Keeping composed

A dedicated week of annual leave commenced this week, all in the name of studying. Alice should feel honoured.

Having completed the first round of my final schedule, ‘Presentation’ work, it was time to address the more complex and potentially time consuming task; composing.

I wrote the short score on the piano a long time ago, and then completed the first and revised drafts of the orchestration over the Summer, so this task was a daunting one. It always is.

I have learned along this journey that as a composer, I am usually incredibly fortunate to be able to generate the compositional ideas and elements very quickly, often quicker than I can keep up with; I truly believe this to be a gift. I don’t know where the music comes from, but I’m definitely the channel.

I read a book; I get the soundtrack. I look out at the scenery; I get the melody line. My life has a theme running through it continually, which is ever changing depending on what I’m doing, and where I am.

My initial feeling when I read my tutor’s formative feedback comments regarding the score being sparse still in places was heart stopping, stomach churning dread. I lack huge amounts of patience when it comes to going back over my work, which is something I am learning to be more tolerant of.

My feeling is that once I have the music ‘out there’ that’s it. Often, I feel it takes a little part of me with it…very difficult to describe or put into words, but my composing is such a personal thing. I was told by my secondary school music teacher that I would never do a degree in music composition, nor would I teach, and least of all get my grade VIII piano. As you can imagine, this was fairly damaging at the time, so much so that I truly wonder now at how things have u-turned. I have managed to reach my final year studies in composition and learned to write for an orchestra. I have also been successfully teaching privately for over 20yrs and passed my grade VIII piano – with distinction.

So – I digress. But this subplot needed to be included to give context to this incredible journey and echo my own sense of wonder and pride in what I have achieved so far.

And so ‘keeping composed’ is what I have been doing this week. I had initially gone through the manuscript and highlighted with bright neon yellow the ‘sparse’ areas, based upon face value judgment. It may have made me feel like I was making a start, but in real terms, with hindsight, this achieved nothing.

What I realised quickly after this was that what I really needed to do, much like when preparing for my 6th assignment, was to listen. And so, for 6 solid days, that’s what I have done. Listen.

Initially, I didn’t think I was going to know what needed to be added. I felt exactly this way before. And then it began. Small but significant motives, invisible on the score but playing in my head, began to come forward.

Sometimes, I felt instinctively where the line should go, which instrument should play it. Other times, I didn’t. This is one thing I have really enjoyed about Sibelius; I can place a phrase with one instrument and then ‘move it around’ other parts should it not sound right.

Therefore, as I conclude this post, I have decided to leave Wonderland for a few days. I have worked through the entire score and evaluated the orchestration throughout. I have added more lines, taken some out, and varied some of the repetitive sections. Yet I know that this is just the beginning of my work within ‘Composition’, and before I fall out with Alice completely, I need to walk away and get some distance. I have achieved in six days the same work that I truly thought would take me six weeks.

I know that when I next pull up a chair at a certain tea party, I will be having a very sensible conversation with someone (well, by Wonderland’s standards anyway!)

I hereby ‘present’…

‘Presentation’ was the first part of my final push towards the end of this project following my tutors final formative feedback. To keep to schedule, I needed to theme out my work and be extremely methodical, and for ‘presentation’ I have covered the following areas, all outlined by my tutor:

  • Instrument numbers at the start of the score: I took these out but kept those next to the string players.
  • Percussion reduction: as you will have read from the more detailed blog post, this was reduced from 7 players to 4.
  • Dynamic markings were turned bold and I also went through and made sure each were aligned neatly beneath each individual line and centrally between the harp and piano staves.
  • Slurs, whole bar rests, ties, etc, were all checked and double checked. Many slurs were running over rests and notes instead of between notes, which obviously wasn’t right. There were a few whole bar rests that were not positioned correctly; these were off-set, which occurs when you delete something from the bar leaving it empty). My tutor reminded me that I had lots of the same pitched notes phrased together instead of being tied (I wrote a specific blog post when I realised what I had done).  After getting over the stupidity factor, this was easy – if not laborious – to correct.
  • All grace notes in every part where they appeared had a little slur added. I had totally forgotten to do this when I wrote them in originally.
  • I added a lot more phrasing and articulation to the woodwind parts. This consisted not only of more phrasing but also some drop slurs, together with additional staccato and tenuto markings. All of these additions have helped to give these lines much more shape and I’m grateful to Carla for reminding me that they were needed.
  • I determined which chords within the strings section I wanted to be double stopped and which I wanted to divide, the latter being notated with ‘divisi’ – I also remembered to make sure that once the divided sections were determined, I notated ‘a2’ at the next phrase in all relevant parts to show when I didn’t want them divided.
  • I also had ‘more performance directions’ and ‘hide empty staves’ within my presentation section, but as I have now discovered, these will be easier to sort out when I move on to the ‘Composition’ part of my ‘polishing’ work.
  • I have also gone through and made sure that I established font style and sizing conventions for the programme text (which is now bigger and italicised), the dynamic wording (cresc/dim). I wanted everything to be the same throughout.
  • Dynamics – where I had very long (more than 3-4 bars in length) crescendos or diminuendos, I have ‘hidden’ the hairpins to ensure that Sibelius still plays them, and instead replaced them visually with the relevant abbreviation and dashed lines to stretch out instead of the hairpins. It made the score look less crowded and was actually the more correct convention anyway.
  • Dynamics – I made sure EVERY percussion entry had a dynamic mark. All dynamics will be reviewed again once all final compositional elements have been completed.

