It is one thing to see a child crying tears of frustration when learning a new piece. It is quite another thing when it is a professional musician. A few years back, I attended a festival in which all the composers were paired up with a professional ensemble for whom they had written a new piece. The teams were to rehearse the works in a workshop environment for a number of weeks and then have the pieces premiered in a series of concerts at the end of the event.
Each composer came with their pieces at varying stages of completion. Some were madly trying to get to the double bar. Others had the completed score, with no changes needed. As for the players, some arrived seasoned veterans of new music, while others were totally new to the new. But all came with a voracious appetite to experience working in such a unique environment with living composers.
As the weeks progressed, most players and composers relished in the freedom and excitement of being able to work together on a piece. However, there was one particular ensemble that began to detest their composer. One evening, some of this ensemble’s players spoke to me about their issues. Even though they had lots of experience with new contemporary works, they felt like automatons in total isolation. With tears in their eyes, they described how the composer would not allow any commentary, suggestions, or questions about the piece. Even when the ensemble’s coaches sat in on the rehearsals, all their suggestions were seen by the composer as merely an attempt to circumvent the composer’s relationship with the players. As they shared their woes, one of the musicians said to me, “I feel so ignorant, so stupid. I’m wondering why I came this far to play in a premiere where my participation is not wanted and is dismissed and discouraged.”
This type of situation is why new music is still looked upon with suspicion and fear by so many musicians. And, if the pros are brought to tears, what kind of attitude will they pass along to their students? Why would we expect to have them share the thrill of playing new music if all they have experienced are belittling situations?
As a composer, there is a way in which you can approach your interaction with musicians that sets up a relationship of mutual respect. You do not have to change a note, alter a dynamic, or adjust anything in your piece should you not want to. But, before making this decision, you should still allow a player to voice their questions, their suggestions, and their concerns. Hear them out. Thank them for taking the time to get to know the piece well enough that they do have questions. Say you will think about it. And do think about it. Then, when you come back and say that you still want the music to be a certain way, your performers will feel that you did give them the opportunity to participate in the process of bringing a piece to its fruition. They will feel empowered. And you will get a better performance of your work, trust me.
And really, who are we to dictate to a performer the exact way to play a piece? Part of being a performer is the job of interpretation. And, in my opinion, part of being a composer is letting go of one’s attachment to a specific way the piece is played. If you want it only one way, well, you better accept that you are not going to get many people on board. And, come on, REALLY. Are we composers so infallible that every note we write is perfect? What right do we have to shut ourselves off from all other opinions? We can disagree, but we should at least listen. It is music, after all. Our art is about listening.
Back to the story with the players in tears….When they asked for my help, all I could say to them was to take this experience as an opportunity to develop a type of professionalism that is unfortunely sometimes required. That is, regardless of how a composer is treating you, still be above the fray and conduct yourself in a manner worthy of your artistry. I do not mean be a diva, but trust your musicianship and your instincts. Realize that most likely the composer is young or insecure or just not aware of how he or she is acting. And maybe, just maybe, by acting in a professional manner some of those previously inflexible composers will begin to get a clue and learn how to comport themselves as well.