Tuesday, 7 February 2017

To Backing Track, or not to Backing Track....

If you're a singing in any way shape or form, you'll have had experience with backing tracks, and probably have a preference either way as to whether you like or don't like them. It's a topic that comes up time and time again in my teaching studio, and I'm frequently asked as to whether or not singers should be using them, and actually, there isn't really a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer - there are many factors to consider! So I thought it was time for a blogpost about it!

So - what is a backing track?....
Aptly named, a backing track is simply an pre-recorded backing to a song so that you have something to perform with. Backing tracks come in a variety of formats (CD, MP3, acoustic instrument (aka: live recording) MIDI etc), and, more importantly, can vary extensively in terms of quality! Anyone can use a backing track to perform, which in itself draws out it's own issues and benefits, and there are also many reasons people may choose to use a backing track:
  • Inability to perform with a live musician, due to rehearsal time, or unavailability etc.
  • Inability to replicate the 'CD' sound of the song in question - some songs don't work well with just a pianist accompanying!
  • Some people actually just prefer having the 'full band' sound behind them, even if the band aren't really there!  
  • Some exam syllabi, like Trinity Rock & Pop, or Rockschool actually require you to perform with a backing track for exams 
Below I've listed the Pros and Cons of using a backing track: 

  • Getting Started: If you're a young singer, and especially one who doesn't know many musicians to perform with to begin with, using backing tracks to go busking/performing is a great way of getting started with live performances. 
  • Ease of Rehearsal: Using a good quality backing track for rehearsal away from your band can be a great way of getting the song in your head without relying on the singer on the original recording. It can also be good if perhaps your usual accompanist is unavailable for a session etc. 
  • Time Management: Sometimes you simply don't have the time to get a full band together for a gig, perhaps because of a short-notice booking, or a specific song request that will take too long to rehearse with a full ensemble.
  • Cost: Sometimes the person booking you has a limited budget, and simply can't afford a full band, but really want a live singer. A backing track enables you, as the singer, to still perform and get paid
  • You can change the key: Some musicians have excellent skills, and can sight transpose, or (if you're lucky) are able to use a transpose function or capo to re-work the song into a key that suit you - however, to expect this of a musician is rather demanding and unrealistic! The luxury of a backing track means, if it's not in a good key for you, you can change it using a software program like audacity. 

  • They can't replace a live musician: As much as some backing tracks can be of excellent quality and production, the simple truth is, playing with a live musician enables you, as the singer, the best chance to perform a song your way. A backing track is unsympathetic to your desired tempos, your choice of dynamics, use of rubato etc etc. You are, in essence, performing with a robot. 
  • Lack of Expression: Even the best backing tracks lose that 'live feeling', and in turn it can make your performance as the singer rather mechanical, and it's easy to get into a sense of 'going through the motions' when you perform. Part of the joy of performing live with a live band is how songs are different every time you do them. 
  • You get what you pay for: Some backing tracks you can find for a couple of quid, or even for free.... not to mince words, these are often terrible karaoke tracks with awful synth sounds. If you want to sound good, you need to pay for it. Often decent tracks come in vocal volumes (the 'You're the Voice' series is excellent), and there are some websites which offer excellent quality tracks. We're not talking extortionate prices here, maybe a fiver - but fiver's add up! - If you're booking quality gigs however, you can expect to get paid more, so it make sense to back that up with quality material (both live and backing!)
  • It's easy to lose your musicianship skills: If you become reliant on the 'backing track' sound, it's far too easy to forget how to work with living, breathing musicians. Remember, a backing track is a robot - musicians can think for themselves! They're also not mind-readers! You can't expect the live musician to know how you like to perform with your backing track. They either need to be given instruction in rehearsal, or have it written on their sheet music. 
  • Sometimes the track doesn't reflect the reality of the performing situation: A classic example of this is musical theatre audition preparation. It's all very well and good practicing a song you want use for an audition with a backing track, but if the track is a full blown band track, you're going to get a massive shock when you turn up for an audition and hand the sheet music to the pianist! I cannot stress enough how important it is to practice your audition material with a live pianist! Remember, musicians think for themselves, and they won't think like you! 

