Sunday, December 29, 2013

How can Non-Composers Teach K-12 Composition?


• How do you teach and encourage your students to compose if you have little or no experience composing?

There was a round-table discussion of “creativity in the classroom” at the 2013 Newfound Music Festival, moderated by Professors Andrea Rose and Ki Adams. The audience included music education students and others interested in this topic, and the remaining panel participants were multi-instrumentalist and improviser Paul Bendzsa, ethnomusicologist and "soundsinger" Chris Tonelli, and myself.

This was the ninth consecutive festival with a session on this topic, and the objective every year is to discuss ways in which creativity can be developed and nurtured through teaching music in the public school system, from kindergarten to grade twelve (K-12). As Dr. Rose reminded us, composing is one of the “specific curriculum outcomes” for K-12 in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador (if visiting this link, see page 20).

Therein lies the challenge to be explored in today’s blog. Many school music teachers lack a background in composition; how do such teachers cultivate and facilitate composing and, more generally, creativity in their classrooms?



  • Is it possible to be a good teacher of something in which you have little experience? 
  • Is it possible to be a bad teacher of something in which you are highly skilled?

If you're in a hurry, I'll give you a hint: The answer to both questions is yes.

If you wish to continue reading, then consider this:
  • Teachers are sometimes not experts in the things they teach. Example: About a week before he started his first teaching job, a friend of mine was asked/told to teach physical education, something for which (a) he had no specific qualifications, and (b) no specific skill set. As a child, gym teachers routinely gave up on my friend because he was considered physically unskilled, and, for the most part, he was okay with that; his attitude was he knew it, and they knew it, so why pretend otherwise? Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I understand he became a very good phys. ed. teacher. He researched the best ways to teach and motivate students in kinesiology (also known as human kinetics, or phys. ed. if you prefer old-school terminology), established fitness goals, and found fun ways for his students to reach them. He found ways to encourage and empower kids who had been written off by previous gym teachers, precisely because he had been one of those people.

  • School wind-band teachers are required to have some knowledge of all the instruments of the wind band, but teachers can't necessarily play all (or even any) of the instruments well. They are of course proficient on their main instrument, and they may well be competent in a few others, but for most instruments, they have had very little training or experience. And yet, there they are, teaching our kids how to play these instruments! Is this a problem? Not necessarily. Good teachers find a way to teach basic skills in band instruments, and less-good teachers, for reasons that probably have more to do with pedagogical shortcomings than any lack of proficiency on these instruments, are less successful in this

  • Many school teachers and professors have found themselves in a position of having to teach something in which they had very little training, and some have gone on to become very good at teaching that subject. This is analogous to parenthood, in that nobody has any experience before embarking on it, but some become very good parents despite this, while others don't. One of the ways many people learn best is by doing. 

  • On the other hand, most musicians either know first-hand, or have heard of, cases where a virtuoso performer turned out to be a rather poor teacher of their instrument. Sometimes, the more you struggle in learning something, the better you understand how to teach it, and vice-versa

  • Experience and proficiency in something do not necessarily make you a great teacher. Overcoming obstacles and struggling to achieve proficiency can make you better equipped to helping students overcome their own struggles.
If you are a school music teacher, and you buy into the argument that you don't need to have achieved mastery in something in order to teach it well, here are some ideas that may help in teaching/encouraging composition and creativity, even if your confidence in this area is not high:
  1. Everyone is creative. We too often think of creativity as a "special" thing, a gift, which is bestowed upon some, but not others. This is wrong; we are all creative, but in different ways. In a recent study, 70% of respondents in the United States said they believed the education system stifles creativity. Some people may be more creative than others, but if true, this may be related to the encouragement or discouragement of creative activities experienced while growing up.
  2. “One of the myths of creativity is that very few people are really creative,” said Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D., an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation. “The truth is that everyone has great capacities but not everyone develops them. One of the problems is that too often our educational systems don’t enable students to develop their natural creative powers. Instead, they promote uniformity and standardization. The result is that we're draining people of their creative possibilities and, as this study reveals, producing a workforce that's conditioned to prioritize conformity over creativity.” ["Study Reveals Global Creativity Gap"]
  3. Encourage creativity.  Hypothetical situation: A child makes up a tune and plays it for her teacher; consider two different responses:
    • Teacher 1 response: "Well, I guess it's okay, but I've got to be honest and tell you that it really sounds too much like a Justin Bieber song, which makes it unoriginal, and a pretty poor choice of somebody to copy! I'll give you a C-plus for that, 'cause I'm feeling generous today!" The child is discouraged and embarrassed, and either never tries making up a tune again, or if they do, they know enough to not show it to the teacher.
    • Teacher 2 response: "Wow, that's good! And it kind of sounds like Justin Bieber… but better! You should write more songs!" The child feels encouraged, and keeps at it, keeps improving, and eventually finds their own original voice, which, not surprisingly, turns out to be nothing like The Bieb's.

    The act of sharing something you create with someone else makes you vulnerable; you can never be sure how people will react, and for most of us, others' responses matter. Compounding this is the self-doubt that many of us feel when trying something new. Encouraging creative activities for your students is vitally important because it assuages these self-doubts, which in turn makes it more likely that students will want to continue creating things. I think that people who self-identify as "not creative" would not be limiting themselves in this way if they had been encouraged more in their creative activities while growing up.

  4. Originality is overrated, at least in the early stages of learning to compose; avoid over-emphasizing its importance to your students. Sounding like someone else when you start composing is a normal part of the process. Indeed, part of the training that many composers received throughout history was to learn to write music "in the style of" some other composer (Palestrina, Bach, Chopin, Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen, etc.). In doing this, we learn different techniques, and we may choose to recombine aspects of these techniques in any way we wish when writing our own music. Everyone will find their own voice if they keep at it, but they won't keep at it if they are discouraged. If your students like pop music, then you could make a class project where everyone writes a short song (or even just one verse of a song) in the style of an artist they admire. Students can work in teams if they like, and then perform their songs for one another.

  5. The creative process is often messy. Things we make are usually not very good before they become good. Anyone who composes knows this, I suspect. However, there is a myth about the creative process in which genius composers get their ideas in a flash, or at least relatively effortlessly, perhaps as a gift from the Almighty, and all the genius composer has to do is to take dictation feverishly quickly in order to notate the genius composition. Movies such as "Amadeus" reinforce this absurd notion. It is important to make sure your students know that every "genius" composer that ever lived had periods of struggle during the creative process, especially when they were starting out, and often throughout their creative lives as well. "Amadeus" is entertainment with some factual content, not a documentary. .

  6. Self doubt is normal, both for students and teachers, when attempting something new. Self doubt can be an important part of the creative process: A person attempts to create something, but comes to the "realization" that the thing they are creating is not very good. "This sucks!" they might say to themselves, or to you.

    This "realization," however, may be (a) flawed; it may not "suck" at all, although it could almost certainly be improved, and (b) is a normal occurrence in the creative process, even for experienced creators; it's an illustration of how our perspective can change from day to day on things we create, and an indicator that we need to keep working on our creation in order to improve it. I have written several posts in which perspective is discussed in relation to the creative process, including this one, should you wish to read further.

