Sell It To Children – A Manifesto for Composers
“It’s just music for children.”—Anonymous
Four years ago, I had the privilege of writing a weekly Chatter post for NewMusicBox, with an initial focus on composing music for young players. I saw the column as an opportunity to address an issue I saw throughout my years as a composer and teacher. That is, most American classically trained composers do not take writing music for children seriously. Like it or not, it seems there is an elitist attitude that pervades our thinking about the contemporary repertoire. If it is for a virtuoso ensemble, great, the music has merit. If it is for a school chorus, well, that’s useful for the community, but is it really making an “artistic” statement? It irked me tirelessly when I would encounter some piece of writing or conversation bemoaning the demise of interest in new music. I felt the new music community was partially responsible for not nurturing its growth at the most fundamental level. If instrumentalists are not exposed to new music when they are learning to play, they are naturally going to be much more inhibited about trying it when they are done with their studies. Anyone in advertising or marketing knows that the best way to sell a product is to sell it to children. Didn’t we see that we were shooting ourselves in the foot?
That’s what it felt like, to me, four years ago, after years of being in the trenches composing for both virtuoso and student-level players. Thus I began my NewMusicBox column with the intention of it being a “call to arms,” so to speak. I wanted to rally my comrades and get us engaged and motivated to compose music for those without professional chops. I wrote weekly for over a year. During my tenure I received positive feedback and ideas from many readers. When I left, I felt I did my part in getting attention paid to the younger players, the ones who are eager to try things out but just don’t know how to play all the “hard stuff” yet.
Fast forward to 2011. In doing research for this article, I decided to peruse the immense resources of the American Music Center’s Online Music Library to see how much music I could find that was categorized as music for young players. The library is like a treasure box, having over 50,000 titles from over 6,000 composers that encompass a vast array of today’s music styles. I ultimately found only about 100 pieces out of about 50,000 or .02% of works that focus on music for young players. Has nothing changed?
“I would advise my young colleagues, the composers of symphonies, to drop in sometimes at the kindergarten, too. It is there that it is decided whether there will be anybody to understand their works in twenty years’ time.”—Zoltan Kodaly
Why is there still an oversight in composing for children? Does it have to do with our training as composers? Most of us were never taught how to compose music for an elementary technical level. In my own experience, not once did any of my beloved teachers discuss the issues surrounding writing for young players. I had the privilege of going to two top schools: one a university, one a conservatory. I was shown all the possibilities of what instruments can do. I was exposed to writing for incredible players. But, never was I introduced to writing for less skilled musicians. I was never encouraged to compose for any level lower than that of the professional player. It was simply overlooked.
It took a chance occurrence in my life to enlighten me regarding what Bach to Bartók knew about music: limits create possibilities. Like many of us, in graduate school I had to take jobs to help pay living expenses. One in particular changed the course of my composing life. While doing my doctoral work at Yale I taught piano and conducted the orchestra at a local music school. When they found out I was a composer, one teacher asked if I would be interested in writing music for her 5th grade chorus at a local elementary school. I said yes.
I had no clue how to compose something doable for 10-year-olds, something that would be within their technical reach while still interesting to me. In order to learn, I decided to make the commission into a collaborative project, going to the school and working with the kids in creating the piece they were to perform. I helped them make up melodies they could sing, melodies that became the basis of my own music for them. We worked weekly for months, getting to know each other and getting to know the music. The result was a choral work that was within their technical limits, yet conveyed my developing musical style. The children loved it. Furthermore, a number of students’ parents wanted to know about other music I composed, winning over a fan base I never encountered before. Even the teacher was so happy that she started an annual project of commissioning young composers to write for her student ensembles. My first experience composing for children was both compositionally satisfying and emotionally rewarding. I was hooked.
Thus I began writing for student players. At first, there was no set plan. While I focused on creating a professional life as a composer, I simultaneously built up a teaching studio, focusing on private instruction in piano, composition, and musicianship. As part of their tutelage I began to compose a duet for each of my piano students. With each one, I customized the child’s part to their technical level and personality as a player, while using the teacher’s part to flesh out a rich texture of sounds and rhythms not normally found in the traditional teaching method books. The end results were a collection of pieces that every student was thrilled to have. It was music written for them, about them, and they mastered them with gusto. Furthermore, they did not limit themselves to their own works. They wanted to try other student’s pieces. They wanted to try other composers’ music. Just as I had gotten hooked on writing for kids, my kids got hooked on playing contemporary music. It was a win-win situation.
That was when I realized that there was a whole segment of music players for which there really wasn’t much new music available. These young instrumentalists were the foundation for the future of new music. Their ears had not been hardwired yet, nor had their minds been conditioned to a set of historical precedents. They were a clean, blank slate. Yet hardly any composers with my background were writing at their level.
Word began to spread among my fellow teachers about my duets, and I began to get requests to compose music for their students. I began a cottage industry of writing for colleagues’ studios. During these years my career as a “serious” composer progressed as well. Both as a member in the Common Sense Composers Collective and as an individual, I began to get “bigger” gigs and innovative projects with professional players. I also began to seek out projects that were addressed specifically to younger players.
“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”—Igor Stravinsky
My first big commission for children came from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I was hired as composer-in-residence for their Music in the Schools Outreach Program. My task was to mentor a group of student string teachers and compose a piece for a group of elementary kids that had been learning their instruments for about two months. That meant they could play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and not much else. Through the process of collaboration with the teachers and the players, I decided to compose a work based on the first four notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle” and open strings. It consisted of patterns the students could easily master that, when aligned, created a kaleidoscopic post-minimalist piece of music. What initially seemed to be very constraining material actually proved to be fertile ground for my compositional technique. It enabled me to compose a piece of music that had integrity, one I felt proud to name in my list of works.
