We all have a vision of ourselves that we generally accept as the way things are. This vision, may or may not be good, but it has within it, our assumptions about our own abilities. Quite often, when we attempt something difficult – we fail. This causes a lot of pain and suffering because this failure seems to attack this internal vision of ourselves, and our abilities. So what is a composer to do?
In this article, I am going to talk a little about a recent failure of my own, and why I think it’s not a bad thing. I also discuss my current workflow procedures.
I Should Have Known Better
This article is being written for a reason. That reason is my recent failure in a recording session. I had composed a piece for brass instruments, and in particular, the melody featured piccolo trumpet. Now for me, being a brass player is a point of pride. I have always felt it gave me a leg up on composing – especially for brass instruments. I mean, I am a trumpet player, so I know how to write for trumpet… or so I thought.
Trumpet and Piccolo Trumpet Are Not The Same
Let me back up and let you know my current composing process. This is somewhat applicable to the story.
- I generally like to sit down and write out thematic material by hand (so generally the melody and basic harmony). This allows me to get away from the temptations offered by samples. I don’t want to spend my time writing to a specific library, or searching for the perfect sound. It tends to pull my focus away from the music. But I’ve also found that, once I have some good thematic material, my brain tends to work faster than my hand can write. So…
- I tend to switch to Sibelius for the heavy duty composing and orchestrating. I’ve definitely experimented with different workflows, and can write effectively on paper, in Sibelius, or even straight into my DAW, Digital Performer. But they all end up somewhat forcing you into different writing styles.
- Depending on the end goal – a good sample mockup, or a real performance, I will spend time polishing off the piece. If it is for live performers, or a recording, then I will spend far more time in Sibelius, checking and rechecking the score, and parts. If I am just ending with a mockup, I find that playing parts into Digital Performer is much better than trying to “improvise” parts. This is one of the reasons I think many film scores tend to sound very similar. When you are recording in real time, or even half-time, trying to make a decent performance, and to come up with an interesting part, it tends to become bland and simple. Improvisation is a very different skill from traditional composing. Obviously there are other factors, such as Directors and Producers all wanting their scores to be “Driving” like every action movie for the last 10 years.
So back to the failure. I had written a part for the piccolo trumpet, that looked very playable to my eyes. The range seemed okay, the intervals, difficult, but nothing a pro couldn’t handle. I had even heard a recording of something similar, in a similar range. The reason I find my process important to this article, is that I wanted it to be clear, I spent a lot of time on this part. I wrote and rewrote sections. I changed lines. I made sure the part was good to go.
Problem was – I was flat out wrong. What I heard in my head was something right at the top of the range of the piccolo trumpet. When I brought it to the player, he obviously didn’t want to necessarily back down from a challenge before giving it a shot. A shot we did give it – in fact, quite a few shots. I ended up having to quickly transpose and reprint the entire score down a whole step, just to make it a little more comfortable.
I felt bad, because I wrote something, that in reality, I should have never written. I generally try to live by this rule when orchestrating:
Write relatively easy to play music.
Sounds like a stupid rule, but it isn’t for several reasons.
- You end up writing deeper music. When you don’t have “difficult” and “complicated” to lean on, you have to actually have good melody, harmony, and form. This means your music is deeper, and dare I say… better. Many composers who have grown up writing on computer tend to write music that is very difficult to play, because no one has actually had to play it. But when you get the chance to write for real musicians, you quickly find out if it is playable or not.
- Your performances and recordings will sound better with fewer practices. Time is money. Professional musicians are on the clock, and when you have a full orchestra on a recording stage, you could be paying $50,000 to $100,000 a day!!! Don’t waste everyone’s time with difficult music.
The player felt bad too. He didn’t give me the performance that he wanted to give me. But I don’t blame him at all. I should have known better, but I failed. And that hurts. But that brings me to my last point.
Embracing Failure for the Right Reasons
Everyone is going to fail at some point in their lives. Contrary to what you would think, this is a good thing.
You see, failure happens for a reason. The reason is, you are not as good as you could be. This is a lesson that is hard to swallow, but vitally important. Once you understand this, failure is not something to be ashamed of, but something to embrace. You fail, in order to become better.
Just don’t repeat your failures – then you are not learning the right lessons. Failure is an important part of growing, and should be expected. The key is picking yourself up, brushing yourself off, and continuing. If you can do that, you’ll be fine.