Conversations about Creativity
An Interview with Aaron A. Kaplan:
Composing Symphonies & Songs Intuitively
April 11, 2017
Aaron A. Kaplan is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning symphonic film composer as well as an orchestrator, pianist and songwriter. His music, which has been used in a wide variety of movie and documentary film scores, continues to be heard on radio, television and film, the latest being the feature film, PROMISES. He has also lectured and taught music in workshops around the world and was recently acknowledged by the Maurice Ravel International Association of Italy as one of the best composers in the world and was awarded first place in the USA.
Kaplan also lectures and performs his music to demonstrate the mind-body connection and healing aspects of music. His work, which is utilized by medical and mental health professionals, can be heard in hospitals and healing centers.
Kaplan’s contribution to music nationally and internationally is hugely impressive – from creating and performing in the honored International Modern Symphonic and Chamber Music Festival in Eastern Europe, to having his compositions performed by the Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas and his composition, “Symphonic Fantasy” by the West Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra to being the opening performance before the Henry Winkler and Jackie Mason held at the Eisemann. Aaron’s numerous recordings, have been featured in many national and international publications, and he has been on and hosted many radio talk shows and television. Aaron continues to enjoy his live piano performances on stage. After earning his business degree from the University of Texas, Aaron went to the Grove School of Music in Los Angeles where he obtained graduate degrees in piano, composition and film scoring.
Ellen: At what age did you first play a musical instrument?
Aaron: I first began my life’s musical adventure around the age of 4 or 5 by taking piano lessons mainly because my older sister was already studying music and playing the piano.
Ellen: Were there other musicians in your family?
Aaron: My mother also was reasonably skilled at playing classical compositions on the piano. Although my dad enjoyed music, he probably saw the piano as a lovely furniture piece that took up a lot of space as well as a place to hold one’s drinks at a party. After a few months, I was more proficient at the piano than my sister and so she decided to discontinue lessons.
Ellen: What did your sister then do?
Aaron: My parents would require my poor sister to sit with them when I was 6 years old to listen to me play the piano and particularly, music I composed myself.
Ellen: Do you feel your parents’ encouragement had something to do with your pursuit of music?
Aaron: I was never encouraged to pursue music or perform. Music was regarded as nothing more than one part of my education. I competed in recitals and competitions between the ages of 6 to 13. I practiced regularly during those years as I enjoyed learning new classical pieces and performing them but let me give you an example of a difficulty I encountered: I attended the St Marks School of Texas in Dallas and played trumpet from grades 5-12. A few of those years however, were very painful because of my braces which back then were all metal and stuck out.
Ellen: What an image – braces and trumpets! Yet despite the pain you encountered then, your love of music remained a constant?
Aaron: Yes, I was selected as best musician of the year when I graduated. Music was also a way for me to escape into my own world.
Ellen: A pathway into your own imaginative world. Would you therefore say that it is important for children to find their own routes to music through some early music training?
Aaron: I believe every child should be exposed to the arts particularly music because it helps to develop the right hemisphere of the brain, creativity, and even intelligence.
Ellen: How important is practice? Would you say that a truly proficient player is largely one who has practiced more than others?
Aaron: I believe musical talent, whether one is performing or composing, is a gift no different from that of a wonderful athlete. One still has to develop one’s skills to make the most of the gifts with which one is blessed. That being said, I believe most people can learn an instrument and enjoy playing it at all levels of ability. As far as writing music, there are those who when trying to create, may discover that they actually do have an ability to create that surprises them.
Ellen: Music does come much more easily to some than to others. Why do you think that is the case?
Aaron: I believe music comes easier to some of us than to others because of the blessings we are given genetically and perhaps other mysterious factors. And how do you explain Mozart, for example, who was practically composing as soon as he came out of the womb? It is possible that our past lives can also contribute to our abilities as well – being a composer in a past life, perhaps soul memory, might contribute to the extraordinary musical ability of such a gifted musical composer in this lifetime.
Ellen: Then what is required of someone who does not display that kind of exceptional musical ability at the outset?
Aaron: One can still develop those musical skills through study, practice, passion, and dedication.
Ellen: Describe your musical education. Where and what did you study, for example?
Aaron: By the time I went to college, I had all but discontinued playing the piano or practicing. I got a degree in Business Management and then went to work in the paper recycling business. At the age of 33, I decided that there was indeed an artist in me that was screaming to get out, and I changed course onto a new path for my life. I studied contemporary composing and arranging/music theory as well as film and video composing and keyboard. So at 35 years of age, I began a new life and career in music.
Ellen: So often, creative people initially choose what is generally perceived as the “practical path” and sublimate who they really are. There is often an accompanying feeling of loss. Fortunately in your case, you had a strong awareness of what you craved to do. Did you now set out a new educational plan for yourself?
Aaron: Yes, but to be honest with you, I had an ability to compose symphonies and songs even before studying in a music school. It just gave me more tools and a better technical understanding of how music works at least as the experts believed that it did. Frankly, I don’t think I was taught in any way how I personally do create or compose.
