WISE- Keys, Keys, Keys

I’m coming to the realization that composing in a certain key matters more than I thought.

To listeners without perfect pitch, a song played in one key will sound the same if played in another. It’s the relative differences between the notes that matter, not whether that actual note is a C or an E♭.

However, to musicians, key is crucial. Some keys are much more difficult to play than others, some instruments are in different keys than others, and so on. Similarly, composing in different keys matters as well. I have to keep in mind which instruments will play what I’m writing. For example, it wouldn’t make sense for me to write a piece with five flats for a high school string orchestra. I often have to consider the range of the instrument in question when choosing keys.

In a more subtle sense, I’ve realized I make certain compositional choices more in certain keys. I’m not quite sure why that is, but I’ve recently found myself using more accidentals in some keys than others. It most likely has something to do with my familiarity with the key. Keys such as B♭, F, or C are very comfortable keys for me, as I grew up a bassoon player. I tend to default to these keys when I’m composing (or their relative minors). For the piece that I’m working on for the orchestra, however, those keys aren’t such great choices. So I’ve brainstormed many of my ideas in E minor, which is much friendlier to string players. I’ve found that as I forced myself to use unfamiliar keys, I also pushed myself to be more innovative with my melodies through accidentals. There must be a connection there.

WISE – Quick Lists

A few quick self-reflective lists never hurt. Here are some:

Things I want to accomplish in the next week:

  • Get at least halfway through my next score study: Beethoven’s String Quartet 15. Hopefully I’ll get through at least the form and structure, then worry about the chords and progressions in the week after.
  • There are quite a few ideas floating around my composition notebook for my piece for string orchestra, but I need to choose one to pursue. I’ll definitely need to do that within the week to keep up with my schedule.

That should keep me fully occupied for the next week.

Things I did last week:

Things I love doing as a part of my project:

  • As obvious as it sounds, composing. The fact that I can do this as a part of a school project still thrills me.
  • Spending more time doing music in school. I find that the more time I spend doing music related activities during a day, the better that day becomes.
  • Reading my friends’ projects. I never know what to expect when reading their blogs, and the variety of the subjects makes sure that each time I read, there’s something interesting.

WISE – How It Starts

This is how it all starts. Above you see a typical example of how I notate my brainstormed ideas. Imagine hundreds of these scribbled on many pages of staff paper and now you have a pretty good idea of what my composition notebook looks like.

If you ever find me in the practice room, “noodling around” (yes, that’s the technical term) on the piano, these are the things that I’m writing down.

WISE – Timeline

It recently dawned on me that people may have a hard time figuring out exactly what my current progress on my WISE project may be. To solve that problem, I have created this timeline for easy access.

It’s a simple way to see what I’ve done and what I’ve yet to do, and since I’ll be including links to the completed parts of my project, it can also serve as a quick navigation tool.

WISE – Former Projects (Part 3)

Here are three things I loved about Josh’s project:

  • His self-reflections. After all, that’s what a journal is all about, and Josh was spot-on in that area. His positive attitude enjoyable to read and, he was very honest to himself about the state of his project. He realized when some things weren’t working out and quickly adapted his project to account for the problems, and he took great pride on the things that were turning out very well.
  • How easily I could relate to the project. Being a musician myself, reading about a jazz piano project was like reading through a good friend’s journal. Also, he often talked about his strong beliefs on how music should be taught or what music truly is, which is something that every musician struggles to define. It was clear that he was fascinated by the topic, and it’s always more interesting to hear someone talk about something they love.
  • He went to Northwestern. Yes, that counts as a part of his project because his college auditions were a part of his project. Maybe I’ll even try to find him there when I head over to Evanston next year!

Two things he could have done better:

  • I saw him include a chord progression in his journal once, and I wish I had done that more. It’s always interesting to see the specifics of someone’s work once in a while.
  • He didn’t really talk about much about his mentor meetings; those are an integral part of the WISE project.

Two things I’m going to borrow from his project:

  • My friends have always liked it when I show them my staff paper, so I think I’ll post some pictures of the work I have so far, just as Josh tried to include chord progressions in his journal.
  • Josh mentioned his cumulative progress almost every post. Someone stumbling upon my own blog, I realized, may have trouble figuring out where I am. So I’ll be adding some sort of a “timeline” page to help out the reader.

WISE – Practicing

“If you want to learn to compose, compose a piece of music. Don’t ask anyone how to do it. Look at other scores, write your best piece, FINISH IT and then get real human beings to perform it. You will learn more from that single experience than you ever will from a teacher.”

That’s from the blog of my favorite composer, Eric Whitacre. People often ask me how I learned to compose, and this is exactly how I did it: through practice. Some people think that you can’t practice composing like you can practice an instrument, and they’re wrong. I was composing duets before I even knew what a major triad was. They weren’t great songs, but I was practicing. And hey, everyone has to start somewhere, right?

So now I’m extending my comfort zone and composing for an ensemble for which I’ve never composed before: string orchestra. In the broader scope of things, you could consider my entire WISE project “practice” for my real-life composing. Then again, every piece I compose, practice or not, is real-life composing. Even pieces that I don’t intend to write for the purpose of improving my skills go quite a ways toward making me a better composer. It’s not like I’m getting paid to write music (yet), and even if I was, I probably wouldn’t differentiate between my professional and leisurely composing. At the end of the day, writing music is simply a part of my life. I don’t do it to practice, get a good grade, or earn money, although those are great side effects. I do it because I love doing it.

WISE – Brief Thoughts

I spent an extended period of time this evening trying to find works written originally for string orchestra that matched my composing style. It turns out that there are barely any contemporary classical works written for string orchestra.

This got me thinking about how difficult it was going to be to bring out my own unique voice in a string orchestra piece. I’ve found that my music sounds most like me when written for choir or concert band, which are very different from a string orchestra.

It’s going to be a unique and intriguing challenge to overcome; one that I will run into very shortly as I transition from brainstorming to choosing an idea and developing it.

WISE – Former Projects (Part 2)

I got a chance to read through the entirety of a former WISE student’s project. Our teachers’ intentions were for us to see what a project should and should not be, and I certainly got a good impression of that. But more importantly (and perhaps unintentionally) the project painted a picture of this student as a person. It turns out that if you read a record of someone’s project that he’s been working diligently on for 16 weeks, you get a pretty good idea of what kind of person he is.

His name is Josh Jacobson, by the way, and you should check his jazz piano playing out here on his SoundCloud because he is an absolutely fantastic player. And, as it turns out, he went to Northwestern University, which is where I’ll be headed next year.
Reading his journal was like watching a friend work through a project. It was clear how much he loved playing jazz piano, and how passionate he was about music. As a fellow musician, I can do more than relate to that. Him mentioning songs that I knew or people that I’ve met made it even more enjoyable to read.
I was struck by how self-reflective he was. Josh was always on the positive side, pointing out the good before the bad, and never criticizing without a proposed solution. It was evident how much effort and thought he was putting into his project.
Because of all that, I knew that his final product, the senior recital, would turn out great, and it seems that he did too. He prepared his music well, overcame hurdles such as being busy with the school musical by being flexible with his project, and performed a great senior recital as recorded on his aforementioned SoundCloud.
What did I learn from this, you ask (you being my WISE teacher)?
Well it’s good to know what a good journal entry entails, what materials I can include in my entries to captivate a reader, and all that. But more importantly, Josh’s project was a reaffirmation of my belief that WISE is one of the most gratifying and enjoyable journey of self-discoveries that you’ll find as a part of the high school curriculum. If it is one single thing that I take away from his project, it is this.