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A Performance Guide to Tammy Miller’s Learning to… a Song Cycle on the Experience of Grief in Five Poems by Mary Oliver

Anne Elizabeth Gray, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Grief is a universal experience, and yet it is something that as a society we hesitate to talk about honestly and frankly in the public forum. There are several misconceptions about grief in our society which can disrupt the healing process for a person in mourning. After experiencing cumulative grief, the author of this document found inspiration in Mary Oliver’s Thirst, a collection of 43 poems in which Oliver explored her own grief experience as a means to spiritual growth, and in the writings of Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D. on the common misconceptions of grief. The author of this document was inspired to commission a song cycle based on selected poems from the Thirst collection with hopes of creating a work of art that would open a dialogue about grief with the public. The result is the song cycle Learning to… by composer Tammy Miller, music for soprano and piano set to text from five Mary Oliver poems. This document will discuss the collaborative process between the author and the composer in the development of this song cycle. Discussion will also focus on the composer’s compositional background, style, and process. Information on Mary Oliver’s biographical history leading to the writing of Thirst, the critical reception of that work, and Oliver’s views on spirituality will also be discussed; as well as the misconceptions of grief based in the works of Dr. Alan Wolfelt, noted author, educator, and the founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. This document will examine ways in which characteristics of the grief experience are represented in the text and music of the songs. It will look at selected nuances of musical choices and how they enhance the text. Finally, it will discuss some potential vocal challenges related to diction, intervals, breath, phrasing, and negotiating register shift.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Gray, Anne Elizabeth, "A Performance Guide to Tammy Miller’s Learning to… a Song Cycle on the Experience of Grief in Five Poems by Mary Oliver" (2021). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI28713013.