11/29/2017 UPDATE: Brian Balmages is again working to help others this holiday season (and he’s just a few hundred dollars from his goal). Learn more at https://www.gofundme.com/a-solitary-wish-band-homeless.
Brian Balmages is an award-winning composer, conductor, producer, and performer. His music for winds, brass, and orchestra is frequently performed by everything from beginning elementary groups to world-class professional ensembles. In addition, several of his titles are among the most popular pieces in SmartMusic.
Brian’s most recent composition is a grade three holiday piece for string orchestra and piano titled “A Solitary Wish.”
As detailed in the piece’s program notes, the composition was inspired through face-to-face interactions with homeless people. The piece can be “purchased” as a donation through a GoFundMe campaign. All of the money collected will go to charities benefiting the homeless.
Brian spoke with us about the inspiration behind the piece, it’s creation, as well as the response to the campaign.
In your program notes you quote Bruce, a homeless person you befriended outside of a food store. Bruce said, “It’s hard when people ignore you all day long. Thanks for stopping.” Most people do walk by. A friend’s post inspired you to actually interact with Bruce. Can you describe what this interaction felt like?
Just a few hours earlier I had read a friend’s post about how she and her daughter helped a homeless person outside of Target. I had already sent her a note about what a beautiful thing she did and how it was a great example of what Americans can do for each other.
While I wish I could say otherwise, I have often been one of those people that just walks by a homeless person and either says “sorry I don’t have anything,” or looks away so as to avoid confrontation. I have done it at intersections, outside of sports venues, stores and elsewhere. In some ways, it had become somewhat of a programmed response.
This day I sat in my car with a homeless person right in front of me. I took a moment to reset and look at the situation with new perspective. I watched several people walk right by him and not even look at him. My friend had experienced the same thing when she was helping someone in Target.
I saw the look on his face – not one of anger, but just of discouragement. So I made a decision, got out of the car and walked right up to him to ask what he needed. He was really thirsty. So I took him in to get something to drink. While there, we started talking and I asked him his name. He started telling me about his kids, their ages, his age, and the mistakes he has made in the past.
It brought an astonishing perspective.
He admitted he had made bad choices in the past. He took responsibility for them, and talked about how he was trying really, really hard to get back on his feet so he can live near his kids and be there for them.
Basically, this was a person who was being held hostage by previous decisions and trying to overcome them. All while being constantly judged by almost every person that walks by him. The conversation itself was pleasant and he seemed to have a renewed energy.
But it was the end of our conversation that really put things into perspective. He held the door open for my boys and me and remarked how it is really hard to be ignored by people all day. He thanked me for stopping and talking. Talk about perspective.
What came first, the inspiration to do a song to benefit the homeless, or a musical idea?
The musical idea definitely came first. I could hear a cello soloist representing a homeless person and representing the loneliness that comes from being ignored most of the day. As I got about halfway through the piece, I realized that this was not just a piece about being homeless – it was to be a piece about hope. Compassion. Love.
That was the exact moment I knew that I would set up a fund to benefit the homeless during the holiday season. And, of course, that impacted the way the piece ended. It ends the same way I hope my fund will end – with a positive look toward the future and the power of change both in an individual and a community.
Can you talk about your decision to include familiar themes in the piece?
It was very important to me that there be a holiday theme. The background of the “Ukrainian Bell Carol” serves more as a canvas than a main theme. I use it as a background upon which I paint various colors, melodies and harmonies. The melody to “What Child is This?” (“Greensleeves”) really fit the mood of the work.
In this case, it was more important for me to find a melody that would fit within the emotional context of the work, and this really made sense to me. In sheer contrast, I use very small phrases in the piano representing the text “Tidings of comfort and joy” from “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” I also put that in duple over the triple meter. It really illustrates this amazing juxtaposition of emotions.
Imagine a lonely, homeless person – trying so hard to get back on their feet, while watching people walk by and hearing “Tidings of comfort and joy” all day long. Again – perspective.
In a previous Finale blog interview, you described how the way you capture musical inspiration changes from project to project. How did this piece become realized? Paper and pencil? Sitting at the piano? The computer?
This entire piece was realized at the piano, but without pencil and paper. I remember sitting down shortly after this experience and knowing that it would center on the melody to “What Child is This?” So I just began playing. I didn’t even have pencil and paper near me. I kept playing and playing and just letting everything inside me come out onto the keys. In my own way, I think I was trying to release some of the emotions pent up inside me as a result of my experiences that day.
After 30 minutes or so of nonstop playing, I was at a point where I could play a majority of the piece on piano (without finalizing the formal structure and transitional devices). At that point, I was able to get up and go straight to Finale.
I orchestrated the piece as I went – just playing the piece back in my mind as I had played it on the piano. The hardest part was fully realizing it for string orchestra – this is one of the main reasons I included piano in the orchestration. I wrote down some of what I was playing during those initial 30 minutes and wrote the string parts around it.
Have you been surprised by the show of support the piece has already received?
Yes and no.
Yes, because I really did not know what kind of exposure the piece would get since it was something I was doing on my own. I was thrilled to see the response and the number of people that shared it with others. And the sheer kindness of those who believe so strongly in its message. And perhaps most importantly, I feel great pride in the amount we have been able to reach. As of this moment, we have raised more than $6,000 for the campaign.
That is the best gift of all.
Now to my second response, the “no.” While there has been so much news coverage on all of the “bad” in America, I always like to remind people how much good there is here as well. So it did not surprise me when people started donating, sharing and caring. This is what so many of us do. We may not make headlines or get significant coverage, but behind the scenes, millions of Americans are looking out for and helping each other.
We run after someone in an airport who dropped something. When it’s raining we stop our car so a pedestrian can cross the street more quickly. We look out for our neighbors. Or buy someone a coffee when it looks like they are having a bad day. We do the smallest thing because it may make the biggest difference in someone else’s life.
As artists, many of us celebrate each other’s triumphs and share in all the ups and downs that go along with being an artist. It is because of all of this and more that I am not surprised by the show of support for this project. At the end of the day, we are ALL human.
And we need to stick together and help each other.
At the end of your GoFundMe page, you encourage folks to share the story, donate their time, money, or a smile. Have you heard from folks who’ve taken your advice? Have you received other feedback?
This may be one of the most wonderful aspects of the project. I have heard from people all across the country who are planning to perform the piece. Quite a few of them are using this project as a means to jump start their own fundraisers for the homeless in their areas. Others are planning to fund raise and send additional donations to me so I can continue what we have started. Several individuals and companies (such as MakeMusic) have donated to the fund even though they do not have a group to perform the piece. Some people have donated who are not even musicians at all. Others have asked that I use their donations as a way to share this piece with ensembles that may not have enough money to donate themselves.
The entire campaign is feeding on itself. It has established much more than a homeless fund – it is establishing a community of people who are all looking out for each other. It has renewed my faith in humanity and helped me realize how many incredible people are out there, all around.
And let me tell you how incredible it is to have the opportunity to hear from these people almost every day because of this fund, and know that together we are doing some incredible things for those in need. It is true that one person really can make a difference. But a community of people… Wow.
I’d like to thank Brian for his thoughtful generosity. Click here to view the perusal score. Press the play button below to hear a recording of “A Solitary Wish” by the James Madison University Symphony Orchestra; Foster Beyers, conductor.
“A Solitary Wish” is now available in SmartMusic, too. Want to learn more about contributing? Check out the gofundme.com page.
12/8/16 UPDATE: Today Brian shared a short 3-minute introductory video to share with your students – and the audience – before performing “A Solitary Wish.”