Where did all this music come from? My role as a composer has become an integral component of my philosophy and my daily walk as a music educator. Since my time as an undergraduate student I have always held an interest in arranging and composition for instrumental ensembles, but after taking my first teaching position I found my duties did not allow me to devote the proper time to this art. I found myself often envious of colleagues who had directed or played in a group in the evenings or on weekends. They had a great outlet to feed and nourish the musicians inside.
How does one at the time of his life with a mortgage, 2 kids, a full-time teaching gig, and not finished with a master’s degree feed and nourish the musician inside? Easy – just deprive yourself of sleep and lunch breaks and get serious about writing some music. Throughout the last nine years, I have invested a significant amount of time experimenting, listening, sketching, and composing which has produced some pretty good results. Reflecting back upon this personal musical commitment, I strongly believe that the works I have produced represent an area of tremendous growth as a musician, educator, conductor, and composer.
The one thing I am more aware of now in the creative process is the exchange of information between the unconscious dimension and conscious dimension. In interviews with eight composers who have demonstrated an interest in understanding the subtleties of the creative process, Lapidaki (2007) indicates that the role of the unconscious is vital to composers as they seek to begin or complete a musical composition. Rollo May suggests that there is an unconscious dimension of experience, and that “there is a kind of battle between what consciously the composer thinks and some perspective that is struggling to be born” (May, 1975, 59). Although it is an important part of the initial creative process, the exchange between the subconscious and conscious dimensions allows the composer to create a well-crafted musical product in a number of different ways.
Despite differences in the sequence of events in the process, I have discovered there are some commonalities that have revealed themselves within the act of composing music. A period of evaluation and exploration of the musical material, improvisational sessions utilizing different instruments and the human voice, and consideration and research of programmatic elements all consistently have become part of the creative process as I begin writing a piece of music. I do keep a series of sketchbooks facilitate to assist in evaluation and exploration of material, and some highly private improvisational sessions are not far behind. I will sit down and actively engage with the material, but there are some ideas that are expanded, as Quincy Hilliard shared with me, “during periods of transition”. I do some of my best work weeding, mulching, shoveling snow, and mowing the grass. A former student joked with me a future piece may include seven percussion parts including a running lawn mower to be started at the beginning of the work like the gong in the Pines of Rome!
Those activities may persist through each foray of writing a new piece of music, but, as W. Francis McBeth shared with me many years ago, the time I spent within the music, the sounds I have selected, and the form that I wish to utilize will be an important part of the entire process. There is a reason why Jack Nicklaus was great – he worked at it consistently with high expectations. The writings of Bennett Reimer have assisted in focusing this goal, and the criteria of sensitivity, imagination, and authenticity he sets forth for judging quality in music I believe to be important additional aspirations besides craftsmanship to convey in the finished musical product (Reimer, 1991). The entire creative process is full of intimidating questions that can only be answered over a period of time in which I am able to allow my aural imagination to envision a new work that will have unity, identify in some way with the music that has come before it, and refine the expressive power found within the sounds I have chosen so that the end result is an authentic musical experience for all who choose to engage with that music.
There is a multi-level relationship I must acknowledge that has developed between my roles as an educator, conductor, and composer. The benefits and rewards of being able to teach music from the perspective of an educator and conductor are deeply enhanced by drawing upon my experiences as a composer. As analysis and preparation of a score of music begins, I am now able to take into account the composer’s intent in development of a musical phrase or his choice of orchestration. There are obvious technical limitations with each grade level of music that dictate melodic, rhythmic, and expressive choices to a composer as they score music for an ensemble. My engagement in composition has allowed me to more easily recognize how those technical limitations have been distributed to the ensemble and their importance within the piece’s melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and expressive hierarchy.
By having a better concept of these elements, I am able to plan and pace instruction with the ensembles more efficiently, and can also share this insight with the students so they are able to place their individual part into a greater context and begin making an authentic connection with the music. I have discovered that my engagement in composition has made me more confident and selective in seeking, researching, internalizing, and teaching unfamiliar music. It has further opened my aural music senses to recognizing connections and relationships among the different elements of familiar pieces that were previously not identifiable.
In a similar way, I have experienced growth in my skills as a conductor because of new connections realized between the writing and teaching of music. The role of the conductor is a critical one for any ensemble, as that role is generally entrusted with the responsibility of communicating the intent of the composer. Hilliard (Camphouse, 2007, 100) shares this view that was first brought to light by one his teachers:
One of my teachers, Richard Bowles, stated that to become a good conductor on should study composition and to become a good composer, one should study conducting. Once the conductor understands how the piece is constructed, he or she becomes a quasi-sound engineer, responsible for adjusting balance, intonation, and blend to produce the correct colors. The conductor becomes the interpreter, recreating the composer’s feelings. The passion of music comes from understanding the composition, enjoying it, and getting the players to reproduce those feelings so that the audience has an emotional, aesthetic experience.
My role as a conductor has been expanded as I consider how to communicate the intent of the composer to students within the ensemble. The technical demands that are found within the structure of any piece do affect the manner in which the piece will be explored, and it will also affect the physical craft of conducting utilized to lead the ensemble in its recreation. Reflecting upon the demands of this musical role, I feel it would be appropriate for any conductor to consider the criteria Reimer (Reimer, 1991) uses for judging quality in music, and apply those same criteria to the interpretation and communication of music. I pose the following four questions as it relates to the interpretation of music by conductors:
1. Are we seeking a creative bond that shows our respect for the materials used to fashion the music we seek to recreate? (Craftsmanship)
2. Have we considered the full expressive potential of all materials present in the music and the expressive potential of the students? (Sensitivity)
3. Can we envision the best possible solution to allow the music to profoundly awaken our emotions and those who would perceive it? (Imagination)
4. Will we devote ourselves to engaging with the finest, representative music so that the intent of the composer is accurately and fluidly merged with our interpretation? (Authenticity)
These questions are not meant to limit a director’s choices in terms of culture, style, or time period, but provide some guide points in the act of considering literature from diverse sources. It also affords me some guiding thoughts in the compositional process how I might write music that will speak more readily to performer and conductor, and hopefully translate to the audience as well. This interchange of ideas and perspectives between the roles as educator, conductor, and composer continues to evolve and expand as there are considerations and contributions from new personal experiences. I haven’t conducted my best concert yet, taught my best day, or even written my best piece yet. But I always feel like I am getting closer and the act of composing helps me fill my role as a music educator.
Camphouse, M. (Ed.). (2007). Composers on composing for band. Chicago: GIA Publications.
Lapidaki, E. (2007). Learning from masters of music creativity. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 15(2), 93-117.
May, R. (1975). The courage to create. New York: W.W. Norton.
Reimer, B. (1991) Criteria for quality in music. In R.A. Smith & A. Simpson (Eds.), Aesthetics and arts education (pp. 330-338). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.