composing

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 #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.

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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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Composition Tip #12: Write Chamber Music

English: Chamber Music Concert

Write a lot of chamber music. Chamber music gets played. It’s quick to do, relatively easy to rehearse and perform, and you learn from it right away and, thus enriched, you are ready to go on to the next thing.

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Composing Tips #11: Evocative Titles

Porcupine

(Photo credit: Bryn Davies)

Use evocative titles. A catchy title can generate interest among audiences or performers who haven’t heard your piece, and will keep it in their minds after they have heard it. Writing practice pieces is easier if you start with an interesting title: adjective + noun. E.g. “The Intoxicated Philosopher”; “The Amorous Porcupine”; “The Off-Balance Ballerina”. You have my permission to retitle them later as Sonata No. 4, Nordic Etude No. 1, etc. and then show them to friends.

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Composing Tip #10: Write Idiomatically

The Spring

The Spring (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Write idiomatically for the instrument; write stuff that sounds impressive, but lies well and is relatively easy to play; don’t write stuff that sounds easy but is difficult to play well. Players will praise your name for writing the former – or curse you if you write the latter. Keep asking yourself, would I like to perform this? – if you can’t answer an enthusiastic yes, start over.

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Composing Tip #9: Check with Players

Orchestral Violins

(Photo credit: jimcullenaus)

No matter how many times you have written for any particular instrument, always check with players about the capabilities of that instruments before you write, while you are writing, and check every note out in detail with them afterward. You will always learn something new, and sometimes tiny changes make huge differences in playability.

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