    As teachers, we can try to ensure that our students know it's okay to doubt ourselves at times, and we can encourage students when this happens. As more experienced musicians than our students (hopefully!), we can suggest some concrete ideas for improvements, such as simplify (texture, harmony, ideas, etc.), repeat, vary earlier ideas, use a simple form like ABA, modulate, try an exotic scale, identify and clarify foreground and background (beginning composers often do not distinguish between the two, making the music sound confused), make it more idiomatic for the performers, and simplify. And simplify. And… Okay, you get it: Simplifying ideas is often a key to improving them!

  7. Critique carefully, and sparingly. I think that people who are just getting started in composition or in any endeavour primarily need encouragement, and, while the role of a teacher typically includes critical assessment, often what we as teachers intend as constructive criticism is received by students as discouragement. I would therefore suggest that any critiquing we offer, which ideally can be very helpful to students, be presented in the most encouraging way possible. Students should feel that they are free to take or leave any suggestions offered.

  8. Don't be afraid to admit you are not an experienced composer; there is no need to present yourself as an "authority" or "master" of composition, even if you are! Students, even at the university level, often respond well to a comment such as: "I really like your idea there, but I was hoping to hear more of it! Do you think that section could go on a bit longer?" On the other hand, a comment such as, "That section is too short and needs to be extended; what were you thinking?" is likely to alienate people, in part because it sounds like the person saying it is very full of himself. Music is generally written for audiences of non-experts (Milton Babbitt's, "Who Cares if you Listen?" notwithstanding), and non-experts can have very insightful and helpful comments too.

  9. Ask the student if there is any part of their composition that they would like to improve. Or you could ask, "on a scale of one to ten, how do you feel about your piece?" Questions such as these can make the student feel empowered, and they contribute to establishing your role as a helper. Ideally, a student would feel comfortable enough to identify at least some aspect of their composition that could be improved, because that builds a bridge between your role as a helper and their desire to improve their piece; you are both on the same side, and the student needs to know this. If the answer is that the student is fully satisfied with their work, this suggests that the work is either really good or the student does not want to hear anything negative or even constructive about it. In this case, it is best not to press the matter; there is little point in attempting to help someone that does not want help. If you continue to build trust with your students, you may find that some students that were initially closed to your suggestions will gradually become more receptive to them.

  10. Ask class members for suggestions or reactions to each others' pieces. Do this before you say anything about the students' creations, because once the teacher speaks, some students might not wish to say anything if their opinion differs from the teacher's, while others can be swayed by the teacher's words. If no students wish to offer feedback, you could …

  11. Ask specific questions, such as,
    • What do you think of the opening? Does it work for you?
    • Where are some places where the music expresses the meaning of the text really well? 
    • Are there places where the music could better express the meaning of the text? (Possible follow-up: What are some ways of making this happen?)
    • What do you like most about this song/composition?
    • How many different musical ideas are there? Do they all work equally well, or can any be improved? Can any be eliminated?
    If you ask the right questions, many students are happy to give their opinions on things, but they need to know that their opinions are understood, acknowledged, and respected. They also need to know that it is okay for others to disagree with their opinions; different class members might have diametrically opposed opinions on the same question, and that's okay (in fact, it's great!) as long as opinions are expressed as opinions, and diplomatically, e.g., "Maybe I just didn't get it, but I didn't hear a connection between the mood of the poem and the mood of the music," versus "that sucked!", "that was LAME," or "I just didn't like it," etc. Obviously the age and experience of students has a bearing on their ability to articulate specific musical concerns, so if someone says, "I just didn't like it," the teacher could try to follow up with questions to try to narrow this down, such as "what didn't you like?" or "was it too loud?" or "were there some chords that you thought didn't work very well?"

  12. GarageBand. This is perhaps the greatest facilitator of composition for untrained music-lovers ever invented, and I say this as the least-hyperbolic person in the history of the universe! ;)  If your school has Macintosh computers, the computers should already have GarageBand installed. If your school has iPads, GarageBand is available as an iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch app (or sometimes it comes bundled with the iPad). I had this program on my computers for years but never used it until a few years ago, and I quickly came to realize that it is easy to use, even for (especially for) non-musicians, fun, and remarkably powerful.

    Briefly, GarageBand allows multi-track composition by combining any of thousands of pre-recorded (or pre-created) loops in its library (organized by categories, such as drums, guitars, basses, orchestral, country, jazz, world, cinematic, experimental, etc.), each of which can be edited, abridged, or repeated, as desired by the user. It also allows mutli-track recording and editing of live instruments or voice(s) along with these loops, or on their own, and has guitar-amp modelling that "simulates the sounds of famous guitar amplifiers." It can do a lot more, but the exciting and empowering aspect of it for me is that you don't need any knowledge of musical notation, music theory, or even how to play a musical instrument, in order to produce surprisingly-sophisticated compositions.

    My suggestion here is that if your school has access to this app, spend some time fooling around with it, and then get your students working with it. Alternatively, spend no time getting to know it and get your students to figure it out and explain it to you!


  13. Do not force the issue.  Some people insist on defining themselves by their limitations, e.g., I'm not creative; I'm lousy at art (or sports, or math, etc.); I could spend 100 years studying music and never write anything that was any good. Like the old adage, you can lead a camel to water, but you can't make it drink, you can offer choices to your students, but it's up to them to select them or not.

Wow… yet another tome-masquerading-as-blog-post… apologies for the length! :-$

If you would like even more-specific suggestions, consider reading (or referring your students to) a series of posts I wrote on the nuts and bolts of composition from a few years ago called Composition Issues. There is a lot of information available elsewhere on the Internet as well.

And if any of this is helpful, or if you have further suggestions or disagree with any of these suggestions, please leave a comment!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Strike While the Iron is Hot!

The period leading up to a deadline is, for me at least, often very intense… I compose late at night, early in the morning, between classes, while waiting for my kids during their music and dance lessons, all in order to finish a composition on time.

Sounds kind of manic, doesn't it?

I don't think this is a particularly healthy way to live, at least not on a regular basis, but it happens, and when it happens, I have noticed the following:
  • It is stressful;
  • It is exciting;
  • It really gets the creative juices flowing (i.e., the composition is fresh in my thoughts much of the time, which causes ideas to come more easily and frequently); and 
  • When the deadline has successfully been met, the excitement and flow of creative ideas continue.
Excitement and stress are important parts of the creative process. If you have ever been stuck, and anyone who has made a regular habit of creating things has probably experienced this at some point, you know how painful it can be. Often, it takes an imminent deadline to become "unstuck" again.

I think that two of the main causes for "writer's block" are:
  1. Extreme self-censorship (we become too self-critical); or
  2. Loss of focus, for which there can be many causes, such as:
The pressure of an imminent deadline can force us to become less self-critical and to become more focussed. On the other hand, the weight of too much stress can squash us like a bug, but lets not go there…  :-/ 

Becoming less self-critical and more focussed can unblock impediments to creativity, many of which may be self-imposed, allowing us to move forward with our composition or whatever work in which we are engaged.


What do you do after the deadline has been met?

I find that after the deadline has passed, my brain continues to be in "hyper-creativity" mode, meaning I have lots of ideas, I continue to wake up early, and I have a general urge to create things, be they compositions, blog entries, story ideas, music theory handouts, or anything else that happens to interest me.

If I do nothing — if I do not act on these creative impulses — I gradually return to my "normal" mode of functioning, and, if I am lucky, I get more sleep while I'm at it!

