Tag Archives: Trombones

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!

Making changes

I’m looking over the piece I had left Wednesday, and there’s this one phrase that’s just a little unsatisfactory. I’ve repeated a figure once where it shouldn’t have been, I decide, and I take out a couple of notes, and try to make it sound like I want by changing a few more. It also has the advantage of giving the brass player more time to breathe, and in this kind of demanding piece, I think the player will appreciate it.

But it’s tiring. Finally, I settle on a phrase that instead of ending on a high note, goes down a sixth, the landing note is the leading note, and I think it’s a lot more elegant. I love how it leads to the next phrase, which starts on the tonic of B minor, so the melody drops a major seventh from the last note in one phrase to the first in the next.

Putting a bit of yourself in the music

Listening to Schostakovich’s Symphony 7 makes you think he’s writing about the war, and the threat of the KGB, but abstractly enough that it’s hard to pin him on it. It is one of the most emotionally charged pieces I have listened to, in particular that has no lyrics.

When I wrote the trombone quartet I will take care of you, I had put a lot of thought into the music drama that I based the songs on that turned into movements. They had characters, they had feelings, and there were problems they were trying to solve.

As I’m working on a piece today, I’m writing in what I feel like the desperate crying of grief after losing a loved one. I can only hope that those who hear it will recognize it, as I believe this can be cathartic. Most people get hit by grief or loss at some point in their lives, and music can be very soothing.

Poetry attacks in the night

Have you ever been just about to go to sleep, but then you get the first two lines of your next song? It’s almost physical, the words just come to you.

You grab your notebook that you keep for such occasions and a pencil and try to keep up as the words just keep flowing to you.

You know the title of the song, and you have a draft of the lyrics, when you start thinking of a melodic line to start out with. But it doesn’t stop there. You get the next four lines, and you don’t have staff paper or a computer with you so you just write down pitches, ideas that is a kind of shorthand that will help you know what you’re thinking when you get to the computer after the weekend.

You write in the chorus, the repeats, and through it all, you weep because you know the song has several depths and you have a hunch it will work well both for an instrumental solo or possibly a song if you choose to make it that way sometime. No, you weep because it’s your grief pouring out of you at the same time as the song is taking shape.

Well, I had one of those experiences Saturday. I haven’t had a lot of time to write down the music in my software yet, but my notes have been extremely helpful, for when I had a few moments to start on it.

The grief kept attacking me Sunday, and I could hear new rhythms that needed to be included. Because I like to take sabbath, I just wrote in a shorthand note to be able to retain the idea until later.

Looking through parts

A quick way to notices mistakes is by looking through each individual part. When I first started writing for orchestra (and voices) I wrote everything by hand. It was amazing when software extracted parts for me automatically. And even more amazing when the software made them dynamically, and if I made a change in the part, it automatically got changed in the score.

I start with flute 1. A little after rehearsal E, I see a missing dynamic. I go to the score, because if it’s missing in this part, it’s likely missing in other parts as well. I look at the section, and it appears I only missed to give the flutes a dynamic. I look at flute 2, and I’m wondering if the fortissimo continues after the four measure rest. It does. But then I see that the oboes were supposed to get to participate in the last couple of measures, and I had to forgotten to add them in. Actually, I wanted all the musicians in the orchestra to play the last couple of measures, in pianissimo, so I write in the horns and the trombones as well. It will be an interesting pianissimo, but I think it has its place.

Oboe 1. There is one suspicious omission of dynamics, but it’s a short rest, and I just add in the word “solo” in two places to help her or him know that it’s kind of exposed. I proceed to add in the same word for the clarinets and the tuba in their respective exposed parts. I’m looking over the clarinet part. I see what looks like a solo in the high register in mezzopiano, and I’m wondering if I’m serious about that dynamic. I go to the section, and see that for some reason, the second oboe cuts off before the other woodwinds. Why? No good reason, so I extend that note two beats. I experiment with extending the chord two more beats, but then the delicate clarinet gets kind of drowned out, so I undo that. I notice that I forgot to add in a slur at one point. Clarinet 2 gets added in several measures after the first, and I had forgotten to give them a fortissimo. I notice a similar problem in the second bassoon part.

I get to the second trombone part. I’m wondering if they’ll be frustrated that I didn’t give them more notes. I will listen through the piece and see if it looks like it’s missing a second trombone anywhere. I find this one part where a lot of the brass is playing, and I double the cello line in the second trombone, and add in a tuba octave doubling to the fourth horn. Listening in to check that they don’t drown out the bassoons. Adding in a doubling of the bassoon to the second trombone for that one gesture that seemed kind of lost once the tuba came in. Seeing as the notes are the same as the timpani has tuned to, I add in a doubling on the timpani.

I add in some more doublings in the ending part. The low brass is needed there. I add in a Glockenspiel doubling as well. It should pop now. I look back at the trombone parts now, and they look better.

Moving on to percussion. The timpani will have to retune two of the timpani one step or a half step, twice in the piece. They have plenty of time, so I hope they can do it. The percussion parts look ok. I see that the marimba might wonder at what dynamic level to start their diminuendo and add in a forte.

It’s time to look at string parts. The first violin has four pages of music. I’m looking at the bowings, and it’s pretty much what I had in mind. I guess I’ve looked at this part a lot in the score. I’m looking at the second violin part. One small section looks like I neglected to add in phrasing, and when I go to the score, it’s also missing for the viola part, and I fix it.

I look at the viola part, and for some reason, the missing phrase markings are more glaring here. I go to the score, and fix it for violins, viola, and cello all at once. There’s this suspicious part in the cello part, where no markings for phrasing or bowing are present. I go to the score, and I decide to change the notes just a little to better align with the rhythm right there. The phrasing follows.

Well, I think I must have given the contrabass part a lot of attention before, because it’s looking deliberate throughout.

Breaking for lunch.

I come back to it. I add in a cover page. I’m wondering what kind of subtitle to give it, I’m coming up blank so far. I look at the opening gesture, and decide to give the first trombone part to the second trombone part, and give the first a new part, a little higher, closer to the oboe’s melody. I decide to divide the violas in this one part where there is a big gap between violins and violas, and I want to fill it in more.

I think it’s time to print it out and maybe show it to a musician friend.