I’m Zanc Zhao, currently a sophomore at Ranney. I am an international student from Chongqing, China. I came to the United States when I was in 7th grade, so this will be my 4th year in the US. My favorite things to do--- watching soccer, watching Jeopardy! (not so good at playing it), and of course, composing music.
If I were to describe Ranney School in three words, they would be: entertaining, friendly, and inspiring. It’s my third year at Ranney, and even though we are physically separated from each other, it still feels like home. I remember the fun we had during the day of the Upper School Coffeehouse--- performers go on stage and showcase the talent that I have never discovered sitting next to them at the lunch table for a semester. They sang songs, played pieces, and recited verses, with the audience shouting with support. As fun as it was, It’s a concert, a celebration, and a festival.
Ranney is also inspiring. For me, getting through an academic day is not easy, but fortunately, we inspire each other through the power of discussion. For example, when we had to put together a resolution paper in our Global Citizens class, we worked together to organize our thoughts, and we debated with each other. Through one idea after another, we inspire each other to think better thoughts and see broader visions.
One product of such inspiration is Autumn in the West, the piece I wrote myself.
One day in 2019, I was sitting in front of Dr. Sobieski in orchestra class when she showed us a recording of Cavatina by Dvorak. The rhythm of the piano accompaniment instantly caught my ears; it was like a stream flowing through a forest, a breeze over the autumn leaves.
I always dreamed of becoming a composer of some sort. I would usually invent a melody of my own and try to build upon it. That’s when I discovered Musescore a few years ago, the perfect composition software for me.
After hearing the Cavatina recording, I created a new file in Musescore. I adapted the rhythm of the accompaniment into my piece, and it sounded good. Then I added a melody that I came up with. That week in March 2019, I dumped all my inspiration for music composition into Musescore, and here, a sonata named Autumn in the West for a violin and a piano was born amid spring. It wasn’t a refined piece of music, but it was music.
“...Was the piece not originally written for the orchestra?” No, it wasn’t.
“...Why did you call it Autumn in the West?” Autumn is a season of homesickness, memory, and nostalgia. Seeing the pandemic caught us off guard, I realized that I might not go back to Chongqing, my hometown in the East, for another four seasons. It saddened me, but I transformed my sadness into inspiration for music, and called the product of my inspiration Autumn in the West.
“...Did anybody teach you to write music?” Yes, but I’ve only taken less than 10 hours of formal musical composition training; I figure out things mostly on my own.
In the fall of 2020, I decided that a piece for only piano and violin is too simple, and I challenged my boundary: I’ll make it an orchestral work. Around that time, I had a dream--- I dreamed of the school orchestra playing my music. The instrumentation, which I chose deliberately, almost corresponds to the instruments we have in the school orchestra. It was the “wildest dream” because, up until that point, no one had ever taught me how to write music properly. As expected, I failed miserably several times simply because I couldn’t manage so many instruments. Gradually, I figured out that different instruments take up different roles in an orchestra. Through countless hours of experimenting, I finally came up--- with the first 16 measures.
Let’s be honest: composing music is a pain. Staring at a computer screen and trying to figure out what melody comes next (& its accompaniment chords) is an excruciating experience, especially if you were on your own without a mentor. Very often, I found myself not writing a single measure in an entire afternoon, and it was always disappointing. It’s especially true for the first few weeks, even months when I can’t come up with anything. It’s the norm. But occasionally, things are a bit different. Sometimes, my mind flows with inspiration, and I could write measures of music nonstop! Never have I imagined something so joyful--- that the piece of art in front of me is created by my own hands!
Disappointments intertwining with joy, blank stare alternating with wonderful creativity accompanied me throughout the process of orchestration. Up to the spring of 2021, I have a 5-minute piece, entirely of my own.
Time brought me to May of 2021, the time to choose our Maymester, an experiential learning experience. Without any hesitation, I put down the music composition Maymester “Am I Mozart Yet?”, taught by Dr. Sobieski, as my first choice, and I got in. Throughout the Maymester days, Dr. Sobieski and I worked together to improve my Autumn in the West (For orchestra) score. Adding a syncopation here, moving around some notes there, and the music is polished up.
Even after the music looked sharp, I was too shy to even express my “wildest dream” to Dr. Sobieski in the most implicit manner. But as I see it, if someone can read music, that person can also read minds. On the second-to-last day of the Maymester, Dr. Sobieski casually said, “Change the oboe to a Bb clarinet. We don’t have an oboe in the school orchestra.” A flash of lightning struck my head. Does she want the piece to be played by the orchestra? Is my “wildest dream” becoming a reality? I asked to make sure, to which she replied affirmatively.
I was filled with amazement and joy. I said, “That’s awesome!” but it was much more. The moment she affirms that she’ll try to put my piece on next year’s schedule is an acknowledgment of my hard work throughout the months and encouragement that pushes me to create more music.
The 2021-22 school year began, and the school orchestra is now rehearsing repertoire for the winter concert (Autumn in the West being one of them); I say it with all my heart that the moments I hear my piece being played on tens of instruments are the most beautiful moments I could ever hope for.