As you can see, there's a equal weight of argument both for and against the use of backing tracks - ultimately, it's down to you as the performer to make the judgement call on what would be right for you in the performing situation you're in. My own personal preference is for live music - I perform as a self-accompanied singer, or with my band. That's not to say I never use backing tracks. On a few occasions I have found myself being requested to perform solo, but they ask for a song which just won't have the desired impact without a band, or that I don't have time to rehearse with a band, or the client simply doesn't have a budget to accommodate a full band of live musicians. I even have a playlist ready for times when I can't accompany myself (for example, when I sprained my wrist and couldn't play either piano or guitar!) - Below is a list of Dos and Don'ts, designed to help you make the right call about backing tracks:
  • DO your research: spend some time searching for decent, good quality backing tracks. If these are something you will use regularly, either in your practice or performance, you need to invest. 
  • DON'T get complacent: either about using the track, or not! If you're used to using a track and are suddenly going to need to work with a live musician, remember you need to convey to them what it is you want from the song, but remember that everyone interprets music in their own way - their natural interpretation of a track might not align with yours! If you're not used to using a backing track, remember, it can't mould itself around you, or do what you want, you will need to adapt to the track. 
  • DO consider recording a live musician: If you have a piece of music for which there is not a backing track, and for whatever reason you can't use a live musician for the gig, don't rule out asking a musician (or your music teacher) to record themselves playing the song for you without you singing. That way, at least you have the accompaniment exactly as you want it. I have done this quite successfully for many of my students using only garageband to great results. (PS: don't expect them to do this for free though!)
  • DON'T judge: It's really easy to be critical of another singer's performance that actually has nothing to do with their voice! If you're an advocate of the live musician backing and hear a singer performing with some crappy backing tracks, just remember, they may not be as fortunate as you to know a lovely musician who will play for them! Likewise, if you're used to performing with quality backing tracks that make you feel confident and you hear a singer performing with a musician who perhaps isn't as skilled as they need to be to support the singer, remember, this could be their first gig trying to perform a live set! Listen to what's really there - the artistry, the skills, the connection with the music and the connection with the audience, and try to keep bias aside (and any negative thoughts/comments to yourself!) 

Useful Links / Products: 

- Although the name suggests 'karaoke' type tracks, if you spend some time and go looking (and listening) you can find some quality tracks, many of which are pretty much identical to the original song. They also have a 'custom' option, by which you can include or discard things (like backing vocals) should you wish.

- If you're a jazz singer, the quality and variety of the tracks available on this site are fantastic. You have to pay a bit more (about £3.99+ a track), but it is absolutely worth it.

- An excellent site for budding musical theatre performers perhaps looking for a backing track for a college showcase, or rehearsal for an audition. These tracks feature ONLY a piano backing, which makes them great for practicing a song for which you know you will only have a piano backing.

- The backing tracks for exams are generally only available with purchase of the grade books (they come on a CD) - however, their website has a free Transposition Tool, which enables you to transpose ANY track you might have into another key.

'You're the Voice' - vocal series
- This is an excellent series of vocal anthologies, featuring songs as performed by famous singers, recorded by live musicians. I can personally vouch for the Eva Cassidy, Billy Holiday and Ray Charles editions, but there are many other volumes available such as Amy Winehouse, Frank Sinatra, Katherine Jenkins, Michael Buble etc. The books cost around £12-15 (www.musicroom.com), and you get a book of piano/vocal music (excellent as it is 100% faithful to the track, which means you can confidentially give it to a pianist to play) and a CD of backing tracks, approximately 12 songs per anthology. A worthy investment.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Lehigh Choral Composers Forum: Day 7

The home stretch of a truly remarkable week of music making - last day of the Lehigh Choral Composers Forum. With no seminar or lessons to attend today, we began the day with a de-briefing lunch at Zoellner. Safe to say, the general consensus of the week has been one of many emotions: from break-throughs to break-downs, everyone has had a little bit of an emotional roller coaster this week whilst trying to realise their new piece for choir. But also, it's been a week of connections. Dr Sven-David Sandstrom spoke to us with the view that, we are now all friends and colleagues, a view I most certainly hold myself. There are many composers involved in this forum whom I would love for choirs back home in Guernsey to perform, and there are many composers whom are now very dear to me and who I truly feel are now friends for life. Dr Steven Sametz reiterated that, in a week where there can be no failure (and indeed, there was none) we have all learned things about ourselves through watching other people's compositional journey's as well as going through our own. I certainly feel like I've certainly come to know 18 other pieces as well as my own - my head this morning is some sort of very strange mishmash of all these pieces! From my own experience, alongside the amazing music, this week has heavily featured the following topics: The use of key signature's when composing, the EU referendum (let's not go there shall we?.....) and gender equality within the composing world. Clearly a topic that is immediately apparent because I was the lone female at this forum, I have to say I was a little apprehensive at the start of the week as to how it would be. However, I quickly realised that I was amongst peers and equals, and felt completed accepted as 'one of the boys' within this group. I never once felt singled out because of my gender, and I really do want to thank everyone for that. There are far too many ideas and opinions on how we create and maintain gender equality within music (and the arts in general), enough for an entirely separate blogpost (*hint hint). But safe to say, gender equality is alive and well at this forum.... if even it doesn't look like it from the outside!

Off to Bethlehem, it's the three wise.... men?
After lunch, with a little bit of time to kill, Bryan Lin, Corey Hable and myself went for a little wander around main street Bethlehem. A really beautiful city, with a lot of history, and sadly not enough time to take it all in. To be honest, I haven't really seen much of this place outside of the Lehigh University Campus (and the various 'watering holes' nearby). If I were to do this forum again (and I would really love to) it would definitely be on the agenda to try and see more of the city.

