Writing Music For Young Players

Writing Music For Young Players

Many composers shy away from writing music for young players, thinking that this is a “dumbing down” of their talents or time unwisely spent on musicians who have little interest in their work. Well, nothing could be further from the truth.

Over the last twenty years, I have fostered a dual career path by writing for professional ensembles and writing pedagogical music for young players. When I was in school, I began teaching piano and composition privately to children out of my need to pay the bills, but I loved it. I found the pedagogical repertoire to be sorely lacking in quality music that reflected the sounds of today, however, and began writing music to teach my own students. This evolved into getting commissions and residencies to work with young players in a variety of settings. From these experiences I have found a way that, for me, makes composing for young musicians extremely rewarding both in terms of artistic and personal goals.

Below I have compiled a “cheat sheet” of guidelines that have helped me when writing music for young players. While composing for students makes most of us think of children, these tidbits can be applied to creating music for all aspiring musicians, whether they be eight or eighty years old.

Know your players

This is perhaps the most important aspect of writing for students. It is vital to take the time to get to know them both as musicians and as people. Listen to them play, ask them questions about what music they like and do not like, get a sense of their personalities. Talk to their music teachers to get a clear assessment of their technical abilities. By doing this pre-compositional research, you achieve two things. On a musical level, you will learn valuable information about their musicianship abilities, data that you will find essential in writing a successful piece. On an extra-musical level, by letting the students share with you their ideas, they will trust you and will feel like they have a stake in the composition—that you are writing specifically for them. I find this translates into them really enjoying the music more. They then put more effort and attention into learning the work, which makes for a successful performance.

Let the players know you

Similarly, take the time to let the players know who you are. Share with them your own personal experiences as a young musician, perhaps even playing some of your first compositions. Encourage them to ask you questions and give an honest answer, even if it is “I don’t know.” Kids have the best radar for insincerity and if you put on airs or are distant with them, you are already sabotaging your project. However, if you take the time to share your music and yourself, you will gain not only their respect but their trust to try your music, something brand new, without hesitation. (How often to you get that with professional gigs?)

If you use technology, make it SIMPLE, SIMPLE, SIMPLE

Today many of us incorporate electronics into our pieces, everything from a synthesizer part or amplification, to elaborate computer processing and multimedia elements. Kids today are very savvy and very into this arena, and you may be pleasantly surprised as to the wealth of information they can provide you on your gear!

However, this may not be the case with their schools or teachers. Especially in public schools, often the only sound system is the PA system they use for announcements. The computers are hopelessly outdated, and the teachers have no experience with much of the music technology available, even at the student level.

This does not mean you need to ax that cool ambient track you wanted to overlay against the choir. In my experience, you have two options: either provide all your own gear, or simplify the technology so that it can be transferred to their resources. For example, I had a residency once with a public school in Connecticut for which I was asked to write a choral piece that included computer, as they wanted to begin to incorporate technology into their music program. Well, their gear consisted of an old Casio keyboard, a computer from the ’90s, and a very basic freeware music sequencing program. I decided to skip using my professional software and instead used MIDI files which could easily be transferred to their computer. As for the sounds, I was able to find a few choice mechanical tones which I used as musical allegories to the characters I had written into the text of the choral piece, a story about robots. Finally, I chose a student to be my computer guy, a kid with savvy computer skills but who could never sit still in rehearsals. It all went off without a hitch. The kids liked the whacky loops coming in against their parts, and my tech guy did a stellar job, focusing all his energy on his task and becoming a valued member of the team.

Compose a piece that builds on the players’ strengths, then focus on one or two new musical elements to master.

Kids love a challenge. At the same time they need to feel they are up to that challenge. When composing for young players, I always keep this in mind and structure the work accordingly. I do this by composing a piece that incorporates the students’ musical strengths while focusing on one or two new skills to master. For instance, I once taught an 11-year-old piano student that had a great ear for rhythm and harmony, yet had difficulty in his reading ability. In composing a duet for him, I focused on structuring his part around a bi-tonal chord progression that changed its pattern by just one or two notes. I then overlaid a rhythmic cyclical pattern that I offset using accents and meter changes. By incorporating a spicy harmonic language and rhythmic flair, I enticed Tommy into the piece. Once he got into it, the challenge of having to focus on reading intervallically was not a daunting task, but a step he could focus on and master since the other structural elements were already within his technical grasp.

MP3 sample of “Tommy’s Tune”

Limits are possibilities

We all have our strengths and weaknesses in whatever activity we do. Young players especially have areas in both their technique and musicianship that have simply not matured to the level of an advanced performer. While many might see this as a hindrance on one’s compositional craft, I see it as a possibility to stretch my compositional chops, so to speak. For example, when I was composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Conservatory, I was asked to write a string orchestra piece for beginning players. However, nobody mentioned just how “beginner” they were. In getting to know the students and teachers, I found out that the fifth graders had only been on their instruments for two months! They had never read music and had only learned the beginning phrases of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by rote. That was it. Well, I decided to create a “post minimalist” piece based on open strings and the melodies and rhythms of the “Twinkle” variation they knew. Each part had only two patterns to learn that were cycled against each other in various combinations. Against this I gave a melody and counter melody for the teachers to play. The result was a kalidoscopic ensemble piece that all the students mastered within weeks. They pulled it off great, with only three rehearsals in front of a conductor (me). The kids and the audience liked the piece and I, as the composer, felt it was a success, both for how it sounded and also for how I stretched myself in approaching the challenge of writing for these fledgling musicians.

Style does not matter, so long as you give them something to ‘hold on to’

In my experience, I have found students to be more open to experimental music than professionals. Why? Unlike us, they have yet to fully form their opinions of what they like and don’t like. Studies have shown, in fact, that the process of learning an instrument (whether you are young or old) actually creates new neural pathways in the brain. So now is your chance to indoctrinate the young into noise music or performance art—whatever your cup of tea.

To assure success, though, it helps to contextualize it within the framework of something they are already familiar with. For example, as a member of the Common Sense Composers‘ collective, I and my seven comrades were asked to write eight pieces for two high schools in Albany, New York, as part of the New American Music Festival.

Well, in our spirit of collaboration, we decided to create our pieces based on a song the students chose. The kids had a vote and the winner was “Zoot Suit Riot.” Every composer had a different take on it, especially my dear colleague John Halle. A political activist, he decided to base his music on the actual political Zoot Suit riots. In his piece, he created a quasi-tonal/noise/arrhythmic sonic landscape from which different band members stood up and declamated the story of immigrant revolt. The performance art aspect did not throw the musicians, but drew them in as it was both new and daring, yet it connected them to something they already knew and loved. So you can do improvising, you can do scratch tones, you can do multiphonics, you can do rap, you can do the most abstract thing imaginable, as long as you get both the trust of the players and you frame it within something they already know.

There are myriad other individual lessons I have learned over the years, but the above guidelines are what I always bring to any composing project that involves young players. If there is one thing I would say to always bear in mind it is that, as composer Dan Becker says, “Simple does not mean simplistic.” That means trust that, as long as you are mindful of the player’s needs and abilities, you can write an engrossing, musically challenging piece that is technically attainable by your young performers.

Thus, I invite you to explore this largely untapped arena for composers—writing for amateurs. Not only might you find it to be a rich and unique experience, you will be making both a short and long-term investment in your art. I cannot begin to tell you how often my educational works have helped create notice and a wider audience for my other projects. We must also realize that the kids of today will be the audiences and players of tomorrow. And the more they listen to and play new music, the more of a chance we have to make noncommercial new music a vital thread in the fabric of American culture in the years to come.

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