It feels like I’ve been doing a lot more than this over the past 3 weeks now that I’ve written this post; I had only originally earmarked 2 weeks for the presentation/editing work to be honest. I had not appreciated just how challenging the re-working of the percussion section would be.

Each area noted above has taken a lot of detailed scrutinising. I lack patience with this kind of close editing work; I don’t enjoy it and find myself getting thoroughly impatient and fed up but equally I know how important the presentation of my score is for my final mark and I don’t want to jeopardise this unnecessarily.  I will go back over everything again once the composing is completed.

Gould, E (2011). Behind Bars. London: Faber Music. Whole book.

From 7 to 4; my ‘new look’ percussion

This exercise has taken a HUGE amount of thinking about and many evenings of worry and stress, but I ‘think’ I’ve cracked it.

Following the feedback that I had from my tutor about reducing the number of players needed for the percussion parts, I initially froze; I couldn’t think about how I was going to achieve this. At all. Total brain shut down.

After some time, I realised that the only way I could determine how to reduce the number of players down from 7 was to understand what was actually going on and look carefully for opportunities where the parts didn’t coincide (and therefore provide opportunities for re-allocation).

So – the first stage in the process was to write a list of the percussion instrument cues. This consisted of writing down each instrument and the bar number it enters within. I worked through the entire score and where there were overlaps and more than one instrument playing, I highlighted it on my list. This then gave me a sub-list which showed me the parts that couldn’t be assigned to one player.

Once this was done, the next important part of the process was to embrace the idea of removing the drum kit but retain the rhythm and sound created by it. On reflection, a drum kit in a chamber orchestra piece isn’t the most conventional of inclusions, but what this exercise proved was that the Mad Hatter section needed a comical element, and this percussion part added a welcome change to the texture. I am currently unsure about using the orchestral bass drum as an alternative to the kick drum of the kit…I may update this blog at a later stage with my final decision.

The drum kit part was very simple, only consisting of kick/bass drum, side drum and hi-hat. These lines could easily be recreated with the orchestral bass/tenor drums, side drums and cymbal, maybe even by keeping the hi-hat?

So – in order to lose the kit, I needed to analyse what it did where and consider if I had the equivalent instruments available to execute them instead. From mapping out all the percussion cues, I knew where the kit played and what else was playing, too.

Predominantly, the drum kit played with the timpani or the glockenspiel. I had already decided to leave the timpani part alone, leaving it to a dedicated player. Equally, I wasn’t at this point ready to give the glockenspiel player anything else at this stage, although my position on this changed and I was glad to keep an open mind about this.

The analysis revealed that the kit plays at the same time as the bass and the cymbal at bar 532; great news, though; they play in unison with the kit, both in instrumentation and rhythm! So, this section would be easy to edit because these weren’t actually independent lines.

The next part of the drum kit, the hi-hat, plays on its own at bar 554. Again, easy to replace OR keep as it is if I’m to retain the hi-hat.

At bar 561, the entire drum kit plays and this is the busiest section for other instruments to cover the 3 parts of the kit. However, no other percussion plays here, which again makes this easy to edit across to other parts.

The mapping exercise highlighted various cues following this main section where various parts of the kit play, but again, they proved easy to edit because other instruments are available to cover the parts suitably.

