the composercait podcast

Episode 5: Ready to Fly

February 19, 2024 Cait Nishimura Episode 5
the composercait podcast
Episode 5: Ready to Fly
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, I talk about the bird calls that inspired Ready to Fly and share a letter from the commissioner!

Episode Links
Ready to Fly:
Purchase link: 

Birds Canada:

Audio credits for this episode:
-Allen HS Wind Ensemble conducted by Philip Obado, recorded at The Midwest Clinic in December 2022
-CCX Media:

Please visit for perusal scores, recordings, program notes, and more info about me and my work. Connect with me on social media: @composercait

If you have a question, submit it here and it may be answered during a future episode.

Thank you for listening!

Hello and welcome back to another episode of the composercait podcast. My name is Cait and this is episode 5. I'll start today by saying thank you. I am so grateful to all of you for being here and listening and sharing this podcast. Recently we reached a small milestone of over 500 downloads of this podcast, which is awesome. There is so much media to consume these days.

So it means a lot that you've chosen to include my podcast in your day, whether you're listening first thing in the morning while getting ready for school or work, on your commute, while going for a walk, or as you're winding down for the day with a puzzle or a cup of tea. I know how busy life gets, and I appreciate you making the time to listen to my stories and my music. One quick announcement is that next week's episode is going to be a whole episode of Just Q&A.

I'll be answering listener questions that have been submitted to me, and it should be really fun because it'll cover a wide variety of topics, rather than just focusing on one individual piece of music as usual. If you have a question for me to address in the future, you can message me on Instagram at composercait, or you can submit your question in the form linked in the episode notes. Alright, and with that, let's get into the piece for today's episode, which is Ready to Fly.

Ready to Fly is a short piece for concert band at the Grade 1 level. It was commissioned by Tammy Wahlin for the Robbinsdale Area Schools in Minnesota, with support from the Seven Dreams Education Foundation and a generous donor named Marlene Johnson. I love this piece and I'm so excited to share more about it with you today. Here's what I wrote about this piece on my website and in the program notes.

Ready to Fly represents a parallel between young birds and young developing musicians. Just as fledglings learn to use their voices to make the beautiful bird sounds we all know and love, young musicians develop a familiarity with the language of music and learn to communicate and inspire through sound. The melodies in this piece were inspired by real bird calls. The charming and easily recognizable two note call of the Black-capped Chickadee,

and the musical fanfare-like three-note call of the red-winged blackbird. I was also inspired by songbirds in the construction of the piece, using layering and call and response sections to imitate antiphonal bird calls. In working on this project, I felt strongly about creating a piece that contributes to both the musical and social-emotional growth of students at this level. My hope is that this piece will empower students of all levels.

to feel ready to fly in their musical and personal pursuits.

I think that's a pretty good description of the piece and my intentions for it, but I'm going to elaborate on all of this and share some fun things with you today. Firstly, this is a grade 1 piece. This is very exciting because it's one of the easiest pieces in my catalog so far. Many composers will agree that the easier the music is intended to be, the harder it can be to compose.

This is because musicians playing at this level are typically within their first few years of playing their instruments, so their technical proficiency is limited, as is their endurance, musical independence, range of playable notes, and many other factors. Generally, composers prefer to have the option to use a wider selection of key signatures, time signatures, rhythmic or metric concepts, more elaborate orchestration options, that kind of thing.

and being given stricter parameters like what would be required for a grade 1 band piece is not always appealing. I will admit, I did find this project challenging for these reasons, among others. However, I firmly believe that musicians of all levels are deserving of musical opportunities that are exciting, engaging, and empowering. I wanted to write something that would challenge students at this level to learn new things, but not be so intimidating that it was overwhelming.

or just not possible to play. Striking that balance is a real challenge, but honestly, I really enjoy it. Give me limitations and I will do everything I can to push those boundaries just within the box. I find it very fun to work on projects like this. So in order to keep things accessible, I chose the comfortable, familiar, home base of a key signature B flat major. The piece is in 4-4 time all throughout.

