Episode 1: Why I Write for Beginner Musicians
by Lori Archer Sutherland · Published · Updated
Today’s topic is writing for beginner/intermediate/non-pro musicians. I’ll discuss what influenced me to focus on this group: my experiences in high school district band (and two conductors in particular); a student and her friend who wanted to play a duet for solo and ensemble contest; and how writing for beginners strengthens my composition skills.
Episode 1: Why I Write for Beginners
Hello and welcome to Tonal Diversions. I’m your host, Lori Archer Sutherland, and this is my journey as a multifaceted musician. I’m a composer, clarinetist and more who is navigating the world of is classical music, and I’d love to share my adventures with you.
Writing for beginners
Hello, and welcome to the show. Today, I want to talk about a topic that has become dear to my heart and that’s composing for beginner and intermediate musicians. As I’ve gotten back into composing over the years, I’ve kind of fallen into writing for this group, and I’m finding that I like it. I didn’t intentionally set out to do it, but I do notice a need out there. I feel like beginner band and orchestra has a lot of good music out there, a lot of new music, new composers, and it seems like you don’t hear as much about solo and ensemble, chamber works, that kind of stuff. And so I think we end up relying on the same books and collections that we’ve used for decades. And it’s not that there’s something particularly wrong with that, because there’s really good music to be found in the old Rubank books and such like that. But that’s not the only option. I also strongly believe it’s important to get work by living composers who are actively writing for that level of musician, to be able to have someone that you could actually reach out to and talk about the piece and ask about the origins to a piece and how it should be played and that kind of stuff.
How I started down this path
One thing that set me down this path, even though I didn’t completely follow it right away, was about ten years ago. One of my clarinet students, who was in 7th grade at the time, wanted to play a duet with her friend, which is great. I love that they wanted to do something for solo and ensemble contest. The only catch is that the friend played horn, and if you work with middle and high school kids, you know that there is not much out there at all for clarinet and horn, unless you go to the duets-for-all type of books which serve a purpose, and they work. But you’re going to be hard-pressed to find music that’s specifically written for clarinet and horn. And so I challenged myself to write something, and I’m happy to say that I finished it, and I did it. And so “Fanfare for Forest and Fable” was born.
So I’d been getting into some arranging, but not so much original composition around that time, and the arranging was actually thanks to both my husband’s horn choir and then my newly formed clarinet choir. And so I had been doing some writing for these instruments. I just hadn’t been doing any original composing for these instruments. So this piece has a special meaning to me because it was the first original work I’d done in years, and it showed that I could do it, and I could do it on time, and the kids seem to enjoy playing it. And I’ve actually had some sales of it over the years. So apparently other kids are playing it too, which is great.
My own early experiences as a musician
So if I look back, I can now see how things had over the years influenced me in writing for this group of musicians. When I was a younger player– high school, middle school– I was so hungry for clarinet music. And this was back before the Internet, so you had your local music shop if you were lucky to have one, and the limited stock that they carried. There were mail order catalogs that, if you were lucky, had more than just the title and the composer. A lot of them were very vague on details. So you had no idea if you were going to like the piece or not. Or if you were lucky enough to be taking private lessons and you had a private teacher who might be able to recommend things to you. I did not take lessons, so I didn’t have that option. (4:46) And I did find some things at the local music shop, but they weren’t that satisfying to me. And these collections of solos, as a clarinet player, I was not overly interested in transcriptions of Baroque oboe concertos and that kind of stuff. I wanted something that was more written for clarinet and that I considered fun to play and challenging, but not overwhelming to play. I just wanted to play something that I liked, and it was really hard to find that. And I even raided the band library at high school to try to find first clarinet parts of songs that might be interesting. Just so I had something to work on.
Something else that influenced me a lot was going to District band each year. Two years in particular really spoke to me. So one year we got to work with Warren Barker. And if you’re in the band world, you know who Warren Barker is. Maybe not so much new folks in the band world, but anyone who’s my age or older, you know Warren Barker. And even if you’re not in the band world, there’s a good chance you have heard something by him because he also did some TV writing, and I think, like “Bewitched” maybe it was one of the things that he helped write, and any number of other TV themes. So he’s a very well-known guy, or was a very well-known guy. And even though I honestly didn’t know who he was going into district band that year, I was completely in awe once he got introduced and we found out who he was and what he’d written and the fact that we were playing his music that weekend, both his arrangements and original works. And I know that that had to have had an impact on me wanting to be a composer, even if I didn’t really register it at the time. But it also had an impact on wanting that continual hunger for music, good music that I could play, that I enjoyed playing. And I have to say, Mr. Barker was a fantastic clinician. He was great. I think we all loved working under him, and it’s just so neat that I actually had that chance.
The other year that had a huge impact on me was we had James Curnow. And again, if you’re in the band world, you know who James Curnow is and you know that name. And he was another one. He was a great clinician. We played his pieces, we played his arrangements, and, yeah, it’s hard not to be affected by those experiences. And so I feel like I get the hunger that some of these kids have for music that they want and the potential, again, to work with a living composer. Because don’t underestimate what kind of impact that can have.
Learning by doing
Another reason I enjoy writing for beginners and intermediate players is limitations can be a great learning tool. I feel like my own composition skills are better because of those limitations. You can’t just throw anything on a page and expect that they’re going to be able to play it because it’s just not feasible because they’re still learning. They don’t have the range, they don’t have the technical skills, they don’t have the musicality yet, and that’s perfectly fine because that’s where they are in their musical development. But we need to give them good things to play during that time so that we can encourage them to keep going and get to the level where they can play, maybe not anything on the page, but they can play a lot more and get them more to that advanced level. If you don’t have good music in the beginning, the kids aren’t going to stick around. And so part of what I’m challenged with is trying to write good music, quality music that the kids actually want to play and enjoy playing so that they want to keep going and they want to keep honing their skills.
And the other thing is simple doesn’t have to mean “bad” or “boring.” And I think that’s an easy trap to fall into, especially as a composer, to think that just because something is simple, of course it’s not any good. Well, that’s not true. Having something be complex doesn’t inherently make it better. And so that goes back to just trying to write music that’s within their skill level that they’re going to want to play that isn’t boring or bad.
What music do you want?
So I do want to throw this out to you, the listeners, especially if you’re a band director for this level. What are you looking for for solo and ensemble music? Are there some instrument combinations that you wish had better selections? What are you looking for? And that can help people find each other and get music written. And while I focus on brass and winds, I’d still love to hear from you, even if you’re looking for string or percussion or choir or something because I would love to be able to share to other people that hey, these directors are looking for this type of music, and even if I don’t write that particular type, I can at least help spread the word so that maybe someone who does might take you up on it and along those lines.
If you have happened to play any of my pieces, I would really love to hear from you. Truly, I would love to hear if the kids liked it. I’d love to hear if you liked it and so please feel free to reach out to me. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find me on Facebook under Tonal Diversions and then my website is just tonaldiversions.com and I do have a contact me form on there, so please feel free to reach out. Or even better, I would love to hear a recording or see a video of kids playing my pieces because I would love to cheer them on. So yes, please feel free to reach out to me. And also, I want to extend anybody to reach out to me if there’s particular topics you’d like me to talk about on the blog and we’ll see what I can do. So thank you so much for joining me and I will catch you next time.
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Fanfare for Forest and Fable: