Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums

Mentoring Younger Composers

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I wonder if you were mentoring a young composer, what would be essential for them to focus on, to really tune the ears?

ALBERTO GRAU: The first thing would be that he has to focus on the choir that he is going to write for. This is very important because a composer should write for the interpreter, whoever the interpreter is. In Venezuela, we have many children’s choirs, and one can write for pre-school choirs to the Dale Warland Singers. So it is very important for the composer to focus on the choir for which he is composing. The second thing is that the pupil should work a lot.

CHRISTIAN GRASES [INTERPRETER]: I can tell you that he gives us a lot of work.

ALBERTO GRAU: The composer should pick a good poem and stick to it, but it is very important for the people to feel compassion for what the music can give back after he is done working on it. And the last thing would be to be very critical with oneís self.

CHRISTIAN GRASES [INTERPRETER]: I can tell you that he is very tough on himself and on us. I am a pupil of his. He shows us how to be really critical with ourselves and our work.

JORGE C"RDOBA: It is very important to analyze the great composers. I agree with Alberto about all the preparation. I emphasize that analysis is very important, and I was so amazed at how much fun it was to analyze works. After all of these things are in yourself, then approach the music from your heart, so your feelings can come through. After you have analyzed and after you have worked a lot, then you have to take all these studies of counterpoint apart and you have write from your heart.

STEPHEN PAULUS: I would say that young composers should listen like crazy to music, and find out what is working and what isn’t, and why. Write every day. It is no different from being a gymnast; develop that facility if possible, something related to composing. Older composers should listen like crazy, and write every day. It is the same. The other tricky thing I heard in a quote heard down the table here is to become self-critical, and wean from the teacher or mentor. My teacher, Paul Fetler, never said, “this is good…this is bad.” He always said, “Well, let’s see…Let’s look at the alto line. Are you pleased with what you have written?” And I would, being young, say, “Oh, very pleased.” Instead of pointing out that I had written 28 bars without a rest, and all altos have to breathe, just like woodwind instruments. And he would say, “Well, is there anything you would change?” And I would say, “Not a thing!” “Well if there was one thing possibly that you might want to consider changing,” and by this time behind me all the graduate students were laughing, because they could see as plain as day that I hadn’t allowed them time to breathe. But if he had said, “Give the singers a chance to breathe,” no—he used the Socratic method and finally got it out of me, “That’s right! I need to give them a chance to breathe.” That is a great skill that needs to be developed as soon as possible. Come back to a piece; I still do this to this day. The more time after I have written a piece, to put it on the shelf—even if it is for one night, hopefully it is a week, sometimes a month—suddenly some of the world’s greatest ideas suddenly become very mediocre after you have had a chance to let the work sizzle a bit; That chord isn’t zippy enough, or that chord doesn’t have the right punch.” You can improve a piece so much, even before you get to the premiere. Much better than at the second rehearsal.

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