It Is Finished…Pas Deux
Yep, I’ve finished my new piece Odyssey for the second time, and this time it’s personal! [You can read about how I started this piece here, and a progress post here]. How do you finish a piece twice you ask? To answer that, it helps to explain my writing process. (Bear in mind that this is how I tend to work, but everyone is different). My writing process goes like this:
- The initial idea. Where these initial ideas come from, I don’t know. Sometimes they just pop into my head out of the blue, sometimes they come from playing piano and I just hit something or play something that I like or find interesting. Sometimes they come from a kind of musical brainstorming session (i.e. write 3 melodies of 8 bars in 5 minutes), and other times its just from deciding to write a modal blues in G Dorian.
- Development. This is where I take that initial idea and develop it into something longer – maybe an “A” section and an intro
- I get stuck. Surprisingly, this is the part of the process where I get stuck. I’ve run out of inspirational steam, but I’ve only got about 1/3 to 1/2 of the piece written and I don’t know quite where to go from here. You don’t have to be Einstein to guess that this isn’t the fun part of writing. To get unstuck, I try:
- Drinking coffee
- Cleaning my study
- Checking email
- Putting my head in the sand
- After these don’t really help, I try:
- Thinking about the piece structurally – what is the form of this piece going to be?
- What would contrast with what I already have (loud vs soft, fast vs slow, solo vs tutti etc)
- Just write something and not worry too much about whether it’s “good” or not. After all you can edit it later, or chuck it completely if you want
- In fairness to points 3.1 – 3.4, taking a break does help sometimes
- The piece is finished! – for the first time. It’s not really finished, but it feels like it. At this point I’ve got the main pieces in place, right through to the end. It might be sketchy in places, but at least in my head I know what I’m trying to do all the way through. [Here is Odyssey at this point – Odessey – In Progress (concert pitch)]
- Refinement. At this point I edit, cut, smooth, shape, polish, wrestle, hammer, the piece into shape. Sketchy ideas are fleshed out. Often this is particularly true of percussion parts which have often ranged from sketchy to “vague notion in my head” to non-existent. [Here is Odyssey at this point –Odyssey – In Progress #2 (concert pitch)] For me, this stage is iterative – evaluate –> refine –> evaluate —> refine repeatedly until….
- The piece is finished! – for the second time. This time, it really is finished…almost. [Here is Odyssey at this point –Odyssey – In Progress #3]
- Idiot Check. This is where I print out the score (it really is easier to read on paper than on a screen) and check for any silly little errors – missing dynamics/articulations, stuff I forgot to fill in etc.
- Perform/Send to a publisher. I’ll be sending this to a publisher I already have a relationship with. Assuming they want to publish it, it will likely come back with a few editorial suggestions/comments. 90% of the time, you should do what they suggest.
It’s worth re-stating at this point that you should edit your work and don’t be afraid to delete things that don’t work. I went and had lunch after my last post, came back and deleted an 8 bar section that didn’t work. It has also taken a fair bit of “hammering” to get the last 30 bars to work. If you compare versions #2 and #3, you’ll see that the framework has stayed essentially the same, but the detail has changed.
Thanks for reading, I’m off to check for idiots…
A Piece Is Born – Update
It’s finished! Well, not really, but kind of…confused yet?
Since last I posted, here’s what I’ve done. I managed to spend a few hours shortly after finishing my last blog post (here it is) working on my new piece for Concert Band. In that time I did the following:
- Thought of a name – Odyssey
- Wrote a chorale theme to go with the opening fanfare theme
- Decided form-wise to go straight into the chorale following the introduction. It was tempting to go into a rhythmic, march type vibe and just restate the opening melody, but I decided to avoid that approach as I’ve used it before and just felt a little too obvious in this case.
- Setup a score in Finale
- Sketch in the introduction and opening chorale theme
- Decided to score the chorale for just flute and clarinets (+oboe maybe?) the first time through
- For the second time through the chorale, I’m going to give the melody to the a.sax + cl. + f.hn. My intention is to have the remaining brass and lower woodwinds play reasonably static chords to support the melody. The upper voice of this accompaniment may effectively turn out to be a quasi counter-melody.
