What Have You Found Helpful On Your Way


Today I received a lovely email from a composer, who is thinking about where to go next in her writing. She asked me “Do you remember how it was to start composing, and what you found helpful on your way?”

I’m not sure whether the huge rant below, that poured out of me in response will help her. I hope so! Composing is hard and lonely and mysterious. I hope she keeps going!

I am a vocal and choral composer, so I will ponder this question in terms of writing for singers and their voices. I will also focus on things intrinsic to composing - developing and finding my compositional voice - rather than career development - how to take compositions to the world - cause frankly I have no idea how to do that! I’m sorry if this is going to seem bombastic or preachy. I’m sure there many possible ways of approaching composing, and my ideas have come from what has worked for me, but I’ve no idea what has worked for other people.

I sing. My mother and her family sang. I am married to a singer. Nearly all of my dearest friends are singers. Until I had my vocal damage I sang all day, every day. My work was with singers, my ‘day job’, then performing work, but also at home, with Emlyn, and by myself. In the car. Even when we’d go away for weekends it would be to music festivals where we’d sing. And often I would jam, just play around with notes and ideas. I’ve always done that. So there was never a moment where I thought - you know I might try my hand at composing, because it’s just been normal.

Singers are their instruments, we are the song. The song is inside us, held in our imaginations then given life through our breath. The membrane between song and human is so thin, the two entities are completely morphed. I don’t know what it feels like for composers who don’t sing to write music for singers, but I can’t imagine it.

The downside of this is a lot of knowledge I have about vocal music is in my body rather than in my head. It has led me to profound frustration at times when I’ve tried to articulate my composing instincts and the ideas are in my pores, and not in my words. I dropped out of formal composition study and the main reason was I couldn’t communicate with my supervisor about my ideas, I couldn’t advocate for my own work because my understanding of why I wrote what I did was a practitioner’s deep gut instincts.

If this was to be turned into a piece of advice it would be SING. a lot. And then hang with singers. In the classical vocal system there are so many different categories of voice types - from light to full dramatic and then bass, baritone, tenor, contralto, mezzo, soprano. Professional singers have different ranges and capacities to students, talented hobbyists and community singers. Children, teenagers and adults have different vocal ranges, capacities and needs. Young men, when their voices change can lose the notes from middle C down to A, G or F for some months or longer. A contralto and a soprano may both welcome an A above the clef in a song, and be perfectly capable of singing it, but a soprano will be able to make it float like a bird soaring on the wind, and a contralto will more likely want to sing it as a fortissimo, and will only appreciate a note this high ONCE in an entire song. A dramatic soprano will often have wonderful rich chest notes, and will appreciate a chance to sing low. But once again, not for too long! There is so much more, and I don’t know a short way to learn these details except to greedily consume the thoughts and sounds of singers, to seek out their company. Performances and recordings are finished product, attending these things won’t always help composers understand how singers sing. Sitting in on singing lessons and rehearsals wherever you possibly can would be the most instructive experience for learning the landscape of different voice types.

Sing folk songs. Folk songs are necessarily catchy and singable. They stick. All the ones we know, we know because they have stuck. The evolution process for aural-tradition folk songs is brutal. Songs that don’t stay in people’s heads and flow on people’s voices and connect to people’s hearts will have all fallen by the wayside. Sing folk songs. Study folk songs. See if you can write tuneful pentatonic songs within the compass of an octave. See if you can create them without writing them down, away from the piano, the computer or manuscript. Go stand in some foggy foggy dew somewhere and write a song. Can you remember it the next day? And the next? If you can write a memorable pentatonic song, can you write a catchy three note song. See if you can sing your simple song to someone else once or twice and then have them be able to sing it back to you, from memory, with every note right. Maybe do this for years, or just from now until you die, ideally. I grew up singing folk songs, and then sang folk songs with my husband. And had always felt unclear about whether I was a folkie or a classicalie. When I discovered Kodaly at university the light switched on - that all the great composers have connected folk music to art music and understood folk’s power and magic, and that there is no dichotomy between the two.

Singers can’t push buttons to create pitches, they have to hold the sound of the song in their heads, often from memory, so it’s incredibly helpful for singers if composers write vocal music that is aurally appealing! Other composers and singers might disagree on this idea - and thoroughly enjoy much more exotic music than I write. So it is.

Do you know what rubs me up the wrong way? When people talk about how composers should study music theory because “you’ve got to learn the rules first and then you can break them.” I suppose theory is taught as a collection of arbitrary rules but it isn’t. Theory is simply a useful description and analysis of how music works, how it expresses and communicates. Music is a shared language - there are shared understandings for successful communication. People who haven’t studied theory will still feel the grammar of the language instinctively. Just like English speakers conjugate their verbs correctly even if they aren’t aware that this is what they are doing. I think theory is a great articulation of how composers can use music to convey what it is that they want to covey

Be greedy about learning these tools. Harmony books are easy to find. Counterpoint books are easy to find. Courses abound online. Sometimes they are written as if they are handing down sacred rules instead of useful tools, and that’s a shame, but read around that to find what is useful. I will say, as a caveat, you’ll know which genre/s of music most connect to your heart, and so obviously researching how the specific music you love does what it does will be important for you. Music is as wide as the ocean, and I know when I’ve been studying theory in music that doesn’t connect to my heart, it brings me down. I like to write lyrical music - I’m quite old skool - and some of the approaches to 20th century writing I came across as a student just upset me, but delighted many of my much groovier colleagues.

