Composers have many considerations when creating pieces for student ensembles. Among other things, they have to ensure their works have the right balance of instrumentation and are playable by developing musicians. At the same time, they are tasked with reaching and inspiring a new generation of music lovers.
To learn more about this process, J.W. Pepper reached out to six successful instrumental composers with backgrounds ranging from teaching to film scoring. In this three-part blog series, we share their responses. In Part I, the composers talked about their journey to becoming a professional musician. In Part II below, they share the ins and outs of the composing process for educational music.
What artistic sacrifices, if any, do you feel are necessary to write for learners?
Soon Hee Newbold: Obviously you have technical restrictions which include keys, notes, and range, so those are all things to consider when writing for certain grade levels.
Chris Thomas: It’s never a sacrifice, just a liberating limitation! I love forgetting about the challenges of professional commissions and focus on fun tunes that sit well under the fingers. I try to write music that I would have enjoyed back in middle school.
Deborah Baker Monday: I suppose the first compromise or “artistic sacrifice” that I make is in the range of the instruments. Another restriction to consider is accidentals; there are many notes that are easily playable on the instrument but not taught in the standard class curriculum. This is why it is so important to do warm-up drills by rote with ALL finger patterns so that the muscle memory develops. Sometimes, in the heterogeneous class, when teaching the progression of scales through key signatures, there are some gaps in technical challenges among the four string instruments.
Lauren Bernofsky: You absolutely HAVE to stay within the prescribed technical considerations for whatever level you’re writing for. I found that a bit frustrating at first, but now I have internalized the various technical considerations to the point where most of what I write already comes out at the appropriate grade level I’m aiming for (with some exceptions, which are then cheerfully but firmly brought to my attention by my editors!).
Kirt Mosier: Many times I must arrange my original ideas to fit a tonal center, finger pattern or position.
Brian Balmages: (Feel free to include an image of me on a soapbox here.) I do not ever, EVER make artistic sacrifices. For any group. Ever. Just because I may be using less colors on a canvas does not mean the artistic integrity of the work needs to be compromised. There are an amazing number of things one can do with a young orchestra or band. To agree that artistic sacrifices need to be made for younger ensembles is to accept the notion that music for younger players does not need to be as artistic as more difficult music. That just does not hold up to me. It may be more difficult to do, but music cannot suffer artistically ever – not if we want our kids to stay engaged and our teachers to be excited about new music.
How has writing within grade level parameters helped you as a composer?
Soon Hee Newbold: I’m a big believer that the best art comes from having restrictions – otherwise you don’t have to be too creative. The most celebrated art we cherish came from suffering and hard work, so having a few restrictions is difficult, yes, but can lead to some of the best creative ideas to emerge.
Chris Thomas: I’ve learned these parameters will lead me to ideas I could not have discovered otherwise. When restrictions are present, you have to discover new routes to an idea. This is the road to unexpected but wonderful musical adventures.
Deborah Baker Monday: Trying to come up with new ways to reinforce basic rhythms and limited keys which will engage students can really challenge a composer. But having these restrictions can inspire us to think outside of the box to create something unique.
Lauren Bernofsky: As strange as it might sound, having limitations can free up my creativity, and some of the resulting pieces have come out as sounding quite inspired (in my humble opinion!). The Salamander Samba is written for just open string pizz. Five pitches across the whole ensemble – how’s THAT for a limitation! But somehow, thanks to a piano part that was harder and could add more harmonic color and rhythmic character to the piece, I think of it as inspired-sounding music.
Brian Balmages: I don’t think it has necessarily helped me as a composer, but I have certainly become more aware of the ability kids have at various levels. Again, notice how I do not approach this in terms of sacrifices, parameters, restrictions, etc. I approach everything from what is possible, not what must be sacrificed. If anything has helped me as a composer writing at various grade levels, it would be my contributions as a method book author for both band and strings. I learned so much about pedagogy, and I find that is now heavily reflected in my music.
