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7. ten golden rules

These are some of the most useful things I’ve discovered in my life writing music. Though I call them rules, it would be more accurate to call them guidelines or suggestions.

Rule #1. Write the music to fit the performance situation. This rule controls almost everything about creating a piece of music. It may seem like an obvious consideration, but its implications are many and varied. Before you begin writing, you need to know as much as possible about who will perform the music and under what circumstances. This applies to both music written for live performance and music written for a recording. You should know the level of skill of the players who will perform or record it, the amount of rehearsal time available to prepare, the performance space and situation, and any other factor of the piece’s final realization.

The music needs to fit the instrumentation and skills of the ensemble that will play the piece, whether it’s a band you put together for your own music, a school ensemble, or a professional performing group. Beyond the most surface knowledge of the ensemble, you should also know if any of the players double on other instruments. You should know their technical abilities (or lack thereof ) so that the music is within their reach. Know which players are strongest and weakest. In addition, know how well they read music, how well they improvise, how well they play the styles of your music, and how experienced they are individually and as a group.

The amount of rehearsal time available bears directly on the music’s level of difficulty. If time is limited – in the number and length of rehearsals – consider writing music that is easier to play and less complex. On the other hand, if there will be a great deal of rehearsal time, the music can be more difficult. Research the ensemble to know if the players are likely to practice their parts between rehearsals.

What will the performances be like? Will the piece become part of a repertoire that the ensemble plays regularly, or will it be performed only once? Will it be recorded and therefore subject to much greater scrutiny than music performed only once? For example, orchestral music for feature films is so important that only the best players are used in recording. These players need very little rehearsal time and can play very difficult music at sight. Obviously, writing for a group like this is very different from writing for a college orchestra.

This level of understanding about the difficulty of the music you write comes with experience. It helps to be able to play several instruments on at least a basic level to understand if your writing is idiomatic to the instrument and if the part is difficult. You can learn a lot by talking to the musicians playing your music. After rehearsal, make a point of asking the players about their parts: what was difficult or awkward, what was easy, what “laid well” on the instrument. You can also learn by seeing the players’ written notes on the parts. If they circled a figure or corrected the notation in some way, there is a problem. In particular, this is a great way to learn about string bowings. Collect the parts after the final rehearsal or performance and examine the bowings the players wrote in the parts, then transfer the bowings to the score. You can do the same with articulations and other performance directions.

Little by little, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the various instruments in the ensembles you’re working with. Use your writing log to jot down the insights you’ve gained with each piece. By periodically referring back to the log, you can build on those insights in future projects.

Rule #2. Every performer in the ensemble should have a good part. This is an obvious concept, but it is not easy: the success of your piece depends on this rule for a number of reasons. First, the writing for each instrument should be idiomatic, exploiting the instrument’s individual character and avoiding those things the instrument does poorly. The part can be difficult and still be idiomatic (think of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar playing).

Second, there should be a strong musical reason for each instrument to be included in the ensemble. If there’s an instrument whose part plays only four bars in a 300-measure piece, you have to wonder why the instrument is in the ensemble. Obviously, there will be times when an instrument will be used only for a particular effect, but in general, every instrument in the ensemble will contribute to a well-balanced piece.

Finally, you want every player in the ensemble to enjoy playing your music. If you give every player a good part, it shows that you understand their instrument, and more important, understand what it means to be a player in an ensemble. Players like to feel that their part is important to the musical whole. Every player doesn’t need a solo (although that can help in small ensembles), but they do need a part that adds an important component to the musical whole. If a player’s part isn’t well-written and doesn’t make a positive contribution to the overall musical effect, they will start to wonder why they’re in the ensemble at all – and maybe they won’t show up to the next rehearsal. Go through each part in your piece to be sure it makes a strong contribution. If it doesn’t, either revise it or leave it out.

Rule #3. Decide how much control each player should have over the music and how much control you should retain. Then write accordingly. This is particularly important when writing for rhythm section or in any style of music that relies on a groove. There’s a real art to writing for rhythm section. Unlike other parts, rhythm section parts are not completely written out. An orchestral violin part or the lead trumpet part in a jazz band are essentially transcriptions of the part you want the musician to play. (An improvised solo is the obvious exception.) The parts for the rhythm section in a Latin, jazz, or rock ensemble are very different; they are guides for the players, not literal notations of exactly what the players should do.

While it is possible to notate rhythm section parts exactly, this is seldom done for a number of reasons. First, the groove tends to suffer when players are concentrating on reading exactly what’s written. In addition, it doesn’t allow the players to put their individual “stamp” on the music. You often hire rhythm section players for the unique character of their playing. In addition, many subtle nuances to rhythm section parts are difficult to write out. If you do take the time to write everything exactly as you want it played, the music is so dense and complex-looking that all but the very best players would be unable to read it. In most cases, you want the players to have the freedom to interpret the music in their own way, but in some sections you’ll write the part out completely and want the player to play as written.

In certain situations, writers deliberately do not write specific parts for the rhythm section so that the players have the opportunity to arrange the music collectively. Many songwriters prefer to give their bandmates this kind of freedom, even on recording sessions.

Keep these concerns in mind when writing music that contains improvisation. Improvisation is an essential component of many styles of popular and some experimental contemporary music – not just improvised solos, but improvised background parts and figures, improvised introductions and endings, improvised form and structure, etc. In these instances, decide how much information to give the players. In many musical styles, improvisation will be assumed. For these situations, musicians have acquired an extensive vocabulary and body of experience that informs their performance. Obviously, you need to know if your players have this vocabulary and experience before writing their parts.

It’s all a question of how much control you, as the writer, want to have over the finished piece of music. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about the level of control you choose, as long as you write the right music for the particular situation.