But there have been times when I have jumped immediately from the completion of one project to the start of another, and this has resulted in an uninterrupted creative flow, which has led to faster and more painless project completions than usual.

Right now, I have finished all school work for this semester, and I have ideas galore for stuff (including today's blog entry), and so my plan is to get busy on a couple of projects right away. Oh, and to finish my Christmas shopping too, of course (which, unusually for me, was almost done a week before Christmas).

In other words… to strike while the iron is hot!

This, I believe, is the basis for Benjamin Franklin's famous adage, "if you want something done, give it to a busy person." He was living proof of this; Franklin is described in Wikepedia as "a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat."

The busier we are, the more efficiently we must work in order to accomplish our tasks. If I return to composing after a protracted period away from it, I often find it very difficult to get started, as if the part of my brain used for composing has dust and cobwebs in it. If I immediately dive into another project after finishing a work, the composition process flows a lot more smoothly.

Let me know if you have experienced anything like this.

Happy creative flowing!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Experiences as an Adjudicator — Part 2

My previous post (Experiences as an Adjudicator) generated a couple of comments about the frustration of not getting feedback from competition judges. If you don't know why you lost, or even how close you came to winning, then how do you know what needs improvement for the next competition you enter?

I can certainly understand feeling this way — there might be some consolation in being told you came close to winning, even if no reasons were given as to why you did or did not win — but it is a complicated issue, provoking questions such as,
  • should competitions provide explanations for their decisions?
  • should they provide critiques of all submissions?
  • is it feasible to do either of these things, and,
  • if the feedback or rationale provided is superficial (which seems likely, given the little time adjudicators have to spend evaluating each composition), is it beneficial to do either of these things?
Here are my thoughts on these matters, and more(!):



1. Some Kinds of Competitions Provide Feedback

I was on a Manitoba Arts Council jury once, and the music officer (i.e., administrator in charge) took detailed notes on every decision we made in order to be able to explain them to unsuccessful applicants, should they call or write. The officer was impressively diligent; if an adjudicator said, "I vote against this because it's a very weak application," the officer would ask for clarity — what exactly was weak about the application — in order to relay useful feedback to the applicant. I think all applicants may have been given some reason for the decision, but further information was only provided when specifically requested.

I suspect many composers don't realize that you can do this, when it comes to commission, project, or travel grant applications — I certainly didn't before then — but I would highly recommend that anyone turned down by an arts council request further information on the decision in order to find out why they were turned down, and what they can do to improve their chances of being successful next time they apply.

I had never done this in the past because I didn't want to come across as "whiny," or "difficult." Plus, I am not a fan of confrontation… However, politely requesting clarification or explanation as to why you were turned down is neither whiny nor difficult if your objective is to learn from the experience ("how do I make a stronger application next time?"), and not to challenge the decision ("you elitist SOBs had no right to turn me down!").

Remember that when dealing with an arts council officer you are dealing with the messenger, not the people who actually made the decision on your application, so be polite, and chances are they will appreciate it and be very helpful.



2. It May be Possible to Challenge a Decision

Many years ago, when I was president of Continuum Contemporary Music in Toronto, our grant application to the City of Toronto Arts Council was turned down because only "professional" organizations could receive funding, and we had been deemed a student organization.

I had spent hours carefully preparing what I thought had been a very strong application, and had read all the rules carefully. We had several doctoral composition students in our group, but we also had non-students, and the only stipulation in the rules on this point was that applicants should have completed their basic training in their area, and have been a practising artist for some minimum period of time, perhaps a year, in order to be considered for a grant.

All of the doctoral students had completed bachelor's and master's degrees, which surely constituted completion of basic training, and we had all received commission grants, had numerous premieres, and many of us had won big prizes. We were mostly in our late twenties or early thirties, and we worked for a living in addition to being doctoral students. I felt strongly that all of this was sufficient to establish that we were active composers who had completed our basic training.

I felt sufficiently indignant that I mustered up the courage to call the arts council (and I am profoundly uncomfortable about talking to people I don't know on the phone!) and politely explained my objections to the stated rationale in the rejection letter. The arts council officer seemed sympathetic, and said he would look into it.

I was subsequently invited to make my case to the top brass of the arts council, and I took my friend and fellow group member, Omar Daniel, with me, and the upshot was that we convinced them that we should not have been turned down. This did not mean that our application could be retroactively funded, since all grant money for that deadline had been spent, but it did mean that our future applications would be eligible for funding, and in fact they did get funded.



3. Is it Feasible to Provide Feedback in Composition Competitions?

Composition competitions are a different kettle of fish; judges must review all submissions in order to identify a winner (or sometimes first, second, and third-place selections), and since there may be over 100 submissions to evaluate, writing a critique for every non-winning piece would be very onerous.

If you are familiar with Kiwanis or Rotary Club music festivals, you know that contestants each receive a written critique from the judge, but these are produced "in real time," meaning the judge engages in "automatic writing" (not really… they just write quickly!) while the performance is taking place, all of which might take just a few minutes. There is an assumption that the critique is aimed at someone in the training stage of their artistic development, and so judges write comments with this in mind. They probably write a lot of the same things over and over again.

One could apply the music-festival model to composition competitions and provide quickly-written critiques of submissions (if the submissions were performed live), but, as mentioned above, this would be very onerous, and quickly-written evaluations might not actually be very helpful to composers, since they are unlikely to be very insightful.

As an example, I have seen a few of the critiques written by the Newfoundland Arts and Letters Awards judges, and they did not generally strike me as being particularly deep. This is not a criticism of Arts and Letters judges; I have been a judge for this competition, and I found it challenging to write constructive critiques, in part because there were so many and so little time, but also because it is a composition competition for all categories of music (folk, pop. rock, jazz, country, world, contemporary classical, etc.), which makes selecting the "best" works across radically-dissimilar categories kind of a silly exercise.

In order to write a meaningful critique of a composition, you need to spend a significant amount of time with it, and there is simply not enough time to do this in most competitions.



4. Getting Past Nuts and Bolts Issues…

"Nuts and Bolts Issues" refer to score-related aspects that are not primarily a matter of opinion, such as clarity of notation, sufficient and logical score details, logical accidental spellings, unidiomatic writing for the performers (although this can be a matter of contention), etc. I wrote three blogs on this topic, if you are interested in reading more:

On musical detail (1)
On musical detail (2)
On musical detail (3)

A challenge for judges in composition competitions, as mentioned in an earlier post (The Value of Accolades…), is that, once you get past nuts-and-bolts issues, there are no absolute measures by which to judge a composition.

I might tell my students that there are too many ideas within one composition, or that ideas are abandoned before reaching their full potential, or there is no climax, or not enough development, because these are values that are common to several centuries of classical music practice, and they are values I would like my students to learn. But that doesn't make them absolute values.

A composer might respond by arguing that the objectives of a particular composition were to write music with many dissimilar ideas, with no development, and no climax, and, if she achieves these goals, then how do you argue that there is anything wrong with that piece? I might not care for it, but not liking something is not an objective basis for judging that thing.

And so we face a dilemma. If there are no absolute measures on which to judge a composition, what value would there be in receiving a critique of your work from someone whose aesthetic tastes differ from yours?

