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Advice to Budding Composers

I’ve received an e-mail from a composition student yesterday, one who received an A-minus. The student, who did not question the grade, asked what could be done to improve. I should say the student is intelligent, musical, and as creative as the student’s current level of knowledge allows. Here is my response:

Dear [Student]:
There are several ways you can improve your craft. First the easy ones:

* Listen to a *lot* more music, not just by the composers you already know and like, but a wide variety of composers. Make sure you hear music by composers not only from the late 19th century, but from all of the 20th century and, yes, even from this century. No, you won’t find everything to your liking, and some of it may even be terrible, but it is most important that you “open your ears” to more than what you’re already used to hearing. You can start with music by these composers:

* Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
* Gustav Mahler
* Richard Strauss
* Igor Stravinsky
* Erik Satie
* Arnold Schoenberg
* Alban Berg
* Anton Webern
* Edgar Varese
* Charles Ives
* Ralph Vaughan Williams
* Paul Hindemith
* Carl Orff
* Aaron Copland
* Bela Bartok
* Leonard Bernstein
* John Cage
* Terry Riley
* Ruth Crawford Seeger
* Steve Reich
* Phillip Glass
* George Walker
* Toru Takamitsu
[The list goes on, including composers from around the world.]
These names are just “off the top of my head.”

* Look at/read scores, all kinds of scores, not just piano music. If you don’t know how to read an orchestral score, you can learn. Start with music of the Baroque era (JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, for example), move on to classical works (Mozart symphonies, then Betthoven’s), and so on. YouTube has a lot of music with scores, so that is an easy way to start.

The not-so-easy ways to improve:
* You need to improve your knowledge of music theory (harmony and counterpoint). Composition lessons are not the place for that; theory classes are.
* You need to know more about musical structure. Getting to know scores will help, but theory classes and learning musical analysis will help considerably.
* This next one is more about how you think about writing music than anything else: You need to be willing to “open your ears” to “new” sounds, to music that is different from what you’re used to hearing. (Yes, I am repeating myself. This is intentional.) I have not been trying to make you into a composer of unlikable music, but to have you develop as a more well-rounded composer, one who is aware of the myriad ways one can compose and can *choose* to write in particular ways. To use a weird metaphor, you can not break down walls unless you know where they are.

* Finally, a three-part suggestion:
1. Write music. Write a LOT of music. Experiment. Write music in a style you’ve never written in before, just because you haven’t done it yet. Write for instruments and voices you have never written for before. And don’t just “throw notes on the page”; listen, really listen to what it is you’re writing, and make sure it makes sense, that it takes you on a journey from the first notes to the last. Don’t just repeat phrases; treat them as DNA that needs to be expressed. Let them grow.
2. Do not be afraid to “fail” — to create unsuccessful music. We all (and by “we” I included myself) have written music that doesn’t “work,” but that is not only “okay,” it is essential to our development. We learn much more from the mistakes we make than from our successes.
3. Ask yourself questions when you compose:
* What did I do the last time I composed, and what is the opposite of that?
* What would happen if I. . .?
* Where does the piece I’m writing get boring? Why?

I hope this helps.

Best regards,
Dr. R.

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Why There Were No Posts for 2017

Hello Readers.

I recently realized that I haven’t posted here at all since August of last year. I have good reasons for not doing so — not tales of trials, tribulations, troubles, or woes, but actually good, cool reasons. In a nutshell, I’ve been writing. A lot.

I composed six works since 8/16 and written seven. What?, you ask, How can you have composed six pieces of music but written seven? I’m glad you asked.

