Thursday, August 22, 2013

THE YEAR OF SHADOWS Blog Tour, Day 4: From Band Nerd to Writer (+ giveaway)

I am so excited to have Claire Legrand, author of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls and now her new book The Year of Shadows, guest post on my blog today. And I especially love that she's talking about a topic that we have in common: our musical backgrounds. I wasn't in the band like Claire was, but I played piano for 13 years, so I was absolutely drawn to the musical setting and backstory to this novel:

Olivia Stellatella is having a rough year.

Her mother left, her neglectful father -- the maestro of a failing orchestra -- has moved her and her grandmother into his dark, broken-down concert hall to save money, and her only friend is Igor, an ornery stray cat.

Just when she thinks life couldn’t get any weirder, she meets four ghosts who haunt the hall. They need Olivia’s help -- if the hall is torn down, they’ll be stuck as ghosts forever, never able to move on.

Olivia has to do the impossible for her shadowy new friends: Save the concert hall. But helping the dead has powerful consequences for the living . . . and soon it’s not just the concert hall that needs saving.

One of my favorite passages in the whole book is when Olivia is describing the feeling you get when you hear a good piece of music for the first time. It's my favorite because, as a music lover, I've never had someone describe this feeling so accurately.

It's this strange feeling, when you hear a good piece of music. It starts out kind of shaky, this hot, heavy knot in your chest. At first it's tiny, like a spot of light in a dark room, but then it builds, pouring through you. And the next thing you know everything from your forehead down to your fingers and toes is on fire. You feel like the hot, heavy knot in your chest is turning into a bubble. It's full of everything good in the world, and if you don't do something - if you don't run or dance or shout to everyone in the world about this music you've just heard - it'll explode.

But you're not here to find out what I think. You're here to read Claire's thoughts, so take it away Claire...

On my blog and on Twitter, I’ve talked a lot about my past as a musician. I can’t help it; music is such a huge part of my life that to omit it from discussion of who I am now as an artist and a person would be like reading a book without including chapters 11-22. And to omit it from discussion of The Year of Shadows, a book with music at its soul, would be a disservice to Olivia’s story. I started playing the piano when I was in third grade. I’m not great—especially since I haven’t had regular access to a piano in years—but it was always fun, even on days when it really wasn’t fun and I felt something like Don Music from Sesame Street:

(Can we take a moment and reflect on the awesomeness that is classic Sesame Street? I may or may not have gone on a Sesame Street YouTube binge during the making of this post.)

 But playing the piano in no way compared to playing my trumpet. I still remember when the middle school band directors came to my elementary school and met with the kids interested in joining the band. For some reason, fifth-grade me wanted to play the flute—an incomprehensible idea to me now. (No offense, flautists of the world.) However, I couldn’t make a sound on it. The band director, wise woman that she was, suggested I try a trombone mouthpiece instead. That was a little better; the sound I made was something akin to a lackluster belch.

She then moved me to something a little smaller—a trumpet mouthpiece. I made a higher pitched, slightly less lackluster belching sound, and that was that. I was a trumpet player.
Drum Major Claire! circa 2003
  What followed were nine years of hardcore band nerdery—auditions and marching band contests, football games and recording sessions, solos and private lessons and nights spent practicing a “lick” (a passage of difficult music) over and over until I tasted blood. (Sounds dramatic, but it did happen on occasion.) I even attended college to study music. My goal was to play in the New York Philharmonic! Ah, such ambition.

Halfway through college, however, I had a revelation: I wasn’t ever going to be good enough to perform with the New York Philharmonic. Playing a trumpet was no longer an obsession; it was a chore. I loved playing with my friends in ensembles; the sense of camaraderie was unbeatable. But practicing hours a day in isolation? I hated that. And I was playing really well at that point in time, too. I think that’s what decided it for me: If I was playing so well and was still unhappy, then why was I continuing to torture myself?
My brass quintet, Perpetual Brass, February 2006. Brass Quintet No. 3, mvt. I, by Victor Ewald. This is from our recital, which was an incredibly long and challenging program—especially for sophomores! I played first trumpet on this piece, which means you can typically hear me playing the higher notes of the two trumpets. I apologize for any cracked notes! I suggest you do as I do and pretend they don’t exist.

A few years later, when I started writing The Year of Shadows, I perfectly understood Olivia’s feelings of bitterness and resentment toward music. Olivia grew up in a musical household; her father, Maestro Ottorino Stellatella, conducts their city’s major orchestra, the City Philharmonic. Music is in her blood; she can recite trivia about symphonies and composers more easily than she can recall what she learned in class that day. But when The Year of Shadows begins, Olivia hates that music is such a prominent force in her life. To her, it represents everything that has gone wrong in recent months. Without music, she thinks, her mom might still be around, and her family would not be broken.

My situation wasn’t like Olivia’s, of course. But it took me years to realize that the time I’d spent working to become a musician wasn’t wasted time.

Rather, studying music taught me discipline, how to work hard, how to make art. Exhibit A: Staying in and staying up late on weekends to practice when other people were out having, you know, lives. Exhibit B, several years later: Staying in and staying up late on weekends to write/blog/read/promote when other people are out having, you know, lives.

It taught me the value of stubbornness and persistence. Exhibit A: “You can’t be a drum major because you play the trumpet and we need you on the marching field,” they said. “Yeah?” I responded. “Well, watch this.” Commence audition after which I held the position of drum major for two years. Exhibit B, several years later: “It’s too hard to get published. It’ll never happen. You should stick with what you’re good at. You should keep playing your trumpet.” “Yeah? You don’t think I can do it? Well, watch this.”