Going back to the practical issue of feasibility for a moment, this is one reason that it takes considerably more time to meaningfully-critique a new composition than it does to evaluate a performance of a work in the standard repertoire. Put another way, it takes more time to process your thoughts about something you have never heard before than it does to adjudicate a work you have heard many times, have probably performed, and taught to your students. This makes the music festival model (writing a stream-of-consciousness evaluation in the few minutes it takes to hear the performance of a work) more challenging for music composition, but not impossible, by any means.



5. For Deeper Insight, Please Call…

For deeper insight into your compositions, don't be shy about asking composition professors or other successful composers you know (or even ones you don't know, if you are willing to summon up some moxie!). You might get turned down, but if we say yes, the feedback you receive may be more meaningful than comments from adjudicators who only have about 5 minutes (if that) to spend evaluating your piece. More time spent appraising something usually results in more meaningful insights than otherwise.

If feasible, try to get in-person feedback on your compositions, as opposed to sending a score to someone and requesting comments (which I don't recommend, unless you made an arrangement ahead of time with someone to do this). This allows the evaluator to interact with the student, and not just issue a pronouncement from on high, as it were. Meeting with a student affords the opportunity to ask questions about the composition, which helps the teacher to understand the composer's mindset and intentions, such as:
  • How satisfied are you with this piece? (If the answer is, "Extremely!", perhaps why are you asking for a critique?).
  • What sections of the composition are least satisfying to you?
  • What were the overall goals for this piece? 
  • Did these goals change in the course of writing the work? In what way? 
  • What are the formal functions of different sections of the piece (e.g., initiation, continuation, contrast, closure, expository, transitional, developmental, conclusive)?
  • Why are there so many distinct musical ideas, or character changes? Do they all belong in the piece, or would removing some strengthen the piece?
When requesting feedback, it is helpful to both the evaluator and yourself if you specify aspects of the piece that are troubling you; this shows you are open to suggestions on how to improve those sections. I have had people ask for feedback on their compositions, only to discover that what they really wanted was a pat on the back and some positive affirmation of what a fine piece they wrote. Most people, in my experience, are open to honest criticism, if it can be delivered in a gentle and thoughtful way.

Fine-Print Disclaimer: Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that composers are out there waiting for you to call requesting a critique of your work… Your best bet is to approach someone you know, which, for students in a university music programme or conservatory, would be someone who teaches at your school. If you are not enrolled in such a programme and want to get feedback on your work, I strongly encourage you to seek composition lessons. I don't usually give compositional feedback to people I do not know, mainly because I don't have time for it, but partly because not knowing someone makes it difficult to know where to start when critiquing their composition; I could be using terminology they have never heard of, or I could be making assumptions about what they already know or don't know that are incorrect.



6. Kindly Disregard… Or Regard… Your Choice!

As with any opinion, of course, it may not be what you want or need to hear, so just take all advice, including this, with a grain of salt.



7. "Too many notes"

You may have heard the story of Emperor Joseph II's reaction to Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio, in which the Emperor, when asked by Mozart if he liked it, said he did, but it had "too many notes." Whether this really happened or not (it has never been authenticated, but it was in "Amadeus," so it must be true, right? ;) ), this oft-repeated tale illustrates the difficulty in articulating a precise rationale for what is ultimately an emotional response.

I suspect that a big reason composition competitions do not typically explain their decisions is that it is really tricky to articulate defensible, intellectual justifications for what are, to a large degree, emotional reactions to a composition. Some people can do a pretty good job of explaining some reasons behind their emotional responses, but, when we like or dislike something, we are often unaware of all the reasons we react that way.



Summary, and Suggestion

  • Arts councils usually offer rationales for at least some of their decisions (I don't think they normally do for commission competitions, however), so if you get turned down, don't be shy about asking for more information; that's something most arts council officers are prepared to provide.
  • If a composition competition is aimed at students, especially those at an undergraduate university level or younger, I think offering a brief critique to all entrants could have value, albeit limited (see #3 above), but it would be an onerous process for judges.
  • If a competition is aimed at composers who have finished their basic training (e.g., with no age limit, or age limits of under thirty or thirty-five), providing a cursory compositional critique (how's that for alliteration!) seems of questionable value to me, and it might actually annoy some people.
  • For "deeper" insight into your compositions, it may be best to request feedback from someone who does this for a living, like an active composer (who may or may not be a professor). Just remember the advice in point #6 above, if you do this.
  • Suggestion: Since it seems unlikely that composition competitions are ever likely to offer explanations for why every submission was ranked the way it was, I think it would be wonderful if, in addition to the usual prizes awarded, competitions added or expanded an "honourable mention" category, thereby offering encouragement to composers whose compositions were highly-regarded, but just not sufficiently-so to have earned a prize.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Experiences as an Adjudicator — Part 1

Today's post relates to experiences I have had as a competition judge or commissioning jury member, with suggestions on how to strengthen your application. There are be no "magic bullets" in the advice; it's all stuff you may already know, but there were aspects to these experiences that surprised me.

1.  The best piece does not always win. Before elaborating, let me point out the obvious: Different judges routinely disagree as to what constitutes the 'best' composition in a competition; if one judge thinks a piece is the best and it does not win, while other judges feel a different piece is best and it does win, it does not mean that the best piece did not win.  That would be sour grapes…

An example of what I mean took place on an occasion in which another jury member and I independently concluded that piece X was the strongest submission (for me, nothing else was even close), but another jury member argued that piece X should be disqualified because it exceeded the difficulty level specified in the competition rules. I couldn't really argue with that — this was a valid point — and piece X was indeed removed from consideration. The same thing happened to several of the other pieces I thought were really good.  The piece that ultimately won stayed within the stated difficulty level, but frankly, I did not think it was a particularly strong or inspired composition.

We wanted to offer encouragement to the composer of piece X, and so the jury requested that it be communicated to the composer that we thought very highly of that piece, but we considered it to be beyond the stated difficulty level. In most competitions, however, no communication is made to losing composers beyond informing them that they did not win, and these composers are left wondering if they came close to winning, if there was some technical reason such as a rules violation that they did not win, or if they had no chance whatsoever, and if so, why that was the case. I have always found this frustrating as a composer; how do you improve if you don't know why you didn't win?
Conclusion: Read the rules carefully and try to abide by them. If your choice is not submitting your work because it violates a rule, or submitting it anyway and hoping for the best, I would suggest the latter. Who knows, some juries might have made piece X their consensus choice irrespective of any perceived rule violation, simply because it was so much better than the other submissions. Just don't be surprised if you don't win due to a rule violation. [This advice depends on the rule in question, however; if, for example, you exceed the age limit, or the competition is for a specific ensemble type, such as orchestra or wind band, and you have never written for that ensemble type, it is probably a waste of time to enter the competition.]
2.  Some of the compositions that moved me the most did not make it very far in the adjudication process (i.e., they were eliminated fairly quickly because all judges did not rate them sufficiently highly). Many times, the winning piece is one that looks and sounds spectacular, while compositions that move me in a more profound way get eliminated, perhaps because they lack sufficient "wow factor" for some judges. I don't really know what "wow factor" is, and it is probably different for different judges, but this is how I would describe it, as it applies to me:
"Wow factor" entails having a reaction of favourable surprise (as in, "Wow! I wasn't expecting that, and it's very cool!" as opposed to, "Wow! That was totally predictable!") at one or more points during the composition. It can also be a reaction to the visual appearance of the score; I sometimes have this reaction the moment I open a score to the first page (I experienced this the first time I saw the score to Stravinsky's The Firebird, for example), often because the attention to detail is exceptional, and/or there are orchestrational, textural, or compositional aspects that are immediately engaging, surprising, or even puzzling.
Conclusion
I Didn't Win They Don't Like My Composition 
• Here's what you can read into not winning, if you are inclined to find deeper meaning in things like this: It means you didn't win!  
It does not necessarily mean the judges thought poorly of your submission. Judges often really like many of the compositions that don't win. They sometimes engage in heated debates about the merits of specific pieces… perhaps yours was one that judge 'A' really liked, but judge 'B,' a loutish individual with a history of getting his/her way, had a temper tantrum because he liked some other piece more than yours, and so judge 'A' went along with judge 'B' simply to avoid further drama. Don't read meaning into not winning!   
Potentially-Faulty Conclusion: You may conclude from this that in order to win a big prize, you need to write flashy, high "wow-factor," fashion-forward (whatever that means!) music, but it's really hard to predict judges' stylistic preferences — different juries have different tastes, and even the same jury's interpersonal dynamic can change from one moment to the next! — so changing your composition style in order to accommodate imagined stylistic preferences seems a strategy of dubious merit.

That said, I am always trying to get my composition students to try new things — it's like trying clothing styles you would never normally consider and being surprised to discover some that turn out to look pretty good on you — so I don't think it's necessarily a bad idea to try writing a few pieces that are flashy and yet fantastic (whatever that means!), in an attempt to grab the listeners attention and take them on a wild but satisfying ride, if you've never tried something like this before. 
3.  Play early! Play often! If you buy a lottery ticket, you know that there is very little chance you will win. But so what? You buy it anyway — it's only a few dollars — and hope for the best. If you want to double your odds of winning, you can buy two. When you lose, you probably don't mind too much; you just toss out the ticket and try again another time, presumably in part because you're pretty secure in the knowledge that you can't win unless you buy a ticket, and it doesn't really cost you all that much to do so. (Gambler's Anonymous disclaimer: If you are a compulsive gambler, do not buy even one lottery ticket! However, it's probably okay to enter composition competitions, if you wish. Especially if they are free.)

Well, the same is true of composition competitions or commissioning juries; if you submit applications on a regular basis, you will have a better chance at winning than if you submit a few. "That's pretty obvious," you might be thinking, and you would of course be right, but the point of this advice is that you never know what a jury is looking for because every jury is different (normally, anyway), and you might just have a piece that they would have loved, had you submitted it! I can't state this strongly enough: You just don't know what different juries will like. I have been on juries where a piece I had thought would go far in the process didn't, and a piece that I thought would be eliminated early almost won.

Freaky things can happen when you put a group of human beings in a room to try to come to an agreement, I tell you! Chaos theory applies to human behaviour! Especially in juries!

Another benefit of the "enter often" advice is that sometimes, particularly in the case of competitions that are not particularly well-known, they don't get many applications and so the winning submission just happens to be the strongest in a relatively-weak pool.

The downside of this advice is the cost associated with it — it costs money to print and bind scores, duplicate CDs, buy padded envelopes, and pay for postage — but it's not usually prohibitive. Sometimes there is an entry fee as well, and these can be very expensive, so I don't generally recommend entering competitions with an entry fee of more than about $20. If it is much higher than that, the cynic in me wonders if it a cash-grab by the organization running the competition, particularly when they pull stunts like not awarding a first-place prize.

4. "Technical problems" significantly lower your chances of winning. These include:
  • Scores that are sloppy, and difficult to read; 
  • Scores that lack sufficient attention to detail (e.g., inconsistent or infrequent use of dynamics, articulations, bowings, slurs, or instructions for the performer (if any are needed));
  • Scores with lots of detail, but some details don't make sense (e.g., staccatos over half notes, bowings or wind-instrument slurs that are impossibly long, crescendi or diminuendi that are unreasonably long (e.g., going from mf to f over four bars at a moderate tempo), or performer instructions that are not immediately comprehensible);
  • Scores that are unidiomatic for performers; it is possible to write difficult/challenging music that is idiomatic, perhaps even pushing the boundaries of what performers can do (although I personally don't recommend pushing these boundaries, since they have been pushed pretty far already!), but unidiomatic writing suggests that the composer just does not understand how to write well for those performers;
  • Mediocre or missing recordings. Getting good recordings of your compositions can be a challenge, but they are absolutely essential to the success of your submission. Ideally, you would submit an excellent recording of the piece played by good musicians, and not a computer-generated MIDI realization. Some adjudicators have a deep prejudice against computer-generated audio recordings, even though it is possible to make very high-quality computer renditions of music these days. I would therefore suggest that if you MUST submit a computer-generated audio file (because you don't have a good-quality live performance recording), spend lots of time producing a high-quality product (this may necessitate buying a good-quality sound sample library).
Conclusion: A well-prepared submission has a shot at going far in the process; an average or poorly-prepared one has very little chance. This isn't exactly earth-shattering news, but not everyone seems to realize how important this is. Juries often have to sift through dozens or even hundreds of submissions, usually with time limits on the process; a natural way to make initial cuts is to remove submissions that are faulty in some way, such as a less-than-professional score, no recording, poor or mediocre recording, good recording but lousy performance, or an important rule not followed (see #1 above for more on this). 
5. Commissioning juries are a slightly different kettle of fish. All of the above applies to commissioning juries as well, but there are some differences, all of which should be made clear in the programme guidelines of the commissioning programme to which you are applying. My main advice is to read them carefully, paying particular attention to:

  • Eligibility;
  • The project description. This is supposed to be written by the performer(s), ensemble, or organization that wishes to commission you, but it is a good idea for the composer to work with the commissioner in crafting the project description; some performers ask the composer to write it, and then run it by the commissioner (i.e., performer(s)).

    You may wish to get help with this from someone who has written successful commissioning applications. You can also get help from the arts council officer(s) assigned to the programme to which you are applying; providing help is part of their job description.