The final rehearsals of this week, in the Baker Theatre at the Zoellner Arts Centre, a last chance for the Princeton Singers to put the finishing touches on our pieces. I have so say, we (the composers) thought our job was tough, writing a new piece in such a short space of time. These singers (and Dr Sametz who conducts them) have had to learn all 19 new pieces... in essentially 5 days.... whilst the pieces are still evolving. A really remarkable feat, to say the least! And all credit to them, they pulled it off. Indeed the concert in the evening was a great success, and it was truly wonderful to hear all the music at the finishing point. If I were to highlight my favourite pieces of the week (excluding my own, because, you know, I'm a bit biased), I would have to single out Casey Rule's 'The Singers', which features some fantastic harmony (aka, chord porn) and a brilliant piano part, and Michael Fairbairns 'I will come to you.' I've mention Michael's piece several times now, but I literally cannot stop going on about it, it is truly magnificent (and yes, I wept like a child in the concert, it broke me). Both of these pieces I would love to perform back home in Guernsey in St James concert hall (and I hope to, one day soon!) Post concert, of course, we made our way out for a drink or three to celebrate. A lovely mirror of lunchtime's de-briefing, it was a great way to cement in the new friendships, and have a last hurrah with this week's witty banter.

A job well done indeed - 19 new works in the bag!
The music involved this week has been sensational, and I highly recommend you check out these talent people - so here's links to all their websites (*note - this will fill in as I get all the details from everyone!)

David L. Almond: TBC
Andrew Bonacci : https://soundcloud.com/andrewbonacci
Shiuan Chang: http://www.shiuanchang.com
Peter Dayton: http://www.peterdaytonmusic.com
Wayne H. Dietterick:
Jared Field: http://www.jaredfieldmusic.com
Jacob Gelber: https://soundcloud.com/jacobgelber
Michael Fairbairn: https://www.facebook.com/mike.fairbairn.7/videos/10101026366325789/?pnref=story.unseen-section (PS: This a video link to the rehearsal of his piece 'I will come to you')
Corey Hable: TBC
Byran Lin: www.bryanlinmusic.com
Dan Lis: http://www.danlismusic.com
Daniel McDavitt: http://www.danielmcdavitt.com/biography.html
Travis Maslen: TBC
David Neches: TBC
Corey Rubin: www.ckrubin.com
Casey Rule: http://www.caseyrule.com
Steven Sametz: http://stevensametz.com
Sven-David Sandstrom: http://www.svendavidsandstrom.com
Barry Sharp: http://www.barrysharpmusic.com
Scott Anthony Shell: www.ScottAnthonyShell.com 

And for good measure, my own website details:

Lydia Jane Pugh: www.lydiajanepugh.com 

Thanks Dr Sametz for inviting me to be part of this forum!
It has been a life-changing week. An absolutely brilliant and positive experience all round, I am returning home to the UK, in uncertain times with absolutely certainty about my own skills. This was a decision, to apply for and take part in this forum, that I am 100% happy I made. Cheers Lehigh Choral Composers Forum, it has been wonderful - here's to my next composing adventure!

Thanks Lehigh Choral Composers Forum - it has been #epic

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Lehigh Choral Composers Forum: Day 6

Bryan went fetal... too many photocopies!!
Definitely in the home stretch now - feeling a little ropey this morning, I must say, although I really feel for Bryan Lin and Casey Rule the most, as not only are they participating composers, they're also running around organising the rehearsal schedules and chasing everybody up for their latest version of their scores - I actually don't know how they've fit in time to write their own pieces! Bravo guys, stellar job!

In today's morning seminar we paid attention to Dr Steven Sametz's compositional works. Steven present pretty much a cross-section of his works from his early career as a composer, through to his most recent works. Dr Sametz's work is extensive, to say the least, I mean you only have to go on his wikipedia page and start reading to gauge how much he's achieved: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Sametz  One piece that really struck me was his work "A Child's Requiem". Steven explained the back-story to this work, and how it was inspired by the mass shooting of Sandy Hook, and in general, how children deal with grief is very much different to how adults deal with grief. The piece is a large scale work comprised of pieces inspired by children's stories of loss. It was his second movement, that, I have to admit, kind of broke me, and I found myself moved to tears. Having dealt with some painful loss quite recently myself, and also seeing how children deal with the same loss, this piece just completely opened the emotional flood gates for me. That is the true power of really great music - you don't know how it's going to effect you, but hopefully you are the better for it when it does.

Look at the concentration faces!
My final session with Dr Sven-David Sandstrom was just wonderful really. He took one last look at my piece, and gave more performance suggestions than anything else, and basically told me not to change a thing in the score - so I guess I'm there with it then! He recommended that it would be a good piece for Highschool Choirs, and that I most definitely need to try and shop it around and get it performed a lot. Mark Boyle (the lovely man who is singing the tenor solo for my piece) has already asked for the piece so he can do it with his choir. Guess I can be pretty pleased with the outcome of this piece so far - can't wait for the actual concert on Saturday now!

The afternoon session with the Princeton singers went pretty well I'd say - everyone's works are shaping up nicely. My own work sounded exactly as I want in terms of notes, rhythms and vocal colours - still a few little performance elements I want to get finalised, but that's for the dress rehearsal I feel. The best feeling I have about the piece though is that the choir love singing it. I think, by now, every single member has come up to me to tell me how much they love it (some many more times than once!). I am very much enjoying the connection the composers and the choir have. The singers are not afraid to just come up to you and ask a question, or offer a suggestion that might make things work better from their point of view. It can be a little daunting, especially if you've not done it before, to suddenly be in-front of professional singers and be like, "I want it like this please!" - but this all leads back to the idea of forming relationships. If you take the time to introduce yourself in an informal setting, essentially putting a face to a name, it makes the whole process much smoother.

One thing that's come up time and time again is how this particular bunch of composers are not too great at giving a simple and direct answer to a question - for example:
[Singer] "Oh, in bar 27, what dynamic marking did you want us to crescendo to?" [Composer] "Well, when a tree falls in the woods, do you hear it? Or should you be wearing a cape? #Pie" 
Quite rightly, performers (and conductors) hate this - I'm much more direct about things, but then I've always been straightforward with what I want, generally speaking! Worth noting though, would-be composers/songwriters out there! Don't be pretentious, or try to be 'clever'.... just answer the damn question!

The second session with the singers had a much more jam-packed schedule, and it's pretty amazing to see how much these guys can get done in such a short space of time. Dr Sametz is very particular, but knows how to get everything that's needed quickly and efficiently: it's very impressive to watch!
- Another emotional roller coaster for me in this session, as it started with Michael Fairbairns piece "I will come to you." I have been in love with this piece since I heard the initial page back in tuesdays read-through. The lyrics, which are Michael's own adaptation of Jeremiah (a bible verse) read as a very intimate declaration of love and loyalty to someone very special, and hearing this piece in it's near completed state (and after Dr Sametz's piece pretty much opened up the flood gate this morning), I was pretty much emotionally spent by the end, and not ashamed to say I cried... a lot.... and probably will at the concert (note to self: waterproof mascara is a must!). This really is a choral gem!

The social side of things really hit a climax tonight, it has to be said. We were invited by the Princeton Singers to party with them in room 501 for a 'Scotch Party' - needless to say, all the scotch was had, as were many jolly japes including (and not limited to) chair balancing on ones face (Mark Boyle: the man who can sing and do circus tricks with his face), massage therapy (because what else shows your appreciation to someone's hard work and talent than sticking your thumbs into their neck?), and an early hours sandwich mission (the term 'Fat Chicken Sandwich' does not even cover it!) I have loved getting to know these guys: got some absolute friends for life amongst this lot, and I most definitely hope to see them all again in the very near future - which, gathering by a lot of conversation which was had at said party, may be a very real possibility! Here's hoping!


Friday, 24 June 2016

Lehigh Choral Composers Forum: Day 5

No rest for the wicked I guess.... #workingbreakfastselfie
Thursday morning, and there's definitely a slight air of tension and urgency in the Zoellner Arts
Centre this morning, as people are frantically trying to pull together their pieces for the afternoon readings. It's noticeable that, every morning at breakfast there are less and less people in the room (and those in the room are still on their laptops). However, that's not to say the spirit is not still of fun and enjoyment! Us composers - we know how to multitask!

The morning seminar was focused on Dr Sven-David Standstrom; hearing him talk about his process as a composer, and showing us his works. I've mentioned before how Sven-David is so personable, direct but compassionate, and this was just highlighted even more in his presentation of his works. It's also worth noting how energetic and enthusiastic he is for a man of 75! A lot of his general comments come out as amazing 'inspirational quotes' without any forethought, one of my favourites of the morning being, "music is less about how you feel, and more about deeper forces inside you, which are there when you need it - especially when you need it!" - Sven-David's music is incredibly powerful, and there was a couple of times I got chills listening to it. His use of harmony and vocal texture in particular are incredible, and I strongly urge you all to listen to his work (you can find him on youtube, this is a link to popular works of his:
Sven-David Sandstrom, sorting out his recordings
His work 'Passion of St John' for 6-part choir, counter-tenor and baritone soloists, string ensemble and Tuba was particularly evocative, featuring some incredible vocal ranges for all the singers, and indeed the Tuba player! When talking about using extreme ranges, Sven-David told us about a performance of his 'High Mass' where the conductor and the singers complained of the high vocal ranges, and his answer was, 'Yes, the ranges are high... it is a High Mass' - delightfully funny, but also highlighting a very valid point. As composer (or indeed a creator of any art), there will always be people who find fault, or just find something to complain about in your work - but if you can stick to your guns and justify your artistic decisions, people will have to accept it.

Another working lunch for us today, this time Casey Rule, both a participating composer and intern for the forum gave talk on the realms of self-publishing, and self-publishing models, based on his own independent publishing platform NoteNova. I myself have chosen a self-publishing platform route, at least for now, as a way of getting my work into the ether as a purchasable product (which, by the way, you can find on http://www.swirlymusic.org/composer/lydia-jane-pugh). There was a lot of discussion about how to market yourself, and that you need to think of yourself as a business (nothing new, I had many lessons on this at LIPA), and how the most profitable means for a composer today are direct commissions. Royalty payments are barely worth it, unless you make it big as an artist (although, I quite enjoy that moment when I get a statement for £2.84 once a year...), so the best way to make money as a composer is to build relationships with choral/ensemble directors. Another good way to, perhaps not make a profit, but get your name out there is to do a commission exchange with another composer, for example "I'll pay you for your piece for my choir, you pay me for my piece for your choir". This is a concept that has actually already come up amongst this group of composers - I know I'm already talking to several of the guys here about them possibly performing my works, and I'll look at their works for groups I work with. Again, it's all about who you know!

