Knowing Your Limitations

Knowing Your Limitations

After posting last week’s column I received a number of emails from composers posing technical questions regarding composing for amateurs. Below is the text from one in particular:

“I’ve been pestering a middle school band director for over a year to send me some scores so I can write a piece for his band…. [I] don’t know the first thing about writing for young wind players and percussionists, so I need to know their restrictions. I never played in a band or orchestra until I got to college, so I’m completely ignorant about what will work and what won’t with young musicians.”

What struck me about this is that it came from a “classically trained” composer, complete with a Ph.D. and a list of works and performances that many of us would envy. So why does he need help?

Thinking about this, I look back on some of my projects and realize that I came in just as green as he professes to be. One residency in particular sticks in my brain. As a composer with Common Sense I was asked to write a set of theme and variations for two high school bands in Albany, New York. Both ensembles were at the intermediate-advanced level for high school ensembles.

Well, most of us did not know what this really meant. In fact, one of us in particular wound up totally having to rewrite a piece after hearing it literally crash at the first workshop. Thanks to our workshopping process, however, all was saved in the end. Ed Harsh and Randy Woolf, both Common Sensers, did have experience writing for high schools, and their tips helped this composer revamp the work.

But, why did this have to happen in the first place? Why are conservatory/university trained composers not taught how to write for young players? We spend a lot of time learning all the possibilities of the instruments but not the limitations and, in doing so, most of us come out unprepared to take advantage of the opportunities to compose for amateurs.

I know there is a whole flourishing industry of writing for bands and that there are composers that focus solely on this medium. But how do they get their chops? I have a feeling it was not in music school, so I would love for those of you that do have experience in this to send us your tips.


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