It taught me the value of taking initiative and making something out of nothing. Exhibit A: Forming a brass quintet with four friends, making recordings, competing in contests, performing in recitals, pushing ourselves artistically. Exhibit B, several years later: Starting a website for middle grade short fiction with three friends, selling an anthology, pushing ourselves artistically.

Like Olivia, it took me a long time to work past my anger and reach a place of acceptance—that while music means something different to me now than it once did, it’s still an irrevocable part of who I am, and something worth valuing. 

My brass quintet, Perpetual Brass, February 2006. Brass Quintet No. 3, mvt. IV, by Victor Ewald. This is from the same recital as above, and the same cracked notes apologies apply! 

When I wrote The Year of Shadows, I of course hoped that all readers would enjoy it, that something about Olivia’s story would move them—whether it’s the friendship between Olivia and Henry, the paranormal element, or even Igor the quasi-talking cat. But I especially hoped the musicians out there would love it—the band nerds past and present; the singers and orchestra geeks; the musicians in profession or simply at heart. I hoped they would smile to see their favorite pieces mentioned and laugh knowingly at the jokes poking fun at trumpet players. Most of all, I hoped they would share Olivia’s story with their non-musical friends, students, children. Maybe I won’t ever be a great music teacher or trumpet player, as I once dreamed. But maybe, through Olivia’s story, I can introduce a love of music to young people in a different way—a way I would have never thought possible—and a way I would have never discovered if I hadn’t found the courage to leave behind everything I thought I knew.

That, I think, is one of the most important things to take away from The Year of Shadows: Things don’t always turn out the way you thought they would. Sometimes they turn out worse, and sometimes better. But either way, only you can make the decision to draw upon the best parts of your past to make the best possible present.


And now it's time for a giveaway. One lucky winner will receive a hardcover copy of The Year of Shadows. U.S. and Canada addresses only please.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Claire Legrand used to be a musician until she realized she couldn't stop thinking about the stories in her head. Now a writer, Ms. Legrand can often be found typing with purpose at her keyboard, losing herself in the stacks at her local library, or embarking upon spontaneous adventures to lands unknown. Her first novel is The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, a New York Public Library Best Book for Children in 2012. Her second novel, The Year of Shadows, releases August 27, 2013, with her third novel,Winterspell , to follow in fall 2014. She is one of the four authors behind The Cabinet of Curiosities, an anthology of dark middle grade fiction due out in July 2014 from Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins. Claire lives in New Jersey with a dragon and two cats. Visit her at and at


  1. I was in choir and band and I loved it.:) We had lots of concerts and hung out together a lot.

    Thank you:)

  2. I played the flute, and like Claire, realized it wasn't making me happy, no matter how well I managed to do. I believe everyone has a knack- one super-awesome passion that can make them happier than everything else, and for those people that have the courage and self-knowledge to seek it, I salute you. Great job, Claire, on finding a way to celebrate every step of life's journey. <3

  3. If I could play any instrument it would probably be the piano. I love the way gifted piano players just seem to glide their fingers on the piano and create amazing music. They seem to exude so much passion. I also have played the piano just for fun and enjoyed it.

  4. I played Piano when I was really little but I don't remember it. If I could play any instrument I would play the violin because my mother did when she was young.

  5. I have zero musical talent. Tin ear, can't carry a tune in a bucket, and so forth. Couldn't join the choir and took piano lessons for only one summer (the year I was 8). Wish I could tickle those ivories like Diana Krall!

  6. Does being in choir count? Cause I was in choir when I was in elementary school. I really liked that, it was super fun.

    Grace Radford/Anna Pett

  7. I used to play the piano when I was in elementary school. I also sang choir. But all these took a back seat when I started to take Dance more seriously.

  8. When I was in middle school I still remember when I played the violin in orchestra. I quick tho after only two years... 1) I really didn't like the homework sorta deal that came along with it like filling out that practice calender of how many minutes you practiced. I ended up lying most of the time for that anyway. And 2) We had a violin prodigy in my orchestra and no one could be better than her...I felt surpassed. Haha. I always wanted to pick up that instrument though again but never did for some reason.

  9. Yes, i was in band from 5th grade all the way thru high school. I played the was fun most of the time...except for wearing the Marching band outfits that never fit me right!

  10. If I could be an instrument, I'd be a harp!

  11. I was in choir in elementary school. Despite not being a great singer, I stuck around because we sang awesome songs like Colors of the Wind from Pocahontas. It also gave me enough confidence to try out for the musical in high school, so in all it was definitely a good experience :)

  12. Thanks for sharing your story, Claire! As someone who's completely tone deaf but loves music, I always wish I could sing along to the songs I enjoy, let alone toodle on a piano or something. Never mind reaching the blood-drawing level!
    Thanks for sharing the videos, too :-)

  13. I was never in any band and especially not in choir because I most definitely cannot sing! I used to play the piano, but I quit before I really got any good at it. I think I'd probably choose either piano or guitar to play now if I could : )

  14. I'm in band right now in middle school. I play flute! No offense taken. :)

    I used to play piano and sucked at it too, but now I'm trying to pick it back up again.

    Right now I dream of be a professional flute player, but I'm glad you've become an author. I love your books! I'm uber excited to
    read your new book too!

    I really liked your recordings as well. :)

  15. I was in the school Choir for 6 years. In 2 different schools. I loved it. I was very happy that I was chosen to be the "President" of the Choir during my Senior year.