Bethany Wakim

Mathematician and composer

USA

Author

About

I was born in 1992 in New England, and I have lived here ever since. Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Both of my parents are musicians, and they began teaching me to play the piano when I was very young. During my childhood and teenage years, I joined nearly every music group I could. I sang in my school and church choirs, took violin lessons, played in a small orchestra, accompanied choirs and my church congregation, taught myself basic guitar chords, and even taught a few piano students. Though I loved to sing and play different instruments, playing the piano was my favorite musical pastime. I never had to be told to practice; hardly a day went by that I didn’t touch a piano. In high school, I researched classical pieces on my own and fell in love with Rachmaninov and Chopin. My wonderful piano teacher introduced me to Poulenc and Scriabin. I also loved choral pieces, and I would accompany myself singing at the piano. I spent countless hours sight-reading new pieces and playing old favorites.

When I graduated from high school, I seriously considered music as a career choice. My piano skills were good, and I could have majored in music in college. However, after much deliberation, I chose to study math instead. I enjoyed math in high school, and I believed it would be more practical for the future. Despite this choice, I remained very involved in music, specifically the piano. I worked as an accompanist at my university and learned a great deal by listening to the lessons of other students.

Throughout my four years in college, I dated and became engaged to my husband, John (an electrical engineer), and we were married in June of 2014. That September, I was offered a teaching position at the same school I graduated from. I have been teaching various middle and high school math classes there ever since. During these past few years, I have also taught piano to several students, and I had a few opportunities to accompany for musical theater competitions. One of these opportunities led to my first experience with music notation, when I needed to condense part of an orchestra score and rewrite it (by ear) for piano. Since that time, I became interested in writing my own music. One of my earliest pieces was a fun jazzed-up duet version of “Fur Elise” that I wrote for my mom and me.

This past year, I have begun to compose music more steadily in my spare time. I mostly write piano pieces, but I have also written a few songs for my church congregation. I enjoy arranging hymns and rewriting melodies for songs whose tunes are not the best fit for their lyrics. I also love to play piano duets, and I am working on writing more. Though I am not a “professional” musician, I am still working continuously to improve my piano technique and composition skills.

I am not good at expressing myself verbally, so music has always been a blessing to me. In turn, I hope that my music can be a blessing to others. I believe that God has given me a love and talent for music, and I hope to continue to improve that talent in the future.

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Interview

What does music mean to you personally?

I have been a “music person” for as long as I can remember. I began learning how to play the piano at a very young age, and my parents were my first teachers. Throughout my childhood and teen years, music was my favorite hobby, and I studied voice, violin, and most of all, the piano. Piano still remains my “first love” in the music world. I love to improvise and arrange songs I already know, and I’ve recently discovered joy in composing. I am not good with words, so music is a wonderful way to express my thoughts, feelings, and impressions.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

That depends what you mean by “fantasy.” I believe music can be used to express emotion, imagination, and praise, and it can tell a story without words. Often when words are lacking to express a thought, music can help paint the “picture” in my mind. But I believe music has other roles besides being just about “fantasy.” For example, learning to play an instrument can benefit a person who is struggling in school, since it strengthens the connections in the brain.

If you were not a professional musician, what would you have been?

Actually, I am not a professional musician. I considered music as a major in college, but I decided on math because I believed it had a more practical career path. Now I teach middle and high school math in a private Christian school. That being said, I am still very heavily involved in music. I teach piano and voice lessons after my school-day is done, and I am involved in two different youth choirs. I am often asked to play for weddings or other similar events. I sing and play the piano at my church every week, and I have recently written a few new tunes for some old hymns.

The classical music audience is getting old; are you worried about the future?

I am not worried. New music has often been unpopular with its current audience, only to be understood and appreciated years later. In a different sense, great works of art, architecture, and literature have stood the test of time and are still appreciated by young people today. I think that good classical music lasts and continues to be loved just as other works of art do.

What do you envision the role of music to be in the 21st century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

Since music is so widely accessible now, hearing it everywhere (the store, the gym, the elevator, the radio…) has become commonplace. Unfortunately, this means that music - especially classical - is often background noise rather than something we stop and listen to. I don’t really see this changing in the near future. If music classes were taught to every student in school, perhaps things would be different and people would stop to appreciate what they are hearing.

Do you think that the musician today needs to be more creative? What is the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

I think that much of modern music is dull and lacks imagination. Many modern songs rely on the same chord progressions over and over again; to me, this is rather lazy. It is becoming rare to hear something new and fresh. So, creativity is very important to me! I am always excited to hear something out of the ordinary. When I compose or arrange, I try to think outside the proverbial box, while still making sense musically.

Do you think we as musicians can do something to attract the younger generation to music concerts? How would you do this?

A few composers/arrangers have been able to break into the “classical music is boring” mindset by giving classical pieces upbeat rhythms or creating a “mashup” with pop songs. The Piano Guys have succeeded in this way and have introduced classical music to many who wouldn’t have listened to it before. A few years ago, I arranged Fur Elise into a jazz piano duet “duel.” My mother and I performed it for a school talent show, and it was received very well by all ages. The younger generation also relies heavily on technology and social media. Using YouTube or Soundcloud as a platform is a good way to reach teenagers.

Tell us about your creative process. What is your favorite piece (written by you) and how did you start working on it?

That’s a tough question! Most pieces are inspired by my current emotion or by something in nature. My creative process tends to vary. Sometimes, I sit at the piano for an hour improvising with no intention to compose, but will suddenly happen upon a melody or chord progression I like. Other days, a melody will come to me out of the blue while I’m walking my dogs, listening to a sermon in church, teaching a class, or about to fall asleep. I use my spare moments between classes or after school to develop the piece on Musescore. It can take anywhere from a few days to over a month from start to finish. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but “Sea Lullaby” is the one I’ve ended up listening to and playing the most. I actually began this piece by deciding to sit down at my computer and write something, having nothing in particular in mind. I don’t often do this since my results are usually sub-par, but this time was an exception. This piece creates more vivid imagery in my mind than any other piece I’ve composed, and I love its warm, dreamy mood.

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

Have an open mind, and listen to anything and everything! “Classical music” has become a catch-all name for many different styles, so you’re bound to happen upon something you enjoy. If you like a particular piece, try listening to more by the same composer. Also, take music classes if your school offers them. You may discover you enjoy a style or instrument that you weren’t aware of before!

Do you think about the audience when composing?

If I am composing a song for a congregation or choir, then I definitely think about the audience. When I am composing piano music, I have never really thought about the audience. I just write what I enjoy, and hope that others will enjoy it too!

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

I suppose I experiment in every project I work on. I’d like to write more piano duets, and I’ve always wanted to do a mashup using a couple different pieces. I have some ideas that I’m hoping to develop in the next few months. I also plan to music more consistently for my church. I’m no good with lyrics, so I’m always hunting for obscure old hymns with rich text that can be given new life with a new melody.