Composers: I'm a big fan. You're courageous, diligent, intelligent, and we love playing your stuff. When I agree to play your piece, I'm honored to have been chosen by you and I hope never to let you down (my reputation as a performer is also on the line!). Whenever I sit down in front of a brand new score, I want it to succeed.
The following points should not be viewed as limiting your creativity; on the contrary, these should expand your artistic scope by helping you connect with the performer (and the audience) more effectively. These are not directed at any of you in particular (you all have your particular weirdnesses - it's what I love about you). These just cover some of the recurring but easily avoidable shenanigans that I encounter in the world of hot-off-the-press music. If you want musicians to enjoy playing your stuff (and let's be frank - that's a big part of whether a performance flops or flies), you'll think about these before you show us your new masterpiece.
In no semblance of order:
- Given the choice, pick players who will appreciate your music. Don't just grapple onto last year's concerto competition winner. Choose someone who you think will understand your music - someone really into modern music, or even a specific area that you're exploring (atonality, jazz, fusion...). A mediocre player who loves your music is probably going to give a far better performance than an outstanding player who doesn't like modern anything. If your music is leagues beyond the intellectual capacity of any musician you know, well...your audience might be the same way.
- Make really nice parts. I've been handed wrinkly, half-composed, hand-written, torn-up manuscripts that featured what appeared to be coffee stains and some other stains that I didn't think too hard about. In most cases, you can plug your beauteous bounteous creativity into Sibelius (or the free MuseScore) far faster than I can decipher your ancient scrawl. Sibelius can also help you spot things like missing bars, forgotten time/key signatures and other little niggly mistakes. Obviously there are exceptions (sometimes notation software is limited in versatility or frustrating beyond belief, and I understand that) but this is just a general notion: The more effort you appear to have put into the part, the more closely we will adhere to it.
- Consult musicians BEFORE you finalize your composition. The rules they taught you in composer camp - stuff like pitch range, etc. - are just a few of the many constraints to which different instruments are subject. (try playing the lowest+highest notes on a piano together with middle C and you'll...C what I mean haaahaaa. I've met a guy who nose a trick for accomplishing this. haaaaaahaaaaa I need to sleep) OKAY some things are awkward and instrumentalists can't even explain why. Sometimes musicians will have useful suggestions as to how you can write the part without all the awks. For example: artificial harmonics are cute, but an instrumentalist can often closely replicate that distant, wispy sound normale without all the extra left-hand technical humdingery, especially if it's for a whole movement.
- Use the conventional range of dynamics. This is anything from ppp to fff, in more increments than most instruments can lay claim to, along with diminuendos and crescendos, attacks and articulations, etc. Do not write fffffff in your part. I do not play any louder after the third or fourth f. Consider writing subito if that's what you mean, or fp, or even sfpp or similar if that's what fits the bill. This should be obvious to most of you, but there is no such thing as mff.
- Mark tempos and expression clearly. If you like using edgy, new-age tempo markings ("the hurried pace of high heels running late on an Italian train platform"), feel free to also include a metronomic BPM marking as well. Not all of us have been high-heeling European train platforms recently, and in the resulting confusion we might wildly misunderguestimate your tempo.
- Some things could use explaining. I think it's a marvelous idea to include 1-2 paragraphs of "performer's instructions" on the back of your cover page. Keep it clear and concise. Give us all the spoilers and we'll make sure the audience gets them when the time comes.
- Show up. No matter how much fun we're having with your work, we're probably being charitable when we volunteer to play it. That or we've been "volunteered" by a third party. Either way, we're not usually getting paid for this and we have busy, busy schedules. Try to optimize rehearsal time as best as you can - sort out issues before the musicians see the parts and be present at the rehearsals if possible. You might be useless, you might be essential; you might just conduct the group as we struggle through the complex rhythms (that's actually incredibly useful) - all of these are OK! Your sacrificial presence helps demonstrate that you take our time seriously.
- Be friendly. I realize that many great composers of history are famed crabbycakes. You are not (yet) a great composer of history, so consider your crabbycake license suspended. If the piece doesn't sound like it did in your head, don't take it out on the musicians - we're just playing what we see. Keep up the encouragement and positive attitude. Even if players aren't technically perfect, if they manage to convey the feel of your work, the judges in the audience will probably fill in the gaps. It's worth noting that procrastinating musicians often put the most effort into technical runs minutes before a big performance. We'll pull through, as long as we know what we need to fix.
- Be honest and keep musicians updated on changing circumstances. If you ask musicians to work up your challenging piece on the premise that they'll perform it, take their time commitment seriously before you cancel the performance or substitute a different composition. Don't hype up a fictional concert just to hear the work getting poured into your piece. If you just want your piece played, I'm sure you'll be able to find musicians who are willing to give it a whirl, even without the promise of a performance, as long as you're upfront with them about it from the get-go.
- Consider small tokens of gratitude. Especially if the musicians don't get paid and you appreciate their effort. You can get a basically unlimited supply of chocolate for the cost of hiring a professional orchestra. Thank-you notes are always appreciated. Maybe you can even come up with something personalized for your musicians. (If you're wondering, I prefer turbocharged models with a sunroof so the cello can stick out the top.)
If you do most of the above, you maximize the probability that the musicians will be on your side when they walk onstage. They'll also likely play your works in the future, as well as tell their friends about, oh, I don't know, your totally hip but currently completely underground self-titled website.