Creativity Q+A with Laura Hood
It was never a question of IF Laura Hood would play an instrument, but WHICH instrument she would end up playing. It was all in her genes, and part of her familial inheritance. Hood, 61, makes a wide range of music with her horn and guitar. She performs and teaches. She writes and composes. And she believes that making music is good for the soul and the brain.
This interview was conducted in November 2022 by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.
Pictured left: Laura Hood
What draws you to the horn and guitar?
Almost opposite things. I love playing the horn with other people. And, I love being able to play some of the finest music ever composed by Mozart and Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. To be a part of performing the big, standard musical works in history.
On the opposite side of it, I love playing the guitar because it’s my voice, and my guitar. I’m a whole “thing.” It doesn’t take a whole group to create something. I can create it all by myself in my little room, and sound good. With the horn, I can play by myself, but where it gets really fun is playing with other people.
Did you receive any formal training?
I grew up in a family of musicians. In our family the question was not: “Would you like to play an instrument?” It was always: “What instrument do you want to play?” From the time before I could remember, I played piano. I can’t remember learning how to read music. I was so young.
Were the piano lessons with Mrs. Smith down the block?
Yes. And I took private lessons on the horn and the guitar. Actually, on the guitar, I started learning from a class at the [Grand Haven, Michigan] YMCA in sixth grade. I have a Bachelors of Music in horn performance from Michigan State University [received in 1985]. While I was there, I took classical guitar lessons as well.
How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner?
I can’t imagine being able to do what I do without it. It’s invaluable. It teaches you the discipline of your skill. A lot of artists think that it’s this free-flowing, creative process all of the time. Depending on your art, maybe it is. But to be a symphonic musician, there’s a lot of [technical] skill building and knowledge that are necessary. You have to understand the historic context of the pieces you’re playing, and have the chops to play it. That takes a lot of discipline. You have to play your scales, and your arpeggios, learn how to practice. And, you do that every single day.
Describe your studio.
At home, I have a small music room. I have a piano, shelves that have all of my instruments stacked on them, there’s a beautiful window. It’s just big enough to put two chairs and a music stand.
I spend much more time creating, playing the guitar at school. My classroom is super cool – I’ve hung guitars on the classroom walls. With my horn, a lot of the inspiration comes from the other people I’m playing with. My own studio is so small that I can’t have other people play in it.
With whom do you play?Manitou Winds. And, I also play in the Benzie Area Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra is the midst of a growth spurt. It’s becoming a really good orchestra, able to play the standard works that are written for symphony orchestra. I don’t really think of myself as an “artist.” Or, somebody who spends a lot of time in a creative endeavor. I think of myself, much more, as a teacher.
You bring a great deal of creativity to the way you approach teaching kids. Your own music making isn’t divorced from that. And, I think it informs what you do as a teacher.
I’m glad that people can recognize that in me. After doing this for 30 years [at The Leelanau School], some days I feel like I’m just the teacher up there going, “Wah-wah, wah-wah.”[Laura also taught at Pathfinder School in the 1990s, and has taught private lessons since she was a girl.]
You compose music.
Yes, but I think of myself more as a songwriter.
Define what a songwriter is.
A song is a piece of music that has lyrics. Whereas a composition would be a piece of music that is all musical instruments. It also has to do with my approach to writing music. My approach is very much guitar-centered, thinking of melody in my head. That’s the way I’ve written almost every song I’ve ever written. However, Manitou Winds has inspired me to explode some of my songs into guitar-plus-harp-plus-woodwinds.
You write for yourself, and you are also orchestrating for other instruments?
That’s right. When I write a song, I write it in chord. But when I write for other instruments, I use a software called Sebelius, which notates everything. The first piece I composed on Sebelius, I wrote for woodwind quintet during the COVID lockdown. I had so much time at home, so I finally took on that project. But I didn’t save it correctly, and my computer died, so I lost the whole thing: six weeks’ worth of work. I haven’t written anything since that. I feel like I’m still grieving for losing all that work.
You just told a very sad story that involved computers croaking and your creative work is lost. Both of these things are interesting because, in a time before computers, all this work was done by hand. How do you reflect on the role of computerized machinery in your creative work?