The mid-week madness has definitely set in....
My one-to-one today was very much a technical lesson. I'm now in the hyper critical stage of composing, so Dr Sametz and I really picked at my piece in terms of articulation, vocal setting, dynamic controls and phrasing. I'm now on version four of this piece, and I guarantee there will be at least one, if not two more revisions before the concert on Saturday! It is an amazing luxury to have both Dr Sametz and Dr Sandstrom available to review my work and pick out things that need fixing, even if it is only a layout issue! And actually, there is a lot of camaraderie amongst the composers; proof-reading each other's pieces, or offering advice on a layout issue, or a technique that perhaps is new to someone but you've done before. This is very much a 'safe space' here, with no-one being big-headed or precious about excepting help from any source. As Dr Sametz stated at the beginning of the week, "you will learn from everyone here!"

The Princeton Singer sessions today were definitely more in-depth, with more focus on performance specifics of each piece, with most people at the point where their piece is near completion. Even though we're not expected to attend the session if our piece is not being read, I've turned up to every one, even if I'm doing other work whilst in session. Being in the room whilst a session is on does teach you a lot, even if you're not actively participating. It's not just about hearing the music, there's so much to pick-up. Dr Sametz has explained professional rehearsal conduct to us, for example, how composers should speak only to the director, not the performers, unless there is a direct question from a performer, and also how we should refrain from 'shadow conducting' (essentially, conducting along to the piece), as it's distracting to the singers.

Maybe it's the build in tension as everyone is pushing to get a finalised piece, but there was a definite air of, 'let's go out tonight' about the end of the night. First (yes, first) we made our way to a little speakeasy-style bar called 'The Bookstore' - absolutely brilliant place! Amazing cocktails (with American measures, thanks very much!), and a live Jazz trio were playing in the corner. Awesome place to unwind after a long day of serious choral music! After kick-out time, Casey Rule treated us to $1 pizza slices at Sotto Santi, where we found out it was Karaoke night - now, I don't know what it is about composers and Karaoke nights, but we like to take over the entire event (as evident from Charlotte New Music Festival last year!). We had the most amusing version of 'My Way' (or, 'I did it 'sideways') from Mark, a classic 80's belter 'Alone' from me, and a pretty sexy version of 'Feeling Good' from Casey (yeah, right... he's never done Karaoke) - but the winner of of Karaoke (not an actual competition, but yes, he just won the night in general) was Michael Fairbairn performing 'Somebody to Love' by Queen. Sir, I salute you!

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Lehigh Choral Composers Forum: Day 4

View of Bethlehem from one of the
Zoellner Arts Centre Balconys
Day four, and I am consistently making it to breakfast later and later - hmmm, I wonder why?! The morning seminar began with a reading of three of the pieces we'd not heard yet, as well as feedback on the 10 we heard in the Princeton Singers session from Dr Sven-David Sandstrom. Hearing Sven-David speak is brilliant. I don't know whether it's because he is Swedish, or just his general demeanour and outlook on life, but he has an amazing way of saying things bluntly, humorously and compassionately... all at the same time! He had very useful insight into everyone's piece, with the most prevalent being how creating space in music is magical, and should be utilised more often. This is an important lesson for performers too, not just for those that write music. Creating space (a hanging chord, or even silence) allows the music to breathe, so it doesn't sound robotic. It also enables the composer and performer connect, which is an important relationship to form, as it makes the music connect to the audience too! Dr Steven Sametz also asked us to consider the types of text we choose to set for choir, as texts that are supra-personal (personal to all, on mass) as opposed to those that are personal solely to the composer generally work better, both in the process of setting the text, and the eventual performance. I completely agree. I know when I'm choosing a text, I tend towards subject matter that will speak to everyone - that's not to say you can't set more personal texts, but it's going to be more difficult! It's safe to say that part of what makes this forum special is reading through other composers works, hearing their feedback and their piece progress, as well as your own. I always say you can learn from everyone (and one of the reasons I encourage my students to enter the Guernsey Eisteddfod), and I think this is very true in a compositional setting. You learn from either relating to someone else's style, admiring them, or coming to a realisation that you want to emulate them in someway - or perhaps the complete opposite; realising that you absolutely are the polar opposite of someone, which only cements your own belief in what you do, rather than knock another composers style.
- My feedback in the seminar, as well as the one-to-one I had from Sven-David today was very positive. The main issues I needed to address were the engraving (making sure the notation is exactly as I want, and as detailed as possible), creating a greater sense of ebb and flow in the piece using more dynamics (and more space), and reworking the middle section of my piece to create a great sense of buildup. The general consensus was that my writing was beautiful and very nearly there, just some tidying and a little exploration in the middle - very happy with that indeed!

