Striving Towards a Well-Balanced Life

written by Erika Oba
2018 GLFCAM Gerald Fischer Fellow, Cycle 5

My sister (Hitomi Oba, Cycle 1) called me last year after her week in Boonville, excitedly recounting her week full of creative stimulation, good food, a beautiful environment, and new colleagues and friends. Her account of her residency was like no other residency I’d heard of before. I was particularly struck by how she described Gabriela’s interest in constructing a creative life alongside a commitment to an ecologically conscious life. Having at one point in my life seriously considered homesteading as a potential life path, only to abandon that in pursuit of a career as a jazz pianist (which I felt I could only do in a city), it had never occurred to me that there might be a path in which both were possible.

When she told me she had nominated me for the program, I was excited but nervous. Most of the composing I had done up to that point had been for ensembles that I was playing in, and the majority of my works were jazz and improv-oriented. The number of scores that I had through-composed for chamber ensembles was a short list. When I found out I had been accepted, I was over the moon and, once again, nervous. Due to the fact that I live in Gabriela’s hometown of Berkeley, I was fortunate enough to have an in-person meeting at her childhood home before the residency.  She was immediately warm and welcoming, and encouraging in ways beyond what I had anticipated. When I voiced my insecurities around my inexperience with notated chamber works, particularly for strings, she immediately reassured me that all of that would come with study. It seems obvious now, but until she said that, I had built up my insecurities around orchestration in my head as “something I wasn’t properly trained in” as a state of being, rather than another skill set that I could work on with applied focus. She encouraged me to steadily work on my honing my craft while just as importantly, figure out what was unique to me about the music I wanted to compose. I left my first lesson with her armed with recommendations for scores and pieces to study, and much to think about.

Over the next month, I finalized my string quartet score and eagerly anticipated the residency and readings with the Del Sol String Quartet.  A few days prior to the start of the residency, I got hit with the flu. I was incapacitated with fever, nausea and a nasty cough, and with a heavy heart texted Gabriela’s assistant Joel, and my roommate-to-be Anjna (who I was supposed to drive from the Bay Area to Boonville) that it looked like I would have to miss at least the first day. As I lay in bed cursing my body for giving out when I needed it the most, I realized that I had been sick more often than not for most of the last year. As a freelancing musician and music teacher, I am constantly juggling multiple jobs, rehearsals, and performances in an ever-shifting schedule, and it had clearly started to take its toll on my body.

That Monday, Anjna texted me from Boonville saying “This place will HEAL you!!” I was fortunately feeling better enough by Tuesday to make it out to Boonville and the rest of the week was nothing short of magical. The stunning beauty and clean air of Anderson Valley, good food, and the incredibly supportive, creative, and joyful group of musicians and composers around me were, indeed, healing beyond what I could have imagined. The day we went to the ocean was the first day I could breath properly in a month. The setting – Gabriela’s home and garden, the sprawling vineyards, the ocean and the forests with their clear night skies – filled me with energy that I had been lacking for too long. Equally energizing were my fellow composers. My colleagues all had vastly different musical backgrounds and cultural interests, including punk, Indian Carnatic music, and Mexican folk traditions. Every composer had a deeply personal, unique charge and I found myself moved to tears on more than one occasion by the works they shared. I was so stimulated that despite the long, packed days and the absurdly luxurious king-size bed that I had all to myself, I had trouble falling asleep and instead stayed up late journaling and composing almost every night.

Hitomi had told me that her time with Gabriela had inspired her to think about making some conscious choices about her work-life balance and how she wanted to move forward with her creative life. After my week at GLFCAM, I understood. In Boonville, I felt more refreshed and creatively inspired than I had in ages. I resolved to take stock of how I scheduled my time and energy and to commit to restructuring my life so that I could prioritize my physical and mental health, and hold and maintain a schedule where I could put in the necessary time and focus to hone my craft. My cycle had the good fortune of having the mentorship of David Fetherolf, who shared his wisdom and insights as an editor with G. Schirmer. Through my short time with him, I came to have a fuller appreciation for the importance of properly studying notation and the realization at just how much I had to study. Like Gabriela, he wasn’t judgmental at what I didn’t yet know and made me feel like it was an achievable goal to develop those skills.

Gabriela and David’s mentorship have given me confidence that I can study what I don’t already know, own the things that I do know, and play to my strengths to create music that matters to me. I left Boonville with a renewed sense of clarity for what I most need in order to be the composer that I want to be: a good work-life balance, a creatively stimulating community, disciplined study, and regular visits to the ocean.


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Erika Oba is a composer, pianist/flutist, and educator based in the SF Bay Area. As a composer she has written works for big band, small jazz ensembles, chamber groups, dance and theater. Learn more from Erika's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank