Composer Spotlight: Augusta Gross – From Psychologist to Composer

I had the pleasure of sitting down with ACO board member Augusta Gross, whose “Toward Night” is featured on our upcoming Friends & Family event on September 28. After a long career as a clinical psychologist, Augusta found an unexpected love for composing which has led her to write multiple works primarily for the piano, evocative of her own internally-felt experiences.

What she shared about the transformative process of finding new modes of expression is truly inspiring, as are her wise words toward the end of our time together about how to access spaces of play.

Melissa Ngan (MN):  I’m curious about your professional background in psychology – can you share a little bit about your professional life before you rediscovered composition and musical study?

August Gross (AG): For many years, I was a practicing psychologist, focusing especially on individuals with learning disabilities. I always had a special empathy for people with learning difficulties because I thought it was very important to look at how they affect a person’s self-esteem. Actually, I felt very passionate about it because I didn’t feel the topic was being sufficiently addressed.  I have always had an interest in how learning styles differ, and how they affect our sense of worth.

Eventually, after I ended my private practice, I turned my attention to other things. And what came to me was pretty obvious: that I loved playing the piano when I was younger – I had stopped after college. And I thought, it would be fun to go back to taking lessons – not with a sense that I had to achieve a lot, but mostly just to play for pleasure. And that’s how I began the process. I had no idea that I would be composing – that was not on my radar.

MN: So what encouraged you to make the shift into composition after you rediscovered your musical practice?

AG: Well, I was lucky enough to find a teacher who is a jazz pianist and experienced teacher. She turned out to be an advocate for tailoring her teaching approach for the individual student. I came in with the idea that I wanted to learn how to improvise – which was very different from anything that I did when I had studied piano earlier. It turned out that it was not something I could do at all easily! I just had a very hard time understanding the notation symbols, being able to move away from the printed page and use a sense of what I could conjure up on my own. It just wasn’t happening. For me it felt like I had a real learning difficulty and I was discouraged.

She suggested that I make up a short piece and notate it (I did know how to write notes) and then she helped analyze what chords I had used. So that’s how it began. And literally within months, I was composing – simple kinds of things – single line in one hand, single line in the other – but there were some pretty sounds and I was soon totally hooked.

MN: Can you share a little bit about what that composition journey has looked like for you, and how your writing has developed in the years since you’ve discovered that talent?

AG: You know, I would say that I have just followed my heart – though it sounds like a cliché. My first love, instrument-wise, is piano. Within a few years, I expanded my horizons far enough that I wrote a couple of pieces for piano and violin, piano and clarinet. But mostly, I stayed within the framework of the piano. And, of course, I developed an understanding of the format of a piece: different sections, developing themes, adding chordal and harmonic shifts. Harmonic shifts came very naturally to me. I loved straying from a particular harmony that I had started out with, and that was very intuitive. I began to realize that I could really play with harmonies in a more complex way, and I would say that also developed over time.

As a psychologist, I was always interested in process, and how one communicates. And, I was always interested in nonverbal communication of emotions – this was one of the things I was particularly interested in as I worked with people. And here it was – I was learning how to express my own inner life in a way that was nonverbal. I feel like the piano is a wonderful interpreter of emotion and ‘evocation’ of impressions.

MN: I love what you just said about expressing your inner life. I remember that from one of our earlier conversations. I’m curious what is meant to you as a person to have that outlet for expression?

AG: It’s a wonderful means of connecting to oneself, and to others. The way in which the music is received is very immediate, like a good conversation.

MN: I’m reflecting back to your comments earlier about your interests within your psychology practice around self-esteem, tied to what you just said about having the opportunity to express yourself and to have those ideas immediately received and reflected back. I’m curious if you see a connection there?

AG: I do think that for me, one of the things that I enjoy so much about composing is that there is no right or wrong way of writing. I can say honestly that it’s such a pleasure not to have to worry if I’ve done it incorrectly. My composition is what it is.

For me, it’s an enormous relief to remove “judgment,” even self-judgment.  There’s also a certain freedom to being able to express myself, without having to pin it down to a verbal description. And that seems very important to me.

MN: That is beautiful – and what a great lesson in non-judgement! Since you’d mentioned the piano as a great outlet – the piece that we’re featuring is a piano piece called Toward Night. You said something really beautiful in your notes about this – that it evokes a particular time of day, and symbolically a place in the trajectory of life. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that?

AG: I wrote Toward Night with the idea of evoking a certain atmosphere about the evening as a particular time of day. In writing it, it became something that had a larger meaning for me.  I had a visualization of a scene where it was evening. I also used some lighter content and themes, because in my mind, there was some dancing – even a sense of a sense of frivolity. But then, I returned to a more plodding, rhythmic sort of marching towards an evening that would turn into night. And of course, that symbolism points to the end of something, and even the end of one’s existence. I didn’t write it with a heavy heart- hopefully it conveys a mixture of feeling.

MN: I love the connection to the cycle of the day, the cycle of life. I’m curious if there are any daily rituals, practices, or routines that help you to connect to that inner creativity, that inner life, to feed that part of you that composes and expresses itself?

AG: I think that as I continue in doing this, even a small phrase will come into my mind often associated with something I’m observing. I use my everyday observations in a natural way. Quite often, if I’m feeling freed up, some sounds will come to my mind, and maybe even a musical phrase – and that is the very kernel that I will use.

MN: So, it sounds like it’s less a ritual, an action you take every morning or every day, and more of a way of being in the world – an emphasis on observation, and an openness to receiving?

AG: Right, and there’s also something I feel very strongly about:  staying in the moment and enjoying what it is – that informs me. It’s really a series of spontaneous moments that then become phrases of music.

MN: We could all benefit from more of those in our lives! My last question to you is, for anyone who might say, “I’m not creative,” or “I don’t have time in my day for that,” what would your response be?

AG: I would say – first of all, I sympathize. I understand where that initial reaction makes perfect sense. And I think it’s something you have to override, this inclination to say, “I just don’t have time, and there’s nothing for me to express.”

Instead, find encouragement to think – “Let me try. Let me take an emotional risk. Let me break out of my regular boundaries.”  There are always multiple levels of what we take in, and also what we can express. Go back to your childhood. What did you enjoy? What kinds of activities were more playful, and gave you pleasure?”   It’s worth exploring. And I would add, “You’re worth the examination.”

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