General tips for student composers

There are several things I learned almost too late as a student composer in college and grad school. Since composers seem a minority in colleges and women composers especially a minority in graduate schools, there are fewer examples set for us than for, say, performers or theorists, which is really too bad. Unless you’re a seasoned composer entering school, you may not know some essential rules or questions to ask related to being a composer. What’s more, I found that a few professors assumed I knew them already, making me feel shy about or even stupid for asking.

So I’d like to share with you a few habits, rules, and tips I learned that hopefully will help you as a music/composition student at the collegiate level!

#1 This one’s a life rule, really, one that I’m still trying to get through my head: if you have a question, ASK IT. It doesn’t matter if you think you’ll look “stupid.” This is your education and you are responsible for it. It’s only if you don’t ask that you might feel worse later when you aren’t sure what a professor meant or what a term indicated.

#2 Invest in a good digital audio recorder. I bought a recorder in 2011 before my final year of graduate school. I sincerely regret not having one five years earlier. Any time performers are reading your pieces, you should be recording them. Anytime your pieces are being performed, you should be recording them- even if your school is recording the concert. In my experience, it’s worth making a double recording since CDs sometimes take months to be processed, or end up being unusable due to faulty technology. Privacy/recording rules may vary by school, but any good advisor will defend your need for a good quality recording. You will need these for future applications, portfolios, personal websites, and just for personal use. I have learned a lot about my own writing through listening to first readings of pieces.

#3 Obtain recordings of all your performed pieces. Most if not all music performances are recorded by the university. Make sure you don’t forget to go to the library and get an MP3 of your piece. Again, you’ll need recordings for professional reasons. (Do make sure that if you end up posting these obtained recordings online you cite it with the performer(s), conductor, name of ensemble, date, venue, and other applicable information.)

#4 Write thank you notes to the main people involved in getting your piece performed. Write to the performers for a smaller work, the conductor if it is a large ensemble piece, the ensemble coach, the soloist, or others as necessary. Some of my friends gave out small gifts with their thank you notes (like Starbucks of Dunkin Donut cards), but I don’t think performers expect gifts. Grad students are living on fixed budgets, paying for rent a groceries, and sometimes taking out loans. But a nice, well-worded thank you note is always appreciated, and will help establish a good rapport with people whom you may wish to ask later for future performances.

#5 Don’t cancel your lessons just because you don’t have new material. I think it’s safe to say that composition students will not have something new to show their professors at lessons every week. I’ve heard of students canceling their lessons for this reason, but I think that’s a bad move. As I said above, it’s your education. If you don’t have something new you’ve written, bring questions about something you have worked on, past or present, completed or incomplete. Bring questions about a passage from a work you’re studying in another class or on your own. Even if you bring only two questions, often others will spin out of them. Your time will be well spent.

#6 Buy an orchestration book. And buy it before you take orchestration. Buy it before you start lessons or comp seminars. Borrowing one from the library is simply not good enough. Neither is buying a heavily used and marked up one. You will need this book and you’ll need it new so you can mark it, highlight it, add in sticky notes, fold its page corners, draw diagrams in it, and so on. I recommend Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration. It’s up to date, organized, and includes great excerpts to get to know timbers and techniques. (#6a The book without the CDs is, in my opinion, almost useless. But don’t buy the CDs! Burn them from your music library’s copies. The book without the CDs is expensive enough. Burning them is free.)

#7 Do your orchestration homework. This may seem obvious. But my orchestration professor made homework assignments optional for composition majors, assuming we would already have had enough experience with orchestration. And maybe some of us had. But I hadn’t. I opted out of homework because I had “more important things to do” in my other classes and for my TA position. While this wasn’t an entirely stupid decision, I do wish I had done the assignments. I’d have had fewer questions about orchestration later, and I would have been forced to apply each new concept in a practical assignment, thus giving me exposure to all important topics in the text whether I thought I’d need them or not.

#8 It’s very difficult to memorize instrument ranges and registers. But you should memorize how each instrument transposes and how to figure out their concert pitches when looking at a score. What does this mean? In short, not every instrument, when it plays the written note “C” will sound a concert C. Instrument ranges vary so greatly that writing their parts literally cannot be accommodated; there would be a ridiculous number of ledger lines in the parts. This information will help you in every music class, so it’s especially important. It can be tricky to keep everything straight, but here’s a phrase I learned in college:

Fill in the blank: Sees a C, sounds a ___ (insert the way the instrument is pitched).

So a Bb clarinet would be: Sees a C, sounds a Bb. A Bb clarinet sounds a major second lower than written in its part. BUT if you are looking at a concert pitch score, the pitch the clarinet sees is a major second higher. Make yourself diagrams! Color code them. Place them physically higher or lower in relation to each other to memorize which ones transpose up or down. And for additional practice, don’t switch the setting on your composition software to “View in concert pitch.”

#9 Make time to study scores on your own. For some reason, I was never encouraged enough to do independent score study. I was told I should, but then I never had incentive to follow through. In retrospect, this was silly. I would be a much more well-rounded composer than I am today if I had just gone to the library once a week, taken out a few scores at random, and studied them. What does this mean? In the words of my comp professor, it means to determine everything about the piece I could without listening to it. And then try to hear it. Try to hear the timbres. Clap out the rhythms. Sight-sing the parts. Which leads me to…

#10 Get a pitch pipe. I have perfect pitch. I still own a pitch pipe so I can easily get myself back on track when I sight-sing. I think this actually helps me develop my hear, rather than make me reliant on an external source. Fortunately, there are pitch pipe apps that work just as well as those $20 metal disks.

#11 Learn basic German, French, and Italian musical terms. Additionally, understand basic pronunciation rules. And if possible, become proficient in 2/3 of these languages. In all the music I have ever played or studied, I can barely remember ever seeing notation in English. If you don’t know what foreign tempo, gestural, or mood indicators mean, that’s a problem. An orchestration book would have this information in it.


There are so many more I am thinking of now that have to do with composition specifically. Stay tuned!



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