Don’t Study Composition (yet)

In the past couple of weeks, I have been asked twice about my opinion on studying composition as an undergraduate. First by friends of mine who have a son that is developing into a fine young musician and once on Reddit. Studying music is a tricky thing, and studying composition is even trickier. You are putting your development as a creator of music in the hands of a few people. This is a big decision, but I haven’t seen much useful advice about it online so I thought I would add my opinions as something to ruminate on if you or someone you know is orbiting this decision.

My Story

My story starts in high school in New York. I started out playing in the school jazz band as a bassist and started writing some tunes for the band. A couple of the music teachers at the school encouraged me to try writing more formally organised music for the school’s various ensembles; wind band, recorder consort and string ensemble. There wasn’t any formal instruction but the high school music teacher guided me and I studied harmony and counterpoint from books.

Over my four years at the school I learnt a huge amount. I was very fortunate indeed to be supported by the staff and even my fellow students who were willing to have a go at playing my music. It was exciting to hear my music realised. There was a wide variety of talent levels and experience in the school’s musical people from professional level players on the staff to young middle school recorder players. This placed all sorts of different constraints on me in writing for different people, which was incredibly valuable in making me think about how music conveys complexity. Much of what happened to me was simply good luck, the experience worked for me and I developed a naïve but enthusiastic approach to writing music.

In my last year of high school I put on an evening of music that I had composed. I put my head down to write and rehearse an hour and a half of music. Making something like that, at a young age, was very cool indeed. Marshalling all the people involved was perhaps harder than writing the music, both were valuable experiences. I developed a very strong sense of authorship, both of the music and of the evening as a whole.

Applying to Conservatory

While this was all playing out I decided to apply for a place on a conservatory composition programme. I assume one of my teachers suggested this as a possibility at some point. I am no longer sure of the genesis of the idea. I do remember feeling excited that this was even possible. Going to conservatory was intoxicating stuff. That was what really good musicians did. I had come to this game fairly late by traditional standards and had little formal training so that good adult musicians were encouraging me felt intoxicating.

Applying for composition programmes was my only option to go to conservatory. I definitely was not a good enough player. At this point my main instrument was bass guitar. I played piano but in a rudimentary way. The keyboard was a tool for getting music out of my head rather than an instrument I could perform well on. I had played double bass for a year and a half and trying to teach myself clarinet for about the same amount of time. There was no way I was getting in as a player, but looking at the composition entry standards for the conservatories in New York City where I was living, I had a shot. Continue reading Don’t Study Composition (yet)

Join the Low End: Some Tips for Those Thinking of Learning Bass Guitar

These are some personal opinions on getting started learning bass (and music in general). This is definitely not the only approach. If anyone reads this and disagrees or feels I have made an omission please let me know so I can improve this missive.

First off, do it!

Bass is a wonderful instrument to play. It has a crucial role in many genres of music. You can have immense positive influence on your fellow musicians and be the coolest cat on stage.

Bass guitar by Feliciano Guimarães, source Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
Bass guitar by Feliciano Guimarães, source Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Is it easier than guitar?

Bass is more than two-thirds of a guitar. It is a very different instrument, requiring a different mindset and performing different functions. It is very difficult to make comparisons about how easy an instrument is to learn. I think that you can be a very useful bass player if you become skilled at some simple things. The learning curves are different. Bass has a shallower slope to start but it just keeps rising where guitar has a steeper start and becomes shallower. Continue reading Join the Low End: Some Tips for Those Thinking of Learning Bass Guitar

To Read Music or Not: Musical Tribes and Approaches

Music is like a mountain. There are many approaches to the summit (that can never be reached), and it seems impossible to view the other approaches with all that mountain in the way.

George Crumb, The Magic Circle of Infinity (Moto Perpetuo) from Makrokosmos
George Crumb, The Magic Circle of Infinity (Moto Perpetuo) from Makrokosmos

To declare my viewpoint, I am a conservatory educated musician (reader). I started my musical journey meeting Mister Crotchet in school piano lessons (reader) before going on to become kinetically musical playing punk drums and bass guitar (non-reader).

Nowadays I seem to be identified as a classical composer type and firmly in the reader camp. I run into musicians or their parents who suspect my training must have restrained as well as trained my mind. These folks seem to feel defensive about not reading music and sometimes launch into complicated and passionate defences of this approach. I see this same dialogue played out online too and I think it is worth exploring a little here.

The TL;DR version is that ultimately music is sound used to communicate. The multiplicity of possible ways to understand and communicate instructions for creating that sound are decidedly subordinate to the sounds and their effects. Whatever works for you is great, but understanding some of the implications of the path(s) you choose to climb the mountain is useful. Continue reading To Read Music or Not: Musical Tribes and Approaches