Mormon Artist

Nathan Howe

Nathan Howe is a Colorado composer, educator, and performer. He holds a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Northern Colorado. He has been commissioned to compose and arrange for community and church choirs, university ensembles, short films, and live stage shows. His music has also received awards of distinction and merit in the annual music submissions for the Church. Nathan served in the Australia Sydney South Mission from 2001–2003. He began publishing music in 2006. Nathan currently lives in Fort Morgan, Colorado, where he directs choir and orchestra in the local schools. He and his wife Allison have three children. Website
Photo courtesy Nathan Howe

What kinds of music do you write?

Musically, I live a double life. On the one hand, I write serious choral music and art songs in a style that some would call modern classical. On the other hand, I write songs in more pop-inspired styles. The art music world tends to look down on pop styles, and pop consumers don’t generally care for the heavier art music, so I try to straddle the line as diplomatically as I can. I also dabble in orchestral music, and I’m currently working on a concert band piece that will probably premiere in spring 2014.

How did you get started writing music?

In part, I started composing because I was a lazy sight-reader. As a piano student in elementary school, I preferred to make up what I thought the song should sound like instead of figuring out the notes from the page. I began writing piano pieces and then choral music in middle school. I kept working on my composing and arranging skills through high school, branching out into musical theatre and other styles. Everything I wrote from elementary school through about my first year of college was pretty terrible, but I really needed all of that practice to figure out what I was doing.

You work full-time as a music teacher. Recently, many schools have started to cut art programs for various reasons. In your opinion, why is arts education important?

Many of my colleagues like to promote arts education as a great way to teach math, social studies, and reading. Although the arts do teach these subjects, that alone is not a good reason to keep them. Music education is important because music is important as a discrete subject. Arts are the way culture is spread and preserved. Our kids are the next generation of creators. Art is like any other language: the more we master the vocabulary, the more we understand about our world. The arts help kids learn how to think—even kids who will not become professional musicians or artists.

Even when they are not creating art, average kids will not go home at night and independently study history or math, but they will consume several hours of media every day. Helping kids understand the messages that our images and sounds really communicate is more important now than it ever has been before.

Plus, many students succeed in school precisely because at school they can succeed in music, drama, or art. Sports can provide some similar opportunities, but the arts often reach large groups of students that sports simply can’t. I don’t understand how schools that would never dare to cut a sport will casually discard arts programs that provide equivalent or greater opportunities for kids to engage with their peers and succeed personally.

What is your advice to young musicians? (Those who desire a career in music as well as those who are just trying to learn.)

First, learn to be patient with yourself. Becoming a musician takes time and practice. There is no shortcut that will allow you to learn without hours of practice and plenty of mistakes. Get comfortable with consistent practice and small, steady progress.

Next, get some lessons. Virtually no good musicians are completely self-taught. Find a teacher whose approach works well with your learning style. Pick an instrument you love and master it as well as you can. If composition is your interest, piano is especially important.

Then find a mentor. This person might not be your teacher. Look for somebody in your community who is successful in the type of music you love. Musicians are passionate about their art, and most will gladly give advice and help if you ask.

What is your dream job? Would you ever consider writing music full-time?

In my dreams, I would create as my full-time job. That includes composing, performing, writing, and designing. I would love to have a job that would allow me to devote more of my time to music. But I have to admit that in a way, having a demanding “day job” helps my art. If I relied only on composing to feed my family, I would be motivated to create according to what would sell best. Since my art is not my living, I write what sounds good to me. In fact, I try not to write a song unless it nags at me so intensely that I can’t avoid writing it. That is a luxury that full-time composers can’t afford.

What inspires you to write music? Once you have an idea, how do you turn it into a finished piece of music?

My songs about gospel topics are inspired by true doctrine. I especially love the teachings of the Book of Mormon and the early prophets of the restoration. Many of my more serious choral pieces are not overtly religious, but almost all of them have spiritual overtones. Much of my music is written to fill a specific need: teaching a specific principle in a fireside, creating a commissioned work that draws on the strengths of the ensemble, or commemorating a particular event or holiday. Even when writing about common subjects, I try to find a unique angle.

Vocal music is unique and wonderful because it has text. For me, a song idea will usually start as one phrase of text. I roll it around in my mind, and a tune begins to form around it. I find that these small ideas often come as I drive, ride my bicycle, or walk alone. My children broke the radio in my car a few years ago, and this has been a great blessing for my composition. I have to talk to myself, sing to myself, and shut out other influences while I work through an idea. Developing a piece from a small idea into a real composition can happen in a matter of hours, or it can take a very long time. My best work happens late at night. Usually, the more natural inspiration I feel, the less work I have to do to get the music onto the page. Notation is really a bottleneck, although technology has come a long way. Finale is much faster than using a pencil and manuscript paper, but notating and revising scores is still the most time-consuming part of my process.