    The Canada Council has a 750-word maximum for project descriptions, which is a lot of words. I can only assume that they are looking for a well-written document with as much detail as possible. Beyond that, I think (but don't know for sure) that projects to which greater "prestige" is attached do better than those with less, but "prestige" is, like art, in the eye of the beholder, and thus hard to define. However, I think (once again) that a commissioning project for a performer that is not well-known and never tours will probably be ranked lower than a project for a performer, ensemble, or orchestra with an international reputation (ideally a positive one:) ) that plans on playing the commissioned work many times in well-respected venues. Which brings me to…
  • Possibilities of repeat performances. It is very important to address this, even if not specifically requested. The percentage of new works that were only performed once is depressingly high, and many arts councils would prefer not to shell out a lot of money for such a project. Work with the performer(s) to explore opportunities for repeat performances. Consider exploring the possibility of having multiple commissioners, such as three different string quartets that can commit to performing your work multiple times. And include details, such as dates and venues.
  • The Canada Council states that the committee will assess applications on the following criteria:
    • the quality of the composer’s work (and the librettist’s work, where this applies)
    • the quality of the project, including the merit of the proposed commissioner-composer partnership, and the proposed interpreters’ performing skills and musicianship
    • the context and projected impact of the proposed performances
    • the possibility of repeat performances and further dissemination of the proposed composition.
  • The quality of the composer's work is presumably as important as anything else on that list, and so your job as a composer is to demonstrate this by submitting strong support materials, such as the required number of scores and recordings (usually two), which must be of excellent quality (see #4, above), a strong resumé highlighting your compositional achievements of the specified length (for the Canada Council it is 2 pages; if not specified, I would not exceed 2 pages, because the review committee doesn't have time to look through resumés that are longer than that), and a list of your compositions (ideally with performance information listed, such as dates, venues, and performers), not exceeding 4 pages for the Canada Council.
  • I recommend submitting scores and recordings that have a connection to the project described in the application, if possible — If you wish to be commissioned to write an orchestral piece, for example, it would be good to show you know how to write for orchestra by submitting one you have already written — unless doing so somehow reflects badly on you (e.g., a student work that wasn't very good, the recording is terrible, the score isn't in great shape, etc.).
  • If there is a particular section of the score/recording that you want the jury to hear first, indicate this in the clearest possible terms, e.g., "Please play recording from 4'33", which corresponds with bar 189, p. 12 of score X." Not all juries will follow your wishes, but many will.
6. The biggest common denominator to all of this advice is: Take the time necessary to make an excellent application. Imagine how much time you will need to do this, and then double it or triple it… It really does take a lot of effort to make a strong application, from making sure your scores and recordings are as good as they can possibly be, to working with the commissioner to discuss performance dates, venues, and expectations, to the actual application itself. No matter how long I spend on these things, I always find I could have spent more time.

That's all I can think of, for now… (but see part 2 of this entry, in response to some comments on the frustrations of not getting feedback from adjudicators).


Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Value of Accolades, and a Personal Anecdote…

In my previous entry (Winning and Losing as Impostors), I wrote about the competitive aspect of composition — namely commissioning and composition competitions — and suggested that success as a composer can be measured in many meaningful ways that go far beyond the binary options of "winning" or "losing." Measuring your value as a composer by how many prizes or commissions you have won or not won seems an unproductive strategy; better to focus on making every composition as good as it can be, and getting your music performed, both of which are within your control. Think of any further accolades earned by your music as a bonus.

That said, I do not suggest that accolades are without worth for composers, however; "winning" can bring significant cachet to a composer. Like it or not, having other organizations or individuals stamp their seal of approval on your work can be very beneficial. Here are just a couple of reasons:
  1. The Official Sanctioning / Emperor's New Clothes syndrome.

    There are no absolute measures by which to judge a composition. We like it or we don't, a lot or a little. It moves us, sometimes to tears, or it leaves us cold. It angers us, or brings us joy. It makes us think about stuff, or it lulls us into a trance… and so on. Why and how it does any of these things is a bit of a mystery; if it were simple, then any composer could move audiences like a puppet-master pulling the strings of a marionette, and the fact is that even the best composers do not always achieve success when composing a work [good topic for future blog post: Famous Composer Flops].

    Given this, if a prestigious organization gives its "official" sanction to a composer by awarding a prize or a commission, it can make a favourable impression on people who can facilitate composers' careers by programming, recording, or broadcasting their music, or hiring them, in the case of composers who do what I do (teach at a university). A music director (someone who programmes music for concerts) might not love a particular composer's music, but if that composer has recently won some really big prizes, that music director may be more likely to programme a new work by that composer on their concert series.

    It has also been my experience that awards, prizes, and commissions are factors (among many others) in ranking applicants to academic positions. Very intelligent people who probably self-identify as critical (i.e., independent) thinkers are not immune to the charms of "official sanctioning" (i.e., winning prestigious prizes and awards). Whether this is right or wrong is irrelevant; the point is that many people in positions to boost the careers of composers by performing, recording, broadcasting, commissioning, etc. their music, or hiring them, or giving them positive reviews in the paper and electronic media, are impressed by prizes, awards, and commissions. This makes them desirable and valuable to composers.

  2. The "Emperor's New Clothes" part of this syndrome (as I am calling it) is simply this: If some "powers that be" declare something to be true (e.g., this composition is great), it doesn't necessarily make it true (e.g., the composition isn't necessarily great).  I have heard "wonderful," prize-winning works that I didn't understand, or didn't like; I have heard works that received few or no accolades that I thought were really good. But whether or not we feel a composition is worthy of the prize it received, if the "emperor" (prestigious organization that awards prizes) decrees that it is excellent, then, in the minds of many who can facilitate composers' careers, it is excellent.

  3. "Winning," in any sense of the word, provides external validation for what we do as composers. It is essential that we as composers believe in ourselves — external validation ought not to be necessary — but let's face it: For most of us, there are times when we doubt ourselves, and for times like these, some external recognition of our work is great positive reinforcement.

    Here's a personal anecdote (for which I apologize in advance!): I was a relatively late-starter in classical music, and only began studying music composition in my mid- to late-twenties.  When I turned thirty, I had, unsurprisingly, not won anything, and I thought I would no longer have an opportunity to win anything, since any composition competitions that I knew about had an age limit of thirty. This depressed me; I felt like my ship had sailed.

    A few years after that, a new, much hyped competition was started by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, part of their mid-winter, massive new-music festival, and the age limit for that was thirty-five. This gave me new hope, and I entered, but didn't win. The following year, I spent more time on my application (more on this soon… possibly in my next blog), and submitted one of the movements of my doctoral thesis. This was my last shot at it, since I had just turned thirty-five. As it turned out, luck was on my side, and I was picked to be one of five finalists. Being picked was a big deal; they flew finalists out to Winnipeg, put us up in a fancy hotel, gave us tickets to all music festival events, fed us (I think), involved us in interviews and numerous other activities during the week, and we were guaranteed a nice monetary prize just for being a finalist. Oh, and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra played your composition in an evening concert, which was broadcast nationally in Canada. It was all very exciting.

    At the time, I had been hired on a one-year contract by this university, and I knew there would be a tenure-track position in composition open for the following year, to which I would be applying. Knowing that I would likely be competing for this job against applicants who had won multiple prizes, and that this was my last shot at winning something, the timing of this news was amazingly fortunate.

    I remember getting the phone call from Winnipeg, which came late one day while I was in my university office, probably doing what I spend about 50% of my waking hours doing (slight exaggeration, but only slight!), which is correcting student work in music theory. In my usual understated way, I responded with something like, "oh, that's great news," but apparently without sufficient enthusiasm, because the guy I was talking to said at one point, "you don't sound very excited by this… you ARE excited, aren't you?"

    Well, gentle reader, take my word for it, I WAS excited — I was over-the-moon excited, but I just don't usually gush around strangers — so I politely assured him of my enthusiasm, and, after ironing out a few more particulars, we hung up.

    And then… What to do? How to express what I was feeling? After a lifetime of looking in from the outside, was I finally getting a shot at being on the inside?  I burst out of my office door, looking for anybody with whom I could share my news — didn't matter who — literally jumping for joy as I bounded down the hallway of the School of Music, noticing for the first time that I was able to jump high enough to touch the ceiling tiles with my head. I resolved to curtail my enthusiasm somewhat, lest I damage the ceiling.