It has then sat idle for a couple of weeks due to life being crazy and working somewhere else on my “writing day” until today. This morning I’ve spent another couple of hours working on it and you can look at my in progress score here Odessey – In Progress (concert pitch). Here’s what I’ve done this morning:
- Tweaked the tempo slightly from 116 to 108bpm. It just felt a little rushed at 116bpm
- Added the brass to the second time through the chorale. This might not be exactly how it finishes up, but it’s in the ballpark
- Form-wise, it felt to me like the opening fanfare melody should come back twice and that would roughly be the end of the piece. This meant:
- Deciding how to transition from the chorale back into the fanfare theme. I’ve used a classic device whereby the last part of the chorale is restated in longer (augmented would be the fancy music word here) note vales. I’ve also changed the harmony slightly so that the return to a “C” pedal feels like a key change.
- This in turn led to the quasi introduction type section at bar 31-38 with the clarinets playing a simplified version of the fanfare melody, with a “sparkly” response from the fl/ob+tpts.
- At this point, keeping the low brass and woodwinds on the same rhythmic figure for yet another two times through the fanfare melody seems like a long time for beginners to cope with. It’s also a bit boring for the listener. So I’m going to try to “get out” of that rhythmic figure at bar 39. I’m not sure whether I’ll keep the percussion going through here, and/or whether to have the accompaniment be sustained notes or stop time type “hits”
- Getting out of the continuous rhythmic accompaniment at bar 39, also creates more interest at bar 50 when it returns for the final statement of the fanfare theme.
- The piece finishes with the same compositional technique that I used earlier in the piece, namely, restating the end of the theme and then augmenting note values to create a sense of the piece slowing down before the big finish.
At this point, the piece is finished…kind of. I feel at this point that all the main structural elements are in place and that I’ve got a good idea of how it will be scored. If this piece were a table, I feel that I had all the main pieces cutout and stuck together. Now what remains is to sand, polish, and add “pretty bits”. Sp my to do list for this piece is now:
- Resolve the accompaniment at bar 39
- Finish scoring all the woodwind and brass parts. Notice that there is nothing in the bassoon, bass clarinet or baritone saxophone parts yet. These will end up doubling bass lines already present in the trombone/euphonium/tuba parts
- Score the percussion. Again, there is nothing on paper, but I have a good idea in my head of what these will look like. The percussion in this piece will largely augment the woodwind and brass parts, rather than supply an independent voice. This isn’t always the case and if there was a specific independent percussion part I wanted, it would be in the score by now. The percussion will likely end up with:
- Timpani – doubling the pedal bass line. Timpani is great for this as the player doesn’t get tired in the same way that a wind player does when playing for an extended period without a break
- Snare drum, Bass drum, Cymbals – these will play march/fanfare figures. Think John Williams Olympic fanfare type stuff.
- Glock/Vibes – the glock will end up doubling some melodic lines. I’m not really expecting to use the vibes, but it’s easier to have the line there in the score when setting it up just in case. If it’s not used, I’ll just delete it.
- Edit, tweak, refine until I’m happy. E.g. I’m still debating about making bar 37 a 2/4 bar (and losing two beats at this point).
Once that’s all done, I’ll more than likely leave it for a week or so, and come back and look at it again and make sure I’m happy. If not, then more refining, tweaking, editing until I am.
I’m off to have lunch…
A Piece Is Born
When students see my name at the top of a piece of music, we often have a conversation that goes a little like this:
Student: “Sir, did you write this piece?”
Student: (somewhat in disbelief) “Really?”
Student: (clearly traumatized by this seismic worldview shift) “So you like, wrote this whole piece…”
Student: (in a desperate effort to restore balance to the force) “Did you copy it out from a book?”
Me: “No, I wrote it”
Student: (flailing helplessly in a whirlpool of despair) “like, all of it, or just like, umm, like, the trumpet part?”
This can sometimes continue for quite a while as students wrestle with the concept of a composer who isn’t dead. After the student has exhausted themselves trying to grapple with reality, they ask two other questions:
- Student: “Do you make lots of money?” Me: “I make so much money writing music, I can afford to keep teaching you.” (student looks puzzled)
- Student: “How did you write it?” or “How long did it take to write?”