The conclusion I came to was to reassign the 7 individual parts (timpani, glockenspiel, drum kit, tambourine, cymbal, side drum, bass drum) to 4 players, which means that for 3 of them, they will have to cover more than one instrument. The new structure now looks like this:

Player 1: Timpani
Player 2: Hi-hat & Cymbals (currently written for 2 independent staves but I’m going to combine them onto one 5-line stave to save space on the score)
Player 3: Tambourine & Glockenspiel (I soon realised that these parts didn’t overlap and so could be shared)
Player 4: Side & Bass Drum (I eventually combined these onto one 5-line stave, too)

Once all this had been worked out, I then had to face the wrath of Sibelius. Learning new things in software is great and usually triggered by a live project such as this composition.  However, when you just want to be able to ‘do’ and ‘achieve’ something without spending literally hours pouring over manuals and forums, it does become an extremely frustrating and tedious task.

In order to re-score the existing percussion parts to other players, I had to add the separate parts in, i.e. staves for the cymbal, tambourine, side and bass drums, alongside the existing timpani, drum kit and ‘percussion’ lines that I already had. It was then a question of just copy and pasting the relevant notation from original lines to new lines. Once this was complete, I could then delete the obsolete parts and then bracket together the staves that would be played by each percussionist.

And once I had scored the parts for the cymbal and hi-hat throughout the score, I realised that they could both be scored onto one 5-line drum kit stave, so these parts had to be re-done. This was a far more economic idea, though, and helped free up some page space.

I found this drum notation chart which is very useful to refer to:

(Taken from

There were a few conventions I needed to remember to adhere to when I wrote two parts on one stave, such as making sure stem directions were correct, especially when two different parts were playing at once. I also needed to ensure that when two parts were being represented on one stave but perhaps not playing (off-beat, alternate rhythms) I needed to make sure I scored the respective rests.

In the fullness of time, once my attention has completely moved on from the presentation aspects of my score, I can get round to some more compositional aspects (which I can’t WAIT to do as editing is not my strongest forte!). Once THIS has been completed, I hope to be able to hide empty staves to try to rescue the amount of paper used in this project…I can’t deny that the prospect of hiding empty staves doesn’t fill me with dread because having tried this before, it put me a lot of trouble, but I am willing to give it a go! Watch the proverbial space!

Rethinking the percussion

Following my tutor’s feedback following the submission of Assignment 6, this has formed part of recent work that I have grouped under ‘presentation’; to be honest, I’ve deliberately saved this for last before progressing onto compositional elements because this part daunts me!

My tutor made the following comment about the percussion in her feedback:
‘You also need to specify how many percussion players you need in total; the list makes it look like you need 7, which is disproportionate to the rest of the orchestra. Can you combine several of the instruments into a single part?’

Of course, she’s completely right. To list 7 percussionists for a chamber orchestral piece is a little overkill. But equally, how do I know how many players I need???

Percussion is most definitely NOT my bag. I put so much effort into it for my last assignment that this aspect of the feedback has thrown me because I wasn’t exactly within my comfort zone before, and THIS has totally thrown me. However, not one to be put off, I decided to contact a friend of mine who is a percussionist, albeit amateur, and she was kind enough to lend her thoughts to my score in its current ‘state’:

“Hi Amy,

Here are my thoughts – I’ve just written down everything that’s come into my head. I hope it makes sense! I’ve just listed my comments by page with a few thoughts at the end. I’ve also noted a couple of places where you haven’t included dynamics – I realise you haven’t finalised your score yet so are likely to add these in anyway, but I thought I might as well just mention everything I think of in case it’s any help!
p.16 I would note how loud you want the cymbals to be played here.

p.17 The glockenspiel overlaps with the side drum so definitely two players needed!

p.23 If you want a large orchestra bass drum and a pair of crash cymbals, you will need two players here. 
However, you could consider using the kit player to play the kit bass drum and a suspended cymbal instead. We often use a suspended cymbal instead of crash cymbals when there aren’t enough players. But if you want a very loud sound for both then stick with the crash cymbals 
and the large bass drum – I couldn’t see the dynamics. Also, the bass drum is normally notated in the bottom space of the stave (an F if you were in treble clef)

p. 26 bar 186 I would add dynamics for the cymbals – do you want them to get louder with the rest of the instruments?

p. 27 bar 198 You need to put the bass drum in the bottom space of the stave as before. Again, you could have a kit player doing this. It depends how loud you need it to be (you need to add dynamics here).

p.28 bars 201-202 if you want crash cymbals you need three players here for the Percussion line; however you could use a suspended / ride cymbal and have the snare drum player on both snared drum and cymbal.