Rule #4. Get the musical effect you want with the least effort – on your part and on the part of the player. Efficiency is important for both writers and players. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing a difficult part (with the right players in the right situation), but the musical result needs to be worth the amount of energy expended both by the writer and the player. An extreme example would be a really difficult passage for the flutes to play in the low register while the brass section plays high and loud. The brass parts completely mask the flute part, rendering it inaudible. This is frustrating for the flute players who have to work very hard to play something they know no one will hear. When I play piano in a big band, I often don’t play if I know my part won’t be heard over the band and often choose to lay out (not play) when I know the horns will completely mask my part. Players appreciate it when writers take advantage of the idiomatic characteristics of their instrument and refrain from asking them to do something really hard that doesn’t have much impact on the effect of the music.

If it’s a simple background gesture you want, write something easy that has the right kind of energy and quality. Save your energy and the players’, too – for those passages when the musical ideas are really important.

Rule #5. Always use the best players you can find. This may be the ideal, but unfortunately it can be expensive. However, great players will make your music come alive. They bring a tremendous amount of experience and musicality to your work that will save rehearsal time, minimize problems in the writing, and result in a great performance. They often charge more money and they might not be your best friends, but they’re usually worth it.

Rule #6. You should be able to sing your music. You should be connected to your writing in a visceral way. Your score shouldn’t be merely marks on the page. You should know each part intimately, understand how it contributes to the whole, and be able to sing it fairly accurately. You don’t have to know the inner parts of all the tutti sections (though that wouldn’t be bad), but you should be able to sing all the lead and background lines, as well as the rhythms of all parts, accurately.

It can be extremely valuable to sing all the way through a piece while working on it. I don’t necessarily sing just one part, but the groove of the intro, the melody of the first thematic statement, the background lines during the solos, the bassline at the tag, etc. Sing from beginning to end, without stopping, so that you get a feel for the overall shape and energy contour of the piece. I often do this when I’m working with the schematic of the piece and I’m experimenting with the different possible structures the piece might have.

Rule #7.  When you get stuck, don’t stop. The most common problem I hear about from students and young writers is their difficulty in finishing their pieces. At some point in the writing process they get stuck. The scenario typically goes like this: they start writing at the beginning of the piece and have some ideas coming, and then somewhere – say in measure 13 – they get blocked. The ideas won’t come. They spend a few minutes trying to find a solution and when they’re unsuccessful, they go back to the beginning and play through the piece, hoping that when they hit measure 13, the idea will come. When they get back to measure 13 and the idea doesn’t appear, they stop. After trying this method to get through the block several times without success, they stop the writing session and often, after other unsuccessful attempts, abandon the piece entirely.

The solution is not to stop. When this happens to me, I skip the part of the piece that presents the problem and pick up writing some time later in the piece, at the next phrase or the next section. Sometimes, I’ll go back to the ideas I have so far and start working with them, refining them or adding details. Other times, I’ll turn to another piece and work on that for a while. The important thing is not get frustrated, to keep the ideas flowing, to stay in the creative space. When we stop writing we leave room for the Inner Critic to take over and fill our heads with useless and negative chatter. Usually, if we keep working with the right attitude, the idea for measure 13 eventually comes. I write about this extensively in Chapter 4 when I discuss the writing process I followed for “From Here to There.”

Rule #8. Transcribing is the second best way to learn to write music. Transcribing is the written result of deep, active listening. Listening and score study is important, but through transcribing you become much more intimately connected to the music you’re listening to. You grow tremendously by deciphering what you hear and writing it down. Often, when we compose we write what’s comfortable, and what’s comfortable tends to be what we’ve written before. Transcribing forces us out of our comfort zone and into the realm of the unknown. What you discover through transcription is much more deeply learned: the effort you spend brings the music and all its details clearly into your imagination.

Transcribing has a close relationship to composition. In both, you write what you are hearing. The difference is the source of the music: external, in the case of a recording, or internal, in the case of composition.

Transcribing is the second best way to learn to write music: only the act of writing music is more valuable.

Rule #9. Develop, revise, rewrite, re-use! One of the most important disciplines of writing is to use the ideas that present themselves in the unfolding piece of music to their fullest extent. Obviously, this statement contains the implicit judgment that development is a positive quality in a piece of music – this isn’t necessarily true in all musical situations, but it’s always something to consider.

A piece’s musical balance and coherence is derived at least in part from the way the various musical ideas relate to one another. It’s relatively easy to string together a series of ideas, one after the other. It’s much more difficult to take each idea you discover and really dig into it to find what it has it offer, and then use it as completely as possible. Depending on the situation of course, much of your writing will involve the development of ideas. You decide which ideas can be developed or transformed, which ideas can be used again in various ways throughout the piece, and when new ideas are necessary.

Revise and rewrite as you work the piece. The initial form of your ideas may be exactly what you want, but as the writing process continues, our ideas become crystallized and distilled. In a sense, our attention and energy is a little bit like the fire of a kiln or oven that burns away all that’s unnecessary or inferior. Don’t stop writing until you’re sure you’ve worked your ideas as deeply and completely as possible.

Rule #10. Always try to include something new or unusual in your work – or at least strive to write the best music you can. Every writing project is an opportunity to extend your skills. Use each piece as a vehicle to learn to be a better writer. But you can only do these things if you exert yourself to work outside of your comfort zone, either by working with unfamiliar styles, ideas, or materials, or by striving to write at the highest possible level. After all, if you only write things you already know, your music will always sound basically the same. Don’t settle for the easy solution to a musical problem as you write: find the best solution, no matter how much time or energy it takes. As stated in Chapter 2, by striving for excellence, your individual voice as a writer will emerge.

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