To answer the last two questions, I thought I’d post about a piece as I write it.
So far this (as yet untitled) piece has taken 3 months, and all I’ve got is 5 bars! (Wow, that’s slow progress Tim!) Here’s what’s happened so far.
Three months ago I was taking a composition class at a music camp. The first activity I get students to do is to write a 4 or 8 bar melody in C major using only basic note values. I usually set a fast deadline (i.e. 10mins) to encourage them to just write something and not try to turn it into their great masterwork. The plan is then to see what they come up with and start from there for the rest of the class. As the students were writing their melody, I thought I’d write a few melodies of my own. Here’s what I came up with.
In order to write a bunch of melodies quickly, I made a choice about tempo, feel, and time signature before starting (C major was a given). Then I wrote the first thing that occurred to me, with my only pitch reference being my own voice. This is a bit like musical brain storming and it can be a useful way to generate some ideas. Most might be rubbish, but something might just be the seed for something really good. These melodies made such an impact on me that I forgot about them for 3 months! The piece of manuscript ended up in my laptop bag, forgotten – until yesterday when I packed up my laptop to go away. I glanced at the piece of paper enough to be able to sing the first two bars of one of the third melody. Since then I’ve been singing those two bars around in my head and thinking about how to expand them into a piece.
When starting a piece you should think about the level you are targeting. It’s very difficult once you’ve written a piece to make it easier, or harder. Once that is decided, you should think about other main structural/starting point questions around choice of key, tempo, form and length.
Here’s what I’ve been thinking about so far:
- Level: I’d like to try and keep this piece at about Gr 0.5
- Tempo: I’ve been singing it at approximately 116bpm. This works as a march/fanfare type tempo.
- Key: Initally it was in C major because that was the starting point for my class, but this doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. So, how to choose a good key? Trumpets make an obvious choice to play the opening two bars. So what key suits the trumpets best? The obvious choices are concert Bb major or maybe concert Eb major. I’m leaning towards Eb major as the higher key makes the trumpets a little brighter and I haven’t written much in Eb.That second one isn’t the world’s greatest reason, except that often choosing a different key or tempo or time signature can help you write something different to what you’ve written before.
- I am conscious of not going too high or else it will take the trumpets out of a reasonable register for this level piece. I’d like to try and keep the highest note for the trumpets to be a written Bb, with maybe one or two written C’s at the climax. Written D is a no-no.
- I would like to “tweak” the melody or harmony in some way to try and avoid a straight up, inside, Eb major vibe.
- In bed this morning I came up with this:
- It’s an Apollo 13 soundtrack (or this) kind of vibe. I like the fact that it’s a 5 bar phrase (3+2) and that’s it’s not a straight major tonality. But, I would rather avoid having the trombones playing such a prominent note in 5th position (Db). So back to thinking about key. Is there a better choice?
- Eb major – has trombones playing Db in a significant way, early on in the piece. Not a great percentage move.
- Bb major – it’s getting a bit low. What’s in-between? You can eliminate B, Db and D major straightaway. No-one plays that many sharps and flats at this level. This only leaves:
- C major – this isn’t a great key signature at this easy level. But,wait a minute, my opening phrase is really a mixolydian phrase! This means I can use a key signature of C mixolydian (=1 flat, aka F major) – way less scary for students at this level.This also makes the low brass and woodwinds enter on a concert C, and then a concert Bb. High percentage moves at any level!
So, some take away points from what I’ve done so far are: ·
- Always write down your ideas – good, bad or ugly. You never know when you might rediscover them. ·
- If you are stuck, just write something! BUT, make some choices before you start – it will be in G minor, 3/4, a ballad, and I’m going to start on the 5th degree of the scale. Then start writing. See what you can come up with in 10mins.
- Edit yourself! You must edit yourself! Assume you are not as talented as Mozart and that your first idea won’t be absolutely perfect.
- Know the capabilities of students at the grade level you are writing for. Try and choose keys and registers that will give your piece the best chance of success.
So get writing and we’ll meet back here in year or so with the next 8 bars 🙂