Can you talk about giving away your hymn arrangements for free? When did you decide to do that, and how did that decision come about?

As a young composer, I quickly realized that I wanted people to use my music, but publishing contracts were hard to get, and getting published didn’t mean that anyone would actually perform the music. I felt that free music would be more effective in spreading the gospel than music people would have to purchase to experience. I also didn’t want to be in the business of “selling spirituality,” but I still needed to fund my art.

With my friend David Macfarlane, I started self-publishing free sheet music online in 2006, starting with our first co-written hymn, “When Godly Sorrow Moves the Soul.” At that time, we decided on a good compromise: music written specifically for use in sacrament meeting should be free, and music intended for the concert hall or recording studio might be sold at a reasonable price. My work has been sustained by purchases and donations from family, friends, and strangers who appreciate my music. I never feel like I have lost something by giving away music for free.

Tell us about your favorite hymn arrangement (how it came about, why it is meaningful to you).

One of my favorites is “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy.” Each of the components is very simple: the vocal parts all sing the melody, the violin parts are uncomplicated, and the piano plays the same ostinato in the right hand for more than forty measures. But when they combine, the arrangement has a dramatic effect of tension and release. This is analogous to our work in the Church: each individual performs simple tasks with simple faith, but those efforts combined can perform miracles.

I wrote this arrangement in late 2012 for a stake conference. I have rarely written music by priesthood assignment, but that was the case with this arrangement. The process was remarkably fast, and the product is very different from what I had originally planned. I do not claim that any of my music comes by direct revelation, but the Spirit definitely provided some noticeable help with this piece.

What do you consider your best work so far and why?

I hope that I am always improving my craft, so my most recent works are more skillfully written. But a piece that really stretched my perceptions of my own work was from Glenn Gordon’s Reflections on Come, Come, Ye Saints project in 2009. Up to this point, most of the music I had released was nice stuff that would be appropriate for sacrament meeting. The Reflections project encouraged me to break out of that box. I am especially pleased with the colors of harmony in that piece. It is certainly not easy listening for a Sunday afternoon, but it portrays my vision of the emotional story behind that beloved hymn.

Tell us about writing “Resurrection Hymn.”

“Resurrection Hymn” was a very fast process. I was asked to sing a solo in church on Easter Sunday. The day before, I still had not decided on a piece to sing. As I contemplated the ideas in 3 Nephi 27, some images of Christ being lifted up came together as lyrics in my mind. I quickly jotted down three verses to support the chorus. I wanted a memorable, singable tune, so I worked out a simple, mostly pentatonic melody. I sang it the next day, then notated and edited the piece later. Writing the song itself took perhaps two hours. The mission of Jesus Christ is such rich subject matter—I never feel like we will run out of words to describe the Atonement.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently writing some darker a cappella choral pieces for a concert setting. One is based on Doctrine and Covenants 121:7, and I am doing a choral song cycle based on some Walt Whitman texts. I am also working on a piece for concert band and another for string orchestra.

What obstacles have you overcome in your career?

There is never enough time or money. I think that is standard for most artists. But I think my biggest challenge has been self-promotion. LDS music is a small, very exclusive niche. Choral composition is a larger market, but it’s hard to break in. I submitted “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains” to different publishers for about six years until I finally landed a contract with Jackman Music. My primary motivation in seeking contracts with big publishers is not money (industry standard is that composers only make 10%). I pursue those contracts because I want to show my clients that my music is as good as many of the names they know better.

How does being a disciple of Christ influence your music?

When I am writing religious music, I make sure that the doctrine is correct and that the song reflects the way the gospel makes me feel. Music is a discipline that has a lot of room for inspiration. When I feel the Spirit, I almost always feel more creative. I try to be completely authentic in my art: my music comes from who I am, and who I am is constantly shaped by Jesus Christ. I also have to say that my music doesn’t always come from the most pious and perfect times in my life. In fact, I feel closer to Christ and my music is better during those times when I am struggling with something.

On your website, you mention that you write some music to “inspire and invite people to come unto Christ.” Why is this important to you, and how do you see your music accomplishing this purpose?

I feel that God expects me to use my gifts to bless other people. Music is one area where different styles and approaches can touch people in different ways. Like any other composer, I continue to innovate in small ways to highlight specific ideas and evoke particular emotions. There is already plenty of good music in the world, but I know that some of my songs have inspired and lifted people at crucial moments. I want people to find joy in Christ. The moments that lead to that joy cannot be forced or explicitly planned, but I know that for some people, important spiritual experiences will happen while my music is playing. That motivates me to keep creating. ❧

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