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I Owe It To My Mother

My mother is the 9th of 17 children. Yes we're from Utah, and all 17 kids were from the SAME TWO PARENTS. Now that we've got THAT cleared up, I want to tell you about how my mother taught me how to love and excel at music.

My mother has an incredible ear. She has always been able to play anything on command. She's an excellent sight-reader and highly sought-after teacher. She taught for a few years while I and my siblings were very young, but stopped and devoted herself entirely to me and my sisters in various capacities through the years, including piano teacher and homeschool teacher.

When she was young, her parents purchased a Steinway B (7 ft Grand Piano) so that the kids would be able to truly experience the beauty of playing on such an elegant instrument. Later, my grandmother would tell me, "your grandfather really bought that piano for your mother." Everyone recognized that she had a special talent. When I was about 4 or 5 years old, my mother inherited the Steinway B and I spent all of my years at home playing on it.

My mother taught me the C major scale when I was about 5 or 6, but never forced me to take lessons. She would ask me if I wanted them, and I would tell her, "no." I intended to be a pilot and travel the world like my dad.

Notwithstanding my interest in aviation, my mother surrounded all of us with music. Our family stereo system was constantly playing music from Styx, Mozart, Brahm's Hungarian Dances, Ghost Busters, Chicago, Rossini, and more.

My mother was a pit-orchestra conductor. She would conduct shows, and put us kids in as cast members so as to involve us in the arts that she so loved.

She won't think this about herself, but my mother was and is the perfect mother.

It wasn't until my younger sister began taking piano lessons that I suddenly became interested in music. I wasn't really interested: rather, I didn't want my sister to surpass me in any skill. I was 11 years old and thought it was my right to monopolize all talents.

This picture is from May 2001 - just one year before starting piano lessons for the first time. I was 10 years old. Pictured from right to left: Shane, Mom (Christine), Nadine, Angela (front row.)

When I showed up to piano lessons, my teacher gave me the white Piano Adventures book for the older beginner. I learned my notes, learned to play the simple pieces, but my lesson anxiety (a result of not practicing) soon caused me to ask to quit. I quit after one year, shortly after turning 12 years old.

I was also homeschooled at this time, which gave me plenty of time to play the Steinway. I mentioned that I never practiced - but that's not entirely true. I practiced all the time - just not what was assigned to me. In fact, I once came to a lesson and surprised my teacher by showing her that I'd learned Für Elise (I still hadn't made it out of that first Piano Adventures book!) I even made up a variation on it and asked my teacher to see if she could find the disguised Für Elise in what I was playing. Of course I played it for her before telling her what I had disguised!

So I quit piano, but never quit practicing. I would practice for several hours every day. I wouldn't ever pull out any music to play, I would simply sit at the piano and let it teach my fingers and my ears its ways.

My mother noticed that the piano had become my outlet of choice. If I ever had a minute of down-time I would simply gravitate to the piano. I soon became very good at both reading and playing by ear, that I was called to play the piano weekly in church. Doing this consistently helped me overcome performance anxiety. I can now sit down to play in front of anyone with no anxiety.

Even though I loved piano, I was still very stubborn. I remember at times being frustrated if my mother would offer suggestions that I didn't yet grasp. She found new subtle ways to get me to learn. She would ask me, "Shane, do you know what an anticipation is?" And needing to know EVERYTHING, I would absorb everything she had to offer me.

One night she asked me, "Shane, have you ever heard about modeling voice leading after Bach?" I was particularly intrigued at this question. "You mean I can learn how to write voicings like Bach?" She responded affirmatively. So I would then come to her and say, "Mom! Come to the piano and show me how to do voicings like Bach!"

Little by little she taught me voice leading techniques until everything in my life revolved around voice leading. I would make observations about how Marching Band Drill and Chess are all like voice leading because it doesn't JUST matter where you are, but also where you've come from and where you're going!

She taught me what good voice leading sounds like and how it's more effective than poor voice leading. The specific examples were "Comfort Ye" from Handel's Messiah. That's the piece she used to show me how the I6 (Tonic triad in first inversion) has the power to expand the sonic universe causing your heart to swell with emotion. She showed me how the ii6 is more dynamic than the IV when approaching the cadential 6/4 because it allows each voice to have motion.

She used hymns I was familiar with to show me how satisfying it is to hear the V4/2 resolve to the I6 as in the following example by Felix Mendelssohn on the words "...mid the sky." This is made even more expansive and stunning by the appoggiatura B natural creating the 9th against the root, but even more interestingly, parallel 10ths (la-sol) with the tendency tone "Fa-mi" in the bass.

These living examples explained so throughly and masterfully were what my brain craved. I couldn't live without knowing more. I would often approach my mother with this phrase, "What about this [insert name of composer or work], is this well written?"

Music by Felix Mendelssohn

We'd listen to recordings of Mozart's requiem in the car, and she'd point things out: "Shane, did you hear the augmented 6th chord there?" We would then go back to re-listen until I had finally heard it.

The following example is from the Lacrimosa of Mozart's Requiem Mass K. 626, the augmented 6th is on the 2nd pulse of the 3rd measure shown. It's a German Augmented 6th resolving to a cadential 6/4 which avoids the inevitable parallel 5ths intrinsic to the German Augmented 6th resolving directly to the dominant root position triad.

There are many other instances of my mother teaching me, but what's important to remember, is that she never asked me to love it. I just did, and I was lucky enough to have an expert not only living in the same house, but an expert who's #1 priority was to provide me with "everything I needed and most of the things I wanted."

By the time I was 14, I wrote my own 4-part arrangement of an art song that I loved: Think On Me. This success told me that I would be able to succeed as long I put forth the effort to do so.

Long story short: my mother enabled my musical learning, and satisfied my need for knowledge in ways few mothers can. Because of her, I was able to leave home and go to school 100 miles away to study music at age 16 and graduate at age 19 with a (4-year!) Bachelor's Degree in Music Performance. Because of her I'm a professional composer today, with a Master's Degree in Music Composition. Because of her, I've held teaching positions in elementary school, middle school, high school, and at the University of Utah. There have been so many people who have helped pave my path, but I owe everything to Christine Mickelsen, my faithful mother.

At the end of my undergraduate degree at age 18, I wrote this opera: "The Wolf and the Seven Kids."

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