    As it turned out, there was nobody at work. Back then, my colleagues went home in the evenings, presumably to enjoy a meal with their families, but I was without family, and most of my time was spent at work, and thus I was alone in the building. So, after completing my crazy hallway sprint, I just shuffled back to my office to return to my marking, no longer jumping like an excited puppy with spring-loaded legs, but still very, very happy.

    But why was I so happy? Well, that's easy; in addition to thinking that this news improved my chances of getting the tenure-track professor job that I really wanted, it was the first time I had received external validation for my music beyond an occasional comment by a teacher to the effect of, "well, I guess that's okay…," and, while I maintain that one ought not to need this sort of thing, I wasn't exactly getting it anywhere else (no parents or loved ones to say nice things about my music), so it sure felt great to get it!

    As a postscript to this tale, another Canadian competition began that year for composers aged thirty-five and under, run by the Hamilton Philharmonic. It was surrounded by considerably-less hoopla than Winnipeg's competition, but they offered a desirable prize nonetheless: Four composers would have their music workshopped and performed by the orchestra. Once again, luck was on my side, and a piece of mine was picked. I have no idea whether or how much these two events influenced the decision to hire me as a tenure-track professor at the end of the year, but I got the job, and I'm still here, twenty-two years later. Still marking student theory work a lot of the time…
So, don't let winning or losing define you as a composer, but be aware that accolades can be very valuable to your career, in large part because they can open doors for you. Know also that there are many successful composers who have never won anything, so fight discouragement (or, better yet, pick yourself up and dust yourself off!) if you do not win.

And finally, lest it seem that I am suggesting that winning prizes is some kind of panacea for composers, there are many prize winners who have not parlayed their winnings into long careers — it takes a lot more than prizes to become a successful composer — and there are many living composers who became successful without winning any major prizes. At best, prizes can boost careers, but more commonly, I think, they are a pat on the back, and that's something we could also use from time to time.

In my next post, I will write about some experiences I have had as an adjudicator, and offer some advice as to how to improve your odds of doing well in competitions.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Winning and Losing as Impostors


If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same…
(Rudyard Kipling, "If—" 12–13)

I have won a few prizes and awards,  and it's a fine feeling.

I have also  seen enough Academy Award speeches to know how happy and validated people appear when they win something. An extreme example is American Actress Sally Field's acceptance speech for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 1985 Oscars, in which she (in-)famously gushed, "I can't deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!"

Losing is an experience I also know very well — we go back a long way! — and it can sting.  I have been close to winning a couple of competitions where I was one of five finalists and the winner's name was announced in front of a large audience, and those have been particularly (and surprisingly to me) demoralizing experiences.

Surprising, because in both cases I had been smugly confident for weeks that I would not win, and then, at the last minute, as some long-winded person was about to read out the name of the winner, a little voice in my head suddenly hijacked my powers of reason and began whispering (more like shouting, actually) to me that maybe, just maybe, this would be my lucky day — the day I could finally gush in public just like Sally Field did in 1985! And me without a speech! No problem; I would just recite Sally's "you like me" speech from memory! Only I would made it clear that by "you," I was referring to my dog, who is perplexedly and inordinately fond of me, and I have the pictures to prove it.

"If—", by Kipling, was written as fatherly advice to his son, counseling stoicism (or its British equivalent, "stiff-upper-lip-ism") as a response to life's ups and downs, and the lines above explain how to do this: By regarding "Triumph and Disaster" as impostors. They are not real!

It is an interesting concept to react with equanimity and stoicism to life's gains and losses, but it is a difficult thing to put into practice unless you happen to be hard-wired that way. I'm not even sure that it's a desirable thing to put into practice; do we really aspire to be in a position one day to say, upon winning our Academy Award, Pulitzer Prize, or a significant accolade of somewhat-lesser magnitude, "Uh… thanks I guess, but this means nothing to me because it's not real. So… yeah… whatever… mumble, mumble… at the end of the day we all die… mumble… "

To me, stoicism would be a useful attribute upon which to draw when faced with disappointment, because (a) disappointment can hurt like hell, and (b) it can be counterproductive to allow negative feelings to overtake you. The good advice most of our moms probably gave us on this topic can be succinctly summed up by the lyrics to this wonderful Jerome Kern / Dorothy Fields 1936 song (Pick Yourself Up), which even quotes the last line of Kipling's poem ("You'll be a Man, my son!") at the end of the chorus:


Nothing's impossible, I have found
For when my chin is on the ground
I pick myself up, dust myself off
And start all over again.


Don't lose your confidence if you slip
Be grateful for a pleasant trip
And pick yourself up, dust yourself off
And start all over again.


Work like a soul inspired
Until the battle of the day is won
You may be sick and tired
But you'll be a man, my son.




Again, easier said (or sung, if you happen to be Frank Sinatra, and still alive) than done, but picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting again seems like pretty good advice for when life knocks you down.

The reason I didn't write, "it's always bad to allow negative feelings to overtake you" above is that I wonder if there may be benefits to feeling upset about disappointing results, as long as you don't allow yourself to be down in the dumps for too long (and no, I don't know how long too long is, unfortunately).

Dissatisfaction over not winning a composition competition or not getting a commission or achieving some other desired goal can be discouraging and make you feel like quitting, which of course is not good (unless you want to quit for other reasons too, which may be fine!), or it could motivate you to improve the quality of your work when future opportunities arise. Improving the quality of your work may not be sufficient to win prizes and commissions, but it is its own reward and is an objective we should always have, no matter how old we are or how successful we become. Would we be as motivated to improve if we considered winning and losing as "impostors," to be regarded with with equanimity?

Possibly, but possibly not… only a stoic could tell us for sure, if such a creature (a stoic) really exists.




Perhaps more to the point is this: "Winning" and "losing" are, in most cases, not very useful terms to describe outcomes that are meaningful to us as composers. It is great to win a prize or get a commission, but there are many other indicators of success for composers, such as:
  • Finishing a piece (believe me, this is a big deal!);
  • Feeling like the piece we finished is as good as we are capable of making it;
  • Feeling like the piece we finished represents a step forward in terms of our development as composers;
  • Performance(s) of our composition(s), even if part of a student recital;
  • Getting positive feedback on our composition(s) from audience members, friends, or family;
  • Getting useful feedback on our composition(s) from anyone;
  • Getting feedback from performers that helps us to write better for their instruments, or improves the composition in some way;
  • Getting performers to play our music, and having them do a good job, in part because our score was very clear, we picked good/supportive performers, and helped out during rehearsals;
  • Having performers ask you to write a piece for them, irrespective of whether it is a paid commission or not;
  • Submitting our music to a competition, and receiving a "runner-up" prize, or an "honourable mention," or having it selected for a reading/performance;
  • Submitting our music to an organization that provides a useful critique of our composition, such as the Newfoundland and Labrador "Arts and Letters" competition (deadline: Nov. 22 this year, BTW), irrespective of whether it wins a prize or not;
  • Having our music recorded; or
  • Having our music broadcast.
These are all meaningful indicators of success for composers.  Reducing the outcomes of writing music to the binary options of "winning" or "losing" is an unnecessary oversimplification, and it can make us feel like we are failing when in fact we are making great progress.

