Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Procrastination & Perfectionism: Slaying the Two-Headed Dragon

At first glance, procrastination and perfectionism may seem unrelated, or at least at opposite ends of the spectrum. But I suspect that they’re intricately linked, with each directly feeding the other. At best, procrastination and perfectionism can cause a creator (i.e. composer, writer, or artist) to work in fitful, inconsistent bursts of activity; at worst, they can halt a creator temporarily or permanently. So, how do you slay this two-headed dragon?

First, let me explain how procrastination and perfectionism are related. I’ve had numerous composition students show up for their lessons at Roosevelt University with not much music written. If this happens for one week, there’s nothing yet to worry about, but after two or more weeks, a pattern starts emerging that needs to be addressed. Students cite many reasons for their lack of preparation – an upcoming exam, a term paper to write, extra shifts of work for their out-of-school jobs – all of which are valid. But after a few weeks of this, I start to inquire deeper into what exactly is stopping them from composing. Have they scheduled time into each day for composing? Are they holding to this schedule? Do they make a list of daily/weekly composing goals? Then, I ask if they feel the music has to be perfect, either before they can write it down or as they’re notating their first draft. More often than not, we’ve found the two-headed dragon! Self-doubt and fear of being imperfect leads to procrastination, which in turn contributes to increasing amounts of self-doubt.

To slay the dragon, I suggest a few thoughts for you to ponder:

1. No one is perfect.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, our idiosyncrasies, things we do really well, and things we want to improve. Have you ever met someone who does everything perfectly the first time around and never makes any mistakes, even when they’re learning a new skill? Stop putting unrealistic pressure on yourself.

2. The works we create aren’t perfect either.

How many creators have produced their masterpieces in a single sitting? We have evidence of how many artists have sweated out draft after draft of their works (Ludwig van Beethoven covered manuscript pages with ideas that he then struck out), or even made practice pieces in between projects (Leonardo da Vinci filled up sketchbooks with drawings and observations). So why are we holding ourselves to a much higher level of perfection than the masters could when they were developing their craft? Which leads to…

3. Stop comparing finished pieces to your own works-in-progress!

This sort of comparison doesn’t usually end well, and can really take a toll on your confidence and feelings of self-worth. Instead of poring over every “perfect” aspect of a masterpiece, ask yourself what might the original drafts look like? How many ideas did Beethoven have to brainstorm, toss out, then brainstorm again until he finally arrived at the best idea to fit the needs of the piece? Take this line of questioning one step further and ask yourself - what do the composer’s early pieces sound like? Let’s face it, there are very few Mozarts among us for whom everything is innate. The vast majority of us start from some point of not knowing, and through a long process of trial and error, we hone our skills and craft. I suggest finding early works by composers you admire and study them – you’ll see them grappling with learning the craft and discovering their unique “voice,” just like you.

4. Focus on your craft every day.

For most of us, the only way to improve is by regular and consistent development of our skills. If you compose only every couple of months, your personal development will be disrupted by these infrequent stops and starts. But if you’re used to composing every day, you can regularly hone your skills (you will also have a much easier time getting into “composing mode” if it is a practiced habit). In other words, compose every day so that it is a comfortable, familiar process. Even if you can only schedule 30 minutes per day, do it – don’t let yourself procrastinate! Hold yourself accountable to sticking with your schedule. Use a reward system if you need to; for instance, if you compose every day for a week, you can watch an episode of Game of Thrones, go to a concert, have a beer – whatever works for you.

5. Embrace imperfection in your pursuit of perfection.

This is the most important point of all. Accept the fact that you will not likely be perfect; when you do, you are free to write whatever you want, no matter how imperfect it may be. Once you have a first draft down on paper, you can now start sculpting the material into something stronger and closer to perfect. But without a first draft, there can be no comparison, and no manner for you to assess what makes something strong or weak.