Back as 2015 I determined to write a work to honor the late John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday, which was to be in May of 2017. It took setting up a consortium of ensembles (to pay for it and premiere the work) and doing a lot of research (inestimably helped by musicologist, conductor, and JFK fan, Loras Schissel), but it was worth it to get to the composing point. Here’s where things get complicated. I decided to create two versions of the piece — by now I figured out the title, JFK: A Profile — one for narrator and orchestra, the other for narrator and concert band. But I didn’t want one to be a transcription of the other. Each version needed to be written as independently and idiomatically as possible, so I composed it as a sort of “instrumentation-neutral” short score and orchestrated both versions from that. Because the band version was to be premiered some five months after scheduled orchestra premiere, I gave the orchestra version a bit more attention at first; otherwise I wrote both versions simultaneously. Ergo composing one work but writing two. Each version has been premiered; the Carson City Symphony (David Bugli, Music Director) did the orchestral honors in April 2017, and the Virginia Grand Military Band (Loras Schissel, Conductor) did the same for the band version in September.

The other works I wrote during this time included Triple T[h]reat for brass trio (trumpet, horn, and trombone). Three instruments, in triple meter and in, you guessed it, about 3 minutes. Keith Johnston commissioned it, and I had fun writing it. A word about Keith. I met him at the Conductors Institute (Columbia, SC) back in 1995. We’ve become good friends over the years and he has become one of the staunchest supporters of my work as a composer. Over the years he has commissioned, for himself and/or his band at Sacred Heart University, where he leads the band program:

* Triple T[h]reat for brass trio (2016). Published by Music-Print Productions, available from LudwigMasters Publications.

* Prayer for band (2013). This was a commission I was honored but very disheartened to receive, as it was the first memorial for the lives lost at the Newton, CT, massacre of 26 children and adults. Hardest to write music ever. Published by Music-Print Productions, available from LudwigMasters Publications.

* Nine Feet of Brass (A Concerto for Trombone and Band) (2012). Keith is a trombonist; what more do I need say? No publisher yet.

Rainbow Chasing Moon for brass band (1997). This is an arrangement of a Chinese folk song for what was supposed to be a concert tour of China. I was even invited along as Guest Composer. Unfortunately there were, ahem, political issues, so when we arrived we discovered that we were not allowed to perform anywhere in China. (I am proud to say that my instrumental music was considered “decadent and pornographic,” in spite of being a simple arrangement of one of China’s own traditional tunes. Oh well.) I have since pulled the work from my catalog — I plan on revisiting it at some point, perhaps with an eye to recasting it for concert band. I never did get to hear it played. (I was copying parts by hand on the flight from L.A. to Shanghai. This was 1997 after all, and pen/ink on paper was still viable and we had no way of knowing what computer/printer options there would be available. Good thing. There were none available to us.)

The other works I wrote since August 2016 were mostly for string orchestra and full orchestra:

The Inspector General: Overture for orchestra (2017). Commissioned and premiered by the New York Repertory Orchestra, David Leibowitz, Music Director. A five-minute frolic based on the Gogol farce (with a nod to the Danny Kaye movie loosely based on the play). No publisher yet.

Tangled Tango for string orchestra (2017). Commissioned by Ann Geiler for her middle school orchestra. From now on I will point to this piece for an example of writing music that works musically at a lower technical level. (It’s not about writing “down to” a particular level, as that never works, but rather squeezing as much music as you can from that level.) It will be published by LudwigMasters Publications in 2018-2019.

Danza de mi Corazón (Dance of My Heart) for string orchestra (2017). Also for middle school. Also a good example, if not quite as successful (so far).

Tournament Galop for band (2017). This is an arrangement of the piano work by Louis Gottschalk. NYU’s Concert Band gave the premiere. It will be published in 2018 by Grand Mesa Music.

Pencil (Yes, Pencil) at the Ready….

