Tag: rehearsal process

Giving Singers Creative Control

Full Disclosure: many of the samples I share in this article are from the See-A-Dot Music Catalog, a company for which I am the director.

What happens when performers can exercise some level of agency?

My usual experience in the choral world is one with a strict hierarchy: composers create works, conductors interpret them the best they can to try to deliver the composers’ intentions, and the singers do what they are told. But what happens when a piece makes room for individual performers to exercise some level of agency over the work? As a conductor, I find presenting my younger singers with indeterminacy an amazing teaching moment where my students break through to new levels of understanding. For instance, when presented with a moment of free choice-making in a piece, my singers’ first concern is almost always that they are doing it wrong. Teachers and conductors alike emphasize accuracy, intonation, and making sure students “know the notes.” When given a piece of music that is less interested in “getting it right” and more interested in giving performers creative agency, it can cause a great deal of consternation in rehearsals.

Composers can open up a whole new world of sound and textural possibilities through the use of indeterminate sections in a piece, whereby individual voices break away from others in their section and make creative choices on their own (usually within given parameters). This technique is common in instrumental music, but less so in choral scores. (Perhaps we’ve sung the chorus “All We Like Sheep” one too many times.) The degree of indeterminacy and individual choice can vary quite a bit, from pieces that present strict guidelines to pieces that include undefined symbols that are left solely to the performer’s interpretation.

This example, from Karen Siegel’s Maskil of David, shows a more constrained form of indeterminacy where each line is given a short phrase that is performed individually by each person in the section, though with the same sense of tempo and meter.

Another example, from Drew Corey’s piece Of All Of Them: the first, the last uses a similar technique, but without the strict rhythmic component. In the passage below, we have a few different events happening simultaneously. First, there is a warm harmonic background texture provided by the middle voices, created from repeating notes or phrases, sung independently by each performer in the section. Then, there are rhythmic and melodic unison gestures guided by the conductor and indicated with vertical dotted lines to show their simultaneity. The last phrase in the upper voice, however, is a solo part and is rhythmically independent from what occurs beneath it. While the conductor gives cues for the unison moments in the lower parts, the soloists freely sing the melody in whatever time they choose.

Performers who are actively part of the creative process connect with each other and the music in entirely new ways.

Similar to what I had discussed in my previous article on New Polyphony in new choral music, this compositional technique opens up a wide palette of textural opportunities, polyrhythms, and dense harmonies that might not have been as possible or easily achieved if strictly notated. More importantly, there is a level of engagement and presence that such techniques require from the singers. When performers are actively part of the creative process, they connect with each other and the music in entirely new ways.

Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head

A red umbrella in heavy rain

I am two months into my first semester of graduate school in composition at SUNY Purchase.   I have finished the first “student composition” of my life under the useful eye of my teacher Huang Ruo.  (All the composing I did for theory classes in college doesn’t count.)  Having written eight short movements for the assigned oddball group of bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, and double bass, I have thrown out two, put the remaining six in a new order, and written a bassoon cadenza linking two middle movements to help the piece congeal.  I had chosen a title for maximum flexibility:  A Few Things I Failed to Mention.  Now the nine-minute piece goes to the musicians who will be playing it in the course named Purchase New Music.

My players range from freshman to graduate level and two are sort of on loan from the jazz department.  It is my first experience writing for students and I am concerned.  I don’t really know what to expect in terms of technical proficiency, especially with the brass where I have the least experience.  At every lesson I worried aloud to Huang Ruo about the difficulty of some of the ensemble playing; I didn’t want to be setting anyone up for a terrible experience, myself included.  Neither, however, did I want to sacrifice my own stretching for the comfort of others.  Huang Ruo was insistent that I write for myself; the kids would come through.  So I did.

The piece is handed in to Dominic Donato, head of the course, for vetting.  He pronounces it “well-made.”  Together we decide that the players will be better off playing from the score instead of from parts, as there is a great deal of rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity.  I make big scores for everyone and hand them out the week before the first coaching.  I am thrilled to find out my group’s coach is flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, head of performance at the conservatory and a new music superhero on the New York scene.

