and in unexpected places. The best surprises typically live just outside our comfort zones.

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