After spending much of the summer on things other than composing I’m working my way back into the swing of things. On my plate at the moment:

  • Editing a collection of “easy” works for violin and guitar by Mauro Giuliani. The “easy” term is Giuliani’s and refers almost entirely to the guitar parts. The violin parts will need some work though. What I’m finding is the combination of violin and guitar is a lovely one, and that I can still play classical guitar. That last part has come in very handy too because….
  • I just finished composing two easy and short waltzes for guitar duet. More on the where, whom, and when of the first performance (sometime in September I think). Writing this was weird for me. I’ve played guitar since just after my bar mitzvah. I’ve written so many guitar arrangements of popular and classical music over the years (thank you, Warner Bros., and Hal Leonard, for the work) that I gave up counting after 200 tunes. (Many of those tunes are in books, and I know I did over two dozen books, etc.) I have even written a concerto for Baroque lute (a forerunner of the guitar). But except for the introduction to my song You’re Still Mine, this is the very first time I have written anything original for guitar, let alone two of them. I suppose it was a psychological issue, the usual fears that I wouldn’t be able to play what I’ve written, that prevented me from writing for the instrument for so long. Stupid, stupid me.
  • The JFK piece is “in progress.” I’ve collected what I think are the most useful speeches and other writings by John F. Kennedy. Now I’m in phase 2, in which I organize and edit down the most useful parts of those. I expect to be composing actual music by October, and orchestrating by December.

Writing Musical Theater: Short(ish) Thoughts About Story Sources

Musicals are usually based on one of three things: A pre-existing story or other source (such as Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera), an original story or idea (Company or The Music Man), or a collection of songs intended as some sort of revue or “jukebox” musical. As with all things there aren’t always clear lines of demarcation between them, but that’s not an issue, really. One question I often get when in discussions about writing for the stage is “What makes a good pre-existing story for a musical?” There is no single answer to that, though; in fact it’s a darn-difficult question to even begin answering. But I’ve been thinking about it and I’d like to get some of my thoughts about the topic here, in no particular order:

  • The most difficult shows to write are about real people who create/perform music. Some time ago my wife and I saw a show about Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine (his wife). It had a solid storyline, telling how they met and how she became his specialty-number composer. Except for “Tchaikovsky” by Kurt Weill and Oscar Hammerstein II and “Ballin’ the Jack,” which was an old song when DK started singing it, all of the songs Kaye is known for were pretty much written by Fine. Therein lies the problem. To write a show about Kaye and Fine you have to have the music she wrote for him to perform. To write a musical about, well, anybody, has to have new music written to suit the needs of the characters and the story. Combining the two approaches is dangerous, because as soon as you use existing, already-known material the audience (subconsciously at least) compares that with the new music — and the new music always loses. Heard on its own the new material might be wonderful, but taken in context with other, better-known music it will always seem to have been “stuck on” and, therefore, as inferior. The show about Kaye and Fine ultimately didn’t work for that reason. If they left out the new material and just kept the music Kaye was already known for, in other words, as a jukebox musical, it would have been, well, fine. That said….
  • The second most difficult shows to write are jukebox musicals. The tunes are already written, so that hard part is done, right? But integrating those songs into a coherent story and having those songs come up in a natural way is tricky at best. Some shows, like Jersey Boys, does this very well indeed, and mostly because the show uses the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in the context of the story. Sometimes show creators will have a musical that uses songs from a wide variety of sources (like shows about 1980s “hair bands”) and while that can work care must be taken to make it seem seamless and natural.
  • Surprise: Revues are also difficult to write. You’d think this type of show would be one of the easier ones, but it’s not. Why? After all, there are no specific characters to deal with and no specific plot to unfold. The answer is, that’s why. Since there are no actual story to tell about specific characters, how to get an audience’s attention and keep it for a couple of hours? What that revue-type show needs is a premise, a single idea that carries us through from beginning to end and demonstrates what I call a logical progression of thought. Even if — or especially if — there is no storyline, the creator of a revue has to ask “What is this show about?”

All of the above is about pre-existing stories in one form or another: straight plays, films, short stories, and novels. A discussion of sources like poems is for another day.