And for the most part, each part only involves the first six to eight notes. It would have been better, probably, to stick to just the first six notes, but while working on the piece, I kept feeling the pull of the leading tone, and so I decided to introduce the seventh note as well. I figured since all the other musical elements were relatively familiar and approachable, that it would be okay to introduce a new note, as long as it was well supported and no one had to do it alone.

As I mentioned, this was a commission for Robbinsdale area schools, and Tammy, the person organizing the commission, was keen to have me include a nod to birds somehow in this piece. As a huge bird nerd myself, I gladly took this request seriously. The foundation of the entire piece is bird calls. Two bird calls specifically, and I'm about to nerd out just a little bit.

The first bird call I used in Ready to Fly is that of the black-capped chickadee. Chickadees are pretty common year-round where I live and throughout most of North America. There are a few different species of chickadee, but the one I know best is the black-capped chickadee. Here are a few cool facts about black-capped chickadees. Chickadees forage and hide seeds to save for later, and they can remember thousands of hiding places. It's really amazing.

Other birds tend to flock with chickadees and can even learn and respond to their alarm calls even if their own species does not have their own alarm call. Chickadee friends include nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets, creepers, warblers, and vireos, among others. Chickadee calls are complex and language-like, using their calls to communicate information to one another, such as predator alarms. They're known for their very recognizable

Chickadee-dee-dee call.

and the more "dee"s in a row, the higher the threat, for example, if a hawk or other predator is nearby. This is not the call I used in Ready to Fly. I used their very sweet two-note call.

Chickadees are one of my favourite backyard birds. They come to visit our feeders nearly every day in the winter, and my partner and I enjoy feeding them from our hands. If you've never had a tiny bird land on your hand, you're missing out on a really special magical experience. The very first notes of Ready to Fly are based off of the chickadee calls. Here's the chickadee again.

And now here's the opening of Ready to Fly.

There's something so fun about hearing the two note chickadee call played by the low brass several octaves down from what the birds sound like. I love it. The second bird I was inspired by for this piece is the red winged blackbird. These are also fairly common birds where I live, but they don't overwinter. So they are only here from spring to fall and they migrate south for the winter. Here are a few fun facts about red winged blackbirds.

The males are the most recognizable with their bright red shoulder patches. The females are brown, so they're harder to spot from a distance, but I've come to recognize them because of getting to know their habitat. They breed in marshes, swamps, and wetland habitats, which is why I see them a lot where I live in the wetlands. Red-winged blackbirds migrate in big flocks and are some of the first birds to arrive back in early spring. At the time of this recording, it is February and there's still snow on the ground.

but I'm waiting for their arrival any day now. It's usually the last week of February or the first week of March, but I have a feeling I'll see them sooner this year for some reason. We'll see if I'm right.

The bird on the score cover for Ready to Fly is a red-winged blackbird, and I took this picture myself. As a slight aside, this is a good opportunity to mention that I use my own images for most of my score covers. I think this adds a personal touch to my work and invites another mode of connection with the music. It's really fun for me to go through my own photography and choose images that are appropriate to go with each piece.

In hindsight, this would have been a fun detail to mention during previous podcast episodes as well. So I'll quickly recap the first few now. The photo for Into the Blue, which was featured in episode one, was taken from the window of a plane during my flight to my first residency as a composer. So that's a very special memory associated with that photo. The score cover for Autumn, which was episode two, is a photo that was taken here in Ontario during the fall.

Alpine Meadows cover is the actual meadow that inspired the music. I took this picture at Yosemite National Park on Tioga Road. The cover for A New Horizon, which was episode 4, is a sunrise photo that was cropped so you only see the colours, because that's what I wanted to focus on, and Ready to Fly, of course, is my own bird photography. So I will try to remember to add this detail in future episodes too, because I think it's interesting.

