Monday, May 13, 2013

"How to compose"

The title of this post is in quotation marks because by no means am I an expert on composition.  However, I have seen a lot of new taiko pieces over the years, and written several myself.  I’d like to offer up some words of advice, based on my experiences.

1.) Don't put everything you can into it.  The kitchen sink is good for dishes, not for songs.  For those newer to composing, it’s often tempting to put in as much as possible into a new piece, but you wind up bombarding the audience with too much "stuff" and very little gets retained.  I’ve been to too many concerts where on the drive home, I couldn’t tell you what half of the songs were like for just this reason.

2.) What makes this song different?  If your song looks or sounds like the rest of the repertoire, why are you writing it?  If your group has a repertoire with 80% of songs on naname and you want to write a naname song, ask yourself what will make it stand out?

3.) When will it debut?  If you know you only have a few months to teach a piece, you really need to account for the skill level and accountability of the group.  Maybe it’s best to simplify or to pull the song instead and come back at a later date with what you really want.  I’ve seen new works where the players were just barely comfortable with the piece and the audience can feel that.  I’ve been guilty of writing songs like that myself, so I know...
4.) Know what’s important to teach.  In other words, prioritize.  Sequence, then substance, then details is generally a good order.  Focusing on one move too much or one pattern too much in the beginning may be detrimental to those learning the piece.  Realize that the players may be worried about how the whole song goes while you’re trying to improve a single part of it.

5.) Can it survive without you?  Are you the only person that can play a certain spot in a song?  Then you risk it never being played when you're not around or leave the group.  Also, consider writing pieces that you're not in from the beginning, to be able to really be able to work on it without having the added distraction of being *in* it.

6.) Gimmick or highlight?  If your song is written around a fancy move or a single moment, does the rest of the song hold its own?  Does the gimmick get old soon?  Does the moment warrant an entire song?

7.) Perfection can come later.  Maybe in your head you know exactly what you want, but realize that your piece will take time to write, time to teach, time to adjust, and time for people to get familiar with it.  If you want it to sound and look perfect at the first go, you will be disappointed.  Give it time.

8.) Familiarity breeds contempt.  You may very well get sick of your own piece as you write/teach it simply because you've heard it thousands of times in your head.  Fight that feeling as much as you can; other people haven't heard it anywhere near as much and it's not old to them!

9.) Know how you want to teach your piece.  I’ve watched people who know their piece really well struggle to get across their concepts, spend a lot of time talking about the piece instead of teaching, or both.  If it sounds like you don't know what your piece sounds like, people might tend to lose faith in the song before it's finished.  If you talk too much instead of teaching, it starts to sound like an exercise for your ego.  If you have the time, I recommend rehearsing how to teach the patterns/movements before doing it “live”.


There's no "right" way to write a piece.  Still, there are ways to make it easier on you as the composer, easier on those learning it, and easier on the audience.  Admittedly, sometimes you have to stumble in order to figure out what works best for you, but a little help can't hurt!

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