heather roche

Advice for young composers

I do a lot of projects with young composers (and when I say “young,” I’m generally referring to the under-35 set). A lot of these projects involve workshops with the composers, which are theoretically designed to simulate a kind of collaborative atmosphere. The idea is that we perform to the best of our ability under the guidance of the composer, the composer gains more experience and learns more about our instruments, his/her piece and talking to groups of musicians, and then we all go and have a nice beer.

Unfortunately, rather too often, in my experience, these workshops/rehearsals can turn sour. Too often it seems to me that interpreters start to assign points to themselves, every time they prove the composer wrong or can demonstrate that he/she has made a mistake. It goes quickly from collaborative environment to team sport. Well, a ‘team’ if you’re the ensemble. Should you be in the unfortunate position of being the composer in this situation, you’re on your own.

And in all likelihood, you might not even notice that this is happening. I’ve been amazed when in rehearsal I thought the workshop was a collaborative disaster and was sure I’d find the composer in tears in the hallway, then half an hour later I find an updated Facebook status, detailing how positively gorgeous the ensemble was to work with.

This might give the impression that one should have to tip-toe around sensitive moody performers, and it’s not really true. Well, actually sometimes it is. Moving on.

Right. So the point of all of this was that I wanted to set down a few of the ways I thought that composers could kind of protect themselves in these situations. For the most part, it’s fairly common sense stuff. Or basic professionalism. What it generally comes down to is the fact that we want to try to be as efficient as possible and these are mostly ways that you can help us to do so. My intention is not to bully composers or to be condescending. If you feel I’ve been unfair, you can take it out on me in the comments. So here goes:

* For your first rehearsal, show up on time with copies of your score and pencils (for yourself) and whatever else you might need. When I say on time, I actually mean early. If an ensemble starts a rehearsal at 10am, especially a bigger ensemble with conductor and it’s own rehearsal space, the players will be there early to warm up. That means that if you’re 10 minutes late for the start of your rehearsal, you’re actually there approximately 30 minutes later than the players. You weren’t there to advise us on the setup and you weren’t there to ask the questions individual players might have had for you before the rehearsal starts. If you are late, apologise profusely. Of course it happens, people come from other towns and trains are, well, trains. So try to make a quiet entry, apologise and ignore the daggers being shot at you. Do not, on the other hand, enter, drop your bag noisily onto the floor and then say “DOES ANYONE HAVE A PENCIL I CAN BORROW?”

* Here’s a sneaky trick that will endear you to the ensemble immediately: learn everyone’s names before you come. Ensemble websites are very handy for this. We’ve definitely learned your name. In fact, since your name is on the score we’ve been thinking about you for quite a lot of the day for many days preceding your first rehearsal. Isn’t that weird? I’ve been contemplating your name for days now while I work on your piece and suddenly you’re in the room. And you haven’t got a clue what mine is, and as far as I can tell, you’re not even interested. People’s names are a very powerful thing, and being able to say, “Hey Heather what’s happening in your part in measure 93?” rather than “CLARINET. WRONG MULTIPHONIC.” makes a rather big difference to my day.

* If you are part of a project where there are other young composers involved, go to their rehearsals (and make sure you have extra scores in case they come to yours). There’s a nice kind of solidarity that happens there (you have your own team!) and it will also give the ensemble the feeling that you’re invested in the project as a whole, and that you care about a long-term relationship with the group, rather than just the furthering of your own illustrious career! And there WILL be issues in other people’s pieces that will be useful to you in yours… and of course the ensemble likes to have an audience too. We give repeat performances of a lot of works, and while of course we pick those pieces based on the works themselves, if you’re lovely to be with and interested in us, it certainly won’t hurt.

* Think very carefully about any planned theatrical/movement elements of your piece. Saying, “Well, it’s not like I could imagine how it would look when 15 people did this on stage,” is a very very strange thing to hear from the composer in a rehearsal. It comes down to very basic things, I think. For example, if you have diagrams with arm movements, be clear whether we are mirroring the diagram (choose this option! it’s much easier to read!) or not. While this may all be very easily explained should you be in the room, chances are you won’t be for the first rehearsal. If we need to spend any amount of time trying to guess what you meant, that’s time we could have spent getting the piece together. If you want the entire band to look in one direction or another, consider the fact that we won’t be sitting in a totally straight line in order to see the conductor or each other. This means that if I turn my head 90 degrees to the right, the string players on the other side of the room will have to turn their heads even further in order to match my turn visually. Unless your violinist is an owl, this could be tricky. If you want us to sit in a perfectly straight line, alternatively, this could make visual contact with other players or with the conductor difficult. I would also say that if your movements are any more complicated than really basic things and you won’t be able to attend the very first rehearsal, make some videos of yourself doing the movements and put them online somewhere. Otherwise we waste a lot of time trying to guess exactly what you meant by the little drawings.

* So, everyone has problems with deadlines and we’re all so used to it now that I don’t even really want to bring the subject up. However, composers who moan about deadlines, especially in public (hello, Facebook), give me violent thoughts. Not meeting them is one thing (and let’s face it, most of us are setting early deadlines because we know you won’t meet them anyway), but complaining about them is a little offensive. As though evil performers create deadlines just to cause pain and suffering to poor composers. We have many ways to cause pain and suffering, but deadlines are actually just an attempt at being practical and organised. Wacky, I know.

* It wouldn’t be the worst idea to prepare yourself to speak about your work in general if invited to a rehearsal. There’s nothing more endearing than a composer who can speak articulately and passionately (and in a relatively short amount of time!) about his or her work. For us, it’s a chance to understand and feel included in your sound world. I think it’s very easy for an ensemble to make a composer feel put on the spot in this situation: suddenly 15 people are looking at you, waiting for you to say something brilliant. Of course, it doesn’t need to be that. And often, the questions aren’t exactly inspiring. But having a clear idea of what you might say if I were to ask you some of the following questions might make you feel more comfortable in these situations (of course some of these questions won’t apply to every piece):

* After the concert, you may feel distracted by thoughts about your piece. These may be positive thoughts, they may be negative ones. You might have the feeling that you’d like to go and be by yourself for a little while (in a positive or negative way). This is all very fine. But please, say something to us first. If you didn’t like the performance, straight after might not be the ideal time to talk about it (there’s a lot of adrenaline running through our veins still and perhaps we’re looking forward to that first post-concert beer), but something like, “Hey, that performance gave me a lot to think about. Would love to talk to you about it in greater detail, but in the meantime shall we have a beer?” is music to our ears. Or mine, anyway.

I think I might just leave it at that for now. This list was never meant to be definitive, nor as I said before, was it intended to bully composers. (It also doesn’t have much to do with the clarinet, specifically, but I think that might be another blog post!) But I do hope that it provides some food for thought and stimulates a bit of conversation on the ol’ Interwebs.

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