Something Rotten Mostly Isn’t

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I got to see Something Rotten which has been playing on Broadway for a good amount of time (and is doing well). Despite my professional connections to theater, maybe because of them, I love going to see shows and appreciating them on their own terms. I do not go with a clipboard (literally or metaphorically) to keep track of what is wrong with a show. Even going to see a musical with a name like Something Rotten, which of course invites all sorts of critical hijinks, I do my best to watch with an open mind. I just try to be audience. Here’s what I thought of the show:

  • The premise is silly and brilliant, in a Spamalot meets The Producers sort of way. Essentially a play writing team of brothers living during the English Renaissance try to out do none other than William Shakespeare. (It plays better than I can describe it.)
  • The dialogue, with its constant Shakespeare references and in jokes about Shakespeare AND modern musicals, AND it’s winking acknowledgement of modern times (“Who talks like that?,” asks one character after reading some typical ‘older English’ verbiage) is wonderful. And I do not use that term lightly.
  • The song lyrics are consistently witty (often laugh out loud funny, which is a much more difficult reaction to get from an audience than by straight out telling jokes as dialogue).
  • The actors (among them, Brian D’Arcy James) are superb. (One quibble; see below.)
  • The orchestrations were top notch, as was the orchestra.
  • The scenery was extremely well done, as were the costumes.
  • It turns out that the show was written by a team of brothers (one of them a well-known Nashville songwriter to the country stars including Garth Brooks) and an also well-known English writer of things humorous.

So why was I slightly disappointed?

Afterward my wife and I talked about it. She felt as I did, and her explanation as to why hit the nail on the head. The music is serviceable, she said. There is nothing wrong with the score per se. Every song is logically and emotionally where it should be (no song felt out of place in any way, no spot seemed to be missing a song, and so on). All of the actors sang with gusto, passion, whatever the song and the moment called for. But except for one number that came back a couple of times, both as “Welcome to the Renaissance” and, the last time, as “Welcome to America,” there was no tune that either of us could remember after an hour past the final curtain. (Disclosure: I had a couple of song fragments in my head for that time, but those too fell out of my memory within 2 hours.) The tunes were professional; they did what they were supposed to do. The lyrics for the songs, as I said, were consistently witty — better than the tunes, frankly. But the music didn’t, couldn’t, raise the level of the score from “okay” to even “interesting,” let alone “wonderful.”

The music was indeed serviceable, or as some of my students might say, it was meh. (Is that even still a thing?)

One casting disappointment: The female ingenue was played by someone with one of those extremely reedy, nasal, piercing voices that seem to plague Broadway these days thanks, methinks, to pop music where it lives in infamy. Pity. Once in a while she “slipped” and sang with a rounder tone that would have made it a real pleasure to hear her if she continued that way, but then she didn’t.

Disappointments aside, it really is a good, funny show, especially if you’re a fan of The Bard and also of musical theater. It’s worth seeing. Who knows maybe you’ll remember more of the score than I could.

The Business of Being a Composer

My not-so-funny joke is that I have some 17 jobs; the reality is that sometimes I indeed have at least that many, and sometimes just a few. In addition to being a composer, I am a lyricist, arranger, conductor, educator, author, music publisher consultant, “show doctor” for musicals, clinician, performer, music editor, engraver, and proofreader. I’m sure I left some things out, but you get the point. This is not bragging. In fact I would love to be able to say I only have four jobs — composer, lyricist, arranger, and conductor — and leave it at that. Okay, maybe five jobs; I enjoy teaching too.