Ultimately, creators need to be confident in their abilities, and not worry what others think of their works. Somewhere along my path to becoming a composer, I stopped caring what others thought my music should be and focused on what I wanted my music to be. For me, this has made all the difference in accepting my imperfections and slaying the two-headed dragon.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Composer Challenges 3.0: Building a Playlist

When I was in college, I spent a good portion of each week in the music library, pouring over scores and listening to recordings. I wanted to study what composers have already experimented with musically, to see what things worked, what things didn’t, and what I can learn from these pieces. Over the years, I’ve maintained this habit for a variety of reasons: to expand my knowledge base, to challenge my own composing process and sonic world, and to prepare for composing a new piece by saturating my brain with music of similar instrumentation or dimensions (this helps me to figure out what kinds of sounds I like and what I don’t, what I might want to experiment with, and so on). In other words, score study gets the creative juices flowing!

So, as another academic year begins, I’ve created Composer Challenges 3.0 for my composition students at Roosevelt University, where I’m serving as artist faculty this year. I’m sharing the challenges here for anyone to try. Ideally, each challenge is to be done in one week (to match an academic semester), but these can be done over any length of time.

This round of challenges is for students to develop a “playlist” of a wide range of works. The goal of this project is to familiarize students with researching works in different genres/idioms, learning a bit about what repertoire has been created within each genre (and by whom), and then studying works (with scores if possible; definitely with audio). These activities will be beneficial not only while the students are in school, but after graduation as well.

As part of the assignment, I have students focus on a 5-7 minute segment of a piece (since some of these will get quite large), doing careful analysis of any music parameters that they find interesting in the excerpt. These music parameters can be anything – melody, harmony, pitch content, counterpoint, orchestration, texture, form, tension/relaxation – basically whatever the student thinks the composer is utilizing in an interesting manner. Students are welcome to study more or all of a piece if they wish, but as lesson time is limited, we will focus our time on a small segment as to not impede too much on the main focus of their lesson (i.e. the pieces they’re composing).

There’s one stipulation in building their playlist: students can choose composers from any century (unless otherwise indicated), but a composer can only be chosen once. This will help diversify their playlist. Here goes:

1. Solo instrument (not piano)
2. Voice with piano
3. Duo or trio (with or without piano)
4. String quartet
5. Woodwind quintet, reed quintet, saxophone quartet, or brass quintet
6. Pierrot ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion)
7. American idiom #1: folk, pop, rap, or rock
8. American idiom #2: jazz, blues, Motown, or R&B
9. A cappella choir
10. Orchestra, post 1920
11. Wind ensemble
12. Opera or musical
13. Anything goes! Choose a piece that somehow relates to what you’re composing now.

Finally, students should choose works that not only bring them much enjoyment, but will also challenge the way they currently perceive music. As composers, we need to get out of our comfort zones every now and then – these are the works that can help our music develop in new and exciting directions.

Enjoy the process of building your playlist!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Composers & Competitions: To Enter or Not To Enter?

Throughout my career, I’ve heard much debate on the value of composers entering composition competitions. Should we? Shouldn’t we? If we win, does this mean that our music and career are validated? If we don’t win, should we pack away our score paper and notation programs to pursue another career?

There are many good reasons to enter a competition: a cash award that can help you pay the bills; a performance in a city, state, or country outside of where you live; a recording you can use to interest others in your music; recognition/publicity for you and your music; a grant for a project of your own devising; an opportunity to compose a new piece for an organization you’ve not worked with before… so how do you know if a particular competition is worth your time and resources to enter?

To help you decide, try asking yourself the following questions:

1. What are your expectations for winning the competition? 

If you think it will lead to instant fame, think again. Realistically, there are very few awards that can truly change one’s career trajectory overnight (with notable exceptions – for instance, Caroline Shaw, the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, was a relatively unknown composer who became an instant sensation). So you need to ask yourself, what is it that you hope to gain by entering a particular competition? Make a quick list of how the competition would benefit you to help you decide.

2. Is there an entry fee?

Some competitions are free to enter, while others require an entry fee. If there’s a fee, ask yourself if the competition’s prize is worth the cost, particularly if you also need to spend money to submit scores and recordings by snail mail.

3. Does the competition provide you with a performance?  

If so, will they also cover your expenses to travel and lodging to attend the concert? Bonus points if they also cover your meals!

4. Will you receive a recording of the performance? 

You usually can’t use this recording for non-commercial purposes, but many competitions will allow you to use the recording on your website or Soundcloud page so you can share your music with the world, as well as interest potential musicians in performing the piece.

