Lynn O'Brien 2016 MECA

When Lynn O’Brien won a Minnesota Emerging Composer Award (MECA) in 2016, she knew exactly what she’d do with the awarded development funds. MECA is funded by the Jerome Foundation and serves as a complement to the Jerome Fund. It was created to engage and recognize Minnesota music-makers who might not otherwise interact with ACF and to provide awardees with funds that will boost their career. Below, O’Brien describes how receiving a Minnesota Emerging Composer Award affected her art.

For me, music is the vehicle that connects my soul with others, and creating music spontaneously is where I feel most alive. As a performing singer/songwriter and board-certified music therapist who has dabbled in many genres and approaches to music-making, I have found that I thrive best in settings where I have to be quick on my feet, with my voice as my primary instrument. My original compositions are often initially inspired by improvised ideas, even if they develop more structure or form by the time they enter the recording studio. In performance, I improvise whenever possible – whether throwing in a made-up lyric or creating fully improvised pieces based on audience input.

Musically and personally, improvising feels like one of the healthiest ways I can engage and challenge (and sometimes, escape) my brain. Being in this mode requires me to fully trust the music coming through me and others in the moment. I have to surrender any sense of “planning” and trust the skill, the study, the musicality in myself and each collaborator in order to find the way and commit together – to innovate something in this moment that will never exist again.

Receiving the Minnesota Emerging Composer Award was a truly delightful surprise, and a timely opportunity to commit more deeply this craft! These generous funds have provided me the starting financial resources and the confidence to pursue a dream I’ve had for seven years. This dream is to attend a year-long, deep-diving, highly challenging vocal improvisation masterclass called “All the Way In” with renowned master teacher, Rhiannon. Rhiannon is a force of nature as a performer, composer, and improviser herself, and has collaborated and taught alongside Bobby McFerrin for many years. In fact, I had the privilege of studying with both of them back in 2011–I studied a community improvisation technique called “Circle Singing” with both of them–and there, I was first blown away by her masterful and fearless approach to vocal improvisation and personal expression. Since then, I have been following Rhiannon’s work and watching for the right time to jump all the way in.

This unique program is guided by Rhiannon (and her two assistants, or “co-pilots”). Our “cohort” of 18 international singers physically meets three times in various locations throughout the year, for one week at a time.

In between our sessions, we continue our studies independently and keep in touch online, completing assignments, learning songs and instrumental solos, and composing new works ourselves. This year’s three locations are in Hawaii (Rhiannon’s farm on the big island), California, and Montreal.

Rhiannon has developed this program over 10 years, and while I am certain that each cohort is different, the vulnerability and intensity of this work allows us to form deep connections with each other. She is a teacher who lovingly and fully challenges each student to go beyond their comfort zone and explore their unique edges. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be her student and be a part of this circle of singers.

As an international group, we examine where the unique improvised music/sound in each of us comes from–our family heritage and ancestry, our respective languages, the landscapes and cultures of our meeting locations, our life experiences, the stories that live in our bodies and families, etc. It is deep work, personally and musically.

We study MANY exercises (developed by Rhiannon) that help stretch the voice and body into new ways of expression and collaboration. Each day we learn experientially and with constantly varying combinations of people–from solo pieces to 21-person spontaneous creations. Rhiannon has created an arsenal of vocal exercises in her Vocal River Book/cards that we study together. We singers also collaborate with dancers, instrumentalists, and the land/culture around us, occasionally offering a performance to local community.

We treat our voices as the instruments that they are. Sometimes, we spontaneously create live, textured, full “orchestra” pieces that include bass lines, motors, interlocking parts, harmony, vocal percussion, solos. We learn about how to integrate movement and physical expression with our voices. We receive and offer feedback, watching each other grow and take risks throughout the year. We share meals and housing, connecting through conversations about our various approaches to being composers, performers, teachers, music therapists, and more.

We study the ways music can create change, can guide healing, can be a teaching metaphor for how to create new ideas in a community when the intention is to share power.

I know the ripple effects of this study will impact my work for years to come. This new family of beautiful singers will meet once more in Montreal this fall as we complete our year together. Big thanks to the American Composers Forum and the Minnesota Emerging Composer Award for helping to make this dream possible. I’d like to end by sharing a few of my top takeaways: lessons for living an improvised life.

  • Take care of your precious body. Especially as a singer, instrument lives in your body–in your bones! Let your body become a well-nourished vehicle for free expression and movement of sound.
  • You are always free to experiment with a new way of being. Let yourself TRY and GO!
  • Something magical happens when there is shared power within a collaboration.
  • Sometimes you have to just start. When you present a new idea, don’t judge it, analyze it or retract it. Stay with the discomfort and risk of any new creation and keep going. Trust that the idea will evolve, and give those around you a chance to contribute, support, and mold it into something new.
  • Know when to let go and move forward when something isn’t working for you.
  • When in doubt, LISTEN and do less. Keep it simple. Stay receptive and connected.
  • Make it up until you find the way.
  • Be strong in yourself AND be a generous collaborator. Make space for others to shine.
  • Always put the music and the quality of the music first.
  • When improvising, the moment is always more important than the plan.
  • Let yourself be seen, let your voice be heard, let your vulnerability be your strength. All of those around you can benefit from your authentic expression.