Entry #1 - Surreal
Wow. I'm done.
Sleepless nights, countless hours in the library, keeping up with my coursework - it was difficult. I enjoy writing music, and before this project I often ended up with dead-end sketches; ideas that sound and feel great, but that when put on paper, came to a screeching halt. What I ended up with was maybe a 30-second skeleton of a melody, harmonic changes, and maybe some accompaniment parts. On the 1st of February I was in the computer lab and the library that day, working on different projects in each. I overheard my peers talking about how they're getting set to premiere one of their pieces at the composition studio recital in march, and that stuck with me for the rest of the day. Not as an attack to them, but as a detriment to myself. why haven't I gotten anything performed? As a sophomore, that's completely fine and normal, but I couldn't shake that feeling. The drive home was quiet, the radio was off. A melody started to play in my head, and got louder and richer the more I thought about it. I got home, popped out my laptop and started writing in the living room. An hour later I was done with 'Lullaby', the first piece in this collection. I showed it to my roommate, and that's when I had the epiphany, that stems from a lesson I had a year prior.
About a year ago I was adding Composition as a second major (I was a Music Education major at the time) and I wasn't taking lessons with a steady teacher yet, but I had the opportunity to take a lesson from Ellen Zwilich. I print out a couple drafts and finished pieces, and I show up to her office with the widest smile I'd ever given, and handed her my scores. We sit down, and in silence, she says a comment or two as she's looking the pieces over. She stops for a moment, looks up, and asks me, "do you have a recording of any of this music?". A little confused by what she meant, I replied "well, just a MIDI recording, I haven't asked anyone to play my pieces yet."
She then said something that hit me. "You're here, at one of the biggest music schools in the country, roaming the halls and studying alongside the future principal players and applied music professors, and you haven't asked anyone to play your music?" I froze for a moment and simply nodded my head. She continued, "I can understand being timid to ask someone to play your music, but a lot of performers are more willing than you think. A coffee or a donut will usually do the trick if a favor is too much to ask. I bet you can get an ensemble to play this piece today." She put her finger on a woodwind trio. She then kicked me out of her office to go find people to play the piece, and to let her know how it goes. A bit confused, I texted a friend asking for help, and he was more than willing to round up 2 others to get this going. 2 hours later I was in a room, rehearsing and simply listening a piece of mine, brought to life with live players. It felt amazing, having the real deal right in front of me. after 20 minutes of rehearsing, I recorded the piece on my phone, and that was that. Flash forward back to the living room, and my mind was set. I was going to write a short piece, and find people to play it, for every single day in February.
What a hell of a ride.
For all the challenges, there were the small rewards and milestones that kept me going; meeting people and establishing connections, getting to the end of every week, and more importantly seeing my peers enjoy my music. I write because I truly enjoy it, and having others come up and compliment me on the previous day's piece, or ask about who I was recording that day, it felt good. Just the fact that people were interested to listen in and appreciate the music was enough for me to keep going even when I had second thoughts about continuing. It was 110% worth it. To be frank, my mental state has still been in the writing mode that developed from the routine for the past couple days, so I feel like I have deadlines when the opposite is true. I leave the month of February behind with a ton of insight on how to write, and connections that I'll be using in the near future. Below are a couple tips for composers, specifically rehearsing pieces you yourself wrote with a group, as it may be difficult to know what your responsibilities might be.
Rehearsal tips and ETIQUETTE as a composer
Ask, and ye shall receive
For the longest time I felt like an inconvenience or a nuisance when I asked people to check out music I had just written or if they could play through something and offer comments about whether their part feels natural and idiomatic on the instrument they play. One of the things that stuck out immediately to me this month is that not only are people willing to, but they're excited about new music. When asking someone to play something, introduce yourself, a little snippet of what the piece is about, and your goals with the piece. If you're not sure about what your goals are...
establish a goal
Most of the time, the end goal of rehearsals ends up in one of these 4 categories;
- Performance at a recital
- Recording to submit to competitions/festivals
- Content to provide to your followers
- Feedback from players for idiomatic changes
Performances are a pretty big undertaking, especially if the parts are intricate and you're working with a group you stitched together yourself. Make sure you have a schedule planned out of rehearsals weeks before the concert and notify the performers of those dates/times. If they have a time conflict, try to work around their hours. There is a 'contract' method where you set everything out on a form that you have performers sign, but in an academic setting and without monetary compensation, I prefer planning the week's rehearsals out a couple days in advance, when I know full well what and when my obligations, and those of my performers, are.