Kirt Mosier: Writing at grade levels is kind of like bowling with those bowling guards up. It helps keep me focused on what elements I need to include in the work. It also helps reign me in from being too wild with my orchestrations!
What are the biggest challenges and rewards of writing educational music?
Brian Balmages: The biggest challenge: writing music that still sounds like ME – music that does not feel watered down or oversimplified. To write a piece that no one considers, “That piece would sound amazing if it was written for an older group!” As to rewards, anytime a student connects with my music on a deeper level, I am so grateful. Sometimes my music has inspired other art (a student may send me a painting based on a piece of mine, or a poem, etc.), another piece, or in one case (with A Solitary Wish), acts of kindness and charity for the homeless.
Chris Thomas: The challenge for me is writing something worthy of such a large audience of young musicians. It’s a mistake to think the music is easier to write out because it is not edgy and modern. The greatest reward is realizing there is a generation of young musicians interacting with my music. It is more humbling and rewarding than I ever could have expected.
Soon Hee Newbold: The biggest challenge is writing within the difficulty levels and making it fun and accessible but also challenging and something the audience will enjoy. The reward is when all of those things come together and the performance is something that leaves a lasting impact on the students for years to come.
Kirt Mosier: The biggest challenge in writing educational music is saying something meaningful with my music and staying within parameters of the grade level. The biggest rewards are watching students really enjoy my works and hearing them say it’s their favorite piece.
Lauren Bernofsky: My biggest challenge is to stay inspired, to not fall back on conventions of educational music writing. I don’t ever want to turn out pieces that work fine but are uninspired. As for the rewards, that’s easy – when a kid comes up to me and tells me how excited she is about a piece, how good his orchestra sounds playing my piece, how it’s her favorite piece her group played this year – this is what makes it all worthwhile!
Deborah Baker Monday: One of the greatest challenges is keeping the ability level consistent among the four instruments. Another is to give interest to all the parts. The greatest reward for me is to hear from a teacher how much they liked a piece of mine.
What do you feel is the most crucial element of a good educational composition or arrangement?
Soon Hee Newbold: The most crucial element of a good composition, whether educational or not, is that it sounds good and is enjoyable to play and to listen to.
Chris Thomas: All technicalities aside, I feel like it has to be a sense of joy and passion in the music. You can write the perfect exercise for a young musician but can fail to capture their imaginations or hearts. It’s important for us to light a fire and inspire young musicians to love the music!
Deborah Baker Monday: I think writing at a level which will challenge the students to want to practice but knowing that it is within their reach to have a successful performance. And it should be attractive to audiences.
Kirt Mosier: Every part needs to feel important and be a major contributor to the piece.
Lauren Bernofsky: I’d say it’s most important that the piece makes the kids excited about playing music!
Brian Balmages: It must be artistically viable. I do not care if it is a good “teaching piece” (what does that even mean?). The main point of a piece should not be about teaching bow distribution, air flow, rhythm, phrasing, etc. – are those things important? Of course! But the most crucial element ALWAYS is whether the piece is musical. After all, we are teaching MUSIC!
Looking ahead, in October we’ll run Part III: Getting Published. In the meantime, you can read Part I: A Composer’s Journey and view works by:
Deborah Baker Monday taught for 25 years in the award-winning Logan City School District Orchestra Program in Logan, Utah. She is a regular faculty member at the Utah State University Summer Music Clinic and performs with the Cache Chamber Orchestra. She received her B.M.E. from Florida State University with an emphasis in strings and an M.M. in composition from the University of Alabama. She continued doctoral studies in composition at Louisiana State University. Baker Monday has published over 130 works for string orchestra with seven leading educational music publishers. She has also presented sessions at numerous state music conferences, including ASTA, The Midwest Clinic, and the prestigious Ohio State String Teachers Workshop.
Brian Balmages is an award-winning composer and conductor. His music has been performed throughout the world, including premieres at the College Band Directors National Conference, The Midwest Clinic, Carnegie Hall, and the Kennedy Center. He is a recipient of the A. Austin Harding Award from the American School Band Directors Association and the Distinguished Alumni Award from James Madison University. As a conductor, Balmages enjoys regular engagements with all-state bands and orchestras as well as international appearances in Canada, Australia, and Italy. He is Director of Instrumental Publications for The FJH Music Company and on faculty at Towson University.
