On Being a Composer, Lessons from a Tweet Gone Viral

A few days ago, in a minor fit of pique over a virtual project with some students, I tweeted the following:

Now, I wasn’t expecting this tweet to have more than 40 or 50 likes (as is fairly par for any tweet I make about new musicking). But instead, it passed the 500 mark. And what’s more, people started commenting. And the comments were full of advice about how to teach composers and how to be a composer. And the comments were for the most part useful, thoughtful, occasionally quite funny.

And so I wanted to sum up a little of what was suggested, as I think there were some really useful tidbits here. So if you’re a composer who is studying, or teaching, I hope these help you. They aren’t in any specific order, nor have I credited any of the tweeters – check out the thread if you want more!

Your First Collaborators Should Be Each Other

A lot of people suggested that composers should learn by writing for their peers. I’m inclined to agree, since this is how I got started in new music: growing up and doing my undergrad in a fairly isolated place, composers didn’t have access to visiting ensembles. So I played a lot of their pieces. Most of my friends were composers, from the beginning. This obviously had a big impact on me, but I was also lucky, as were the composers I studied with. Obviously this isn’t a perfect system: by only writing for other 18-24 year-olds, you don’t get a complete picture of what’s possible. Still other commenters suggested a mix of experiences with professionals and students, and using that experience to see the difference.

If you are writing for less experienced players, using the ABRSM guides is a really useful place to start. Looking at the pieces for Grade 8 for the instrument you’re writing for would be a great place to see what the technical abilities of a first or second year undergrad might be.

Working with Professional Groups Isn’t All Fluffy Bunnies and Rainbows

Many have complained of bad experience with professional groups: musicians saying something is “impossible” when it’s just difficult and un sight-readable. First of all, I think it’s really important to remember that not all musicians are the same. If you’re in the position of hiring groups for these gigs, do a little research: does the group have a history of collaboration? what are they like in these workshops (i.e., who else has hired them and can they be contacted for a reference?)? A little background research goes a long way. Similarly, be generous: these workshops are usually underpaid for the amount of work required. If you’re a student, use them to try things out and experiment, but don’t send them pages and pages of gymnastics just because you want to hear them do everything. Freelance performers lead very complicated and busy lives, and yes, sometimes we just don’t have time to practice your piece for 5 hours when we’re paid £150 for a workshop.

Also, learn from your peers. I’ve said this in a past blogpost, but it’s really important that you look at the scores of your peers and go to their rehearsals. It’s not just about “having your piece played”, it’s about the learning experience you have.

Your First Collaborator Should be Yourself

Many people suggested writing for yourself to start. Or learn a new instrument and then try to write for that one.

Touch as many Instruments as you can

The tactility of just holding an instrument, pressing its keys, feeling the weight in our hands can teach us a lot about the physicality of performance. It also reminds us of the effort involved. Learn to take it apart (if it comes apart), learn about all it’s pieces, how it’s cared for. The instrument is the performer’s closest companion.

If you don’t have access to a physical instrument, mime it. Watch videos of people playing that instrument, and then mime it yourself.

If you’re writing for strings, having a paper fingerboard is really useful. See this one as an example, by Donald Martino, available here.

Better yet: learn the basics of as many instruments as possible. Improvise on them.

Or, and here’s a very specific wind tip: learn to compose for historical wind instruments. It’s a great way to learn about what is idiomatic and what isn’t. Someone also suggested learning to make instruments.

Learn to Conduct your Music

Learning to conduct your own music is another great way to experience it physically. It’s also a great way to prepare for a workshop as it may help you to find some sticky points that will need extra rehearsing, and if the ensemble doesn’t already have a conductor and need some help, you can leap up to save the day. (I have been in workshops where we’ve called on composers to do this spontaneously, which I understand is scary – but we’re really not trying to embarrass you when we do this.)

Put Away the Computer

A lot of people have relayed experiences whereby first year composers weren’t allowed to use a computer to compose/notate. I don’t think this kind of limitation – especially if only temporary – is a bad thing. I think if the composer who inspired my initial tweet had needed to handwrite out every note he wrote, he would definitely have done things differently.

(Going to emphasise again that I’m suggesting this as a temporary limitation!)

I love handwritten scores. I know it’s not for every composer. But I think that slowing-down process is probably a useful experience for a lot of people. A good friend of mine went through a phase of hand-copying other people’s scores, just to slow down and to really look at what the composers he admired most were doing. He learned a lot from it.

(It’s been brought to my attention that insisting on handwritten scores excludes people who have certain disabilities or can’t read music, so I won’t be doing it. But I’d like to gently suggest it, for those who can.)

Listen, Listen, Listen and Listen

This was overwhelmingly the usual reply: get students to listen to more music with scores, go to more concerts, watch more rehearsals. And YouTube makes it easy to get started with this wherever you are (and whatever your current corona restrictions may be): spending a couple of hours with Score Follower/incipitisfy each week would go a long way.

Oh and: if someone in your department is organising trips to go and watch rehearsals of a local ensemble, for goodness’ sake: GO.

Especially if it’s chamber music. Chamber music and all its complexities are just the best thing in the world.

Remember you are Writing for a Musician and not an Instrument

This! For me a lot of this stuff boils down to this. If you are writing a solo piece (particularly), you are writing for me and not for the clarinet. There are things I enjoy doing more than others, and I have particular strengths and weaknesses (my single tonguing is embarrassingly slow). Check out the musician’s soundcloud, their website, listen to how they play, watch videos to get an idea of the physicality of their performance. This stuff is really important and is a big part of collaboration. Even if it’s a student workshop and you’re not going to get a lot of time with that musician, you can create a kind of “imaginary” collaboration by going through this process.

Think About Colour Instead of Pitch

Instruments are magical because of the colours they create. All of them more or less make the same pitches. But colours are unique and change given dynamics and register. Get into it.

Or another way to think of this is: the notes are just one part of the piece. If you’ve only thought about them, you’re not finished yet.

Constantly ask yourself: what is missing from the score? What “can’t” a score communicate?

Make Mistakes

I for one would far rather have a student in a workshop make loads of mistakes (those are the things you learn from) than come in with a score that’s perfect, and boring.

Change the way Composition is Taught

This section should probably be a whole new blog post. But if you’re a teacher, and you just see visiting performers as the last step, that’s a problem. If there’s a way to have us more involved from the beginning, choose that way. If there’s a way to have your students learn from us, rather than just have us perform, on stage, set apart from them, choose that way.

Not every performer likes teaching composition (this one does), but a lot of us do, even we if we don’t know it yet, or wouldn’t define it that way.

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1 Response to On Being a Composer, Lessons from a Tweet Gone Viral

  1. Alan Taylor says:

    Thanks so much Heather. Agree with every word you’ve summarised. Perhaps most of all on colour, and the sound of instruments in different parts of their registered. So many pieces submitted for the chamber orchestra I conduct seem to be based on the assumption that instrumental sounds are uniform in their sound across their range, and also equally easy to execute across the range.The composers sometimes have a bit of a shock.

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