Thoughts on the collaborative process of Adopt A Composer

Having recently finished a relatively large-scale composition project on the Adopt A Composer Scheme, I thought I would write down some of my experiences, notes and advice to composers – what did I discover, what did I not predict, as well as what I might do do differently next time. This is meant for beginning composers like myself, but there might be something useful here for others too. A lot of the points are particularly relevant to writing for wind bands or working collaboratively with large leisure-time/amateur groups.

Communication

The communication was in general very good for this project, but there were still times where I could have allowed more time and been stronger in establishing certain things earlier on. For example, there was no bass trombone, one of the euphoniums is actually a baritone horn (and they read a Bb 9th transposition not bass clef), how many trumpet and oboe players there are officially on the band register vs. in reality, who is on leave, who is joining or not coming back. All of these things increased the likelihood of errors and also affected the way I composed at various stages, from conception through to finishing the parts. If I was going to do it again, I would collect the first name and instrument of everyone in the band along with a list of minimum and maximum personnel of the band right at the beginning of the project; I found as I went through the collaborative process I composed more and more for individual people or basing ideas on what specific people had said or comments they had made, so this would have been very helpful.

Taking Criticism

Some people are incredibly honest, others don’t feel comfortable expressing an opinion in front of others or face to face in private, some people don’t think anything! These are all valid. Nevertheless during this process there were moments where criticism was received (usually always in a well-meaning way) and I think this is a valuable experience for a composer, or for someone who works in a world where criticism is less forthcoming or expressed most often between close and established musical partners (in my case, the jazz and improvised music world). In this collaborative process it was also important to take on board that criticism and see what was at the root, this meant questioning the criticism, asking what a alternative idea would be etc. not taking it personally but being able to use it to change your thinking. Alongside this was trying to have a clear idea of what you want or what you mean, and being able to explain that face to face with other people. 90% of my previous experience has been as a sideman in an ensemble, as a performer, not composer, and in this role I am usually the one to receive these explanations from the band leader. This was another great learning experience that I can take forward not only into future commissions, but also into teaching and projects where I am the band leader.

Time and Visualisation/Imagination

People need time to get used to their parts and to new ideas, and as I was working with a new ensemble whom I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, I had to employ a greater deal of imagination and visualisation in terms of what I thought might be possible in the given time frame, how things might sound after 3 months of rehearsal, as well as try to predict what would work and what wouldn’t based on only hearing only fragments of material. This was compounded by the fact that in such a large band there are inevitably a certain number of absences each time. This is totally different to working with a smaller ensemble of people who know you, your approach and are able to fill in the gaps where you may only have a very rough idea e.g. in a small improvising jazz ensemble, or with a professional ensemble where members are paid or contracted to be there and getting to the stage hearing the actual written ideas performed may be a much quicker process. I would say that this has been the biggest learning experience for me and that the skill of hearing in advance is something incredibly valuable that can be trained most effectively by being in situations such as this.

Orchestration

I have found it invaluable over the last few years to study orchestration from books and scores, however my biggest learning curve was being in the room with the musicians and hearing the written music played. Having never written for such a large ensemble before, it was difficult to imagine whether certain notes would need more emphasis, how loud or quiet a certain dynamic was on a specific instrument or group of instruments, which instruments come through a texture, which need more support, whether certain rhythms when played by certain instruments are still clear etc. Having done this once, it will helpfully be easier the next time. 

I also discovered that people were often used to playing certain passages down (or up) the octave in order to make things easier to play, to fit on another instrument, or to keep stamina throughout a rehearsal. This obviously affects the sound of the music which may not be a big deal in some pieces in an ensemble’s regular repertoire, where voices are often doubled in other octaves, or in music that is largely tonal or based on full ensemble chords. The approach of this piece however often utilised smaller groupings of instruments, counterpoint, multiple tonalities, multiple melodies across the range of the band and less octave doubling than usual, so it was important to try to keep things at their original pitch. I found that I preferred to be notified of when this was happening so that I could actively change the part to be more playable, or move that person to another part, rather than it being passively changed during performance.

Notation

I created a notation guide within a wider set of performance notes in order to help the band (and any bands who may play the piece in the future) understand the written music. I studied some concert band scores and did research into notation conventions and found that there is often conflicting advice given, for example using dots or legato lines under slurs to indicate articulation. In the end the best thing I could do was decide for this specific piece what worked best and wasn’t too far away from the repertoire the band were used to, whilst at the same time what was the best representation and remained true to the ideas I was trying to convey. 

