Dr. Jennifer Jolley (left) working with a composition student.
Dr. Jennifer Jolley instructing at the whiteboard.
Dr. Jennifer Jolley (center) teaching class.
Dr. Jennifer Jolley scrapbooked her first rejection letter around her sophomore year of college.
The letter came via snail mail from Broadcast Music, Inc. Her roommate, an avid scrapbooker, lent her some acid-free paper, and she got to work turning her rejection into art.
“I wasn't actually very good at it,” Dr. Jolley said. “I was a terrible scrapbooker.”
That practice later became a blog on which she catalogued over 100 rejection letters for over 10 years. More recently, Dr. Jolley publishes her rejections on her Instagram with the same goal of destigmatizing rejection in the music field.
Dr. Jolley is a composer, a self-proclaimed cat lady, and a Los Angeles Dodgers fan who brings this same honesty to her teaching and compositions. She is currently an assistant professor of composition at the Texas Tech School of Music and has been a member of the composition faculty at Interlochen Arts Camp since 2015. Her vocal, orchestral, wind ensemble, chamber, and electronic works have been performed by ensembles worldwide.
We sat down with Dr. Jolley to learn about how young artists can speak their truth, why she wishes she borrowed more early in her career, and what keeps her coming back to Interlochen Arts Camp.
You've been on the composition faculty here since 2015, and you're an assistant professor at Texas Tech University. Why is teaching important to you?
I love teaching because I feel like it reinforces what I need to know. I also love learning things, and I learn a lot through teaching actually. Last semester, I was teaching a computer music programming class, and I had two electrical engineering master's students. It really kept me on my toes, and I just think that is really fulfilling to me. And lastly, I just like helping people. I love helping students, and I look forward to creating the next generation of my future colleagues.
On your blog, “Why Compose When You Can Blog,” you catalogue rejection letters from conferences and publications. Can you tell us about the genesis of the blog and why you think it’s important to remove the shame around rejection?
I started the blog in grad school when I was in my late 20s. I was feeling a little self-conscious that I wasn't writing enough music or really winning any competitions. It just hadn't been my thing. I was also about to turn 30, and that is the cutoff year when you are no longer a young composer, but an emerging composer—whatever these titles mean. And so I just said screw it, I'm going to apply to every single competition, and if I get a rejection letter, I will post it online and make it cute.
I will have to say, about a week ago, I decided not to blog anymore because it's just harder and harder for me to keep up with it. It's easier for me to Instagram them, which I think is actually a perfect medium for my rejection letters now. But I am glad I started my blog over 10 years ago, because my students are now applying for competitions. It just takes some tenacity in my field in music, arts, or anything else, but you just have to try. And like the worst anyone can do is say no.
Have you had any moments with your students where you connected with them over your blog?
I had a student at Ohio Wesleyan University who was not necessarily the most outgoing. I remember pulling out my blog and saying, “I want to show you how many rejection letters I've amassed so far.” I think it was in the 80s at that time, and now we're in the hundred tens at this point. I thought it was cool that I got to go to my actual website and say “look, these are all my rejection letters since 2009. As a professor person, I still get rejection letters, and it’s OK.”
What is one of your most important pieces of advice that you give students?
In general, just to keep trying to experience life. I would say the best thing you can do as a young student is to learn about yourself. Get a hobby. Find something that interests you that will influence your music. Try to be a better person in the world. Figure out what your passion is outside of music, and learn how to communicate that through your music. That's not necessarily something they teach in class. Just study hard and really try to be a good person and a good citizen.
What are those things for you?
I like baseball a lot. I went to my first real ball game when I was 16 years old, and I really like the structure of it. I've been an L.A. Dodgers fan since I was 16 years old. I know the last time they won the World Series was in ‘88, which is when my youngest brother was born.
I'm also probably a little bit too much into my cats. I've actually started an Instagram with them. I should probably write music and listen to more music instead of being like, "Here's my cat."
And I I wanted to write a ballet once, so I take ballet classes on occasion. I started when I was 20, which is usually when ballet dancers retire.
You incorporate a lot of social themes into your work, from free speech to the #MeToo movement. How can young artists use their craft to improve the world around them?
I personally think the best way to do it is just to speak their own truth. There was a time in my life where I thought, “I just write music, what am I doing in the world? Is it really worth it for me to write music?” And I ultimately decided yes, because I had a colleague who told me I was doing great things for the world.
I would say as long as you're true to yourself, as long as you express yourself, you will have something to say, whether that's “political” or not. I still think you're doing good in the world by speaking your truth, and that's something that's really hard for younger people to understand. I think I'm getting better at it. You don't have to make the biggest change. I know that I'm not making the biggest change, but I know that as long as I'm truthful to myself, I'm doing what I meant to do on this planet.
What's something you wish you'd known before embarking on a career as a professional composer?
I wish I knew it was okay to take pieces that I liked and mimic them a little bit. When I was in middle school and high school, I thought, "I can never be a composer because I have no original ideas." And the truth of the matter is we don't have any original ideas. We steal but kind of make it our own. We make musical decisions. I wish I knew that it’s OK to absorb more of the music around me. If somebody has done something in the past, it's OK to just change it.
What keeps you coming back to Interlochen Arts Camp?
Oh my goodness. It is a thrill, because I love teaching the students here. I love the lake, and I especially love my colleagues—they're phenomenal colleagues. I feel like it's an honor to be here, and I just get to see a ton of performances all the time. It's just so fulfilling. Throughout the year, I get busy, because I have an academic day job. I don't have time to go to concerts. But here, I get to go to all these concerts. I get to see the Shakespeare play this week. I'm excited about going to the artists' opening tomorrow. That is just thrilling to me, and it helps me realize who I am and what my purpose here on this planet is.