Knowing Your Limitations

After posting last week’s column I received a number of emails from composers posing technical questions regarding composing for amateurs. Below is the text from one in particular:

“I’ve been pestering a middle school band director for over a year to send me some scores so I can write a piece for his band…. [I] don’t know the first thing about writing for young wind players and percussionists, so I need to know their restrictions. I never played in a band or orchestra until I got to college, so I’m completely ignorant about what will work and what won’t with young musicians.”

What struck me about this is that it came from a “classically trained” composer, complete with a Ph.D. and a list of works and performances that many of us would envy. So why does he need help?

Thinking about this, I look back on some of my projects and realize that I came in just as green as he professes to be. One residency in particular sticks in my brain. As a composer with Common Sense I was asked to write a set of theme and variations for two high school bands in Albany, New York. Both ensembles were at the intermediate-advanced level for high school ensembles.

Well, most of us did not know what this really meant. In fact, one of us in particular wound up totally having to rewrite a piece after hearing it literally crash at the first workshop. Thanks to our workshopping process, however, all was saved in the end. Ed Harsh and Randy Woolf, both Common Sensers, did have experience writing for high schools, and their tips helped this composer revamp the work.

But, why did this have to happen in the first place? Why are conservatory/university trained composers not taught how to write for young players? We spend a lot of time learning all the possibilities of the instruments but not the limitations and, in doing so, most of us come out unprepared to take advantage of the opportunities to compose for amateurs.

I know there is a whole flourishing industry of writing for bands and that there are composers that focus solely on this medium. But how do they get their chops? I have a feeling it was not in music school, so I would love for those of you that do have experience in this to send us your tips.

One thought on “Knowing Your Limitations

  1. joshcampbell

    Very interesting read, I’ve honestly never put much thought into how inadequate my education has been (and, admittedly, continues to be) in the area of writing for middle/high school players. I mean, it was not ever really touched upon once during my undergraduate years… I’ve been thinking about this a lot since reading this article last week and I’ve only been able to come up with one possible explanation:

    It has been my experience that many “academic” composers have the tendency to place composers/musicians in a hierarchy. Naturally, these composers who pursue professional degrees, write “intellectual” music (whose target audience is often those with said degrees), are at the top of this pyramid. Those composers who write for film, television, and sadly, children, seem to fall into lower brackets when looking through this academic lense. Because of this unfortunate classification, the techniques used in these “lesser” forms of composition are rarely touched upon.

    In the case of music for children, I believe it to be based on the faulty assumption that since the players themselves are of sub-professional quality, the composers who write for them are as well. Now, there are loads and loads of terrible music written for this age group (I recall with much frustration playing countless Disney medleys in my middle-school band), but there is an incredible amount of great music written for children as well. The best example I can think of would definitely have to be…

    Belinda Reynolds

    A few years ago I attended a premier of a string orchestra piece that Belinda wrote for the Boulder Youth Symphony in Boulder, Colorado. Not only was the piece as “high art” as any other (intended for professional players or otherwise), its simplicity and elegance were extremely well balanced so that the young players could simultaneously get their heads, ears, and hearts around it while clearly being able to manage it technically. This, in my eyes, goes beyond a composer being able to tailor herself to a limited environment. Rather, she took the opportunity to make a profound artistic statement in simplicity that would not been nearly as effective had it been played by a professional orchestra.

    So what we need is more “serious” composers like Belinda to step up and treat it like any other composition, and baby composers like me need real classes taught on how to deal with limitations like this. And I suppose it wouldn’t help if all the overly pretentious composers out there (especially the ones with tenure) would make a little more effort to connect with real people.

    I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.

    /steps off of soapbox

    Reply

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