One of the things I feel my composition students need to know besides the compositional basics is the business of being a composer, and that it should be a required course for undergrad composition majors, maybe even going for two semesters. A one-semester overview wouldn’t cover everything, but even one semester would be better than what young composers get now. Off the top of my head, here are topics that should be covered:

  1. Copyright. What it is, how/why/when to use it.
  2. Performing Rights Organizations. ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, what they are and do for you.
  3. Income Streams. How do you actually earn money composing. Topics would include: Commissions, Competitions, Grants, Publication, Subsequent Performances, Audio Recordings (Mechanical Licenses), Audio/Visual Media (Synchronization Licenses), performance royalties, grand rights, and non-performance licenses (tee shirts, mugs, and other “merch”).
  4. Networking. Topics would include: Presenting Yourself as a Composer; Press Kits and Business Cards; Internet Presence; Researching and Knowing Your Market; Effective Conversation; and Following Up.
  5. Presenting Your Music. Music Notation Do’s and Don’ts; Recordings (on physical media and online). MIDI versus “live” recordings.
  6. Finances. Musicians are, in the eyes of the IRS, low-hanging fruit just ripe for picking. This is mostly because (1) we musicians have a reputation for being not-too-bright business-wise (which, I should point out, is inaccurate), and (2) we are in the public eye. The best defense is honesty and accuracy in maintaining your finances. Topics would include: Bank Accounts and Checkbooks, and How and Why You Should Balance the Latter; Keeping Basic, Documented, and Accurate Contemporaneous Records for Tax Purposes; and Doing Your Own Taxes versus Hiring a CPA.
  7. Contract Basics. Topics would include: When Do You Need an Agreement (Contract)?; Lawyer or No Lawyer?; Negotiating Terms; How to Read a Contract; Composer-Specific Agreement Items.
  8. Agents. What Do Agents Do and Does a Composer Need One?

Based on conversations with students and colleagues, as well as my own experiences, I would say that the most time would be spent on items 1, 3, 4, 6, and 7. Number 4, in particular, would probably need the most of all — especially the last 3 items.

© 2015 Steven L. Rosenhaus

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DO NOT REPRINT OR PUBLISH WITHOUT PERMISSION.

Does New Music Have to Be Difficult? And other thoughts.

Ruminations:

  • I have never been a fan of complexity for its own sake, and every so often I’m reminded why. Sometimes it’s because I hear something so interesting and simple, and I find myself enjoying it thoroughly. Other times I hear something new that is so complicated, so obscure in intent, that it drives me barmy. Last evening I heard two works new to me, Tribute for Orchestra by James Grant and Suite from ‘Corbeau’ by Michael Gagliardo. I was impressed by both, for similar reasons. For one thing, each had interesting things to say, what those things were had been rooted in emotions and/or story telling, and the writing in terms of pure composition and orchestration was in each case clear. Even when things did become complex one could follow it or at least let it wash over and evoke a response. Of course being too simple can be a defect as well. Case in point was another work I heard yesterday, The Red Detachment of Women co-written by Wu Zuqiang and Du Ming Xin. Very simple and lovely tunes, dressed up in pretty orchestral colors and, unfortunately, ultimately forgettable. It would make a good score for a travelogue on PBS. About 1:00 AM. On a Sunday. I should note that I enjoy — really! — the music of Milton Babbitt, and of course my mentor, George Perle. But neither was ever into being convoluted or unnecessarily complex in their music. Sometimes their works swing (after a fashion).
  • Who is the first (only?) composer you think of when you think of ragtime? If you said “Scott Joplin” I would have to agree. But ragtime was more than “just” SJ, and at least several other composers should be mentioned in the same metaphorical breath as the acknowledged ragtime master. I’m thinking mainly of Joseph Lamb, whose Patricia Rag I just finished arranging for orchestra. At first it seems simpler than Joplin’s work — a little repetitive, with harmonies that don’t seem more than basic. Then you get to know it and discover all sorts of things, like the frequent use of dissonances on the downbeat (usually accented chromatic passing tones, for you theory geeks) or harmonic resolutions in one hand but delayed resolutions in the other. Fascinating.
  • I was a newbie composer; then an emerging composer. In about a decade you could rightfully refer to me as a venerable composer. But right now I am not well known among my musician peers, let alone the general public, but I get more commissions and performances than ever. (To paraphrase Groucho Marx, now I get turned down by a better class of people.) So am I an “emerged” composer? I think I’ll just leave it at “working composer.”