Honesty in Music Education - or Getting to the Truth When Writing Music For Musicians

A few days ago several of my chamber pieces were performed at the Newman Center in Denver. While having my music performed is always a thrilling experience, there are some events around that performance that I found interesting and disturbing in terms of how student musicians responded to music written by a fellow (albeit a graduate) student.

Two specific events stand out and highlight a problem composers face in writing within the educational establishment. Both of these events illustrate the same dilemma: how do we learn to write professional level music if we're expected to write for students?

The first event took place four days prior to the performance. I received a rather frantic call from one of the performers who had been in possession of the music for weeks. "Chip, I don't know how to say this, but I can't play this, not as it's written..." The musician then went on to say just why the music I'd written couldn't be played. Unfortunately this rather lengthy message came to me via voice mail so I didn't really have a chance to respond first hand. We did end up connecting later that day to talk over the details. It seems that what I'd written was too complicated to be played with only a few days practice (the elephant in the room was the lack of review or practice that had occurred in the well over three weeks prior). The musician did attempt to apologize; "But I've been very busy and really just haven't had a chance to get to it until now."

As we talked about the problems it became clear that although the difficult element I had written was similar to elements in similar works by major classical composers, it was; "music that I'd have to study for months to really master." The more we talked the more I realized that what this musician was really saying is that they couldn't play it (well) with only a few days practice and I was being overly demanding expecting this level of commitment - I needed to simplify the piece.

As frustrating as this was, it was exacerbated by the fact that the musician had contracted pay for the gig and was still expecting to get paid for performance even though I now had to re-write and simplify the music for them.

I capitulated on both counts. I spent several hours re-writing the music so it was simple enough AND I paid them for their performance. No, I'm not happy with either of these events, but I didn't really feel I had a choice. With only 3 days notice, I would not have found another musician capable of playing music of this difficulty on short notice and pulling the piece(s) from the concert would have made a huge hole in the program and adversely affected other performers.

The second event happened after the concert, sort of a postmortem. A musician who had played in one of the ensemble pieces brought their part to go over some comments about the playability of the music. Initially I was terrified I was going to be ripped a new one, but felt I needed to face the music (and the musician) to hear what they had to say.

For the most part their postmortem comments were extremely constructive. There was one point however, "this note just doesn't sound good on this instrument," which I don't agree with. During concert the musician had opted to play something similar, but different. When I mentioned that I had seen this particular note and technique in a well known classical piece and that I had recently heard it performed really well, the musician continued to insist that it just wasn't possible to sound good due to the physical limitations of the instrument.

Ok, I understand the physics. But I also understand there are people who have taken that same note and played it beautifully --either they can overcome the physics or they are magicians. (It was a professional I had heard perform the note. so maybe one needs to be a magician to become professional.) The subtext of the student musician's comments was: "I can't play this note successfully as it's is written." --I'm ok with that statement - although I would have preferred they just come out and say it. I'm even ok with the way the student musician changed their part to make it sound better for the performance. However, I walked away thinking that maybe they wanted me to not write notes or techniques that difficult into future works...

In the first instance the (very talented) musician was telling me I had somehow failed in the way I wrote the music and that I should consider writing something less demanding in the future. The second (also very talented) musician actually felt what I'd written was fine, but not for a student performance - While I really appreciate their candid comments about the music, in both cases I felt the underlying expectation was that I should learn to write something less in the future. Why???

A difficulty composer's face in writing music in the educational environment is we're expected to have students perform the music. If you're writing in high school you're expected to write for high school musicians, in college, college musicians and in graduate school, graduate level musicians. So, if we are expected to not write at a professional level in school, when will we learn to write for professionals?

Several universities retain professional music ensembles to workshop student works. The undergraduate program at Napier University hires the Edinburgh Quartet to give a student works performance every year. This is immensely helpful in understanding what a professional ensemble can do with a piece of music. I wish my current institution had a similar program.

Unfortunately, the demands placed on a student musician's time, and the lack of support for placing new works into required recitals and boards means that players actually have very little time to spend on rehearsing a new work - basically they are doing the composer a favor. I truly appreciate the favor both these (and all of the) musicians did for me by playing my music. I really do!

I see the value in understanding how to write for a specific level of musician. When I write a piece specifically for someone I take great pains to understand their limitations and their specialties, writing the music to best show off their unique talents (while avoiding their limitations). Last year I wrote a little piece for a junior high string orchestra. For the most part it was right at their level with only a few elements beyond them. The teacher helped me iron out the difficult points and we ended up with a nice peice for the students to play. It isn't something I ever expect the New York Phil to open a concert with, but it's a nice piece that does what it was supposed to do - be playable for those at a junior high school playing ability.

I guess mainly what I am positing here is a realization that I won't be a graduate student forever. There is no magic moment when I cross the threshold from student level works to professional level works. If I want to write for professionals, then it seems reasonable that I need to push myself to that level while in my graduate studies - where mistakes can be corrected.

If I'm writing something generic (a composition written with no specific performer in mind) I want to write to the limits of my ability (as professional and demanding piece as possible). When I recruit a group of performers who are not professional to play it then I understand the performance may not be pitch perfect - and THAT's OK.


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