5. Do you have a strong and suitable piece to submit that matches what the competition is asking for? 

For instance, if the competition asks for a 10-15 minute piece for large orchestra and all you have is a seven minute composition for string orchestra, now might not be the right moment to enter. However, keep track of each contest that you find so that as you write works that matches their requirements, you can submit them in future rounds.

6. If the competition results in your needing to write a new work for an upcoming concert, do you have enough time to compose the piece? 

One of the dangers of entering competitions of this sort is not budgeting adequate time to write a piece alongside other activities in your life. If you’re not careful, you might not have the time you need, which can result in a very stressful composing situation and potentially a less than optimal piece. Before you enter this type of competition, take a careful look at your schedule.

Personally, I encourage composers to enter competitions. The payoffs can be very beneficial and wonderful, as long as you don’t take the losses personally. Winning any competition is a roll of the dice – you never know quite what the adjudication panel is looking for – so all you can do is submit your best work, then forget about it until you get your congrats/regrets letter. Whether you win or lose, remember that the value of your music is not determined by any competition or group of judges; this comes from within yourself and whether you’re doing what you love.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Why Composers (Should) Go on Concert Sprees

Near the end of May, I attended eight concerts in seven days, traveling all over the Chicago area in my quest. I haven’t experienced had a concertizing stretch like this in quite a while! A concert spree is a good thing for a composer to do every so often, for many reasons: to hear fresh, newly composed pieces as well as established repertoire; to make connections with musicians with whom they might collaborate in the future; to discover which musical elements and sound combinations in a piece work well to a composer’s ear and which don’t; to hear how the musicians finesse and shape their musical passages; and to understand how musicians navigate challenging pieces in which tuning, range, rhythm, or other elements can be problematic. What I gain when attending concerts helps inform my compositional process and future projects; also, I find that garnering a large amount of knowledge in a short amount of time helps me conceive of music in ways I don't normally get from attending an occasional concert every few weeks. What did I learn on my latest spree? Read on…

1. “New Works Sampler” – Opera America Conference
First up, I watched Opera America’s live stream of their New Works Sampler concert that was taking place at their conference in Montreal, Canada. The concert featured scenes from seven operas that were either recently premiered or still in development. Four composers were Canadian – Tim Brady, Neil Weisensel, John Estacio, and John Harris – and three were American – Laura Kaminsky, David T. Little, and Ricky Ian Gordon. Several were on either political themes (revolutions, the last hours of JFK, the immigrant experience in America in the early 1900s) or societal issues (bullying, the life of a transgender teenager). One opera reimagined the Greek tragedy of Medea into modern times, which was a nice twist of an old tale. I was surprised, though, at the number of operas focused on stories of politics and social issues. Sure, this makes sense – people everywhere are grappling with our shared history and humanity. But I am looking for something, well, more fantastical when it comes to opera…a story line that is familiar enough to engage audiences, but with enough differences to break away from the rest of the pack and spark audiences’ imaginations. Regardless, I was very inspired to see that the world of opera is flourishing for composers and opera companies alike. You too can also watch the New Works Sampler, as it is preserved online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4WBtaot__w

2. “Laying Down the Law” – Patrice Michaels, soprano, Kuang-Hao, piano, and John Bruce Yeh, clarinet
Held at the University of Chicago, Patrice Michaels programmed songs and arias on social justice, homelessness, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Featured on the concert was the partial debut of Patrice’s own The Long View, a large, nine-movement song cycle she is currently composing that features texts by or about Justice Ginsburg, or having to do with social justice. Laurie Altman’s Laments of the Homeless Woman, Margaret Bonds’ Minstrel Man, and William Grant Still’s Grief were also performed. My own My Dearest Ruth was included as well, in which I set the last letter written by Martin Ginsburg, Justice Ginsburg's husband, to his wife before he passed away. Patrice ended the concert by dressing as Justice Ginsburg to perform an aria from Derrick Wang’s new opera Scalia/Ginsburg. Peppered among these weightier texts were piano preludes by George Gershwin and Nikolai Kapustin that added lighter, jazzy moments to the concert. This concert was not only thought-provoking with its strong social justice message, but it was also for a good cause, as all proceeds benefitted the “You Can Make It” family shelters in local Chicago neighborhoods.

3. “In the Penal Colony” – Fringe Opera Chicago
Chicago’s music programs in colleges and universities are producing quite a bounty of opera singers these days! Several graduates from local universities founded Fringe Opera Chicago in 2014. While their company may be relatively new, this talented group adeptly performed In the Penal Colony by Phillip Glass. The opera questions the premise of capital punishment by means of a prisoner who is to be slowly and excruciatingly executed by a machine that will tattoo his crime on his body over the course of twelve hours (and yes, I found this story captivating!). The most unique feature of this performance is that it was held in a midsize studio at Lill Street Art Center, replete with canvases and art materials scattered about the room. About 60 audience members were divided in half, one on each side of the room, with the singers and actors staged diagonally across the middle and the musicians tucked discretely in a corner. The intensity of the story mixed well with both the close-packed studio and the tension in Glass’s music, making the audience feel as though we were caught in the crosshairs of the unfolding drama ourselves.

4. “Opera for All: Once upon a Windy City” – Field Elementary School
Chicago Opera Theater annually offers the Chicago Public Schools a wonderful education outreach program that results in classes composing and performing 10-15 minute mini-operas. The students start out the school year with a trip to a local museum (this year, it was the Chicago History Museum), from which each class brainstorms a story based on what they’ve learned. Over the course of the year, COT artists help the students to brainstorm their opera’s topic, write dialogue, compose a group song, and learn choreography for a group dance number. The two mini-operas I witnessed involved an altercation between American settlers and the British at Fort Dearborn, and a pair of siblings who time travel back to the Great Chicago Fire (enlisting the help of the Obamas and Michael Jordan) to put it out. In a city where funding for the school system has been under constant duress (as our state government hasn’t passed a budget in a year), COT is helping these children experience the joys of creativity and music-making. Was this a polished performance? No, but that wasn’t the point. The students were excited to share their hard work with the audience and did a respectable job with their shows. More importantly, I hope the enthusiasm these youngsters have gained for the arts stays with them throughout their lives.

5. “Cosmic Convergence” – Chicago Sinfonietta
I have grown accustomed to expecting the unexpected at Chicago Sinfonietta concerts, and this concert was no exception. For the first half of the concert, the Sinfonietta teamed up with Dr. José Francisco Salgado, and astronomer and visual artist. Salgado has spent time over the past ten years creating films of space that are synced to particular pieces of music, a number of which we were treated to in the concert on a gigantic screen erected behind the orchestra. For instance, we watched spectacular footage of the planets Jupiter and Mars while listening to the corresponding movements in Gustav Holst’s The Planets. I especially enjoyed Salgado’s deep space pictures of exploding stars and black holes during two movements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. At intermission, audience members could learn more about our solar system by perusing science exhibits. Chicago Sinfonietta is quite the master of cross-over concerts – I’ve seen acrobats tumbling up the aisles and across the front of the stage, as well as a concerto for bagpipe and orchestra – but I found this pairing of science and music to be particularly poignant. For many concert-goers, how a composer writes music is a total mystery, a process that appears somewhat magical. I feel similarly about the origin, vastness, and beauty of space. Having the mysteries of the universe and music brought together by Dr. Salgado, maestra Mei-Ann Chen, and the Sinfonietta musicians made for a wonderful concert.

6. NU Saxophone Ensemble - Northwestern University
This was the shortest concert of the week, running about an hour, but I was blown away by the musicality of Mr. Taimur Sullivan’s saxophone studio. Comprised of nine students in various levels of undergraduate and graduate studies, these saxophonists tackled their repertoire with a poise, preciseness, and clarity of tone that I found uncommonly good. Mr. Sullivan programmed an array of intriguing works, from Caryl Florio’s Quartette (written in 1879, and one of the earliest works written specifically for saxophone quartet) to two movements from young composer Joel Love’s Three Images, written just this year (Love’s piece was quite good – he has a great ear for writing for saxophones). I was particularly interested to listen to the balance when all nine saxophones played together. When I think about scoring saxophones, I find them to similar to how I conceive of balancing a string ensemble or a choir – as long as you’re careful when you orchestrate, you can’t do much to imbalance the group overall. The repertoire I heard seemed to support my view.

A quite side note: this concert was held in Northwestern’s new Galvin Recital Hall in Evanston, which proved to be very fortuitous on this particular evening as we were having a spectacular thunderstorm. For those of you who haven’t been to this hall yet, the back of the stage is comprised of floor-to-ceiling windowpanes, so the audience was treated to occasional and exhilarating lightning strikes.

7. “Word on the Street” Exhibition Concert – Nicholas Senn High School
Senn is known to be one of the best arts high schools in the Chicago Public School system, and I could clearly see why. This concert offered a smorgasbord of everything that Senn does: student artwork displayed on panels as we entered the auditorium; performances by the school’s advanced musical groups (choir, orchestra, and wind ensemble were all represented); dramatic readings; dance groups; and musical theater scenes. However, the theater students were, simply put, amazing. Of special note, four drama students comprised the schools “Louder Than a Bomb” team. These students wrote and delivered their own poetry. Having grown up in Chicago where they are besieged with a constant barrage of race issues and street violence (and mixed with recent events involving police violence against blacks), these students made it loud and clear what they fear, as well as what they hope for. Of all the events I attended this week, these four poet-rappers made the biggest impression on me. We need to pay attention to what messages our youth are taking in about the state of our city, and by extension, our country. There is great creative power in our youth; I am glad Senn is giving these students the training to harness this power and an outlet to express themselves.

8. Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” – Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra, Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, University Singers, and the Apollo Chorus of Chicago; Victor Yampolsky, conductor
The joining of Northwestern University’s performing forces with the Apollo Chorus capped off my week of music in grand fashion. The student orchestra, led very capably under the baton of maestro Yampolsky, did a fine job in navigating Mahler’s stormy score. I was moved to tears during the fifth movement when the joint choirs finally entered. After an hour filled with fast music and bombastically loud passages, it was stunning hear the choirs sing so utterly softly. The soprano soloist entered very quietly along with the choirs, only to slowly break free and soar above the rest of the group. This was a glorious, transcendent moment, one in which all my thoughts and worries dissipated, and all I could do was be completely enveloped in the beauty of that moment. This is composition and performance at its very best, working harmoniously together. This is the power of music on full display.

So, what did I learn from this week of concertizing? A few things:

• The power of music can be felt in a piece of any size. Granted, it might be easier to feel music’s power when you’re witnessing several hundred singers and musicians bringing a massive Mahler Symphony to life, but I found great power residing in plenty of quiet moments too, and by much smaller performing forces. I found power in an art song about social justice; I found power in an undergraduate saxophone quartet playing uncannily well together; I found power in an opera singer vainly trying to convince us that capital punishment is somehow justified.

• Not all performances have to be done by professionals to move the soul. Joyous elementary students singing about Chicago’s history; impassioned high school student drama students rhythmically chanting out their hopes and fears; even a high school rapper whose song ended with a call for Chicagoans to stand up for their beliefs and for each other…these are honest forms of expression that are as beautiful and powerful as they are thought-provoking.

• Opera is indeed live and well! Opera America and other organizations are doing wonders in funding composers to write and stage their creations, and groups like Fringe Opera Chicago are programming intriguing works in unique spaces.

In all, I had a glorious week that has helped restock my own creative juices, enhanced my knowledge base, and gave me ideas for future projects. Now it is time to ramp down the concertizing and get back to composing!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Embracing a Freelance Career

Frank Ishman, photographer
Recently, I stepped down from my full-time position at Roosevelt University. I’ll serve as part-time artist faculty next year, teaching studio composition lessons, while the university holds a formal job search to find my replacement.

Why did I do this? The answer is simple – I want/need/desire more time to compose. It has taken a very long time to arrive at this juncture. I have taught at Roosevelt since 2000, and over the past sixteen years, the university has been a wonderful and supportive home for me. My work at Roosevelt has been fulfilling—I greatly enjoy teaching students and helping them develop their minds and musical skills. I’ve also enjoyed working with my talented colleagues in our common goal to strengthen the university and to provide our students with a wealth of knowledge and opportunities.

For many years, I successfully kept a balance between teaching/collegiate responsibilities and composing. But this balance has been getting harder and harder to maintain as my composing career moves in new and exciting directions. Now, I want to explore new paths, to collaborate with musicians, singers, ensembles, organizations, dancers, and opera companies. I wish to explore getting into film music, as well as to delve deeper into developing music entrepreneurship for myself and for others. In short, I want to explore my fullest potential. If I don’t do this now, when will I ever stop to do so?

