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.

Composition Quote of the Day: Our Duty

Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso collaborated...

We have a duty towards music, namely, to invent it.

–Igor Stravinsky

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Composition Tip #18: Don’t Fall in Love with Your Ink


(Photo credit: designshard)

Don’t fall in love with your ink. What you write is not Holy Writ. Your notation is just your best current guess at how to realize the nebula of sound you hear inside your head. There is almost always another way to do something, achieve an effect. Be ready to change anything and everything at any time for the good of the piece or to make it more playable (listen to the players. Composers – even you – don’t know everything). Or even to throw out the whole thing (sometimes starting over completely is the best/easiest way to fix a piece).

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Composition Tip #17: Improvise!

Improv Games Book CoverImprovisation is where music is born, and it behooves us as composers to do a lot of it.

Learn to improvise on both a melodic and a percussion instrument. Piano is an ideal place to start for any composer, since you can do melody, bass, harmony, and rhythm. But any instrument is good, and the more, the merrier.

Jazz is great, but remember, improv doesn’t have to be jazz; you can improvise music in all kinds of styles (march, dirge, lullabye, fanfare, children’s song, etc.).

Improvise with other people! You will harvest great inspiration (and get to steal a lot of ideas) if you improvise with others.

(Blatant plug alert). If you don’t improvise much but would like to, you might check out 1) my improv web site (Improv Insights) and 2) one or more of my classical improv books:

Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians (354 p.)

Improvised Chamber Music

Improv Duets

Improv Games for One Player

(all published by GIA)

Composition SetUp #1: Chase Scene

Just for fun and for those that are interested, I’m going to launch a series of composition set-ups. As with learning anything, it goes best if you do some every day, and composition is no different; sometimes it’s easier if you have an external supply of micro-challenges to draw on to get you going. These will be occasional (not every day), but I’ll toss them out now and then to have fun with if you choose. Feel free to change any part of any of these. The details of each are not so important; the only important thing is that you write something (anything!) every day.

A car chase sequence of The Chain Reaction.

Composition SetUp #1:

Chase Scene. You are allowed 4 notes only: C D G and Ab. 2/4 meter. Lots of fast notes. Tempo MM=144. Bass and hi hat set up a groove. Muted (Harmon) trumpet sizzles a jagged theme. Total duration: exactly 20 seconds.


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Composition Tip #16: Drum!

A photograph showing various types of beaters,...

Buy a drum. Learn some percussion skills, however basic. Treat the world as a percussion instrument and be constantly making up interesting rhythms on any surface near you. All the time! This new sensitivity and knowledge of rhythm will work its way into your compositions and you and your compositions and the world will be better for it.

Start acquiring assorted percussion instruments. Shakers and the like are cheap, but consider laying out a bit more for the king of personal percussion, a djembe. It’s easy to lose yourself in djembe sessions.

Join a drum circle. Or start one. And/or: get a buddy and drum together. Or one of you drum and the other plays their regular instrument. Switch off.

Include percussion in your pieces. Percussion of any sort adds sizzle and pizzazz and panache and élan to practically any piece. If I perform older percussion-less pieces of mine, I add improvised percussion to them whenever possible. The piece is always better for it.

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Getting Started II

Classical Guitar, front and side view. This im...

[continued from an earlier post]

Besides playing some instrument (any instrument), composing needs two things to happen: the itch to write something and something that needs something written for it (ok, I’ve used up a month’s supply of ‘somethings’).

When I was in army bands and grad school I was simply too busy practicing to compose anything, although I did do some transcriptions.

When I got my full-time orchestra job, I suddenly had every afternoon free. What a concept. The first thing I did was read. Books books books. I hadn’t read anything that wasn’t assigned in years, and I attacked this deficit like a ravenous wolf (assuming hungry wolves like to read), up to four books a week. The other thing I did was go back to guitar. I had played a great amount of guitar in high school and college, but not at all in the army or grad school. So I got a classical guitar and started working on classical again. I even taught classical guitar to kids (classes of 4 – the school’s choice, not mine) for a couple years on the side, which turned out to be tougher and less fun that I thought it would (lessons were 40 minutes, and it took about 20 of those to get the guitars tuned).

I moved to steel string guitar and bluegrass. I discovered a young American guitarist in town (living with his Swiss girlfriend) and we started playing together. We formed a folk/swing picking/singing duo that even had a couple of minor gigs here and there. I think we were together a year or two; not long, but it was an important transitional time: I started composing. I wrote pieces for guitar and mandolin (which I started playing on the side). I wrote a song with lyrics for us to sing (“Sooner the Better”). We usually had picking solos in the middle of our pieces, so I started writing out solos that sounded improvised (since I did not yet improvise). It was time to learn to improvise. I had contracted the itch to improvise. So I got an electric guitar (Gibson ES347), a sexy semi-hollow body and started taking lessons with a couple of jazz guitarists in the area (funny: I learned my classical in the states and my jazz in Europe).

And then, mirabile dictu, came Max.


Composition Tip #15: Grand Finale


(Photo credit: CLF)

Sibelius (software)

It’s a good idea to use pencil and manuscript paper in the first stages of composition: it’s quicker and you can do stuff that’s not necessarily easy on on the computer.

But later use a computer notation program such Finale or Sibelius to check for sounds, errors, etc. I catch lots of mistakes when I get to hear it played back as written (even considering the stiff computer rendition), and I can quickly tweak, improve, and correct the manuscript. Printing out parts is quick and easy. Revisions are a snap.

People play better when you present them with manuscript is very clear. There is not much excuse any more not to do this. Music calligraphy is still a great skill to have, but everyone expects to see computer notation these days.

Many publishers expect you to submit your work as a flawless Finale or Sibelius file, so it behooves you to work up some serious computer music notation chops.

Example of a music manuscript: Johann Sebastia...

Caveat: it is also possible to do very cheesy work with these programs – you still have to learn the art and craft of producing good music manuscript to make sure it looks professional – it doesn’t do it by itself.

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Composition Tip #14: Join Up

Português: Logótipo da organização norte-ameri...

After you have something performed or recorded, join a performing rights society: ASCAP or BMI. Time to be a card-carrying member of the club. Performing rights societies not only watch out for your royalties, but they offer grants, competitions, and a wealth of resources on the business side of composing (who knew there was such at thing?).

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Composition Tip #13: New Composers: Chum!

Boy fishing from pier

If you get a piece that works, send it to everyone you know who might possibly be interested.

Give your stuff away by the boatload at first.

Get known, build up some demand before you start charging huge amounts for your stuff.

Fishermen call this “chum”.

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