Furthermore, winning and losing is dependent to some degree on factors beyond our control, such as the stylistic preferences of judges, what they had for breakfast, and even back-room shenanigans. The success indicators listed above, on the other hand, are mostly within our control.

In this sense, "winning" and "losing" are indeed impostors, and you don't have to be particularly stoic to recognize this!

In my next blogs, I will write about the value of accolades, and experiences I have had as a competition judge and commission jury member.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

"Composers Who Couldn't Finish What They Started"

Wow.  It's been a long time, but here goes:  An attempt to resume regular blogging.

I was motivated to write something after reading a blog post entitled:  "Top 5 Composers Who Couldn't Finish What They Started."

Having started, but not finished, several blog entries over the past 8+ months, I thought I could certainly relate to this topic, but it turned out to be not quite as advertised.

The blog's title is probably deliberately provocative — being unable to finish what one started is usually a criticism, but the fact that this was presented as a "top 5" list suggested to me the possibility that it might be about composers who were so spectacularly bad at finishing what they started that they became famous for it, or it was possibly about some "top" composers (whatever that means) that struggled with completing works at times.

I doubted it would be the former — how could composers have achieved greatness if they were chronic procrastinators? — and hoped it would be the latter, because compositional struggles are a topic near, dear, and familiar to my heart, even if the reality of them is painful.

But it was neither.

Instead it was one of those "top [any number] lists" that are rampant on the Internet these days, usually consisting of a numbered slideshow of pics with pithy descriptions/explanations for each. Some are clever, some are amusing, some are contentious, but this one was simply annoying.

The first thing you see in the blog entry is a graphic with these words: "UNFINISHED SYMPHONIES — Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, Elgar"

Okay, that's four names… Four is pretty close to five, but didn't the blog title promise five?  And those guys finished LOTS of works… Why is the anonymous blogger claiming they "couldn't finish what they started?"

Moving on, here is the text accompanying the first slide:
This week on Exploring Music we've discovered quite a few famous composers who left great works incomplete. Click on to discover our top 5 composers who didn't get the chance to finish what they started.
Whoah! Didn't get the chance? What the heck does that mean? Bullies stole their pens and manuscript paper? They were abducted by composer-hating street gangs and forcibly prevented from completing compositions? The U.S. military played deafening rock music outside their compounds 24/7, thus making composition extremely difficult? Zombies ate their brains?

Sadly, the topic turned out to be considerably less dramatic, of course; it lists five "top" composers who died before completing a particular composition. For what it's worth, I doubt there was ever a composer who didn't leave behind at least some unfinished work — sometimes, in the course of composing a work, we abandon huge chunks of music, perhaps because we decide it's not good enough, or it doesn't go in the direction we (or the commissioner) wished — but, by the logic of the blog post, this would apparently make us all "composers who couldn't finish what they started."

Beethoven, incidentally, is not on the list even though he is thought to have been working on a tenth symphony when he died.  And I like to think of him as a "top" composer.  An enterprising musicologist (Barry Cooper) has even gone so far as to "complete" (i.e., compose) Beethoven's Symphony No. 10 based on Beethoven's sketches, although it cannot be proven that these various sketches were actually intended for his 10th symphony, or, if some were, that Beethoven wouldn't have rejected them, because frankly, Cooper's "completed" work sounds pretty lame (there are recorded versions of this on YouTube, if you would like to have a listen).  But I digress…

Did you know that about 150 of Mozart's surviving works are incomplete (roughly a quarter of his total count of surviving works)? And yet, Mozart is also not on the list, even though he was working on his Requiem Mass in D minor (K. 626) at the time of his death (some portions had been completed, but others were fragments or sketches). He too was a "top" composer, according to many (but not Glenn Gould, Maria Callas, or Frederick Delius… Read more about his detractors in this entertaining blog post, if interested!).

There were probably many composers (perhaps most?) who died while composing something, and this may or may not be interesting — in the case of Mozart it has engendered considerable mythology (aided greatly by the play and movie, Amadeus) — but it seems a pretty silly exercise to select the "top 5" composers for whom this applied.



Okay, here we go… In case you're wondering, the listed names/unfinished works are:

     5. Mahler / Symphony No. 10 (the accompanying text cites Schoenberg, but misspells his name);
     4. Sibelius / Symphony No. 8;
     3. Elgar / Symphony No. 3;
     2. Bruckner / Symphony No. 9; and
     1. Schubert.  No specific symphony of Schubert's is cited, but here is the entire accompanying text:
Schubert composed not one, but three unfinished symphonies. Perhaps because of his battle with syphilis and his diminishing sanity, Schubert is the most famous composer of incomplete symphonies!
La!  Let's just dance merrily on Schubert's grave while dismissing him as a syphilitic crazy man!

For what it's worth, syphilis has been proposed as the most likely cause of Schubert's death, while mercury poisoning (a common treatment for syphilis at the time) has also been suggested, but, to the best of my knowledge, we do not know the actual cause of his tragic and untimely demise (age 31); his death certificate indicates typhoid fever as the cause.

The reference to Schubert's "diminishing sanity" seems a cheap shot; there are reports of the composer drifting in and out of lucidity in his final days, as illness overtook him, but it seems flippant to characterize this as "diminishing sanity." From multiple accounts, the final stages of his illness came relatively swiftly. A friend, Josef von Spaun, wrote:
"I found him ill in bed although his condition did not seem to me at all serious. He corrected my copy in bed and was glad to see me and said, 'there is really nothing the matter with me, I'm so exhausted I feel as if I were going to fall through the bed'. He was cared for most affectionately by a charming thirteen-year-old sister whom he praised very highly to me. I left him without any anxiety at all and it came as a thunderbolt when, a few days later, I heard of his death."
More to the point, Schubert wrote his 8th symphony in B minor, the "unfinished," six years before his death and wrote many other works in the intervening years, so it seems unlikely that "diminishing sanity" or "his battles with syphilis" were the causes of there being only two completed movements to this magnificent work.

Some have suggested that his 8th symphony is complete as is, a two-movement symphony, but this seems unlikely to me. He had composed most of a third movement (scherzo and trio) in short score, although very little had been orchestrated; since no previous symphony had ever finished with a scherzo movement, it seems likely that his original plan was to add a fourth and final movement, typical of classical symphonies. My best guess as to why it was never finished is that, after completing what are arguably the best two symphonic movements he would ever write, he realized that the scherzo paled by comparison, and so he set it aside while other compositional work overtook him. Possibly he intended to finish it one day, but we may never know this for sure.

Further muddying the waters is the fact that Schubert gave the manuscript to his friend, Anselm Hüttenbrenner, in his capacity as representative to the Graz Musical Society, for whom the work was written. "However, Hüttenbrenner did not show the score to the society at that time, nor did he reveal the existence of the manuscript after Schubert died in 1828, but kept it a secret for another 37 years. In 1865, when he [Hüttenbrenner] was 76 (three years before his death), Hüttenbrenner finally showed it to the conductor Johann von Herbeck, who conducted the extant two movements on 17 December 1865" (this quote from Wikipedia article, "Unfinished Symphony").

Some friend!

But enough ranting about someone else's blog post! I'm actually glad I read it, because it spurred me to write my first blog entry in eight and a half months, and I am hopeful that a more regular blogging habit will ensue.

I may write about procrastination one day, since I am rather good at it, but not just yet…