I will always love teaching, and plan to do so in one capacity or another throughout my life. There are many avenues for this—Skype composition lessons with people around the world, guest residencies in colleges and universities with a focus on both entrepreneurship and composition activities, educational outreach activities with music organizations, and my continuing role with Fresh Inc Festival, where I’m on faculty. But as much as I love teaching, it is time to move composing to the forefront and take my first steps on a new path as a freelance composer. I’ll be blogging more about this transition and my new adventures as I do!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

5 Marketing Tips for All Musicians

Last night, I talked with Chicago a Cappella’s interns – they are a talented group of high school singers chosen from all over the Chicago area. In prepping for the talk, I realized that most of my blog columns have been aimed at composers.  In today’s blog, I offer some ideas (derived from last night’s talk) that pertain to singers and instrumentalists everywhere:

1. Meet musicians, performing groups, and composers
• Go to concerts; afterwards, introduce yourself to the singers, the conductor, any composers who had works performed, and the director of the organization. Hand out business cards (with your email and website address) or CDs.

• Keep up with these people on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media.

2. Build a website.
• All musicians need a web presence these days. If you’re not on the web, how are people going to find out about you and reach you?

• Check out websites by professionals at various stages of their careers. See what’s important on their websites: a welcome page, biography, repertoire list, audio files of your works or performances, upcoming performances, and a way to contact you. Then build your own website.

3. Create an email newsletter.
• Putting your name in front of people every 1-3 months helps keep you in their minds for potential gigs. An email newsletter is a great way to do this.

• A newsletter can cover a range of topics: upcoming performances, a blog of your adventures for the past month; current projects that you’re working on with other singers, musicians, dancers, or visual artists; recently released CDs; pictures of you at various events (such as posing with fellow musicians after a concert); links to audio files of a recent performance you gave; and so on.

4. Targeted advertising via “cold calls.”
• Contact groups that you want to work with. If you’re a chorister, that can be local churches, choirs, and choral societies. For instrumentalists, you might try local chamber groups, regional orchestras, and concert presenters.

• In your email, introduce yourself with a short biography, and explain your interest in the group you’ve contacted. Put links to audio files of yourself up on Soundcloud or on your own website. Also, have repertoire lists and packages of potential programming on your site, so people can see the kind of music and concerts you offer.

5. Ultimately, you are in charge of running your career.
• Figure out your strengths and weaknesses. You'll see what you're already good at, and what you need to work on.

• Create a list of short- and long-range goals. These will help you figure out where you want your career to go.

• Get organized & stay organized. This is an essential skill for everyone - to be on time to gigs, to be prompt in returning emails. Keep yourself from procrastinating on projects.

• If you’re currently in college, start making your career happen while you’re still in school. Network with student musicians and composers, create your own ensemble, start a concert series in a local venue, make a website, go to lots of concerts, and so on. Take charge early!

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Composing Process: From the First Note to the Final Score

[This is an article I wrote for the fall 2015 issue of the Roosevelt Review, the alumni magazine for Roosevelt University. To view the original, click here.]

At performances of my music, I am frequently asked how do I compose. Do I hear it all in my head? Do I use computers to assist me? Have I ever experienced writer’s block? These are all excellent questions, all of which I will address as I de-mystify the composing process. The following steps and strategies are not only what I use when I compose, but also what I teach my composition students at the Chicago College of Performing Arts.

Part 1: Pre-Composition

The first stage of beginning any new piece is research. This stage involves studying other composers’ works, as well as familiarizing myself with the particular instrumentation for which I’ll be composing. For instance, when I wrote Helios for brass quintet (an ensemble that consists of two trumpets, horn, trombone, and tuba), I acquainted myself with the ensemble by studying brass quintet repertoire, listening to recordings, and attending live concerts. These activities helped me to ascertain the ensemble’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as to detect possible performance issues (the tuba, for instance, needs a lot of air to produce sound and tires quickly, so a composer must leave ample time between passages for the performer to breathe). The more I understand how the ensemble works, the better I’ll be able to compose for the group.