Thus began a new aspect of my composing life: writing for youth orchestras ranging from beginning to advanced levels. With each new project I learned more about the challenges and rewards of writing for younger players. Composing for beginners was the hardest, yet the most satisfying in some ways. I learned that in writing for very young players a composer must distill his or her voice down to its most essential level, stripping away any superfluous additives that are not necessary. You must find a way to make your sound world work within a set of very specific paradigms. A composer’s style does not matter. Students will dive into a sound world of an indeterminate piece as much as a work with a Neo-Romanticism flavor. The key is to create a sandbox where the students can play within their limited technique.
One European composer that succeeds in this is György Kurtág. His book of piano pieces, Játékok (Games), is an excellent example of how composers can use graphic notation in writing for young players. Technically the pieces stay within simple five -finger piano patterns when playing specific pitches. However, the sound universe opens up with elements of sound clusters, glissandos, dynamic range, and broad tempo fluctuations. All are notated with a graphic score Kürtag devised, which is explained in a concise appendix to the collection. Such pieces allow children to experiment on their instruments in a way they normally are not encouraged to do.
For myself, I am a post-minimalist composer (or at least that’s what I am told). I love to manipulate processes in the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic realms. When working with beginning musicians, I create ways of making my rhythmic and harmonic offsets occur yet still be manageable to a student with little experience. One example is from my piano duets, Owen’s Ellaphant. The Primo part is for a beginning pianist. There are recurring patterns, all within the same five-finger piano position. However, bits of the patterns are sliced off and juxtaposed against one another. This all occurs against the Secondo part, written for a teacher or more advanced student. That part carries the bulk of the manipulations I do with the harmony and rhythms.
“My freedom thus consists in my moving about the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings.”—Igor Stravinsky
It is now almost 20 years since I composed my first piece for student players. At this juncture, I decided to look at what I have composed so far, assessing my strengths and weaknesses, and my contribution to the grand scheme of things. In doing so, I realized that there is still an arena that I felt still needed to be addressed for student players. That is solo contemporary music for the young instrumentalist.
Thinking back to the duets I had composed for my students, I decided to use a similar approach in undertaking a new project, one aimed at addressing the need for music for young soloists. Called Custom Made Music, the series is a collection of books written for different instruments, with the focus being on customizing the music so that it effectively explores the possibilities of each instrument within a technical level that is needed in the instrument’s repertoire. Each book begins with my selecting as the editor a leading player/teacher of the instrument that is the focus of the book. I then meet with the chosen player and receive feedback about existing gaps in the teaching repertoire, with regards to new music. Once I have composed rough drafts, the performer and I work to refine the pieces, making sure the technical level is appropriate for the selected goal. The process is then taken to the next level by having the editor’s students try the music and provide feedback about the playability of the pieces. In addition, the music is also sent out to other teachers of the chosen instrument for additional comments. The result is a collection of student instrumental music that has been composed and refined in a collaborative environment, specifically tailored to the needs for the technical level of the instrument for which the book is written.
To start off this series, PRB Productions has recently published the flagship book called Custom Made Music: 12 Pieces for Piano Duet (PRB Edition No. ED007). It is a collection of the duets I composed for my own students and those of other teachers. The second book to be published is Custom Made Music for Solo Piano. To create this book, I worked with renowned pianist Teresa McCollough in making a solo collection of short intermediate piano pieces that addresses the need for music suitable for competitions and recitals. Currently I am composing the Custom Made Music for Clarinet book. My editor is performer/teacher Jeff Anderle, a member of the bass clarinet duo SQWONK and also a faculty member at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. At our initial meeting, Jeff pointed out that the clarinet repertoire is lacking in music for the late intermediate clarinetist. However, unlike the piano, the clarinet’s body of works needs an amalgam of instrumental combinations: works for solo clarinet, clarinet duos that can be played by student and teacher, and clarinet/piano pieces suitable for recitals. So, the clarinet music book will be comprised of two solo clarinet pieces, two clarinet duo pieces, and two clarinet/piano pieces. Upcoming collections in the series are planned for classical guitar, flute, and cello. Featured guest editors include performer/teachers David Tanenbaum, Esther Landau (flute), and Tanya Tomkins (cello).
“Let us take our children seriously! Everything else follows from this… only the best is good enough for a child.”—Zoltan Kodaly
It is true that organizations such as the American Music Center, American Composers Forum, and Meet The Composer are giving money and validation for undertaking composing for amateur ensembles. Likewise, there are a few classical composers who have successfully integrated writing for younger student ensembles into their professional lives. I know of one, Frank Ticheli, who has written numerous pieces for high school bands while also amassing a considerable collection of works for world-class ensembles. A professor at USC, his name is known by both the professional classical music scene and by young players, as I found when teaching one of my own students. However, he is the exception, not the rule. I look back on my own training as a pianist, violinist, and flutist and realize that my love of classical music began from playing works composed by composers like Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven. They all wrote music accessible to the limits of a student player without compromising its quality. It was so satisfying to learn a Haydn Trio and then also hear one of his symphonies. Simplicity does not mean simplistic. Indeed, it is an art to be able to take an idea and present it in a manner accessible to the young. I feel our art needs more of this approach. It used to have it. It can have it again.