Reflections On My Time at the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music

written by Garrett Schumann
2017 GLFCAM Arnold and Babette Salamon Fellow, Cycle 3

It is hard to believe it has been weeks. It is hard to feel time pass at all, after it seemed to stand still in the mountains of Boonville, California. I felt magic in my time at the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music – The magic of hearing the inchoate strands of a fledging composition woven into stunning musical life, and the magic of instant, unwavering trust in my new creative family. When Gabriela invited me to participate in the pilot year of her new venture, I knew I could expect an opportunity to commune with incredible performers and composers. However, I did not anticipate how much of the artistic nourishment I would receive would come from moments outside of the recordings and other musical presentations. One could argue my amazement was the result of the people I was around, and, indeed, I feel blessed to have been able to spend as much time as I did with the specific composers who joined me in Boonville last July. However, we were brought together by one person – Gabriela Frank – and Gabriela’s heart and leadership are the real reason I felt so much magic at her Creative Academy.

My experience began, like everyone else’s, with a drive through the incredible countryside of the Sonoma and Anderson Valleys of northern California. It may be cliché to herald the scenery, but the setting was meaningful in so many ways. Boonville is such a small town it feels like a different world, and this sense of transportation was critical to my ability to open up to the experiences the Creative Academy would offer. It is remarkable that so many of the Academy’s activities take place in Gabriela’s home and on land she and her husband, Jeremy, have shaped with their own two hands. As picturesque as the views from Gabriela’s house may be, the Academy’s setting is made more meaningful by its terraced gardens, chicken coup, and the babble of water flowing from the rooftop rain catcher into open-air cisterns. Paradise seems like an inadequate description, mainly because our days were full with work and self-discovery. Yet, the idyllic setting clearly fueled our artistic explorations, and made it easier for all of us to be vulnerable, which is essential to make the most out of the Creative Academy.

It was also easy to be open with the people with whom I was fortunate enough to share my time in Boonville because I found them all to be incredibly inspiring. A diverse group of composers – Beatrice Ferreira, Gilbert Galindo, Ethan Helm, Lisa Neher, and Matthew Taylor – joined me along with percussionists Mayumi Hama and Chris Froh. I had not met any of them before I arrived in California, and, three days later, departed San Francisco with deep connections to every one of them. Gabriela, once more, gets credit for our group’s outstanding chemistry – she put us together and watched us flourish in creation, in support of one another, and in friendship. Although our interactions centered on creativity, an equal amount of our group’s bonding occurred in informal moments of conversation, group cooking, and relaxation. Fun was had, but, more importantly, so was serious introspection about the nature of musicians’ creative practices, as well as the socio-cultural imperatives facing musicians in the twenty-first century. Our conversations ranged from our artistic motivations, to social justice, to our favorite recipes; and, somehow, all of these topics helped to drive the creativity that dominated our Academy experience.

Of course, the music making was extraordinary. We could expect a composer of Gabriela’s renown would be able to draw the world’s most skilled performers to her Academy, but Mayumi and Chris’s incisive readings of our music stunned me completely. They were handed six extraordinarily divergent sets of sketches from composers they knew very little about, and, amazingly, identified and illuminated the essence of everyone’s ideas. The readings were intense and moving for all of the participant composers – certainly, my emotions ran high as Chris and Mayumi deciphered the experimental graphic notation that defines the work I submitted. Their rendering of my creative gamble was more beautiful than all of my hopes for the piece, and – as I told Gabriela after my reading – hearing them perform the opening of my composition ranked among the most meaningful musical experiences I have had in my life as a composer. Of course, everyone took away recordings of their readings and notes for the final drafts of their compositions, which will be premiered in November, but I think the most important gifts we received from our work with Mayumi and Chris were these moments of pure joy.

Composition workshops of various lengths, levels of intensity, and in settings across the world abound. Some specialize in certain genres of music composition, or cater to composers who perform, but all seem to have the same goals in mind: create new works, have them performed, and get recordings. The services such programs offer are, obviously, important to composers of all experience levels: I have many peers whose first breaks came from a piece they wrote for a workshop, or who met a future composition teacher at a workshop. Yet, if we identify the incredible similarities that connect the different composition retreats, workshops, and readings a composer can hope to participate in, we may see that they all represent the same kind transaction, which is simply decorated differently from program to program.

I have known Gabriela Frank for ten years, and have revered her gifted artistry and charisma from the moment of our first exchange. Nevertheless, as my stint at the Creative Academy approached, I found myself wondering how much like other composition workshops my experience in California would be. As reasonable a question as this was, it overlooked the Academy’s distinctive origins, and it did not account for Gabriela’s total and unvarnished influence on every aspect of my forthcoming experience. It may be normal to attend a composition workshop in a remote setting, but it is special to spend your days in the host composer’s house. It may be normal to eat and socialize with your peer composers and the workshop’s eminent guest performers, but it is special to cook with them, do dishes together, to be as meaningfully mundane together as you are profoundly artistic.

These touches come straight from Gabriela’s heart, and immediately establishes a level of intimacy among all the participants that is unmatched by any experience I have had studying composition. Though it is typical for student composers and their teachers to become close over the course of their mentorships, Gabriela, by opening her home to the Academy’s participants, accelerates the kind of bonding that takes months and years into a matter of hours. Gabriela’s instincts for people play an important role here, but so does her willingness to trust the composers with whom she works. The field of music composition is often dominated by skepticism – Is this piece good? Does this composer know what they are doing? – but such reactive doubt was absent from my experience. Because Gabriela gave us all her trust, we trusted everyone who was part of the Creative Academy. And, because all the composers and performers followed Gabriela’s lead and accepted each other, we were able to make deeper artistic and personal connections than one would expect from three days of working together.

By making sure all the participant composers feel welcome and supported in this way, Gabriela is able to unlock the rich artistic nourishment that sets her Creative Academy aside from the similar programs I have participated in. Insecurity dissolves, and learning, growth, and self-discovery explode for the composers and performers alike. Joy, which is sometimes so difficult to locate amongst the challenges, frustrations, and vicissitudes of a composer’s life, seems to be the lifeblood of the Gabriela Frank Creative Academy of Music – Joy in music, joy in creativity, joy in others. As time continues to pass from my days in the mountains of Boonville, this joy continues to sustain me in my life and creative work, and excites me for what my future as a composer might hold.



Garrett currently teaches composition and other music courses at Western Michigan University and Madonna University (Livonia, MI). Garrett received his Masters (2012) and DMA (2015) in Music Composition from the University of Michigan after receiving his undergraduate degree at Rice University in Houston, TX. Find out more on Garrett's bio page.

Torrey Douglass