The process of working with a performer

Last week I had the privilege of meeting with my friend Michelle Flowers, who is a doctor of trombone performance, and has been teaching in Texas for several years, but happened to be visiting in Utah. She had asked me to write a piece for solo tenor trombone, which I did a couple of months ago. We finally had a chance to get together for a live read, which is one of my favorite things to have happen as a composer. I learn so much every time I get to talk to a musician trying to understand my ideas I’ve put down on paper for them. It’s also immensely satisfying to hear the interpretation of a great performer playing the ideas I have only imagined.

After catching up (we were undergraduate music students at the same time) on what’s going on, she played through the piece, and we addressed a few things in it. One was that where the music kind of demanded a low D, but I thought that it was “out of range” and therefore had given her an F#, but we changed it, since with the trigger, it worked just fine for that note.

We also clarified what note each trill was supposed to go to. I actually wrote this piece in key signatures, unlike what I usually do in my compositions. So I told her to trill to the half or whole-step above it, in the key signature, and it sounds idiomatic that way, in my opinion. That meant a variety of techniques to make it happen, but they all work. Sometimes a trigger, sometimes a lip, sometimes a slide trill. They all do the job, in slightly different ways.

When writing for the tenor trombone, it is generally better to not stay in the really low register for a long time. It speaks better a bit higher, anyway. But on occasion, it’s valuable to know that many trombone players can get an occasional low D, despite the orchestration books telling you that E is safer. In an orchestra setting, I would probably just give a low D to the bass trombone, but this is a solo piece.

There was also this place in the piece which I call “SPECTACULAR,” after the crux of the poem that I had written to support the music. Michelle suggested that I add in a little bit more lyrical phrasing right there. So when I sat down to process that, I wrote in another phrase, and landing on a fairly high G#, before launching into the “cadenza” of the piece.

Writing for a particular performer is one of the loveliest things to do, and it is especially fun when I’m writing a piece that is supposed to really showcase what the instrument can do. Michelle could tell that I’m inspired by Webern by how the lines are written. It’s impossible to hide. It just pops up again and again. Once upon a time, I had it in my mind to do doctorate research on the performance practice of Webern’s vocal music. It hasn’t happened yet, but maybe one day I’ll go and research that topic more.

Today I revisited the piece, and I’m still pretty happy with the flow of the song. Looking forward to a live performance of it before too long, hopefully!

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