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Conversations with Sarah Wallin Huff

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sarah Wallin Huff.

Hi Sarah, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I have always felt a deep kinship with music since as far back as I can remember. As a little child, I would sing and make up my own melodies, harmonize with what I heard on the radio, or noodle around on a piano keyboard if I came across one. In grade school, I joined the school choir and, a year after that took up the violin in the school orchestra. I continued singing with school and church choirs and persisted with weekly private violin lessons. At some point in my childhood, I started writing down my original melodies on sheet music, by hand and by ear. I was fascinated with the symbology of it all, how what I wrote down could be both preserved and recreated as live music.

At one point in jr. high, my choir teacher gave the class some sort of music arranging assignment, and I instead created my own original song–written down on manuscript paper for two-part jr. high choir and piano accompaniment. My school enrolled this, my first “official” work, in the Disneyland Creativity Challenge that year, and I won a finalist position. This was the moment that really spurred me on to take music composition seriously–I knew I liked it, and I knew I could do it.

Unfortunately, my father was not in favor of this artistic drive, and as I grew, he continually shut down any attempt to pursue further education in or efforts to become a music composer by trade. Nonetheless, I like to say I’m the black sheep of the family, so I naturally kept writing original pieces of music in secret. Outside my family, local churches would hire me to create arrangements of hymns for their community orchestras, and my close friends enjoyed trying out my works, so I was still getting encouragement to hone my craft.

When I transferred to Cal Poly Pomona for my bachelor’s degree, I finally met like-minded peers and began taking private composition lessons with Dr. Peter Yates, who was a huge inspiration to me. Unfortunately, Cal Poly didn’t offer a degree in composition at the time, so I received my degree in Music Education and, on the recommendation of Dr. Yates, continued on to get my master’s degree in Music Composition at Claremont Graduate University.

From then on, it’s been an amazing journey of self-reflection and self-expression as I continue to work with my friends and colleagues to create music of all kinds!

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Being a creative of any sort can be a day-to-day challenge. After finishing college, I really struggled for a while to figure out who I am–who I am musically, where my passions exactly lie, what am I willing to do for others and what am I not willing to do…

For many years I overloaded myself with weekly violin students, regular performance gigs on the violin or viola–some of which were delightful to take part in, and many others that simply “paid the bills”–as well as taking on requests for arrangements or original compositions. There is always the balance of creating work for somebody else for the pay and/or the experience versus taking time to create for the joy and growth of your own soul, for which there is never any guarantee of public success.

I live with an anxiety disorder that was not addressed for the first twenty-something years of my life. So a lot of my mental struggles centered around questions like, Is this worth it?… Should I give up and get a real job?… There’s so much competition in the arts, how can I hope to even be noticed?… Am I good enough?… Do people like what I create, and if they don’t can I live with that?…

I spent quite some time trying to please others, trying to advertise, take every single gig that came my way whether it was my style or not. And I eventually had to acknowledge that, even though I *could* do everything, I was not happy unless I accepted myself and embraced who I truly am.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I like to call myself a “stream-of-consciousness” composer–in which every piece is built upon an enigmatic, underlying framework, from which the work fluidly evolves. My work has been described as “quite complex and unusual and yet…very easy to absorb and appreciate” (Baby Sue). I tend to have a sound that embodies elements of neo-romanticism, minimalism, electronica/edm, folk, rock, etc.

I create original music for concert halls and independent soundtracks, and I also create arrangements of existing music for various ensembles. The tools of my craft include traditional instruments and notation as well as computers and synthesizers of various sorts. I also currently lecture at Cal Poly Pomona (my alma mater), teaching several sections of “History of Technology in Music”. It’s a unique overview of how technology has shaped our music-making and listening over the past 40,000 years, and I thoroughly enjoy engaging with this topic!

We’re always looking for the lessons that can be learned in any situation, including tragic ones like the Covid-19 crisis. Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you can share?
Absolutely! With live performances canceled, I was reduced to focusing on my composition rather than chasing down paying gigs. Being locked down allowed me to focus on what makes me truly happy. While I do love playing the violin, I am a creator at heart–I need to build my own music and see it come to life. This is what makes life fulfilling to me. With the world shut out of my mind for a while, I was able to come to grips with my truth and embrace who I am.

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