Who are you composing for? Are you writing for virtuosos? Is Lang Lang in your sites? I am going to make a recommendation. You should be composing with only one performer in mind. That is the person who will most likely play your music. Is your piece even playable?
“Play me one of you pieces…”
Recently I moved to California. This move has been relatively smooth on the scale of moves that I’ve been through. Since 1999, I have moved 11 times. Probably the most difficult was a move from Washington State to Alabama, just after I decided to get into woodworking as a hobby, and foolishly thought I could move all my industrial sized power tools on my own. But this move has had one different dynamic from all the others. My family has temporarily moved back into my parents house, until our old house in Texas can sell and we can afford to put a down payment on a new house here in California.
I have set up a little corner in my parents garage where I like to go and try and compose (I have a whole other article to write on having your “composing sanctuary”). This morning, while playing away, my Mom walked in with my 2 1/2 year old son, and sat down behind me. Then she said something that caught me off guard. She asked me to play something I had written.
“Something I’ve written?”
I paused for a second. I then made an excuse that I didn’t have any of my pieces printed out. But inside, I felt kind of dumb. I have been selling myself as a “Composer” to my family, but I can’t really play my own pieces. Part of the reason is because I am not that great of a piano player, and I haven’t put in the time to really get the pieces under my fingers… but the main reason is, because I have been lazy.
Judging Your Pieces Difficulty Level
My laziness hasn’t necessarily been in practicing piano, because I have been trying to do more of that. I have even tried to approach my composing from the mindset of, “This will be a piece that I should be able to play.” No where I have been lazy is following through and making sure the piece is playable by me. What do I mean by this?
First, I make the difficult judgement by just listening and guessing. I say,
That doesn’t sound that difficult, so it probably isn’t.
The problem is, simplicity can be deceptive. Something that sounds simple, may in truth be impossible to play.
So there really is only one way to judge difficulty. Actually playing through your piece.
The Process of Making Your Music Playable
The first step in making sure you music is playable is go through it and attempt to play it. You are looking for specific things, which should be instrument agnostic:
These are things that just can’t be done, regardless of how good a player is. Have you written a 13 note chord on piano? Yeah that is going to be tough with only 10 fingers. Maybe if you add a few toes in there, or maybe your nose. But impossibilities may be a little less obvious. For instance, there may be a stretch in your hand that is just not going to happen regardless of how many fingers you have. If you are writing for an instrument like violin or guitar, there are certain chords that can’t be played because of the tuning of the strings.
If you are writing for wind instruments, the biggest impossibilities is not leaving breathing points. You can only play for so long.
These are things that can technically be done, but only with a lot of intense practice. Now you may say, “But that is how I wrote it; that is what I heard in my head… and that is the way it is supposed to be.” This may be a good time to put your ego on the side, and figure out if there is a better way. Maybe you can get that same sound without the difficulty.
In the first movement to my piano sonata, there is a point at which I have a continuous pedal tone of F# in octaves. I wrote it so the right hand skips over the left hand and then back up to continue some running sixteenth notes. It all looked good on paper, but when I finally sat down to play it through, I found the figure to be annoyingly difficult.
First the pedal tones were written in octaves. I did this because I felt they needed the power. But skiping over the left hand to play octaves ended up just being a little too difficult. So I change it to a single note… and guess what… it still sounds fine.
Impractical Pedal Tones
Corrected Pedal Tones
The other spot that was doable, but awkward (does anyone else think the word “awkward” itself looks awkward… maybe it’s just me) were the sixteenth notes on top. I thought it would be an easy skip, but keeping the 16ths running to the end of the bar meant I had not time to move my arm down to the pedal tone. So I decided to leave the last note out. Still sounds pretty much the same, but now it is much easier to play.
Impractical 16th Notes
Corrected 16th Notes
Here is the corrected version of the music:
My other main instrument is trumpet, and a major impracticality is playing in a high register for too long. Embouchures run out, and eventually you just can’t play high anymore. Maybe if you are a pro big band lead chair player its not a problem, but for your average joe player, its a problem.
The Unnecessarily Difficults
Finally, what you write may be possible, it may even be practical, but ultimately you have to ask yourself… is it necessary? Sometimes making something easier to play will enhance your piece, because instead of focusing on trying to accomplish a major calisthenics work out on your instrument, you can focus on everything else that goes into a making a piece of music work. Feeling, phrasing, timing, nuance… the little things that all add up.
Help… I don’t play an instrument
If you don’t play an instrument you still have options.
First, I have to recommend that you learn. There are plenty of places to get lessons on piano or guitar. You can even teach yourself. I personally learned piano through the Alfred’s All-in-One adult piano course. There are others out there, but Alfred’s work well enough for me.
If that is too much of a stretch right now, there are plenty of places to get feedback online from other composers. I like to post my music over at the Composer’s Forum. One word of caution… you will get feedback on more than just playability.
Another option, which I have yet to do, but is on my list, is go to a forum dedicated to the instrument you are writing for, and find someone there to play through your piece.
I like to go to pianostreet.com and read through their forum occasionally. When I finish my piano sonata, first thing on my list, is to get some feedback from someone their. I may even offer an incentive, like listing them on the work as editor, or saying it is written to be performed by them. I am sure many people will do it out of the kindness of their heart. But it won’t hurt to have someone who looks forward to playing your music. You never know where that relationship will go.
So ask yourself one thing… Do I feel my piece is playable? Well do ya… punk?
Ultimately, I think we are writing music for people, and not Sibelius 7. I want to hear my music interpreted, and I want to interpret it myself. So I am going to make a bigger effort to make my music playable.