A great thing about Purchase New Music is that our pieces are coached just as seriously as if they were Brahms or Mozart:  four coachings over four weeks with top-flight New York players.  I only know Tara as an incredible musician; it’s clear from the first minute of the first coaching that as a teacher she is a force of nature.   Which is a darn good thing, because from the beginning it’s also clear that my piece poses new technical challenges for this group of young musicians who naturally haven’t encountered much contemporary music.

The learning goes very slowly with many passages that must be taken apart measure by measure and put back together instrument by instrument.  Tara, who tends to cruise at warp speed, slows down, reviews the composite rhythms and how each player’s part fits in to them, over and over.  She is careful to teach the math that underpins funky tuplets.  What seems to stick with them at first is lost on repeat; they need time to absorb the complicated rhythms.  Inevitably, some get it quicker than others.  The music is demanding but it fits together very sensibly and naturally; all three teachers involved have stressed that.  Of course I am nervous as I watch the kids struggle, but all the faculty assure me that history indicates they will come through in the end, so I keep my mouth shut and watch Tara the Music Ninja do her work.

Tara’s process for digesting new music fast and well is an education all by itself, one that I as a non-performing composer find supremely important to understand.  I have sat in on countless rehearsals before and listened closely to the working conversations of professional chamber musicians.  I know there is often more than one way to put music on the page, and I try to keep an eye on how players can be helped, or at least not hindered, through beaming, enharmonic choices, time signatures, etc.  Sometimes there isn’t any super elegant way to write a moment and it’s going to look scary on the page no matter what, but I try to keep these to a minimum.  Seeing Tara decode and demystify the music for these young players, and getting her comments on how it might usefully look different here and there, is fantastic.

Four weeks and four coachings go by. The kids are all perfectly capable, willing, and optimistic about the music, but it’s clear that insignificant rehearsing is going on between coachings. There are auditions for grad school to prepare for, student recitals, all have very full academic loads, and it’s hard under the best of circumstances for five busy musicians to get together in a room.  I am increasingly concerned.  It is in this difficult situation where the biggest change in educational gestalt since my time in school reveals itself:  there doesn’t seem to be any fear factor among the students—fear of showing up for a coaching unprepared—and this is beyond my understanding.  Over the weeks, there are times when I think that, back in the day, faced with repeatedly unprepared students, I would have expected a coach of Tara’s caliber to simply walk out of the room.  Maybe they still do in other schools, but here, now, I gather that chastising—much less shaming—isn’t the way. However much Tara’s patience is being put to the test—and it is—she continues to work patiently and positively with the kids.

At the fourth and last coaching, Tara has alerted Dominic, the head of the new music program, to the situation.   With the concert in six days, much of the music is still largely out of reach.  Dominic comes in and delivers a gentle, eloquent exhortation, acknowledging that A Few Things I Failed to Mention isn’t a “student piece” but is a well put together composition that will help them gain better skills.  He underlines that skills are a pre-requisite for working in the real world and that new music is where a lot of gigs are found.  It’s a good talk without an ounce of guilt-inducing messaging.  On the contrary, he lights a terrific fire under the kids, getting them excited about the doable work ahead.  He instructs them to schedule—right then and there—three rehearsals over the next six days.  They do that.  They will meet by themselves for the first, and then I will coach them the second and third.

When I meet with them, more notes are in place but we still have a long way to go and a recital the next day.  I have been unable to make too many judgments about my own composing up to now because I’ve been waiting for dynamics to come in to the picture.  Dynamics in this unnatural quintet are absolutely essential, and the slow parts start to blend the way I imagined.  But now I realize what feels like an error on my part: with fast music for brass, I begin to conclude, when it comes to playing quietly, on time, and in tune: pick two.  I wonder: have I set us all up for failure?

But the kids are far from giving up.  They truly want to knock down and own the whole piece. They work so hard the last two days that my heart goes out to them.  I’m sure that they could play this piece well if they’d done right by it when they first got it more than four weeks ago.  Why didn’t they?  Who knows?

Our last, Hail Mary coaching is the afternoon of the recital and they make more progress, but I worry about them blowing themselves out before the performance.  They have two other pieces to play on the program as well.  I stop the rehearsal.  What will be, will be.