Our lunchtime was somewhat of a 'working lunch', as we had a representative from Peer Music come talk to us about the general business of Choral Music Publishers; how to approach them, what publishers are looking for, issues with copyright (in particular to text setting), and answer any questions we may have. A useful lunch 'break' indeed, as Todd was able to give a real insider view into publishing, and take away some of the mystery and 'fear factor' about them; putting a face to a name, so to speak! There is this general consensus that these big organisations are just faceless entities that do a job and it's impossible to get in and work with them, but actually, just chatting to someone from that side of the industry takes away that concept. These days, it's more important to be pro-active and spend some time finding the right people to talk to, in order to build a relationship so that they're more likely to be interested in working with you.

The life blood of any well respected composer #coffee
Today featured two sessions with the Princeton Singers; an afternoon session reading through the other 9 works that were not read yesterday, and an evening session for more in-depth work on the pieces that are ready for some exploration. So, after waiting, literally all day, my piece was the last to be read (10pm, I kid you not) - which, to be fair, makes sense, my piece is much more complete than most... While I was waiting, I must confess, I abused the coffee machine in the music faculty lounge something silly - oops! Drink enough of coffee and I think you'll find anyone starts seeing music as colours! #coffeegivesmesynesthesia
- Anyway by the time we got round to my piece I was pretty happy with the outcome of my second reading. Most of my revisions were exactly what I wanted, but there's still a few little things to tidy up. Hearing other people's pieces, and how far they've developed and where they are going as works is fascinating. Some have very much managed to write what the guys here refer to as an 'ear worm': a piece that gets stuck in your head. Jared Field's piece 'Old Things' definitely is one that people have been humming around the building (apparently mine is another one that people have woken up singing, Dr Sametz included!). Some people would probably think that sitting in a room for 5 hours and listening to a choir sing and discuss works you've never heard would be pretty dull - well, it's not! It's very enriching, and one of the things that Dr Sametz actively encouraged was to really listen, and steal ideas from each other - and that has actually happened a couple of times: I've taken a little idea from Barry Sharp, and Jared took an idea from me (and so on). As Stravinsky said: "... good composers know how to borrow, great composers know how to steal..."

Not so much of the social side of things today until after both rehearsals, when a couple of us went to a local bar: composers, singers, and our composer faculty. A great night out just getting to know each other's worlds (and in my case, explain where Guernsey is and how it relates to the UK and the EU.... a difficult conversation! Haha!). Many people have asked me 'why do you feel the need to go out to the US to do these forums/workshop?' - well, actually - this is why! It's as much about meeting other composers, choral directors, and singers and getting to know people, and network in a personal way as it is about writing music. If people know you, and have heard your music, or observed how you work and like who you are as a person, they are far more likely to want to commission you, or get a different ensemble to perform your work again for you. As the old saying goes, sometimes, "It's not about what you know, but who you know." - Safe to say, I'm getting to know some pretty awesome people!

I feel like closing today's blog out with an inspirational quote that popped up on my twitter feed:

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Lehigh Choral Composers Forum: Day 3

This guy sits in the foyer of the Zoellner Arts Centre
.... we have named him Bernard
Day three, and it's all really kicking off now! After spending the night (and, as I found out, the early morning for some) writing, we submitted our pieces, in whatever state they were in to be read at the seminar by us as the composers. Much like the seminar the day before, this was a discussion and trial of pieces with general feedback and ideas from the group. So, knowing that we were writing for an SATB choir, all the pieces had to utilise female singers... which made it kind of hard for me! But luckily, there's at least two guys on the forum who are very good counter-tenors, so I had a little help in reading the upper choral parts for this seminar (*phew!) - The main thing that struck me in this seminar was how prolific my own writing it. I've always been the kind of writer who gets and idea and just runs with it, and 9/10 my piece will be finished (or at least, finished but requiring some editing) within a few hours, or within a day. So it was definitely noticeable that I was the only composer who had a nearly complete piece! It's something that's alway made me wonder, "... Does that mean my piece isn't as good because I've pulled it together so fast?..." - but judging by the fact that Michael Fairbairns described my piece as "bad-ass", I think I can stop worrying about that! It's just my process - I work fast! - It's also noticeable how many people have struggle even just to settle on an initial idea for a piece. I know one guy started work on three separate texts before deciding which one to do! But each to their own, this is how it is! Everyone has different ways of starting to write, and working through ideas, and even coping with a massive issue or roadblock, and it's really fascinating to be a part of!
- One thing that keeps coming up is most definitely the use of key signatures. Now... this came up last year at the Charlotte New Music Festival, and it seems to be very much related to how you were taught as a musician and a composer. Dr Sven-David Sandstom made a very interesting (albeit it, hilariously blunt and Swedish) comment about how, "using key signatures to write limits your creative process." I know where he's coming from, but for me, I don't agree. I can see what he means if you say, pick a key like A major and then try to write in it, but that's not how I work. I start with a melodic idea or a harmonic progression, and I find the key (or tonal centre) will develop naturally as I write. This piece of mine at this forum is actually very much out there (for me) in terms of tonality. It's still very tonally based and melodic, but the harmonic shifts and much more complex and unexpected than I would normally go for. But I've still used a key signature! Granted, I changed my mind about what the key was a few times, but I, as a singer also feel more comfortable reading keys instead of accidentals. Casey Rule, one of the fellow composers (and intern) made the same agreement with me, that most singers would prefer to read a key signature. Certainly from my experience with choirs back home, I find this the case. Still a hotly debated topic, I don't think we've seen the last of this discussion this week, that's for sure!

