Sitting At The Piano
When I was selected as ASAP’s 2022 summer intern, I thought that maybe the directors had emailed the wrong person. Sure, the interview had gone fine, and I considered myself to be a decent writer, but my few years of piano lessons as a child paled in comparison to their many years of classical training and doctoral degrees. With preference given to candidates with more experience, I had never seriously considered that I would be selected.
Needless to say, the email was not a mistake; I was shocked that after months of fruitless search elsewhere that an opportunity would find me, and I was determined to prove that they had made the right choice. In the weeks that followed, I corresponded with the directors through email, had a couple of video calls to discuss my responsibilities, and asked a lot of questions.
My first task was to find and fix broken links in the database. This was when I learned about the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), an incredible resource of scores in the public domain. After a few links, I got into a rhythm, but I went too fast for my own good and developed carpal tunnel-like symptoms a couple of weeks later. Fortunately, I slowed down and learned some keyboard shortcuts that put less strain on my wrists.
After fixing the links, I spent the bulk of my time entering new composers into the database. When I first started, I was given a three-page list of names; it seemed daunting, and even the directors were not sure if I would get through all of them. Nevertheless, I went in order, gradually crossing out name after name. Like fixing the links, I soon got into a rhythm, first researching the composer and recording their name, years, and identifiers, then listing their works for solo piano, then finding scores, and finally filling in recordings.
The process for every composer was a bit different. The living composers often had websites with their works and scores, but the further back in time I went, the less maintained they became. The oldest composers had no websites but often had Wikipedia and IMSLP pages, albeit small ones. Even within the same time period, some composers were easier than others. Some had everything in one place, while for others, I had to do some digging and I am still not entirely sure if I found all of their works.
Occasionally, I would find YouTube playlists with compilations—sometimes with complete piano works—and felt like I hit the jackpot. Although for the sake of time I would only listen to the beginning and end of each piece, I would save the playlists to my library to revisit. Still, I developed strategies to listen to as much of the pieces as I could. I was amazed by how much incredible piano music there is that, if not for ASAP, I might have never discovered.
The last major task—creating social media posts—was the most difficult for me. I have never been big on social media and I was intimidated by the thought of trying to emulate ASAP’s voice; their existing posts seemed to have so much personality that I did not. At first, I kept my posts rather short and general, but the more I wrote, the more I became comfortable with injecting length and humor.
The other challenge was deciding what content to create. Besides avoiding duplicates, which composers was I supposed to feature? I started with those whose pieces were the best-documented (recordings and scores). However, wanting to reduce my bias, I eventually turned to a random number generator. Of course, this was still biased towards composers with more entries, but it felt like a fairer representation of the database.
This method was far from perfect though. When I needed composers with specific identities, it would often take several tries—and a lot of scrolling—before I landed on one. To remedy this, I decided to add another component: a coin flip. Depending on whether I landed on “heads” or “tails”, I would move up or down in the spreadsheet respectively. This was the most effective method yet, and one I wished I had done earlier.
Admittedly, I had moments where I wondered if my efforts were worth it; is anyone really going to care about the second movement of the fourth sonata of Anna Bon’s Six Sonatas for Harpsichord?
Nearly everyone has heard of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, even if they don’t play piano themselves. While searching for recordings, I would sometimes be recommended pieces by these famous composers, and I noticed that they had millions of views compared to perhaps thousands for mine. I had to wonder why their works were so celebrated while these were so obscure. Then I realized that this was exactly the point of ASAP: to shine a light on these composers so that someday, maybe they too can have millions of views.
I would soon learn that this disparity was not limited to listening habits either. While doing research for social media posts, I learned a disturbing fact that of the seven most-used textbooks for undergraduate music theory, only 2.15% of examples are by women, while only 1.67% of examples are by non-white composers. I knew that women and other minorities were not fairly represented in pedagogy, but I had not realized to this extent.
All of this gave me a new perspective on my work. I realized that even if I could not change the world on my own, perhaps I could help set off a chain reaction of education and advocacy.
Sure enough, I would sometimes see anonymous viewers on the spreadsheet. I often wondered if they were a pianist looking for pieces, an educator looking for repertoire, or just someone curious. Although I cannot say for sure, I like to think that the frequency of these guests increased over time.
All in all, it has been an incredible experience working for ASAP: watching the database grow from just over 2,200 entries to nearly 6,000, creating a reservoir of social media posts that will be posted for a year to come, and truly understanding why their work is so important.
I can only hope that the work of ASAP and similar organizations will create a paradigm shift in the world of piano music. The modern piano was invented around 400 years ago, and I hope that 400 years from now, we can look back and wonder how this inequity ever existed. However, I think that if even one person can discover a new composer or piece because of it, then it has made all the difference.
As for me, I look forward to revisiting all the playlists I saved, watching for my posts on ASAP’s Instagram and Facebook accounts, and continuing to spread the word about their mission. And the next time I am looking for some new music, I will definitely break out the random number generator.
All of us at ASAP would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Diamond for all of her terrific work over the summer. She has been a wonderful addition to the team and we wish her all the best as she starts university this fall!
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