I don’t think I would be able to compose as much as I have been without the computer. It enables me to try things — and have the computer play it back for me so I can hear what it is I’ve invented. I’m not a trained composer. Whereas with songwriting, I don’t use a computer ever. I use a pencil, and a piece of paper, and my guitar in my hands. The way my brain is working is totally different between writing a song with my guitar, with lyrics — that feels very creative, intuitive. When I’m writing for Manitou Winds, that is much more analytical, intellectual, and that I do on the computer.
What are the themes you explore in your music making?
In my songwriting, I’m much more of a guitar player than a singer so I always emphasize my guitar playing over being fancy with my voice. Stylistically: My music is much more folk with a classical or jazz flair. I’ve written songs about motherhood, relationships, and sprinkled in all of my songs is a sense of Leelanau County and the lakes.
How does Northern Michigan find its way into your work, and inform it?
Constantly. One of the songs I wrote was all about Glen Arbor, in September, when the leaves start to fall. You can feel Glen Arbor start to take a deep breath. Everybody’s gone. And, then the magic of Glen Arbor comes forth during that time. If you only stay here in the summer, you never see the magic. I’ve written songs about the Manitou Islands, and the Sleeping Bear story. When my son Ian graduated from high school, I wrote a song about him, but it was about the way he skis, and climbs trees, the way he is in water. I don’t think I can ever separate myself from this place.
When you teach songwriting to your students, how do you distill it down?
We work on three different aspects of writing a song. One is the lyrics. The other is the chords. And the third one is the melody that lies in your voice. It’s like braiding together these three different abilities and talents. To be a really good songwriter, you have to be able to do all three of those things. Writing lyrics can be a very creative process. Coming up with a melody is tricky if you’re not a great singer, but that’s more intuitive. Coming up with the chord progression is more theoretical. You’ve got to have the chops on your instrument to do that. So, writing a song combines a lot of different skills and abilities into one thing, and then you have to be able to perform it.
What tools do you use to make and record thoughts that go into your work?
My phone. I’ve always got a list of thoughts and ideas on my phone. That can be written or recorded. If I’m playing around on the piano, and I come up with something I like, I always make sure I record it. In my mind I’m thinking, “Oh, I’ll never forget this,” but I never remember it at all. The software Sebelius is pretty important, and pencil and paper, too. I never write lyrics on the computer. I don’t really like computers. I’m not good at it. I don’t do it naturally. It doesn’t feel very creative to me at all. But I don’t think I could write for Manitou Winds without a computer. It’s a love-hate relationship, I guess.
What role does social media play in your practice?
None — except when Manitou Winds is going to have a concert. They’re publicized [on Facebook], snippets of our rehearsals are put up, which I think helps to get us a great audience. I don’t watch any YouTube videos, or take inspiration from other people or Tik Tok.
Another thing I’d like to say about the internet with music: For instance, I love Sarah Jaroz. A great, young musician who uses Spotify, and Instagram in such wonderful ways. She has promoted herself beautifully on line with class, and grace. I do think it can happen, but you have to sort through all the crap first to get to the good stuff.
We live in a time when we can all be consumers of music, but not as many people play and make music themselves. Your thoughts?
I feel concerned about that. In a couple different ways. First of all: Not as many people are making music. I think back to when I was in school, there were so many kids in the school band and orchestra program. I see fewer and fewer young people being really involved with learning musical instruments. It’s just so easy to plug into their technology. Practicing, as a young person, is hard. Nobody likes to practice when you’re distracted by video games, and social media. There are so many distractions now-a-days.
What is it about making one’s own music — from blowing air through a tissue-paper covered comb to strumming a guitar — that’s good thing for humans?
I’ve read quite a bit about the difference between just listening to music, and feeling the music go into you. Playing an instrument lights up neurons in your brain that nothing else does. If you are a life-time musician, your brain actually develops physically different than somebody who is not. It’s like when your brain is in the zone, playing music is all consuming. Music takes you there, and it takes you there quickly through the rhythms, the melodies, the lyrics; the feeling of you’re using your own voice as an instrument; when you’re harmonizing — all those pieces fit together is pretty inspirational.