Layout

Part layout took way more time and effort than I expected! I had allowed around 2 weeks to work on it where I had a relatively free schedule asides from a few gigs/travelling. This was just about enough but I overestimated the amount of time I could spend working in this level of detail in any one day, which after between 6-8 hours with a break my brain reached capacity and I had to do something else. This obviously may be different for others. The main issue was that making one decision in one part can often affect what you do in another part, as you want everything to be relatively consistent. Another thing was I decided to rewrite a few sections of the music which took me away from the original task at hand. Specific to this project there was also the concept of…

Breathing

I found the only way to effectively conceptualise where to allow space for breathing or write breath marks was to individually sing each part – depending on the size of the ensemble this can take a lot of time. I know a lot of composers may not worry about this, or may not be writing in such a way that it requires a lot of thought, but for this particular project it was very important to allow for this; people who are not all professional musicians may have different tolerances for breathing and I had to take this into consideration.

Accidentals

Certain instrumentalists traditionally like reading either sharps or flats, both in the key signature (if there is one, there wasn’t in my piece) or within the music. Find this out at the beginning of your layout process, it took me some time… In general it’s best to write the accidentals as dictated by the harmonic context or what you wish you put across, but it’s also a good idea to triple check for visually strange/incorrect intervals like D# to Gb, followed by a perfect fourth down to C# etc. since they can make reading the music difficult.

Tutti/solo/divisi etc.

In the piece I have written, there are many changes between tutti, solo, divisi and uses of two people within a section. Given that everyone in a given section (e.g. Flute 1) reads the same part, it’s a good idea to check several times that you have reinstated the tutti marking after the solo, divisi, or two people only marking. A few missing markings might mean a lot of confusion and time wasted in the rehearsal! Also there is the fact that the performers need time  at some point to mark in their parts if they will be playing in the sections that require reduced instrumentation.

Dynamics

I discovered I have the habit of missing out dynamic markings on phrases that start after a bar or more rest, especially where there was a crescendo in that bar. How can the performer know for at which dynamic to re-enter at after 8 bars if there is nothing there? Sometimes it may be the same dynamic as before, other times different; I found it was better to repeat the marking for clarity.

Amalgamation of Scores

I composed most of the music on paper with pencil so it was quiet easy to mark in, for example, where a part divided, or which instruments I envisaged playing certain parts. However when it came down to create a computerised score and parts for real people to read, because I had non-traditional notation in the 3rd movement and instruments divided into separate roles of up to 5 soloists and tutti sections I had to create a separate score in Sibelius. Figuring out how to put the 3rd movement together with the others was a long process! There is then potentially the additional creation and combining of PDFs to consider.  

Use of Improvisation

I discovered that more (positive) limitations were effective in embedding improvisatory elements into the music. People felt more free to improvise and more confident if they had less options and more specific information to work with. 

Non-Musical Considerations

Can you line up your schedule and other work commitments with that of the ensemble? As I was finishing up the compositional process and since the band needed time to rehearse this piece and for upcoming concerts where they were playing other repertoire, we decided it was best to create a timeline of deadlines and when I would attend rehearsals etc. This gave me something to work towards and also meant that I was then free to try to work all my other commitments around these dates. Of course it helps it both parties have seem degree in flexibility too, since things can change last minute. 

Are you going to record and/or perform the piece? I was very lucky in that the process of doing a performance and recording is built into the Adopt A Composer Scheme, nevertheless there is still some element of providing information to several organisations of people well in advance, deciding on venues and dates, proving a text for the programme etc. All of these things take time and depending on the situation you may have to do all or some of it yourself – luckily I had a great team of organisers in the ensemble who helped with this at the various stages by going to meetings, seeing venues when I was unavailable etc. and for this I am ever grateful.

Things not to miss

  • Cue parts – an obvious cue that someone can see and hear at the same time so that they know when to come in
  • Breathing/breath marks
  • Using non-musical ideas/words to help describe the feeling of the music (especially when using improvisation with majority non-improvisors)
  • Legacy – how/are people in the future going to play this piece? Create some performance notes/explanations of anything unusual or different in your score and the inspiration behind it
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