Always Ask More Questions

Always Ask More Questions

I screwed up. For the first time in my life as a “professional” composer, I disappointed a commissioner. A client for my Custom Made Commissioning Series hired me to compose for her daughter’s birthday a duet for the girl to play. As usual, I asked detailed technical questions regarding the student’s level of playing, including requests for samples of music she was currently working on. In addition, I asked about the child’s personality and what type of music she tended to enjoy.

Then I went to work. Upon handing over the completed piece, I found to my surprise it was not what the commissioner wanted. While the mother loved the musical content and style, she wanted a piece for her daughter that was ready to play, right out of the box so to speak. But, in her assessment, that is not what I delivered. In addition, the mother felt the secondo part was too hard for her to grasp, as she, not the teacher, would be playing it.

Well, both comments floored me. The client never asked in any of our conversations to have an “easy” piece nor had she told me that she, not a teacher, would be playing the duet. So, as with the majority of my student commissions, I had assumed that the commissioner wanted a work that was technically challenging yet within the student’s grasp. Likewise, I assumed that the daughter’s teacher, not the parent, would be playing the duet with the child. Luckily, in this situation, I was able to work with the commissioner, and I tweaked the piece in a matter that satisfied both myself musically and the client technically. In the end, all parties were satisfied.

This incident reminds me about a primary issue which needs to be closely followed when composing for young players. Unless you intimately know the people for whom you are writing, you must work closely with all the parties involved during every stage of the process. It requires a more hands-on approach than working with a professional ensemble. For instance, in addition to asking about instrumentation and length, you must also ask questions that you might not normally think about, such as:

  • What are the current skills of the players(s)?
  • Do you want it easier or harder than their current technical abilities?
  • Who, if any, teachers/adults will be playing the piece?
  • What is their comfort level with new music?

Ironically with this particular job, I did not follow my own advice. As a composer that prides herself on using collaboration and getting players’ input during my composing process, I found I still fell into the trap of my own assumptions. For whatever reasons, I did not do enough communicating with the involved parties as I was writing their piece. Had I done so, my expectations of the players would have changed. I would have caught it and would have composed a piece that would have satisfied everybody the first time around.


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