Along with conducting research, I brainstorm about possible sources of inspiration. When a work is a commission, I find out from the commissioners what their interests are, and incorporate these interests into my brainstorming process. In the case of Noir Vignettes, my double bass and piano piece, the commissioner told me of his fondness for movies, and of his particular interest in the director Alfred Hitchcock. I watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rebecca, and while I didn’t care for Hitchcock’s filmmaking style, I became very intrigued with film noir, the genre in which both of these movies exhibit characteristics. I watched several more movies in the genre, including The Lady from Shanghai, Double Indemnity, This Gun for Hire, and The Maltese Falcon. After watching each movie, I wrote down my thoughts on various aspects; for instance, a femme fatale could have an exotic, enchanting sound, whereas a gumshoe detective smoking his last cigarette of the day should sound slow and jazzy. Alternately, if the commissioner wants me choose the work’s topic, I select a subject that is of personal interest to me. Recent topics include the Greek myth of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun, and a depiction of the starkness of Wyoming’s landscape.

At some point during the brainstorming stage, I start putting pencil to paper. This can be a rather daunting moment. What if the notes I write down aren’t interesting? How can I possibly fill up the entire page with thought-provoking, well-conceived music? Self-doubt and high expectations can make it quite difficult for a composer to compose. To aid myself through this part of the writing process, I use a strategy: whenever I begin a new piece, I write one minute of music a day for seven days. It doesn’t have to be a great minute of music, or even a good minute, but it has to be one full minute. The music need not be continuous – I can compose three different ideas, each twenty seconds long. Giving myself permission to compose without judgment is an essential element of the strategy. While the first few days of composing are typically challenging, I eventually produce ideas that have real potential. I also get increasingly focused on how to creatively use the instruments.

Once I have written several minutes of music, the sorting process begins. I select out the strongest, most intriguing ideas and start to flesh them out further. To do this, I analyze the musical material from every angle. What musical pitches comprise the melody? What are the intervals between each set of pitches? How would it sound if I turned the intervals upside down, or reversed their order? Can I extend these ideas into longer phrases? What if I move the pitches higher or lower? I will often cover entire tabloid size pieces of paper with various configurations of each musical idea, and refer to these papers throughout the entire composing process when I need more material from which to draw.

As my musical materials become more substantial, I create the overall formal structure, or “roadmap,” of the entire piece. Having a roadmap is critical, for how can a piece have direction if you don’t know where it is going? Building from the musical materials that I’ve been developing, I draw a graph for the work, with the x-axis representing time and the y-axis representing the level of tension in the music. The graph can show many other elements as well: how many sections or movements the piece will have, what musical characteristics each section or movement will contain, and so on.

Part II: Composition

Once I’ve developed enough pre-compositional work, I delve completely into composing. This is the most exhilarating stage of the process; I am entirely engaged in sketching and developing my musical materials into full sections. For a while, I am quite conscious of every decision that I make while composing; however, the further I get in composing a piece, the more these decisions are being made subconsciously. I tend to write faster as this process moves along, as well as find it difficult to do anything but compose once I’ve fully hit my stride. Going to concerts, seeing friends for dinner, running errands – all of these can break my concentration on the piece and make it hard to resume where I left off. As a result, I generally find it easier to compose in large blocks of time, usually anywhere from two to four hours. Once I’ve reached a natural resting place, such as break between sections or the end of the movement, then I will stop for the day.

In the initial brainstorming stages, I sketch ideas using pencil and paper. Sometimes I’ll use my piano to tinker with possible ideas, while other times I’ll sketch directly from my head onto paper. I will work in this manner long enough for the ideas to take shape on the staff paper; then I move over to a computer. I use a software notation program that allows me to hear the music that I put on the staves, as well as to create a beautifully engraved final score. Computer programs are a tremendous help to composers – you don’t have to wait until you rehearse with musicians to hear how your music will sound – but you need to use these programs carefully. Software programs never achieve an accurate, realistic balance between instruments, and composers must account for balancing issues themselves. Nonetheless, I find this playback to be very useful, as I can check to ensure that my rhythms, tempi, and pitches are to my liking.

