Overcoming My Fears
written by Nina Shekhar
2017 GLFCAM Composer Fellow, Cycle I
Last year, I received an email from Gabriela Lena Frank asking me if I would be interested in participating in her inaugural Creative Academy of Music. The opportunity was so special and the chance to be mentored by someone as truly extraordinary as Gabi was too good to pass up, so of course I had to say yes. When I accepted, she thanked me for taking a chance on her – to which I replied, “I’m not taking a chance on you, your amazingness is guaranteed. I’m honored that you would take a chance on me.”
I had worked with Gabi several times before this experience. I remember my first experience meeting her: she had come in residence at her alma mater, the University of Michigan, when I was a young freshman. I was relatively new to studying composition formally at this point, and I had never taken a lesson with a guest composer before. I remember how nervous I initially was to show her the solo flute piece I was working on, but even more memorable was her kindness and the incredibly shrewd suggestions that she gave, immediately elevating the clarity of my piece in a matter of minutes. My other experiences with her before the Academy had been likewise remarkable, so it is easy to understand why I couldn’t refuse this opportunity to work with her again.
I was slated to participate in the first session of the Academy in March of 2017, writing for soprano Tony Arnold and the Third Angle String Quartet. When the roster for this year’s Academy had been finalized, Gabi notified me that I would be the youngest participant. At the time, I was twenty-one and still in my undergrad; the others in my session were either doctoral students or out of school entirely. I was a little apprehensive – I didn’t know if my music was good enough for superhuman musicians like Tony and Third Angle to perform, and I wasn’t sure if I even deserved this spot. But Gabi assured me that having a younger student like me would bring a different perspective to the Academy and encouraged me that musicians would love to perform my music because of its uniqueness and energy.
Part of this amazing inaugural opportunity was that Aric Hartvig of PBS would be filming us for a future documentary, allowing us to reach an infinitely larger audience. Our Academy session took place several months after the election, but instead of writing a political piece, I opted to use this platform to write something more personal. I have struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder my entire life, and I wanted to share my experience to help challenge the stigma around mental illness. I decided to write my own text for the piece, incorporating some specific memories and compulsions that I would perform every day in an attempt to alleviate my anxiety. Mental illness is a really tricky issue because there is no clear way to diagnose it. It doesn’t show up in the form of a lump, a rash, or a broken bone. Because of this, the distinction between our disorder and our unmarred souls becomes blurred, and we blame ourselves constantly for behaving differently than the norm because we associate our deviance with being a horrible human being. This makes it impossible to distinguish whether our regular thoughts are a reflection of our true selves or are being clouded by our mania. I wanted my piece to show this rawness of emotion and show this constant struggle of reality versus insanity.
But I was absolutely terrified to show my piece to anyone. I had never been so open about my experiences with O.C.D, and I wasn’t sure what kinds of reactions I would get from Gabi, the performers, or the other participants, much less a general audience. When I showed it to Gabi, though, she told me that my story was an important one to be told. There were millions of others also struggling with O.C.D, and they needed to hear that they were not alone.
My fears about the other participants were also quickly alleviated. After driving up many, many winding hilly roads, we all arrived in charming Boonville. I then met the other composers: Hitomi Oba (who would be my roommate during the session), Brandon Rumsey and Carlos Simon (both of whom I knew from earlier because they were also students at University of Michigan), Dave Reminick, David Coll, and Gabi’s assistant Marie Incontrera. We all cooked dinner for each other on the first night, a mix of fresh greens and vegetables, delicious baked pita bread, and a lovely assortment of cheese. Gabi informed us that she wanted us to all cook together throughout the session to help build community. I thought that was an amazing idea… but I was a horrible cook! So I opted to do the dishes, a job which NO one else wanted, but I was thrilled to do (of course I had to jump on the opportunity to make things clean, especially having O.C.D.).
The next day, we all presented some of our other pieces to each other. I was so inspired by everyone’s music, each so thoughtfully written. Even more special was the enormous diversity between styles: some presented highly experimental performance art, some were jazz big band tunes, some were influenced by two of the composers’ Japanese and African-American heritages. I guess this tremendous musical diversity reflected the vast diversity amongst all of the participants. We each came from a completely different background, whether that be through our races or cultural backgrounds, our genders, our ages, or simply our varying life experiences. And everyone was so welcoming to listening to each of our stories. I finally felt free to open up and share some of my experiences as a young female Indian-American composer, and eventually when I presented my piece written for the Academy, my experiences with O.C.D.
The performers were equally as receptive and truly remarkable people. During the reading sessions, they played through everyone’s pieces with incredible musicianship and attention to detail. I couldn’t believe the precision that all of them had: Tony could sing highly chromatic lines and extraordinarily complex rhythms to a tee, and likewise Third Angle could literally play anything perfectly. Their musicality was even more impressive – I was so moved by how they could sound so powerful and energetic in one moment and immediately contrast that with such sensitivity and vulnerability the next. And they were so encouraging and willing to listen to my story, even as nervous as I was to tell it. Ron and Charles of Third Angle made me laugh when I was feeling most insecure, and Greg and Marilyn were so kind-hearted and always made me smile. And Tony was so supportive and gave the best hugs.
Gabi made sure that we all learned something from each reading session. She used her discerning ears to help refine our pieces. But she made sure that our own individual voice was still present; she just wanted to help make the execution of our ideas clearer so that they could more deeply be understood by an audience. Throughout the session, Gabi took care of us, making sure we were happy, musically satisfied, and well-fed. On the last day of the session, I had fallen ill. In her typical loving way, Gabi immediately made sure I was getting enough rest. The other composers also came to my rescue. Hitomi, my amazing roommate, kept checking on me and asking if I needed anything. David brought me ginger ale and crackers to help soothe my upset stomach, and Dave made white-bean hummus for me to eat with my crackers. Aric, being his wonderfully down-to-earth self, kept cracking jokes to help make me feel better. I felt so blessed to be in the company of such caring people.
Gabi also made sure we were emotionally well. Throughout the session, Gabi and all of the musicians discussed the importance of taking care of our minds and finding someone who loved and supported us unconditionally. Being the youngest of the group, this hit my wide-eyed self very hard. I had grown up feeling extremely insecure and having low self-esteem. I had many social anxieties and fears about the future. But Gabi shared her own personal stories of self-doubt and how she overcame them. She told us to be the best people we could be – be contributing members to society, support our peers, and extend a helping hand to those who need it most. I was so inspired by her wisdom and positivity, and it made me want to be a better human being.
I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to participate in a workshop as nurturing and special as this. In all of the other festivals I have attended, I have never experienced as much artistic diversity and support or have come out learning as much as I did in the Academy. I’m so thankful to have met so many amazing people that I know will be lifelong friends.
And I’m especially grateful to have eaten so much delicious homemade pita bread… the real reason to come to GLFCAM.
Nina, a native of Northville, Michigan, is accomplished on both the flute and piano. She is currently a senior at the University of Michigan pursuing a B.M. in Music Composition and a B.S.E. in Chemical Engineering. Find out more on Nina's bio page.