Making your own music is about being human, about tapping into your human-ness.
And connecting with others in a really deep and intimate way. Back to playing with Manitou Winds, the way that there’s the give-and-take, the absolute listening to the way somebody else is playing, and then trying to imitate or match that. Those are the subtleties that make groups really good, away and beyond hitting all the notes at the right time.
When you were growing up, did you know anyone who had a serious creative/musical practice?
Yes. My family. My grandfather [Bob Warnaar] was a composer.He wrote for big bands. He spent his whole life writing and arranging big band music, and has a good band of his own. So when Woody Herman and Duke Ellington came through town [Grand Haven/Muskegon area], it was always my grandfather’s band that they would hire to back up their main musicians. There were a lot of jazz people who came through Fruitport back in the day. There was a big pavilion that many of these jazz musicians performed at. It was right on the Grand River. People would come up in their boats for an evening of jazz and dancing. I have file cabinets of all of his big band music. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it. It’s all handwritten, beautiful manuscript.
My father [Don Warnaar], his son, was a classical trumpet player who played in the West Shore Symphony for 30 years [Muskegon]. He was a band director. My mother [Gail Warnaar] was a double reed specialist who played double bassoon. She still runs a music business where she sells specialize music and reed-making equipment for double reed players. I came from a family of three girls. My older sister is a violinist. My younger sister teaches music, plays percussion, guitar, and sings.
Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?For the horn: Doug Campbell, who was the professor at MSU. I met him at Interlochen one summer, and then ended up transferring to MSU to study with him. I loved the way he approached the horn, which was very gentle. He understood that I didn’t have blinders on, that I didn’t just want to study the horn. I always had a lot of different things happening in my life. He understood that, and wasn’t frustrated by it. My father was a very good brass player, and got me started thinking like a brass player.
On the guitar: I’ve gone to the John Lamb songwriting retreat in Harbor Springs. I’ve gone to that for a couple of years, and met some really neat songwriters. Another big inspiration is [Leelanau County musician and teacher] Pat Niemisto. Patrick is so versatile, and he gives the gift of music to so many people in this area. He’s so professional, and humble.
How do you nurture your creativity?
Playing in Manitou Winds, and the symphony.
[NOTE: Watch a short video here of Manitou Winds and The Benzie Area Symphony Orchestra performing Laura Hood’s composition Happy Feet.]
Performance is a fuel for your creativity?
Yes, but so is rehearsing with other people. I probably enjoy that more than performing. I don’t have to worry about being nervous. I can completely immerse in the moment, and not have to worry about an audience.
I’d imagine, with rehearsal, there’s opportunities to discover things that aren’t on the notated page.
Absolutely. And, to laugh with others, and try different things. There’s more creativity happening in rehearsal. By the time you’re performing something, there’s the moving forward, and the gift of giving your music. But it’s not a super creative thing.
So, we’re talking about process versus product.
Absolutely. It’s interesting. In an orchestra, it’s the conductor who is really being the most creative. We’re just following what he wants us to do, and using our knowledge of and skill with our instruments to put that forth. It’s not a woo-woo, creative process. It’s more technical, and intellectual.
How does your day job cross-pollinate with your studio practice?
There’s a lot more going on in the other direction.
What do you bring to teaching young students that comes out of your own practice?
I encourage a lot of free-flowing, creative, guitar playing in my classes, but I think I’m able to balance that. I want my students to know their scales, some music theory, so that they’re musicians beyond what you can learn on YouTube. I think a lot of that comes from my background as a musician. When I’m playing a concert, I try to get my students to come and listen, and really observe: How does a group play when there’s no conductor? I talk to them about what is proper rehearsal etiquette; How do you have a group of four people where they all have equal leadership in the group; how do you work together as a group? We work on that a lot. That all comes from my experience playing in an orchestra, or with Manitou Winds.
What’s your favorite tool?
My horn and my guitar.
Read about Laura, and her composition First Flight here. And, listen to it here, and here.
Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.