Something’s Really Wrong If They Start Crying

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.

13 thoughts on “Something’s Really Wrong If They Start Crying

  1. jbunch

    differing sensitivities…
    I had an experience with one ensemble that I was writing a piece with where at a rehearsal, I had asked a violinist if I could use her violin to demonstrate a strange technique I had written, and she did so. I found out later from another person that I made her feel really uncomfortable. There weren’t really any tears shed over the matter, but the situation revealed to me that performers aren’t always willing to voice their concerns directly to the person who had offended them. (And for the record, I do have some string playing experience, and the technique was not grating the upper-bout with sandpaper or something like that).

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  2. JKG

    All it takes…
    is for some asinine excuse for a composer to prove his/her lack of humanity with others, and I can guarantee you that person will (and his/her “art” will be avoided like the plague. Exactly what kind of emotional immaturity or deadness of personality should ever be tolerated in the arts, particularly by professional musicians? It is one thing to invest in one’s technique and breadth of expression – it is quite another to bypass investing in one’s personhood. Jerks like the “composers” described have no business having their “music” read by anyone.

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  3. sgordon

    Jerks like the “composers” described have no business having their “music” read by anyone.

    Absolutely. Really, at some point that ensemble needed to turn to the composer and say “Quit being such a dick or we’re not going to play another note” – it’s one thing to suffer for your art, quite another to suffer for someone else’s art. Once it gets to the point of tears, there’s something desperately wrong.

    Composers are mostly spineless woosies, anyway. If you’ve got a bully on your hands, put him/her in their place and they’ll fold up like a lawn chair.

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  4. Colin Holter

    I totally agree – and all of the above should go without saying! There’s a major difference, however, between “asking” performers for something in a score and “asking” performers for something in person. I’ve found that your notation can demand a lot if your manner with players is engaging, understanding, and, above all, respectful. My experience has been that even the performers who specialize in the most demanding music have no patience with asshole composers, nor should they.

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  5. pgblu

    Not quite so simple
    As Belinda indicated at the end of her bit, sometimes inflexibility or perceived jerkiness is a result of inexperience, insecurity, and so on. It can be dealt with in different ways, depending on the situation. Performers are often (not always) rewarded for their patience in these matters. We’re all human, and nobody can claim they haven’t needed a reality check now and then.

    Also, someone with a bad attitude or a personality disorder is not necessarily a poor composer. As much as we might wish it were so, musical sensitivity does not always correlate with interpersonal skills.

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  6. JKG

    I rarely seek explanations
    But I must admit, I find the following statement to be a tad boorish, if well-meant, “…musical sensitivity does not always correlate with interpersonal skills.” There does exist, as a matter of fact, an entire body of music for whom consideration of both listener and performer is at best moot. That these “composers” are performed at all says a great deal about a certain level of moral and artistic cowardice which normally attends within the ranks of the slavishly mediocre. I would give jerks benefit of the doubt if they at all deserved it, even on the basis of their alleged humanity – unfortunately, it is their inhumanity which should be publically and roundly taken to task.

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  7. jbunch

    Beethoven anyone ?
    To back up pgblu’s “boorish” claim, one might consider a composer like Beethoven who was an arrogant asshole prick. Given that this guy didn’t have an entirely wonderful life, when you say things like “…there are thousands of princes, but only one Beethoven…,” or “…I don’t care about your filthy viola…,” you don’t stand to make many advances in the “friends department.”

    What’s more, Beethoven is infamous amongst performers for stretching ranges and writing some fairly unconventional/uncomfortable things for his day – and wasn’t terribly sensitive to players who complained to him. Is this to say that he should be anyone’s roll model in this manner? No. But I think it points to the problem. Perhaps said jerk composer is clinging to an overly romanticized self-interpretation inherited from the likes of Beethoven. Perhaps if they stopped thinking about themselves as cut from the same sad heroic cloth, and realized that being a composer – wonderful as it is – makes you no more important than an orthodontist, then this whole situation could have been navigated more compassionately.

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  8. Colin Holter

    I wasn’t going to call JKG out on his conflation of quality of music with quality of person, but since pgblu took it to the hoop, we might as well go there.

