• Jun1Sat

    Inside Composing: part 1

    A look behind the scenes of composing for brass band. June 1, 2019 Marcus Venables
    Filed Under:
    Music & Gospel Arts

    The process of composing is one of discipline and mystery. Without getting too nerdy, I thought it would be interesting to write a series of articles that considers this process in hopes that we can all learn something about it. As many of you know, I have a passion for writing music. It is a high priority in my life and I truly believe it is a skill that has been gifted to me by God. However, it isn’t just a passion for me to write music. It is also a passion to have musicians play, rehearse, experience, discuss and ultimately be blessed by the music I write. This is why I spend countless hours refining my craft; writing, deleting, listening and fixing my compositions.

    In the Canada and Bermuda Territory, we have a substantial number of brass composers. It seems as though new music is being arranged and composed by a wider group of people than ever before. Many of whom have simply picked up composing as a skill or hobby. I wanted to use the voice of these writers to highlight a few specific points. I created an anonymous survey, compiled the answers, and formulated conclusions that speak to the strengths and weaknesses of both performers and composers. The goal for this series of articles is to encourage us to think outside the box, to look at the facts rather than the assumptions, and to spark a meaningful dialogue that can foster an increased appreciation for brass composition in terms of functionality and creativity.

    Time Invested

    From the composers surveyed, every single one writes music in their spare time, including myself. It is not a job, and it certainly does not pay the bills. It is an extension of our personal music ministry within the Salvation Army. I was very surprised to note that 90% of the composers surveyed spend two hours or less on average per week writing music. Many of whom suggest that as a project nears a deadline, they increase their time commitment. Why is this important? There isn’t much data available to compare or even to decide what an appropriate percentage should be. Ultimately it comes down to this fact, without the investment of time and immersion of constantly crafting new ideas, there will be minimal output and a lack of development. Everyone’s brain works differently. It’s possible to technically be composing while driving around or eating dinner. The act of writing notes down is the true refining process, but the creation of those ideas can happen anytime. In addition, inspiration comes at even broader moments. However, the ultimate time sitting putting notes down is like a chef actually cooking the food. We all can sit and imagine that beautiful dish that makes you drool, but let’s be honest, you don’t want me cooking it for you. I would argue that if a composer is truly thinking about compositional ideas at any time during the day, it should push and inspire them to actually get to work and write it down.

    Commitment Issues

    The survey discovered that only 50% of composers were asked to write a piece in 2018. We have arrived at our first paradox. Allow me to try and explain my thoughts on this issue. A bandmaster is not going to ask a composer to write a piece if the composer hasn’t been doing much writing. The composer is not going to put precious time into writing a piece that will never get played. So, who is going to take the first step? Ninety percent are writing very little on a weekly basis. Are we at risk of seeing that number drop? Bandmasters also have more to consider besides just the composer’s feelings. Do people want to hear the music written? Let’s look at this from another angle. Is writing music fun? Is playing new music enjoyable? As composers, we should not be afraid to be continually learning and refining our skills. When I was in my early teens, just starting out as a writer, I would work at writing every day and chip away at a new piece. Those pieces will never get played. But from that daily discipline, I learned how to formulate chord progressions, how to fragment themes, and how to make the Soprano player’s face turn red. Basically, everything that is important to learning to write music as a process that is continually developed and perfected. If you spend time writing something and it doesn’t get used for whatever reason, learn from it and start your next piece. The worst case scenario is that you have a lot of unused pieces for those bandmasters when they come searching for new music.

    Cool Chart

    In spite of all of this information, it turns out that most of our pieces do get played. Seventy-five percent say that all of their recent pieces have been played, with 25% saying more than half of their recent pieces have been played. This is a great number and should encourage us. I believe most of our composers today are connected to strong corps bands. Local leadership is doing a great job of utilizing these talents. Often times, the composer will work closely with their band, having an intimate knowledge of primary scoring strengths and weaknesses. It also suggests there is a demand for new music. While many people will say they prefer the Army classics or the iconic pieces, there always seems to be support for reading and using the unfamiliar. I like to imagine that with every piece that is sight read, it could be the next Call of the Righteous or the next Light of the World. To put another spin on it, perhaps it may be a new piece that might transform a genre. A good amount of music, from a relatively small output, is being used because our music ministry is evolving. When a new worship song hits the SongSelect Top Ten, a number of composers are quick to insert that song into their next project. This shows how composers, bandmasters and musicians are trying to connect music to the wider church to stay up to date and effective. Salvation Army band music often is the target for cliché statements that try to suggest it is old fashioned, outdated and no longer relevant. The iconic and classic pieces have their place. We can’t deny that every generation of SA composers have utilized the songs of the present to effectively connect to the audience, congregation, and even internally within the band members themselves.

    Hopefully this introductory article has given you some insight and caused you to think a bit about composing in the Salvation Army today. The next article will take a look at the types of music being written, what SA band music will potentially sound like in the future, and how contributions from present day writers will impact future generations.

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