I guess the approach I would advocate in studying music theory is not to stress over learning the “right way to do things” or worrying that your unique composing voice will be drowned in a river of rigid, oppressive rules, but to approach the great body of theoretic works with the question “excuse me, I would like to communicate this particular thought or feeling or style, what tools have you got I could use?” Also the very vastness of music knowledge can be daunting. I don’t know if it’s possible to become an expert in understanding many musical styles, and I’ve certainly found I can feel dismayed about how little I know. I haven’t exactly overcome that feeling, but given I’m now 47, I figure I’m more than half way through my life and if I wait til I know everything before I compose more, I’ll be dead!

I haven’t come across a great book specifically on how to compose for singers, working with different voice types, breathing needs, passaggio management, how to construct vocal phrases, what vowels work for long notes or different pitches etc, what intervals are aurally appealing for singers and audiences and so on and on and on. I hope books like this exist. I’ve never found one, but I have substituted for this book-learnin’ the knowledge I’ve gleaned from over 40 years of singing songs, and I think that’s probably OK.

If our job is to give singers a story they can use to captivate audiences, we need to think in terms of plot. What is the introduction? Musically speaking, who is the main character? What is the propulsion? I’m also old skool in that I’m a fan of a narrative structure - of shape. What are we doing to create light and shade and propel the audience along from beginning to end? What are we doing to build up the intensity? Where are we peaking? Are we peaking enough? I wrote a seven minute choral work and realised my peak, my victory verse was only half a bar long. That didn’t seem fair to the audience or the singers! So I rewrote it to go for eight bars. In these #metoo times one must be judicious about one’s metaphors, but if you were to adopt a french accent, waggle your eyebrows and “hor hor hor” about shaping the build up and leading to the dramatic peak, please go for it! It works as a model.

The other thing I have learnt over the years is to forget about trying to be clever. For reasons that no longer make sense to me, when I started writing I crammed a lot of ideas into my works. I think it came from a youthful combination of insecurity and desire to show off. These days I have learnt to respect that a piece needs  a character and a select palate of musical devices. And that the simpler a piece is, the more an audience can access what I’m trying to say. This has meant slowing down harmonic rhythm. Finding ways to repeat ideas. Not being scared of putting unaccented words on the same note. Having breathing space for the song, for the singer, for the audience.

I have also learnt that the things i am trying to highlight must be placed strategically. Like a feature color in interior design. It’s wonderful and highlighted because it’s used strategically and actually quite sparingly. I articulated this when I was writing a piece for Bethany Hill, a coloratura soprano who had mad coloratura and mad high notes. If her piece was just stratospheric throughout, her incredible height wouldn’t be featured, it would just become bland. I thought about how much build up there is to get to the high F in the Queen Of The Night aria, but that one note defines that entire aria. Same with the top C in Allegri’s Miserere. So there’s something to be said for - hold off as long as you can.

I have learnt to write porously. Whenever I can, I give myself a lot of time to write a piece. I know there are composers with deadlines who do not have that luxury and hats off to them, that’s amazing. What i’ve learnt is that in a single sit down session, while I’m working on a piece, I get used to it and I lose a sense of where there is friction, where ideas aren’t working smoothly. After a while in one session, I stop noticing. So I have learnt I need breaks, so I can come back and hear with fresh ears (audience’s ears!) how the piece is, and notice the rough bits. My best pieces have sat on my piano for months, with me spending 15 minutes at a time multiple times a day, just smoothing out the issues. Sometimes changing a single note. I think because I write intuitively a lot of my musical composing process is hidden from me. In the past when an inner voice was whispering I would often ignore it. These days, I try very hard to listen to my intuition. Taking breaks helps this enormously.

The text is a vocal composer’s collaborator. It is where we start and where we finish and our guide on the journey. The words you are setting come with so much meaning, expression, rhythm, inflection, accents and unaccents, sounds, tone, character. Singers have to connect with the text they sing. The text needs to be marvelous for them to sing your work wonderfully. Speak your words, feel them in your mouth. Play around with them. Write them down, layed out like bad teenage poetry - highlight and indent and capitalise and underline. In English we place our accents on beats. This means text meaning and rhythm are the same thing! And why text setting is a fastidious art. Singers know the difference between a modern composition that has meter changes that highlight and accommodate the text, and meter changes that are written in simply because that’s what modern compositions do.

Don’t be scared of using piano where you’ve built up audience expectation for a loud note. Soft singing draws the audience in to the singer and is a most thrilling device for an audience, when managed by a skilled singer. Loud is awesome, but soft is devastatingly beautiful.

I’m never met a trained singer who doesn’t sing a major seventh beautifully. Just saying.