Nicole Piunno (b. 1985) is a composer who views music as a vehicle for seeing and experiencing the realities of life. Her music often reflects the paradoxes in life and how these seemingly opposites are connected as they often weave together. Her harmonic language and use of counterpoint mirrors the complexity of our world by acknowledging lightness and darkness, past and present, beauty and brokenness, confinement and freedom, chaos and order, spiritual and physical, life and death.
Nicole holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition and a Master of Music degree in theory pedagogy at Michigan State University. Her composition teachers were Ricardo Lorenz and Charles Ruggiero. She earned a Master of Music degree in composition at Central Michigan University, studying with David Gillingham. She has also worked with Jason Bahr, David Ludwig, and Tony Zilincik. Nicole earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education and her emphasis was on trumpet. Her music has recently been performed by the Principal Brass Quintet of the New York Philharmonic, Athena Brass Band, University of Akron Faculty Brass Quintet, and the Michigan State University Symphony Band. Her music has also been performed at the Orvieto Musica TrumpetFest in Orvieto, Italy, the OWU/NOW Festival of New Music, the Women in Music-Columbus concert, the SCI Student National Conference, and multiple International Trumpet Guild Conferences.
Brass Chicks: Tell us a little about yourself and what you do. How did you get started as a composer?
Nicole Piunno: I love beauty and reality and I try to reveal those things through music. I am a composer and looking back on my life I can see early signs of an interest in writing. I remember writing music for the first time when I was in middle school. I also started arranging tunes from piano books for various ensembles while I was in high school, but I really started taking composition more seriously when I was in college. I was accepted into a composition program at a music festival I attended each summer during my undergrad. My main purpose for going to this festival was to perform as a trumpet player in an orchestra and wind ensemble, but since I had the interest in writing I decided to join the composition program as well. David Ludwig was the coordinator of that program and he advised me to find a teacher at home to study with for the remainder of my undergrad years. My university didn’t have a composition department so I found a teacher at a university about an hour away and drove for lessons every other week during my junior and senior year. I planned on becoming a trumpet professor and an orchestral player so I went to grad school initially for trumpet performance. However, I discovered I had a serious lip injury and needed to leave school to have surgery. It was during this time that I began writing music again and that eventually led to me becoming a full time composer (more can be read on my site about this if you’re interested).
BC: How long have you been teaching? What do you love about teaching? How does your background in composition affect and enhance the way you teach?
NP: I have had an interest in teaching for a long time. I started teaching trumpet lessons to middle school students even while I was in high school. My bachelor’s degree is in music education and I’m really glad I went that route. I have taught all age levels: from a kindergarten classroom through high school and I have also taught university courses. Currently I teach a studio of trumpet players ranging from 5th grade through 12th grade. I enjoy watching students grab onto concepts and using them to become both better human beings and also better musicians. I also love being around their curiosity. I have some very curious students who get excited over new ideas and exploring the instrument. It is easy to lose that curiosity as we age so being around it is refreshing. I try to get a sense of whether or not a student will be someone who gravitates toward composition or not. I can often tell who is going to enjoy this based on how they speak about their current band music from school. I have multiple students who compose on a regular basis and they show me what they write. It could be as simple as writing an 8 bar melody. For some it is more complex. We often write duets together as well. If nothing else, I do make my younger students improvise and play by ear on occasion during lessons.
BC: Considering your experience with your embouchure (which you wrote about strikingly on your blog) and now with your right arm, you have certainly experienced some unwanted physical difficulties that may affect your daily life as a person and a musician. How do you maintain a positive attitude and mental toughness through these setbacks?
NP: Keeping a positive attitude is a battle because the natural thing is to focus on the negative. I believe that even the “bad” things that happen will eventually turn to being for my own good. I don’t usually understand how that will work, but I believe it and that faith keeps me moving. Suffering is a reality in life and I don’t view it as an obstacle that is in my way. It may feel that way at times, but it is actually very useful and often leads to good places. I constantly have to focus my mind off the things I cannot currently do and onto the things I can improve.
BC: Is there anything you wished you had known as a student or young professional that you know now? Any advice that you’d like to share with younger female musicians?
NP: I would have taken more time to simply be with friends during my schooling. I have never struggled with working hard. If anything, I struggle to NOT work. As a composer I need to be alone often, otherwise I would never write anything! However, the art of music making is very much a community project and relationships are essential.
BC: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects and exciting things happening in the future?
NP: I am currently planning out quite a few commissions for this upcoming year so it will be a busy writing year! The piece I am currently working on is a trumpet sextet and it will be premiered at the International Women’s Brass Conference at Arizona State University in 2019.
BC: Any resources you recommend? For example, are there any books, podcasts, recordings that changed your life, etc?
NP: The commencement speech by Neil Gaiman titled “Make Good Art” is fantastic!
Check out Nicole’s recent brass quintet here.