How I compose: Step 2 – Instrumentation

A couple of weeks ago I shared how I start composing each of the pieces in my composition quest. It seemed to be a popular post!

So after I’ve read the psalm, understood its meaning through commentary, and established the structure for my piece, the next step in composing music for me is choosing the instrumentation.

Instrumentation.

The purpose of this quest is to improve my composing skills. One of my dream goals is to finish the quest by writing a piece of music based on Psalm 33 for large chorus and full orchestra. That’s a lot of people and parts, and like an Olympic Triathlete or Astronaut, there is a ton of preparation. Knowing the insides and out of every instrument, including the human voice, is imperative before tackling a huge opus.

That’s partly why this quest will take 7 years and 150 pieces – writing for solo and small groups of instruments will teach me a great deal about how those combinations work together and how they don’t. Think of Ravel’s “masterpiece” Bolero. Familiar with it? Very popular nowadays but guess what – it was an exercise. Maurice Ravel wrote the piece to learn what different instrumentation combinations would sound like. He never meant it to be a concert hall piece, or a film score! (10, starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek). Below is a truly awe-inspiring ensemble Blast! performing Bolero:

 

Therefore, for this first year I am selecting mostly small chamber music ensembles for my instrumentation – a wind quintet, a brass quintet, a string quartet, trios, duets, solos. Piece #6 is a little more ambitious as I’m combining both the winds and brass together. In fact, it’s written for “Chamber Orchestra Non-Strings!” Think of a chamber orchestra that plays Mozart or Haydn, and take away all the violins, violas, cellos and double basses. I’m composing for everyone else.

Conductor Composer Maestro Stephen P Brown / Swedish Chamber Orchestra

Swedish Chamber Orchestra

There is lots of string music out there, but not much just for the winds and brass, so hopefully this instrumentation will work and it will become a part of the normal orchestral repertoire.

But for those of you waiting for a large orchestra piece… Sorry! You’re gonna have to wait awhile. At least another year or two.

Right. Time to get back to the music…

Thanks for reading.

 

Unexpected advice and a possible way forward

What an incredible week.

My last blog post “Keeping up appearances” attracted the most views I’ve ever had, as well as the most comments. Thank you!

It is clear that many of you believe a small group of advisers or friends with whom you can share disappointments is a good thing, but even better is a mentor or two. I must admit to constantly referring back to the same handful of people on many matters, but unfortunately I have yet to come across a mentoring candidate in my industry who is on the same playing field/ experienced in what I’m trying to do/ ignoring staid industry norms.

Not even the adventurous Emily Wozniak and her Sound ExChange Orchestra can claim that no-one has done it before. Maybe the Aurora Orchestra is the closest thing to my kind of innovation. Certainly their marketing is – that’s a great 2013 season video:

 

 

The small, global Orchestra Establishment has its noose tightly wrapped around just about everyone, convincing them there is no other way. Certainly every Musical Director and Senior Administrator in the USA & UK, who are probably the closest candidates for mentoring someone like me, succumb to their ways if they want to keep making great orchestral music in the current climate. Emily is young, cute and has a plethora of eager college students at her disposal. I don’t know if she has a mentor or two, but even if she doesn’t yet it won’t be hard to find them. On the other hand, I’m not quite as attractive as she is, and at 42 years old most people would expect me to know what I’m doing and be mentoring others – probably people like Emily.

In fact, I am and have been for several years (I wonder if that explains why people started calling me Maestro a couple of years ago?). Many ex-students stay in touch and I often support them through their own career and life decision-making processes. Just earlier this month one of my longer-term online students came from El Salvador to Tampa for our first in-person sessions – a couple of lessons, a couple of chats about goals and career options, and participation in some rehearsals & concerts. It’s very different in person than via email, and the visit has strengthened the trust between us.

George Marriner Maull, the closest and longest music-related adviser Stephen P Brown has worked with.

The vibrant George Marriner Maull
Photo courtesy of aptonline.org

I definitely have advisers (actually, more like Friends) in business, spirituality and my personal life, but not in the break-the-mold, rip-it-up-and-start-again orchestra industry of the 21st century. [At this point I must give a nod to a dear, dear friend who has taught me a great deal about how to approach music, and makes time to hear my concerns as much as his schedule permits: George Marriner Maull of the Discovery Orchestra. Please buy their incredible DVDs. George has had a profound influence in my musical life since I was a teenager, and continues to do so, but his efforts are hampered by the old-school setup of classical music – which is what I broke away from many years ago. He is doing remarkable work bringing live classical music to children and generally interested people and I hope his passionate flame burns brightly for a long, long time.]