Lauren Bernofsky’s music has been performed across the United States as well as internationally in major venues from Carnegie Hall to Grieg Hall in Bergen, Norway. Her works are published by ten different publishers. She holds degrees from the Hartt School, New England Conservatory, and Boston University, where she earned a doctorate in composition. She has taught at Boston University; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; The Peabody Institute; and Interlochen. She conducts at regional festivals and serves as a clinician at schools, festivals, and national conferences.
Internationally known artist Kirt Mosier is both a conductor and a composer. He has conducted numerous performances with international orchestras at venues including the United States’ Carnegie Hall, Iceland’s Harpa Hall, Austria’s Musikverein and MuTh Concert Halls, and Australia’s famed Sydney Opera House. Mosier has twice won national composition awards and has had many works featured at The Midwest Clinic. Mosier was recently awarded the Joanna Nichols Artist in Residence Grant by the Taipei American School and will be the Artist in Residence in Taipei, Taiwan beginning in 2020. Currently, Mosier is the artistic director for the Youth Symphony of Kansas City and is also the associate conductor of the Lee’s Summit Symphony. Mosier also had a distinguished career as Director of Orchestras with the Raytown and Lee’s Summit School Districts in Missouri, in addition to teaching orchestration for the University of Missouri Kansas City Conservatory.
Soon Hee Newbold began studying piano at age five and violin at age seven. She has won many prestigious competitions and has performed throughout the world in venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, Aspen, and Tanglewood. She received her Bachelor of Music degree from James Madison University, where she studied film scoring, orchestration, and audio production. Upon graduation, Newbold began working as a professional musician, contractor, and stage manager. In addition to her valuable contributions to educational orchestra literature with many compositions published by The FJH Music Company, she has written and arranged works for albums, recording projects, and various performing ensembles.
Chris Thomas is a composer for film, television, and theme parks, and he has been a TEDx speaker. His scores have been nominated for a Film & TV Music Award; he won the Gold Medal Prize at the Park City Film Music Festival and the Best Film & TV Music award at eWorld Music Awards. Chris has written music for several Emmy-nominated films, and for Woman Rebel, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award. In television, he works as a composer, orchestrator, and conductor. Thomas’ work can be heard in theme parks all over the world. He has written music for the Evermore Adventure Park, Knott’s Berry Farm, Queen Mary Chill, Dreamland Theme Park (UK), Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, and many more. Thomas’ works for the concert hall have been performed from Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House to the Hollywood Bowl. He recently premiered a series of concert works in France, Belgium, and Germany. Thomas also recently completed his first symphony, called the Malheur Symphony. His educational works are published with The FJH Music Company and Wingert-Jones Publications.
Hello Kathryn! My young string ensemble (about 8-11 years old) is learning Lotus Dance for our first concert of the season and we’re very excited. We listened to the track at our last rehearsal and sight read the first line. All of the kiddos just loved how beautiful the piece sounded. I gave them all a bit of homework to look up the composer and bring a few facts to our next rehearsal. I was wondering if I could ask you to describe what motivated or inspired you to write Lotus Dance. I truly think it would be so special for my students to hear directly from a living composer. The program I work for has been making a conscious effort to choose rep from marginalized composers like composers of color, women, and living composers. While we do teach the classic Bach, Mozart, etc, we feel there’s little praise for living composers and marginalized composers (especially women). I would love to share anything you can offer about the piece or about you personally with my group. Our next rehearsal is this coming Saturday, 9/24. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your talent with the world. We are so fortune to showcase Lotus Dance in January!
Hi Chrestien, thank you for your comment! It’s unlikely that Kathryn will see it, though; I would suggest contacting her through the publisher of the piece, which is Carl Fischer. Your program sounds wonderful – best wishes to you and your students!