Ellen: How do you create or compose? Is it more of an intuitive process?
Aaron: I either hear the music in my head or just start creating it while sitting at the piano as my fingers just seem to have a mind of their own and take over like automatic writing. I believe I channel music almost like a medium as if I were co-writing with some force beyond the physical world i.e. spirit. This may not be accurate, but it is what I feel and believe is happening. When I perform, I also feel like I go into some sort of zone or trance and I can feel the energy flowing through me. Time also just seems to disappear when I create and when I play. There is no left brain decision as to when to pause or to accelerate or crescendo. It is organic and it is something I feel, and I doubt I ever play my own music the same way twice.
Ellen: You are letting the music in, intuiting it – channeling it?
Aaron: Creating music for me is mostly an intuitive process, and as I had mentioned previously, it just creates itself and happens spontaneously as I sit at the piano. I have created an entire composition in just a few moments by letting my fingers go where they want. While playing, I simultaneously hear melodies in my head that guide me as well.
Ellen: How do you then remember these melodies that you seem to channel?
Aaron: It is very helpful to be able to record the music as I play it with the technology available today. Because I am almost in a zone or trance while creating, I probably would not be able to reproduce on the piano all that I just played. The main melodies and chords I often can reproduce, but I might lose the more subtle nuances and sub melodies.
Ellen: Are you able to create a whole composition this way?
Aaron: A perfect example of creating a composition in one sitting is my piano piece, “Rhapsody”. The recording you hear is exactly as I composed it on the spot in less than ten minutes – pure channeling in one sitting.
Ellen: Do you see any correlation between music and painting?
Aaron: For me, creating music is very intuitive, whether I’m scoring the music to a particular visual such as a play, a script, a video, a film, or even a painting. What I create can be affected by what I am observing visually or imagining. A painting in a sense, is a frozen moment in time of vibration of sounds and light. Music is vibrations, harmonics, and sounds that move through time and can affect us emotionally and physically since we are also made of matter that vibrates, and we are emotional beings.
Ellen: What makes a melody memorable and why do some melodies run repetitively through your mind?
Aaron: What makes a melody memorable and how is one written? Often, especially in a musical, but films as well, a melody of a particular song or just a melody line is repeated over and over again. That repetition alone can create enough of an impression to facilitate memory of the tune or sometimes, just be very annoying. If it is pretty good, the chances are it will be remembered and hummed by the audience. If it is exceptional, it will most likely run repetitively through people’s mind and they’ll find themselves humming and enjoying it.
Ellen: How do you, as a composer, “catch” this melody? What is your typical process?
Aaron: I personally just have an ability to create melodies and fortunately people often enjoy and remember the ones I have created, sometimes after listening only once or twice to the tune. I would not be the right person to ask how to technically create a melody, and I would imagine that composers are very different in their approach to creating melodies. For me, it just comes naturally and as I mentioned before, I believe it is my connection with a higher power or divine energy that helps me to create, especially melodies. I suppose that when I copyright an original composition, I should include “spirit” as one of the collaborators on the piece.
Ellen: And you would share your royalties, too. Aaron, you have composed a great deal of music for film and other visual media including theater. Could you tell us something about the choices you made when composing for film, decisions such as when to use music as background and when to use it as foreground? Secondly, were these choices often a result of your own inner feelings and your own emotional connections to a theme or story? And lastly, can you ever anticipate how an audience will react to your new composition?
Aaron: Music is an important element in the production of any film because it generally supports the emotions and visuals that the audience is experiencing. If you ever see a film without music, it seems to be much less effective emotionally and artistically. As to when to use music to support the film, it is very much an intuitive decision, in fact, as often as it is a logical or obvious choice. When not to use music is also part of the decision-making process.
Ellen: How do you achieve freshness when composing?
Aaron: In terms of achieving “freshness” when composing, I sometimes just take a break from playing and writing. If possible, a walk on a beach or in nature helps to rejuvenate and refresh my spirit. Also, I sometimes just close my eyes and hit at random, three notes on the piano to create a new melody and then develop a composition from that. Finally, it helps to just listen to all types of music that are different from what I normally create.
Ellen: Aaron, thank you for sharing your creative insights and processes with us. A large part of your very successful musical career is a result of your commitment, discipline and focus to the music you create but you are also very fortunate to have been born with these intrinsic creative and musical gifts – and that is unusual. So in conclusion, is there any additional advice you would like to give aspiring musicians who might or might not have this innate ability, yet still a strong desire to create music?
Aaron: Yes, I believe I was born with a creative ability but it can also be developed through patience, practice, discipline and passion. Disciplines such as meditation and yoga can help to develop one’s creative and intuitive abilities. Furthermore, you never know how far you can go until you try and test the waters of creativity, whether it is through one’s music, painting, or sculptures. Creativity is important even for a doctor or a mechanic to explore because it can also enhance existing abilities in other areas. For those who want to try creative areas they haven’t before explored, I would like to wish them joy and good luck in their new adventures.
Aaron Kaplan’s work can be purchased on iTunes and other sites.