    Because this isn’t really about working with performers for JKG, apparently: It’s about the distinction between music and “music” (which, he seems to believe, is somehow linked to difficulty of execution) and about–and this is the really telling part–consideration for the listener, something of an idée fixe for JKG. All this despite numerous historical counter-examples, including the big one noted by Bunch; I’d also add Wagner, Lully, and Miles Davis. JKG also cites a shadowy gang of composers writing music “for whom consideration of both listener and performer is at best moot.” (Those of you who follow White House press conferences will recognize this pattern: “Some in Washington say that [thatch together appropriate straw man]. However, I feel that [debunk said straw man].”) Name some names, JKG, and remember that anybody whose name you know well enough to name is probably getting performances – and probably getting more performances than you or me. Nobody’s going to argue with you when you assert that composers should be respectful of performers, because everyone should be respectful when dealing with one another, except on the internet. The non-question we’re debating now is whether jackasses write good music, and sometimes, for better or worse, they do.

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  9. mdc

    …it’s one thing to suffer for your art, quite another to suffer for someone else’s art.

    This is quite possibly the best aphorism I’ve ever read,

    It’s even better than most of the Robert Fripp quotes on the DGM website.

    I’ve gotten to participate in many premieres and dealt with composers who were happy to be able to have a chance to hear their music live (apply both pronunciations of the word.) I’ve also dealt with composers who felt that I should be happy to be their sonic servant, regardless of technical challenge, conceptual difficulty, or quality of effort, especially if I’m getting $25 or more for my time. These are probably the same people who taunt the servers at the catered receptions post-concert if the chablis isn’t suitably chilled and the brie suitably warm.

    I keep reading business books that stress the role of relationships. Elements of money and art aside, relationships are at the core of what we do. Relationships with the audience, the performers, the instrument, the composer, the soundguy, the stagehands, etc.

    Erich Leinsdorf’s book on conducting is entitled “The Composer’s Advocate.” As the performer, I have to be an advocate. The older I get, the more choosy my advocacy becomes, and I base it on many things. Metaphorically kicking me in the shins during rehearsals isn’t going to help matters.

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  10. pgblu

    I find it a tad boorish to call me a tad boorish. Except you are a bigger tad boorish, and I’m a smaller tad boorish. So there!

    I have “changed” my “mind”. I completely “agree” with JKG. Those with the smaller tad of boorishness write better music.

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  11. JKG

    *laughing*
    Okay, okay. Boorish is too harsh a term. There are times when everyone has a bad day and takes it out on everyone else, even other musicians. I love Beethoven, and Wagner, and oh yes even Schumann (on certain days). It would be helpful for me to be honest that my own ideals are at times even difficult for me to access, despite my absolute belief and practice of them – and it’s really not proper for me to expect of others what I expect of myself. However, as there is a certain principle of art mitigating against all forms of intellectual and emotional tyranny, it should surprise no one that I take sheer and delicious delight in slighting ANY artist who smacks of bullying. Even Beethoven had his bad days, and God knows there are some pieces of his I am completely unimpressed by, despite his greatness in general. There are times when Wagner is completely camp, and I suspect even Puccini had days when whatever he was working on “would just have to do.” On the bright side, what’s the point of being crazy if one can’t have a little fun? And (sincerely), please except my apologies for using the term boorish. It smacks too much of “boring,” and that is certainly not what I meant at all.

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  12. JKG

    *long, thoughtful sigh**
    That music library at Cal is just awesome. I am sure much of the music reposited there was written by folks who had much consideration for the performer and listener in mind, yet primarily were led by their hearts with regard to what they felt needed to be said. It would have been so cool to’ve set up a chamber concert at Cafe Med *sigh, drinking espresso.”

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  13. pgblu

    Hey Belinda (are you still there after all these digressions? :) ),

    You probably want to keep the specifics of your experience anonymous, but what sort of festivals do projects like this, with composers being paired up with individual ensembles of varying experience? I think such things are great and would like to someday participate. Plug away (Belinda or anyone else)!

    Thanks, Philipp Blume

    Reply

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