Every now and then, I need to evaluate what I’ve composed thus far. Is the music on the right track? Do the various musical ideas work together, or has something shifted? While these assessments are valuable for a piece of any length, I find them to be even more so when composing a long piece. For example, when I wrote my piece Sanctuary for violin, cello, and piano, I wanted the piece to start at a point of complete relaxation and, over the course of thirteen minutes, progressively get more and more tense. This movement ends at a moment of extreme tension, which nicely sets up a very quiet beginning to the second movement. The first idea I composed seemed suitable to open the first movement, but after brainstorming additional ideas, I realized that the initial material would work far better if it occurred around the fourth minute. What had changed? I finally realized that my first idea had too much tension already and couldn’t be used at the beginning of the work! This realization helped me to compose a slow, mysterious opening that gives the piece ample room to grow.

Occasionally while composing, I will arrive at a spot in which I can’t seem to progress any further. Some people call this writer’s block. When I reach such an impasse, I back up to a few measures prior to the trouble spot and rewrite the passage at least two additional times, each time leading to a different musical outcome. Within an hour or so, I have developed three or more possible options to consider. Not only does this method usually unearth a new way to proceed, but it also supplies additional musical material that I can use elsewhere in the piece. This strategy also serves to bring home the point that there’s no one exact path that a composition needs to follow; instead, there are several potential paths, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Once all of the notes are in the computer, I proceed onto the final stage of composing: adding all of the details. These details include anything that shapes the music and gives it nuance. While these details may seem not as important as the choosing of pitches and rhythms, the truth is quite the opposite. Imagine hearing an entire orchestra playing loudly, followed a moment of silence, and then single trumpet enters quietly. Now imagine if the orchestra plays very quietly, and – without a moment of silence – the trumpet enters obnoxiously loud. While the notes and rhythms didn’t change between these scenarios, the details did, and with startlingly different results.

Part III: Post-Composition

Now that the composing phase is complete, I move on to proofing the full score and making parts. I don’t particularly enjoy this phase – it is tedious compared to the excitement of composing – but if I don’t work carefully, then rehearsals could be disastrous as the instrumentalists encounter mistake-laden scores. In addition to a full score that shows all of the instruments that play in the piece, each instrument requires its own individual part (for a string quartet, this would result in four separate parts for the ensemble’s two violins, viola, and cello). Once I have made all of the instrumental parts, I check these against the full score three times to ensure that I have caught any inconsistencies and errors. This phase can easily take just as long as composing the piece, if not longer, depending on the number of instruments involved.

I also need to give the piece a title. Technically, this phase can happen prior to composing the work, or at any stage along the way, including after composing is done. Sometimes, I’ll think of a title that shapes the brainstorming phase of pre-composing. This was the case with the double bass and piano piece; once I figured out that the piece would reference film noir, I easily came up with the title Noir Vignettes. At other times, however, I struggle to find a suitable title even after the piece is completed. Recently, I composed a piece in honor of Cedille Records’ 25th Anniversary season. James Ginsburg, the label’s president, mentioned that he had an interest in street musicians (or “buskers”) he encountered in the city of Prague. The word “buskers” didn’t appeal to me as a title, nor did a string of unfortunate titles that followed. I finally decided on Bohemian Café, as it aptly describes the carefree, freewheeling atmosphere that I invoke with the music.

No piece is ever complete until I have rehearsed it with performers. In this phase, I can make adjustments to various musical elements – increase a dynamic here, or change an articulation there – to bring out more subtleties in the music. This is also the phase in which I finally discover what passages don’t sit well in a performer’s hands. Performers generally begin rehearsing without the composer present; I will listen to one or two rehearsals as the premiere draws near. This allows the musicians to work out the music for themselves and to create their own interpretation of my piece before I give them my thoughts.

The final phase of any piece is its premiere. This is a thrilling moment! My adrenaline is pumping throughout the event, from any pre-concert discussion I have onstage for the audience, to listening to the musicians play the piece, as well as conversing with audience members afterward. I greatly enjoy this wonderful moment; at the same time, I am assessing the music as it is played, ascertaining where adjustments need to be made. I usually make a small round or two of revisions after the premiere, which I test out at the piece’s next performance. By the third performance, I have worked out all of the kinks, and can finally consider the work finished. When the composing process is complete and I’m pleased with the final results, then I have successfully navigated the composing process from the first note to the final score.