Recording for submission to competitions and festivals is about as rigorous as performances are, if not more, as recording sessions are a test of mental and physical endurance. Get the nicest equipment you can find to record, and if that just ends up being your smartphone, that totally works. I was alternating between the Zoom XYH-6, SGH-6, and SSH-6 microphones, but there are more affordable options, like the Tascam DR-40 or the Shure SM-57(you'll need an interface for the Shure, or at the least an XLR to USB adapter).
Content creation falls in as a sub-category and is fairly easy to do with just your phone, and it can be something as simple as a 30 second excerpt of your performers going through the piece. Comedy is optional but does pander to a wider audience.
Asking for feedback on whether something is possible or not and how natural it feels is often a good segue into asking someone to play that piece for a performance or recording. You can always set-up a 1-on-1 of sorts with someone to discuss technique and have them play a couple sections of the music.
How to Rehearse (and when to step back)
When rehearsing your own work with an ensemble, it's helpful to remember both who you're working with and your goals for that rehearsal in mind. Pre-formed ensembles usually have a hierarchy and when that takes control over the rehearsal, it's best to just let the ensemble run it themselves and provide feedback when you feel something isn't sounding the way you intended. Ensembles you stitch together, intuitively, are a bit more hands on. My preferred strategy when first rehearsing recital ensembles is the "crash and burn" method, where I have the group run the piece down until it falls apart, then address the issues with that section and keep going until we get to the end. I feel like it gives the performers a better timeline of their expectations throughout the piece and sets in a road map of what their ears should expect too.
Being on the performing side of new music late last year with OPUS-C, I can see the energy from reading and playing someone else's pieces, but in doing so, I end up asking a lot of questions about compositional intention. If a line for example, is written in straight eighth notes, but there aren't any articulations or slurs, and all I have is a dynamic marking , am I fulfilling the composer's vision, or should I ask the composer for clarification on how long the duration of those notes are? This leads into two paths; either the composer didn't write them in, and it's clarified on the spot, or they didn't have solid concept of what they wanted. For this February project I had questions like those I answered every single day, and sometimes the answer wasn't a solid yes or no, but a "let's try it." Every question asked of you from a performer should have a concise answer, if not, work on the answer with them right then and there.
The Mental Game (of recording)
What I found in almost all of these Run/Rehearse/Record sessions is that mental lapse and exhaustion in a short time is very real threat. Given the environment the performers from the past month have been in - In that they have a limited amount of time to sight-read a piece (that often wasn't in just one time signature), where they know they're being recorded and that this will end up on internet, where it's going to last forever - it's a no-brainer that many of these days, the second full take was the worst, by a fairly large margin. My hypothesis is that we as classically trained musicians aren't prepared to run through a piece more than one at a given point in time. Whenever we play through a recital, or finish off an orchestra concert, we often put that rep away, maybe to be seen again in a couple years. We prepare and practice in a way that we don't bother to worry in the case we have to play a work twice in the same day. This is why pre-recorded auditions are so much harder to prepare for - because you spend two hours on something thinking it was going to get better with every take, when in-fact the opposite is true. The third take was often the best of the four or five I would take, after a short break and a refocusing on objective at hand.
The Physical Game (of Recording)
Brass players are usually the first to fall out of their prime form for the day, followed by vocalists, string players, and finally woodwind players. Doing full runs of 2-3 minute pieces is costly, especially in brass ensembles, as constant playing is an exponentially tiring thing. Using our lips and corners to buzz and keep embouchure in check is straining, never mind the fact that it's biologically foreign; Humans were definitely not built to play the trumpet, or the euphonium, or any of these wind instruments for that matter. It just feels a tad more natural playing a woodwind instrument. There's a bell curve of level of performance versus time spent playing that day, and being on the wrong side of it (i.e. too tired) is much more frustrating do deal with as the only solution is to take a break, which just takes up rehearsal time(or worse, reschedule). In my experience, chamber rehearsals that last longer than an hour have diminishing returns on time spent/work done. In between recordings of shorter pieces (~6 minutes), I'd say to take about half the length of the piece to cool down mentally and to ease on the chops/cords, as your performers endurance is of a limited supply per session.