I recently purchased a Nexus 4 as my first smartphone, and it has done wonders in making my life easier. I can now keep all my to-do lists, tasks, reminders, and homework in one place. Problem is, I don’t think even the newest of technologies will ever make a better substitute for pencil and paper when it comes to music.
I recently got a chance to read through a friend’s print journal, and I have to say it was a nice blend between scrapbook and journal. The engineer in me would probably call it an “artist engineering notebook.” Regardless of what I call it, one thing was clear: her journal was a place for all her project related musings. Everything from doodles drawn on sick days to glued pictures to hastily jotted down ideas; she did all her brainstorming and reflecting there. It made me wish that I, too, could have a pencil and paper medium where I consolidated everything about this project.
But to each their own: I chose to run a blog instead, and keep a separate composition notebook for my music. You see, unlike my friend and her trusty journal, my music isn’t just a WISE project: it’s my life. The personal, musical things can still go in my composition notebook, and what I want to share is written here on this blog.
And so it will be this way, or at least until technology sufficiently advances to digitize the pencil and paper too. For iPad users, that may be closer than you think.
Oh, and check out my aforementioned friend’s blog.
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.
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:
- Brainstorming. Lots of brainstorming.
- Played some cello during my mentor meeting!
- Learned about string techniques.
- Created a timeline for an easy glance.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
Above you see the evidence of our most recent mentor meeting. On that page, you see the string names of each instrument in the orchestra, the range of each instrument, and the reasonable range for a high school player for each instrument. This is information that will be absolutely crucial to writing my piece, as my piece needs to be easily rehearsed by our school orchestra.
“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.