Composing Tips

Article: Teaching Young Composers How to Earn a Living

Brandon Nelson has an intriguing blog aimed at composers that we all should subscribe to. The article I would like to direct you to is his recently (5-18-14) published  “Filling the Gap: Teaching Young Composers How to Earn a Living.” This article should be downloaded into the brain of every freshman composition major on the first day of school. It’s a brief article, but loaded with common sense. He succinctly touches on Commissions (Networking. Networking. Networking.), Self-Publishing, Commercial Publishing, Contests (check out The Composer’s Site), Recording Sales, Grants, and Scoring for Film/TV/Stage (not much in this category – he admits to having no experience here).

A lot of great information and advice in a small space. Read it today!

Composer Focus – web site

I just discovered a new web site – Composer Focus –  that looks fairly new – not a great deal of content yet, but what there is is excellent with the promise of more to come. especially the promise of offering multimedia courses that cover (quote):

Working in TV/Film and Game Music

Music Theory

Production Techniques

Music Business

Ear Training

(and more…)

Very attractive site with excellent offerings. One thing that looks interesting is Articles>Roundup, which are lists of stuff (must be the British term for lists), e.g.

5 books to learn how to compose for video games

Top 5 orchestration books

8 unique and unusual sample libraries

Choir sample library roundup

iPad Music App roundup [I can use this for my Creativity in Music semester course]

Choir sample library

String sample library

Audio file formats: a roundup

Notation software roundup

Composition Tip #26: Conduct!

Learn to conduct. At some point you will be called upon to conduct your music. Be ready for that day. For composers, conducting is like playing piano – a very useful skill to have to support what you do as a composer.

A conductor silhouette

You can also hasten the day by writing for groups that might be glad to perform your music and have you conduct it: Bands. Orchestra. Choirs. Brass choirs. Horn choirs.

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Composition Tip #25: Film Music!

John Williams

John Williams

English: Jerry Goldsmith conducting London Sym...

Jerry Goldsmith

David Raksin

David Raksin

Miklós Rózsa

Miklós Rózsa

 

Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann

Listen to film music. A lot of film music!

A lot of film music is among the most interesting and imaginative of the 20th century – they’re just aren’t any scores (listen and transcribe your own!).

Flexibility is or should be the ultimate goal of every musician and composer, and there is no one more musically flexible than a film composer, who has to be ready to compose a jazz theme one moment, a symphonic score the next, a chase scene the next, a haunting shakuhachi theme after that, and make the timing fit to the tenth of a second. Nobody has to have bigger ears and more composing chops than a film composer.

Read books on the history of film music, learn about Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin, Jerry Goldsmith, Miklos Rozsa, John Williams, and many more.

Resolve to learn film scoring at some point: click tracks, timing sheets, condensed scores and orchestrating, and of course all manner of computer and electronic music sequencing and sound manipulation.

Most of all, listen to a lot of film music. Take notes. Transcribe whatever catches your ear as worthy of emulating, copying, imitating, absorbing. Listen for timbres (colors),  orchestrations (combinations of sounds), voicings, chords, chord progressions, rhythms, ways to convey visual impressions in music (how do the greats score: tragedy? Joy? A sunset? Imminent danger? High energy? A peaceful, bucolic scene? Love? Playfulness? A majestic landscape? A historical era? A foreign location (Paris. London. Rome. Beijing. Rio. North pole. Moscow. Tahiti. Cuba. Nairobi. Cairo. Scotland. Madrid)?

If you’re between commissions, you could well spend the down time sitting down with a soundtrack and seeing how much you can learn from it.

Build that composer’s compost pile with film music!

 

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Composition Tip #24: Program Notes!

Writing

(Photo credit: jjpacres)

If you have published a work in any form, make sure that the publisher (even if the publisher is you) gets copies of your new work off to as many music reviewers as possible (for instance, just about every instrument has an instrumental society that has a journal that has a section devoted to reviewing newly published works). It’s always been a mystery to me why the vast majority of published compositions seem to have no information on the composer or any words from the composer on the work. Make sure that your publisher includes both.

More

Composition Tip #23: Systems

regolith graphic score

(Photo credit: g.rohs)

Sometimes ‘systems’ or techniques or styles or rules can make it easier to compose – but be ready to abandon the system for the good of the piece at any moment.

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Composition Tip #22: If You Meet the Buddha in the Road, Kill Him

Gautama Buddha @ Home

(Photo credit: Merlijn Hoek)

“If you meet Buddha in the road, kill him” goes the old Zen koan. I take this to mean: beware of excessive adulation of the Big Experts. Listen and learn from all the experts, all the books and articles and blogs (oh, my!). But don’t let them stop you from making up your own rules, finding your own way. You path to success in composition (and many other things in life) will not be the same as your teacher’s, your colleague’s, Beethoven’s, or mine. Learn what you can from every source, but follow your own instincts as to where your talent is most at home. You will not succeed by trying to be a carbon copy of anyone else (although it’s fine to imitate for a while to learn).

As the saying goes – be yourself; everyone else is taken.

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Composition Tip #21: Workshop Your Music

Workshop Weekend, Mar-2012

(Photo credit: maltman23)

Your composition is not really finished until you have had some sessions working with a performer (or group) where you bring the piece to life, work on the details in the real world. Pieces always benefit from tweaking – making small improvements – that are only possible in live rehearsals. Ideas that seemed brilliant in your mind or on paper or were so slick when Finale played all the parts sometimes don’t cut it when actual people are playing the parts, and hearing the piece live may give you all kinds of new ideas. Encourage players to suggest ways to make their parts more playable (watch out for their tendency to want to macho through everything without changes, however). Sometimes parts have to be difficult, but you can save a lot of needless suffering by making little changes that make the performer’s job easier or balance chords or timbres, and so on.

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Composition Tip #20: Just Show Up

Note as

Write every day. Something. Anything. 4 bars of whole notes! Anything! No excuse! Momentum and consistent effort is the most important thing. You get 12 gold stars for writing anything (just show up!); only 1 silver star for any the amount. The minimum you need for a piece is a tempo, a meter, and an instrumentation. Short is good. A lot of short exercises are, in fact, not only a good way to get going, but also a good way to experiment with new stuff: styles, techniques, instruments. Practice writing what you don’t know yet.

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Composition Tip #19: Different Every Time

Encourage performers to experiment with your notes. They may come up with better ways of doing it than you thought of. It may very well come out different than you dreamed originally. So what? With any luck, every performance will be different in some way. This keeps your music alive, ever-changing and thus interesting, rather than encased in plastic.

Which is more interesting, a live unpredictable grizzly bear or one stuffed by the taxidermist that never changes, never moves, never breathes? Here’s a radical thought (works best in chamber music): include short sections that say “continue [or improvise] for 30 seconds in the style of the piece”.

Below is a recording of a performance of one such piece. My “September Elegy” (written in response to the tragic events of 9/11) for natural horn in Eb and piano has 4 sections: Prologue – Chorale – Reflection – Epilogue. All but the Chorale are improvised (within the mood of the piece). The piece is different every time and different for every performer, but it’s still the same piece and always has something new to offer both performer and audience.