My one-to-one session with Dr Steven Sametz today was very productive. Having had nothing to show Dr Sandstrom, and suddenly having a nearly complete work, my session was spent isolating issues such as layout/engraving, possibilities for dynamics and suggestions for reworking some of the part voicings. Each of these sessions have only been 18 minutes, but it is amazing how much you can sort out in a such a short space of time when you put your mind to it. Dr Sametz is very pragmatic, and incredibly efficient at pin-pointing things on your score that need either fixing or thinking about. I know from yesterday's sessions a lot of composers came out of their one-to-one's with him saying, "well I've got to completely change my text", so I'm not going to lie, I was really worried he would absolutely rip my piece to shreds! But no, just very calm and sensible suggestions, and a brief explanation of some engraving tricks to use. I went away from the session with a clear idea of how much I could sort out before the reading session with the Princeton Singers in the evening. One other things that shows off my own personal composing process this week is how, alongside writing this piece, I've started work on another, and will probably tackle at least one more, if not two! The ideas are just jumping around in my help, basically crying to be let out and put on paper - surely I must oblige?! For me, this just highlights how important it is sometimes to get away from the rigours of general living so you have time to actually focus on creating art. Don't get me wrong, I love my job as a vocal coach, but it does take up a fair chunk of my time, and because it's an 'artsy' job, it does take up a lot of the 'creative juice'. Having the time and space to simply focus on writing music, without having to worry about my job, or housework, or even eating (all our meals are provided) has opened the floodgates, and I'm very happy about it!

In session with the Princeton Singers
The first session with the Princeton Singers was a really valuable experience, and it's great to think that there are only going to be more of them! This session had 10 pieces workshop out of the 19, one of which was in fact mine. The main things that came up with my own work was a small three-bar area of the piece in which I was unsure of what I wanted to happen dynamically. In my head I had two options: A huge dramatic crescendo with a sudden drop to very quiet, or diminuendo over several bars. Dr Sametz then gave me a third option of elongating the diminuendo over a longer amount of bars. As of the end of the session (and whilst writing this), I'm still undecided as to what I want to do, but what was great was having the choir available to demonstrate all the options so I could hear what I could potentially do. It's much easier to really think about what is best for the piece when you can hear the real colours of the choir (and not crappy Sibelius MIDI sounds!). I was also delighted that, after this first reading both the tenor and the soprano soloist (who will sing in my piece) came over to me to tell me how much they like my piece. I've always said, I want to write music that a) I would like to listen to and perform, and b) other people would like to listen to and perform.
If you run out of music stands, a lectern will do!
I suppose that's why I lean towards
melody and harmony (aka, 'chord porn'), because those elements, for me at least, are the most satisfying to both hear and perform. The other 9 pieces that were presented in this session came in various degrees of completion. We had some that were nearer to my stage of completion (maybe about 2-3minutes of music for example), and some were, there was just one page, consisting of a few bars of music. Shiuan Chung's piece consisted of one page of graphic notation, which contained only a few bars for the singers to perform. A really interesting concept to listen to, with some fascinating vocal sounds created - however, I do wonder, after hearing him talk about the piece, whether this might be a bit ambitious to get finished in this short space of time! Two pieces that stuck out for me as really enjoyable (at least at this stage), were Barry Sharp's piece "Blackend Eyes", in which he makes amazing use of chromatic movement and overtone singing (something I've started exploring myself), and Michael Fairbairn's "I will come to you". Michael's piece in particular was just stunningly beautiful (even with only the two pages he has so far), and features an amazing low Db by the Basses - absolute chord porn of the highest esteem - Michael, I salute you!

Now that we're settled into the forum, the social aspect of it all is starting to develop more. I myself had a great time frequenting Molly's Irish Bar with Peter Dayton between our one-to-ones and dinnertime, a drink at Sotto Santi with a few more of the composers, and then finally a late night chill out with some of the Princeton Singers in one of their room suites after an invite from one of the tenors. It's great that, like Charlotte New Music Festival last year, the performers are rooming with us composers. What this does is essentially breakdown the barrier of 'us' and 'them', and creates a better sense of a personal-professional relationship. And also, these guys are really nice, funny, friendly people who have an immense stash of scotch - what's not to like! All in all, a supremely successful day! Time is plowing on with this forum, and there's still lots to do! Best get cracking!

