Friday, March 21, 2014

Collaborative Composing with a Music Enthusiast

With Bonnie McGrath and our pencil sketch
of Bruce's Theme.
Last fall, James Ginsburg (the president of Cedille Records) asked if I’d be willing to offer a composition lesson as an auction item for a Cedille Records benefit event. The purpose of the lesson would be to help someone with presumably minimal musical training to compose a short piece of music. I’d done something similar a few years ago; as part of a residence with the Albany Symphony, I helped forty middle school students write short musical numbers for an oratorio about Henry Hudson. I hadn't tried this with an adult before. Helping a donor compose a short piece in a single composing session was an intriguing idea, so I readily agreed to Jim’s request. Jim listed the composition lesson in the auction, and Bonnie McGrath was the winning bidder. Bonnie is an award-winning journalist, columnist, blogger, and lawyer. She also has a deep and enthusiastic appreciation for music; we are constantly running into each other at various events around Chicago. 

Bonnie and I met for two hours in early December. After mulling over various instrumental possibilities, we agreed on composing a piece for piano. Then we got down to business. As Bonnie experienced firsthand, the basis of composing is to choose a concept for the piece, then make a series of decisions that support this concept. Bonnie wanted to write a piece for her fiancĂ© Bruce, who enjoys the music of Philip Glass. We sat down at the piano, and I played several Glass-like musical gestures until Bonnie heard one that she liked. We had our concept; now we had to figure out what to do with it. I played through several possible harmonic progressions until Bonnie found one especially appealing, and we made this the basis of the entire work. We then experimented with melodic shape, various accompaniments, and phrasing. We also explored how to build tension, when to relax that tension, and what role dynamics and range play in the context of the piece as a whole. We ended our composition by using material found earlier in the piece to give the piece greater cohesion. Finally, we made sure that everything we wrote down would be playable by Bonnie herself. Over the course of the two hours, Bonnie decided that not only would she would dedicate the piece to her fiancĂ©, but that she would also premiere the piece for him herself.

After our meeting, I entered the piece into a music notation program (we had used pencil and paper during our composing session) and gave Bonnie several bound copies along with our pencil and paper sketch. I also gave her a CD recording of the piece played by my husband, pianist Joe Francavilla, so that she could study his performance as she learned it (to listen to Joe’s recording, click here).  After much hard work and secretive practicing, Bonnie gave the premiere of Bruce’s Theme on Valentine’s Day for a very surprised and happy Bruce.

Writing a piece with someone not familiar with the composing process was just as fascinating for me as it was for Bonnie. She learned about the various musical parameters that go into creating a new piece, as well as the vast number of decisions a composer makes to shape every aspect of a piece. I was surprised to learn just how many choices I make at every step in the composition process, even in a one-minute piece! It was refreshing to see this process through someone else’s eyes. This was a mutually beneficial and fun collaboration for both Bonnie and me. On a personal note, I was thrilled to be a part of such a unique experience for Bonnie, and happy that she took this opportunity to turn the entire adventure into something very meaningful in her life. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Rehearsal Technique for Composers

One of the most neglected topics at music schools, and one which is paramount to building a successful career as a composer, is rehearsal technique. It is difficult to teach; professors don’t usually attend their students’ rehearsals prior to school recitals, nor do they usually demonstrate rehearsal technique in a seminar for composition students. Most composers ultimately learn through trial and error.

Composer Dan Visconti and I tackled this topic last summer at Fresh Inc Festival, where we’re both on faculty along with Fifth House Ensemble. We devised a skit, which Dan christened “Goofus and Gallant” in homage of the cartoon characters from the children’s magazine Highlights whose purpose was to overtly model good and bad social behaviors. Like Goofus and Gallant, Dan (Goofus) and I (Gallant) presented three mock rehearsal scenes along with the help of members of Fifth House Ensemble. I ran the skit again for the students in my Chicago College of Performing Arts Composition Program (this time, I played both Goofus and Gallant) along with the assistance of Gaudete Brass Quintet. From these two sessions, as well as from numerous observations I’ve made over the years of a broad range of composers’ social interactions in rehearsal situations, I have devised a list of things composers should consider when rehearsing with musicians.  While some of the items might seem obvious, I’ve seen enough rehearsals in which they were not to warrant listing them below.

The Dos and Don’ts

Be early to rehearsal in case the musicians have questions on their parts; if you’ve not yet met some (or all) of the performers beforehand and your piece is for chamber ensemble or smaller, then personally greet each performer. Use people’s names instead of calling them by the name of their instrument. Be warm and attentive; bring your score (yes, some people actually go to rehearsals without one) as well as a pad of paper to take notes as you listen on spots that you’d like to check. Find out from the musicians when they’d like feedback from you, as some groups might want to run the entire piece prior to hearing your thoughts, while others might want to intermix smaller sections and feedback. When they’re ready for your comments, let the performers know what you’re really happy with, along with the spots you’d like to address.

Be ready to help the performers get back on course if they’re getting hung up on a spot. One of the most painful rehearsals I sat through involved musicians who were having rhythmic issues on a passage while the composer sat impassively watching them, not offering any feedback on where or how they were getting off track. In addition to burning up valuable rehearsal time, the composer came across as disengaged from the musicians. I’m all for waiting to see if an ensemble can make corrections on their own – I tend to wait on speaking up about anything until I hear the performer repeat the mistake again, as they usually self-correct upon another run-through – but there’s a limit to how long a composer should wait before offering some constructive feedback to solve the problem.

Additionally, it never helps a composer’s cause if you ignore your performers, if you’re rude to them or insult their playing, if you invade their personal space to try to point something out on their score, or if you start screaming at them. Always stay professional and keep your cool. You never know which performers you’re working with today will become frequent collaborators in the future.

Working with a Conductor

Think of a conductor like the skinny part of an hourglass: you’re on one side, and the ensemble is on the other. All interactions go through the conductor, as he/she is the person in control of the rehearsal, not you. So if a musician asks a question during the rehearsal, let the conductor answer; otherwise, he might view this as a challenge to his authority. I always talk with a conductor in advance of any rehearsal to find out when he would like feedback from me. Many conductors will want to run the piece first and then turn to you for comments; some will want to get through the entire rehearsal and receive feedback from you afterward. 

Giving the Performers Space

Performers need time to run through the piece and woodshed challenging spots without the composer present. I also like to give them time to make their own interpretation of my piece. Student composers tend to be responsible for finding performers, as well as organizing and running all rehearsals, but professional composers who are working with pre-formed ensembles should let the performers have time to rehearse first. I never come to an early rehearsal of any work unless the performers request for me to do so; I usually hear the last rehearsal or two, and that’s it.

To wrap up this post, I offer one more piece of advice: thank your musicians at the end of rehearsals. Thank them after the performance, too; post-concert appreciation can be expressed by a handwritten note or email, chocolates or another tasty snack, etc. These small gestures (which are independent of any formal payment you or an organization is making) go a long way in letting performers know how much you value their time and skills in helping bring your music to life.