Okay, so back to Red-winged Blackbirds for a second. Here is an example of what their calls sound like.

And now here's how I interpreted that in my piece. This is pick up to letter D if you are following along in a score or your part.

You can hear that I simplified the rhythm a bit, but now that you know what it's based on, I hope you can hear the reference. I had so much fun incorporating these sources of inspiration into the piece. I am so passionate about sharing my love for birds and all of nature with anyone who will give me some attention, so it's exciting for me to have the chance to bring some nature education into my work as a composer.

Thank you to the birds for inspiring me always. And in fact, $1 from every purchase of this piece is donated to Birds Canada to support all of their ongoing work. I'll leave a link in the show notes if you wanna check out this organization. And I'll also include a few resources for anyone who's interested in learning more about birds. There is an app called Merlin, which is great for identifying birds you encounter and keeping track of what you've seen.

There is a related app called eBird, which is a community science project where you can log sightings of birds to help experts in the field understand conservation status of certain birds and lots of other info. It's a very cool thing to participate in. I use it all the time to tell the birding world about my cool bird sightings wherever I go. Okay, I think I'm done nerding out about birds for now. I hope you've learned something. And if anyone out there would like to chat about birds any time, please know that this would bring me great joy.

Other than the Birdcall inspired melodies, there is one other theme in this piece that I haven't talked about yet. Beginning at letter E, there is a longer phrase that stretches over several bars. I've mentioned on this podcast before that I do a lot of doodling and sketching and graphic score type explorations while I'm in the early stages of composing a new work. While I was writing this, I drew a big line that was

Overall going up into the right but with several dips down along the way and some even farther down than the starting point I imagined that a young bird might fly up a little then fall down Try again fall even further down maybe all the way out of the tree and onto the ground But would keep climbing little by little and eventually soar through the sky and this became the contour for the melody here Let's listen to a little bit of that. This is starting at letter E

The recording I've been playing clips from is a live recording from the Midwest Clinic in Chicago in December 2022. Ready to Fly was performed there by the Allen High School Wind Ensemble with their conductor Philip Obado. They did an amazing job with this piece. The music they usually play is at a much higher level, so to hear them play a grade one piece was really spectacular. I'm so grateful to have such a good reference recording of this piece.

It sets such a good example for younger or less experienced students that are working on the piece. The official commissioner premiere took place in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, and featured a combined band of students in grades 5 through 12, plus some teachers as well. A true community effort. The event was actually featured on local news and radio, and I'm going to play you a short clip. This is from CCX Media.

And finally, let's listen to a special performance by the all-district band from Robbinsdale Schools. This past week, students and faculty played a commissioned piece by Canadian composer Cait Nishimura. The song is called Ready to Fly and it was commissioned by Tammy Wahlin with support from the Seven Dreams Foundation. Support also came from Marlene Johnson, who asked to dedicate the song in memory of her brother, Arnold Johnson, who was a lover of birds and also an alumni of Robbinsdale Schools.

We'll let you listen to some of the first performance of ready to fly.

When preparing for this episode, I reached out to Tammy Wahlin to see if she wanted to share anything, and she kindly wrote a letter for me to read out loud on this podcast. Here's what Tammy wrote.

My beginning band kids have a strong desire to see themselves reflected in the music that they play. When they're able to make a connection with their concert pieces, engagement level with their instruments and with their peers becomes so much stronger. There are so many great pieces for first year band. However, I've always wanted to see more compositions by women and by composers who looked like my students. Because of this gap in our literature,

commissioning a piece by an inclusive composer had been on my mind for a long time. On the very top of my dream list was Cait Nishimura. I love all of Cait's music, but none of her pieces seemed to be playable by my fifth graders. In 2018, I learned that Marlene Johnson, a volunteer tutor in my school district, was interested in funding an open-ended project to benefit our music students. Marlene had previously donated ukuleles in memory of her aunt,

