The Sixteenth Note: A College Essay
By Sierra Blanco
This is an essay I wrote while applying to college on my identity as a musical theater writer.
The sixteenth rest was my downfall for months. I could hear the rhythm in my head, but when looking at the page it was as if the formulaic meter rebelled against the melody. By December, this really was problematic, since my reading was coming up the first week of January. Yet, the sixteenth rest persisted in offsetting my timing for the entire song.
To explain, I need to introduce myself: I write musicals. I’ve described myself with these words most of my life. I hear harmony and rhythm in every interaction, recognizing the natural pattern of everyday discourse just shy of song. I understand and create characters whose passions cannot be contained by spoken words. I aspire to find magic in the world.
This leads to the introduction of my current magnum opus: a musical of two acts and roughly a hundred and twenty pages, examining both the culture and pressure of high achieving high-schools and the way these schools address criticism and mold conformity. At the time of writing, I was enrolled in such a school, and this musical pointed out both the failings and oddities of such a place— without shaming my beloved alma mater. I poured my heart and soul (and probably half the hours I should have been sleeping) into making the musical striking – editing, reformatting, and shaping the show until its message and themes rang clear and true with each page turned. I self-produced two staged readings, and had even managed to procure a director I loved and a highly successful dramaturg to help oversee the third reading’s developmental workshop. However, one song had always held the show back.
The song in question, with its aforementioned sixteenth rest, was called “Belong” and it was the song that brought my protagonist Maria through the climax of the first act and into the second. I had already written four different versions of this song, and none of them quite fit. The problem, both musically and thematically, was the timing. The song was unspeakably irksome to wrangle into sheet music, never quite fitting in the meter I’d assigned it. I assumed this was due to the fact that I had to force it into a meter. The idea for the song had come to me while running from my basement gym class to my fourth-floor Spanish class. The short snippets of melody that made up the verses were parsed out on the landings in-between floors as I struggled against the flood of students going down from the upper floors. The scene was a beautiful cacophony of unbounded rhythms, tempos, and melody lines.
Looking back on that moment, I saw myself as both part of the fluid crowd and standing apart from it. Like the sixteenth rest, I realized I had my own perfect small place in time and space, as part of the throng and also as an outside observer with an independent voice and opinion. In freeing my sixteenth note from its binding meter, I was able to achieve a fluidity for the song, and for myself. I understood that the rhythm could find perfection by embracing its imperfections. I believe I became an artist in that instant. And now, three years later, I have been named a winner of the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Theatre Wing Musical Songwriting Challenge, based on songs from that musical. As I discuss with mentors from the NEA the orchestrations for the upcoming recording, they ask for clarification on my “tricky” rhythms. And I can now, with all confidence, assure them that their irregularity is beautiful and reveals more than could ever be expressed with my mere words.
I wrote this essay and revised it over the course of several weeks. It was in response to the Common Application prompt of “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.” I decided to relate this prompt to the problems I had transcribing the rhythm of a particular song for my latest musical into sheet music. It touches on my identity as a theater writer, and on my development in this path.
Sierra Blanco won the Sondheim National Young Playwrights Competition, Writopia’s Worldwide Plays Competition, NYC Write A Play! Competition, and was Guest Playwright to the O’Neill Young Playwrights Festival. Her poetry was published in the New York Times and her play “Bang!” in “A Decade of Shared Stories.” Her play “The Smallest Heroes” received a contract with YouthPLAYS. She received the Perelstein Discover Your Passion Scholarship for Musical-Theater Composition. She is a winner of the National Endowment for the Arts Musical Songwriting Challenge. She had three Off-Broadway productions of her work and maintains membership at the Dramatists Guild, AEA, and MENSA.