All in all, perhaps that is why last week’s post expressed surprise about sharing deeply personal disappointment – without a mentor it’s not something I’ve done or experienced before and I’ve been immensely touched by your response & support. Here’s an interesting twist, though: whilst many of the blog post comments answered my questions, and many others were boosting my confidence (thank you!), some actionable solutions actually came via email.

One reoccurring solution in particular caused me to think about it over this past weekend, and I think I’m going to look into it further.

I’ll post about it on Friday, but suffice it to say: it will have a HUGE impact.

 

Do you have a mentor?

Have you had a mentor in the past?

Have you been a mentor for someone?

Let me know what the benefits are in the comments below…

Keeping up appearances

I recently received some rather disappointing news. Normally, no-one would know except my poor wife who would end up tolerating my pottering around the house and moping through the kitchen cupboards kidding myself I needed something to munch on.

But the rest of the world wouldn’t know.

Blog posts would still appear on schedule, uplifting tweets would still get posted, and the occasional Facebook message would continue to find its way into the ether. Students would continue to strive for goals just out of their current reach, audiences would cheer and applaud, and colleagues would continue to rely on the ever-smiling, ever-present, ever-reliable SPB to be there for them.

All was always well, apparently.

Except this time. Tweeting has been difficult, I’ve fallen behind in my blog posts thinking I have nothing to say that anyone would want to read, and my Facebook presence has all but dissipated. Students noticed an absence of normally high expectations, audiences didn’t seem entertained, and colleagues noticed that laughter no longer filled the room.

The disappointing news hit me hard.

But there was one difference this time. At the beginning of the project I reached out to a bunch of people to see if anyone was interested in supporting my efforts – a mini Board, if you will. Eight brave souls jumped on board without hesitation (well, some hesitation for a couple of them). Upon conclusion of the project and its disappointing outcome, I had to reach out to every one of those supporters who believed I could pull it off.

To say I was nervous is an honest understatement.

Afterwards, something remarkable happened. Slowly, one by one, every single one of “The Great Eight” responded by email with incredible words of encouragement and humorous perspective. Comments like:

We still believe in you.

You are definitely a talented musician and composer. We are behind you 100%.

They’d probably have refused Bach & Beethoven, too.

I’m sure you will succeed in achieving your objective soon.

Keep believing in yourself Stephen – my money is still on you!

Isn’t that wonderful feedback?! However, these are not your run-of-the-mill stock phrases spurted out to make someone feel better. No, I know these people and trust them. These comments are real. They’re genuine. And coming from these specific Great Eight, these are comments I should actually take to heart. Then I realized something: perhaps sharing one’s disappointments with a handful of people close to you and/or the project will actually enhance your relationships, healthily build your confidence, and lift you out of any potentially depressing doldrums.

First, THANK YOU!

Second, I’d love to know if this really works, or if it was a one-off. Have you shared a particularly devastating disappointment with a small private group of people? What was their response? And how did it affect your own perspective and/or behavior?

Leave a comment below and let me know if sharing helps you. Tell me if you have a close circle of ‘listeners’ you can go to with disappointments (as well as successes). Perhaps I can learn from your own experiences.

Not normal goals for 2013

SPB in Romania, 1987

SPB in Romania, 1987

I can’t believe I spent as much time setting next year’s goals as I did. Really. Goals have always been important to me (you may remember I subscribe to Gary Ryan Blair’s wonderful Goal System)

And whilst there are some great projects in the works, in the back of my mind, and even underway, here are the goals I’m setting myself to achieve in 2013. They are all measurable by my own conscientious intuition, but I’m OK with that this year. Here are my goals:

1. To wake up every morning full of energy, purpose, expectation and ready to make choices.
2. To improve my existing relationships and develop new ones – to contribute & engage (the hard option) rather than withdraw (the easy option).
3. To pursue meaningful and creative work that may not always be flawless.
4. To notice my own and others’ feelings, to appreciate that freedom is a choice, to pursue big dreams, and not to become cynical.
5. To leap, surprise, challenge, embrace, and love boldly.

(Thanks to Chris Guillebeau for some extra guidance this year)

My questions to you are:

  • What are your goals for 2013?
  • Do you feel that any of my goals could apply to you as well?
  • What is one big project you’ll be undertaking next year?

Leave a reply & post your thoughts, feelings and comments below – I read every single one of them!