Corey Hable and myself, taking the time to enjoy the Pennsylvanian sunshine 

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Lehigh Choral Composers Forum: Day 2

Oh, how to work in these conditions....
Monday morning, day two of the composers forum (although it kind of felt like the official start), and after being thrown into the deep end with a speedwriting assignment at the welcome dinner, our first seminar was about reading through and sight-singing everyone's pieces, all of which were setting's of the same text; one stanza of a poem by John Logan. An amazing two hours of music, I have to say, a real insight into people's working minds, the type of music they enjoy creating, and also who they are as people! Particular highlights for me were the pieces created by David Neches (who really highlighted the circus themes of the text), and Andrew Bonacci and Michael Fairbairns, who both used some beautiful harmonic chord progressions. I've also got to praise Michael for the absolutely stunning tenor solo he performed for my piece!
- Throughout this first seminar, we also spent a lot of time talking about compositional process, what types of things free you up and get the creative juices flowing, and equally what your compositional roadblocks are, and who we are as composers. There's several types of composers people lean towards;

  1. Structuralists: composers who create in very methodical and structural ways
  2. Timbralists: composers who create via harmony and colours 
  3. Melodists: composers who create via melodic lines
  4. Contrapuntalists: composers who work predominantly with interweaving melodic lines
  5. Homophonists: composers who work predominantly with block chords of harmony 

For myself, I would most definitely say I am a melodist and timbralist, not quite in equal measure, as usually the melody would come first. For me, a beautiful melody surrounded by stunning 'crunchy' chords (or what us musicians like to call, "chord porn") is the ideal. I would say I lean a little more towards contrapuntal writing over homophonic, and that a structure of a piece is something I don't necessarily think about, it just tends to sort itself out as I'm figuring out all the harmonic language I want to use! Thinking about my own process, I am definitely an intuitive composer, and will write melodically, usually by sitting at a piano and just 'noodling', or creating vocal ideas.

After lunch, we had our one-to-one sessions, 18-minutes sessions with either Dr Steven Sametz, or Dr Sven-David Sandstrom. Today, I was with Dr Sandstrom. At this particular point, I hadn't decided what I wanted to do for my piece for the Princeton Singers, but I mentioned that I was planning to write for SATB, and had a few choices of text I was thinking about setting. Dr Sandstom suggested that I don't pick anything 'too easy' as a text, which got me thinking? What would you define as 'too easy' as a text? Because, in my opinion, a text is as easy as you want to make it! You don't need to use all the words, you can rework a text to suit your melodic ideas, and you can repeat ideas as many times as you want. A text I might find 'easy' to set would be another person's nightmare. And I guess that's the joy of this forum; discovering your own strengths and weaknesses.

One of the things I'm enjoying in the forum is definitely the social aspect. It's not so much 'social' in what people would normally think of, but rather, just talking to other composers about what you each do, and offering either advice to a composer who expresses similar ideas/interests to you, or asking questions to someone who is completely different to you, so that you might understand other people's processes (and thus, your own) better. One composer who I've bonded with pretty early on is Michael Fairbains. We're the same age, but I'm several years ahead of him compositionally, having studied composing early in my musical education. As composers Michael and I speak the same language: we're melodists and timbarists, our favourite composers are the likes of Debussy and Holst, and we both like to write music that we, as singers, would enjoy singing. For me, that's definitely very important. When working on a piece I will sing through every line of music to make sure that it is an enjoyable performance for the singer, and not just the audience or composer! Michael and I had a very enjoyable and nerdy afternoon sat in Molly's Irish Bar a few blocks away from the Arts Centre, where we drank whiskey, shared our music, and helped each other decide what text we wanted to use for our pieces - Absolutely awesome!

All the tools in the right space
After dinner was the main bulk of 'composing time' - well, for me, this is optimum time. Some people like to create in the morning... I can't do that! My most productive time is in the evenings, or late at night. Settling in to my little piano pod practice room, I had a supremely productive evening, and actually managed to write pretty much my entire piece. There's a few bits that, when listening to the Sibelius (the software program I use to score music) MIDI sounds of my piece I was left thinking, 'is that actually what I want?', but I decided to leave them for the session with the Princeton Singers. Normally I slug away and try and work the notes out, but this is a situation where I actually have live singers to try these things for me so I can hear things properly. It's a luxury I don't normally have, I figured I better good use it!
- Making my way home (home being a university dorm about 10 minutes walk from the Zoellner
Arts Centre we're based in), I ran into a fellow composer at the forum, Jacob Gelber, who was simply sitting outside and enjoying the night air (24C with a light breeze, FYI). I decided to join him for a while, and we had a great discussion about vocal technique, another topic of my absolute delight! I recently started studying for an Advanced Diploma in Teaching Contemporary Singing, and it was great to be able to impart the knowledge I've been assimilating recently to someone else outside of a teaching setting. And even more lovely on a warm and clear summer's night!

All in all, an incredibly productive day spent creating, discussing, learning about myself, and helping others - as well as many, MANY mentions of the phrase "chord porn"!

The home of creativity for the next week! Zoellner Arts Centre at Lehigh University, Bethlehem PA