she was now willing to fund another project to memorialize her brother who had recently passed away. This is a quote from Marlene Johnson. I loved the composer's music, which I checked out on her website, and I decided to finance this just for the fun of it. Even my cat loved her music. She came to sit on my lap by the computer every time she heard me play some. Okay, just a really

partially funded this commission, is not only a bird lover, but also is a cat person, and that her cat came to listen to my music as she was exploring my website. I love that so much. You all know that I'm also a cat person. I have two cats and they're often nearby when I'm working on music, and were probably nearby when I was writing Ready to Fly. Lilly, my one cat, is obsessed with bird watching, and I like to consider her my little bird watching.

buddy, we just sit at the window together and watch the birds in our backyard. So anyway, this detail made me really, really happy to read. Okay, back to Tammy's letter. The Robbinsdale School District, which is located in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, embraces its birdie sounding name. Our younger kids are sometimes referred to as Robins and our high school mascots are the Armstrong Falcons and the Cooper Hawks.

Because of this, I wanted our commissioned piece to center around a theme of birds or flight, and Cait did a beautiful job of bringing this theme to life and weaved actual bird calls throughout Ready to Fly. The charming tune of Ready to Fly portrays the excitement of the young bird or musician as they carefully learn how to fly or play. Listeners will hear noble and soaring melodies and harmonies, foundational block rhythms, and the clever, encouraging bird calls which are located throughout the piece.

Ready to Fly is expertly composed and it's very playable but not simplistic at all. I anticipate that this piece will become a cherished staple within the literature, especially for middle-level bands. Our premiere performance was hosted by the Robbinsdale Area Schools middle-level all-district band and their director, Karen Cummings. At the concert, our elementary and middle school Robbins played Ready to Fly with help from our high school Falcons and Hawks.

Band alumni were invited to play and all of our band teachers joined in as well. Playing Cait's lovely music as a community was a powerful and moving experience. I had a hard time containing my emotions. I'm so very grateful for Cait's amazing talent and her kind collaboration, and for the generosity of Marlene. Thanks go out to the 7 Dreams Foundation who helped facilitate the hands-on learning grant that made this beautiful piece possible. If you work with a beginner or middle level band, get this piece into your library.

You'll love Ready to Fly as much as we love it here in the Robbinsdale Area Schools. And that was written by Tammy Wahlin, Robbinsdale Area Schools beginning band director in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. What an amazing contribution to this episode. Thank you so much, Tammy, for writing this letter and for initiating our collaboration all those years ago.

It took me longer to write this piece than I expected, and the pandemic threw everything for a loop as well, but I'm so happy we were able to make this happen. And I'm even happier with how the whole community came together for the premiere performance. I teared up a little bit reading this letter for the first time, because the fact that the kiddos are called Robins and that they had support from bigger birds playing this bird-themed piece is just the best scenario that I could possibly imagine. So thank you so much, Tammy.

Okay, that just about wraps up this episode on Ready to Fly. I'm actually gonna do something I haven't done yet on this podcast. I'm gonna play the full length recording because I just love it so much. But before I do that, huge thanks to Tammy Wahlin and the students of Robbinsdale Area Schools for this commission. Thanks to Marlene Johnson and the Seven Dreams Foundation for their generous support of this project. Thank you to Philip Obado and the Allen High School Wind Ensemble for the amazing recording.

And thank you to you, all of you listeners, for listening and supporting my work. If you have enjoyed hearing about Ready to Fly and like a copy for your own library, you can purchase it on my website,, where you can also find perusal scores, program notes, recordings, and more info about me and my work. If you're enjoying this podcast, please consider leaving me a rating or review on Apple or Spotify, and make sure you subscribe to the composercait podcast on whichever podcast platform you use.

The episodes are also posted to my YouTube channel as audio only, so you can listen and comment there as well. Thank you so much, and I'll see you all in the next episode for some Q&A. I leave you with this awesome recording of Ready to Fly.