p.46 bar 349 and p.55 bar 421 add dynamics for tambourine

p.47 bar 359 add dynamics for bass drum

p.57 bar 436 make it clear what kind of cymbal you want – presumably a suspended one for the trill

p.58 in bars 444-445 that run of notes for the timpani is slightly unusual – I’m not sure that you will be able to tune four timpani drums to those notes (well, you may be able to if your orchestra has more than one drum the same size, which I have seen before, but I don’t know whether it’s usual). It might be worth asking your tutor whether a typical orchestral set of timpani
would have the ranges to be able to tune four drums to those pitches at the same time.

p.63 – similarly to above, you usually only have four or five timpani and retuning them can be done quite quickly, but watch out in fast passages e.g. moving from the five notes in bars 476-478 to a quick series of lower notes in bar 479 looks a bit tricky to me. I would check with your tutor how doable they think it is for a professional player.

p.65 when the kit comes in at bar 484 you need some dynamics. I think if you were to split the instruments up here you would need three players for that part, because only one person could play the cymbal part standing up – they would need to hold the cymbal with their hand and then 
release it for the open sound, so you couldn’t play both cymbals and side drum together here. An orchestral bass drum may be a bit boomy but a professional should be able to make it sound like a kit bass drum if that’s what you want.
p.72 bar 532 if the bass drum is on a five line stave it should be in the bottom space. Remember to add dynamics :). I think you need to have a crotchet rest on the top line in front of each cymbal crash rather than two quavers.
p.76 bar 554 – I think the symbol you’ve used here is for a ride cymbal but I wondered whether you want a duller, not ringing, cymbal sound here, as you would get if you kept your foot on the pedal on a high hat? I think this would be harder to create away from the drum kit, as I think you’d have to hold the cymbal in one hand and play with the other, but a professional should be able to do that OK.
Looking back through my notes and thinking about it all I would go for a kit player, a timpanist, a glockenspiel player and a cymbal/side drum/tambourine player, and a bass drum player. Or, if you were happy for the cymbals, bass drum and side drum to be played on the kit (if you want crash cymbals or a big boomy bass drum sound it obviously wouldn’t work, but otherwise it should be fine), you could move those onto the kit part. The kit player could also pick up and play the tambourine. From a player’s perspective, there are a lot of bars rest in the piece and any opportunity to combine the parts is worth doing. But ultimately it depends on the sound you want.
If you don’t have a kit player, the cymbal or side drum player could also play the tambourine – I don’t believe that clashes with either of those.
I actually think that because of the way you’ve written the drum kit part, it makes sense for it to be played on a kit, but it really boils down to the sound you want. It will probably sound a little lighter with a kit, perhaps evoking more of a musical theatre feel to it. Professional orchestral players should be able to make all of the separate instruments sound very similar to a kit if they’re very good. But it may not quite flow the same way that it would with just one person playing all of the parts. I’m imagining it would sound a little heavier on each part. It would be interesting to write it both ways and get a group of people to try it out and compare the two. Of course some purists would probably think the kit shouldn’t be used as it traditionally isn’t part of an orchestra, but personally I think it’s up to the composer!
Apart from that, I would generally say it’s looking good. Just be clear whether you want the player to use a pair of clash cymbals or a suspended cymbal, and watch out that the dynamics are present at every percussion entry. Timpani can be retuned but not always very quickly so watch out for using lots of notes quickly in succession – obviously the better the player the quicker they can do this, so your parts may be fine, but I’d possibly see if you can ask an expert about those bits.
One final thought – you could think about using a mark tree to represent Alice falling rather than the glockenspiel in bars 151-152; I think the movement of the mark tree is a bit more evocative of falling – if that’s what you want to do of course. I just thought I’d suggest it in case you wanted to consider it. Obviously I don’t know what the music sounds like so it may not work at all!”
Elaine Goodall

HOW good is this feedback? I’m all for helping myself. I realise this course has been and is totally all about self-directed learning, but I totally see the value in reaching out to friends and colleagues who know about instruments that I don’t play for guidance and advice. And hey – I may choose not to follow her advice…(I more than likely will, though).

I’ve also found a good website which gives an example of a typical grouping of players:

I will feature a more in-depth post about how I eventually tackle this task. I’m going in!

Smooth or held; that is the question

I think I’ve made a balls up…

My tutor told me in her formative feedback that I needed to remove the slurring between all notes of the same pitch throughout the score. What I had done originally was to phrase notes of the same pitch together when actually what I should have done (and did want to do) was tie them together, i.e. make the original articulated note longer and create interesting rhythm and timings throughout.

So the question ‘Smooth or held’ was one that, at first attempt, I got completely and utterly wrong. And now, having removed all phrasing between notes of the same pitch THROUGHOUT THE SCORE, I now need to revisit the entire thing to go back and add ties to these notes of the same pitch…oh, my life…probably going to add a 3rd week to ‘presentation’ before getting round to ‘composition’ again. Keep breathing, try not to panic…I have time…I have time…

Do you ever wonder if there are cameras rigged up around your home to capture these enormous moments of idiocy? Onwards…

In search of contemporaries

The push to the end is now ON!

The first part of my study planning is being dedicated to scheduling into each week a set of new composers to explore, as many as I can get my ears stuck into, and for this very reason, I did a google search to get some inspiration. I found this article:

The Guardian’s weekly classical music critic Tom Service compiled a list of his most worthy contemporary composers back in 2013. I figured, although 3yrs old, this wasn’t a bad place to start, and although 5 names looked familiar, the rest didn’t. Daunting – and exciting – stuff!

Therefore, my new ‘hit list’ for my Listening Log (and all reviews will be documented in this blog post as before) are as follows. I have not chosen EVERY composer to listen to, because I’m running out of time, but I have selected these:

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Alfred Schnittke
Iannis Xenakis
Magnus Lindberg
Galina Ustvolskaya
La Monte Young
Gerard Grisey
John Tavener
Toru Takemitsu
James Dillon
Terry Riley
Henry Dutilleaux
Gerald Barry
Cornelius Cardew
Luciano Berio
Philip Glass
Morton Feldman
Hans Werner Henze
Steve Reich
Louis Andriessen
Jorg Widmann
Thomas Ades

For these composers, I intend to cherry pick a single track, perhaps two, from each of them and just listen. I have been really keen to study the scores up until now, but I want to appreciate these composers with my ears and record they make me feel.  I’ve come such a long way with my own composition and I really benefitted from simply listening to it; gaining the visceral effect it had on me really helped me understand it more and I think it’s an extremely valuable way of appreciating the composers work.

This is what I want to gain a sense of as I move towards the completion and submission of this course. I want to acknowledge the contemporary composers around me today and I want to record how each of them makes me feel and why.

As you may have worked out by now, I am a traditionalist when it comes to classical music. I adore the lush, rich diatonic harmonies that sound right, sound gorgeous, and move me. I really struggle to listen to more avant grade, atonal, ‘odd’ compositions. I shy away/steer clear of them as they leave me cold. But I know that my journey through this degree will have been in vain if I didn’t acknowledge and embrace those composers around me today and their music, whether diatonic or atonal.

I’m looking forward to undertaking lots of listening and you’ll find all the details – and my feedback –  in my Listening Log as usual.

Tutor feedback – Assignment 6

I have worked SO hard on my 6th assignment. I haven’t stopped since February and whilst I was anxious to receive this feedback from my tutor, I was also very eager to see how far off the mark I was, or perhaps instead, realise that I wasn’t that far off the mark. I think it’s fair to say it was the latter, thank goodness!

This is the feedback from my tutor:

In summary, the following areas need addressing:
The Score:
1) The number of instruments on each part at bar 1 NOT needed (standard convention)
2) Confirm number of percussion players; 7 is too many for size of orchestra. Can I combine into single part?
3) Dynamic markings should ALL be in bold
4) Placement of slurs & whole bar rests, and check notation with ties and rests
5) Grace notes in woodwind should be notated with slurs
6) Woodwind parts have lots of long slurs; need more details with articulations
7) Don’t slur 2 notes of the same pitch (for any instrument) – it would need to be rearticulated or be tied, even within a longer phrase
8) Chords in strings need greater clarity over whether double stopped or divisi (stem direction helps but also adding div.)
9) Use more performance directions
10) Try hiding empty staves to save space and paper (this daunts me given layout issues before when I tried this!)

1) Check strings; still a little sparse. Consider doubling at the octave to give richer tone
2) Consider balance of dynamics between real instruments
3) Use tenor clef for high trombone sections
4) Look at practicality of fast, chromatic trumpet part
5) Look at practicality of fast, offbeats in woodwind parts
6) Check individual parts for any repetitiveness like the viola; can this be modified? More variation of texture instead of long notes?
7) Double bass often very high (in comfortable cello range); move it lower? Also double the bass and cello more at the octave
8) Consider losing the drum kit; can I create same effect using orchestral percussion?
9) Need more contrast; tempo and dynamics. Add some massive changes to both to make a dramatic impact.

Critical Review feedback: