Always Ask More Questions

Always Ask More Questions

I screwed up. For the first time in my life as a “professional” composer, I disappointed a commissioner. A client for my Custom Made Commissioning Series hired me to compose for her daughter’s birthday a duet for the girl to play. As usual, I asked detailed technical questions regarding the student’s level of playing, including requests for samples of music she was currently working on. In addition, I asked about the child’s personality and what type of music she tended to enjoy.

Then I went to work. Upon handing over the completed piece, I found to my surprise it was not what the commissioner wanted. While the mother loved the musical content and style, she wanted a piece for her daughter that was ready to play, right out of the box so to speak. But, in her assessment, that is not what I delivered. In addition, the mother felt the secondo part was too hard for her to grasp, as she, not the teacher, would be playing it.

Well, both comments floored me. The client never asked in any of our conversations to have an “easy” piece nor had she told me that she, not a teacher, would be playing the duet. So, as with the majority of my student commissions, I had assumed that the commissioner wanted a work that was technically challenging yet within the student’s grasp. Likewise, I assumed that the daughter’s teacher, not the parent, would be playing the duet with the child. Luckily, in this situation, I was able to work with the commissioner, and I tweaked the piece in a matter that satisfied both myself musically and the client technically. In the end, all parties were satisfied.

This incident reminds me about a primary issue which needs to be closely followed when composing for young players. Unless you intimately know the people for whom you are writing, you must work closely with all the parties involved during every stage of the process. It requires a more hands-on approach than working with a professional ensemble. For instance, in addition to asking about instrumentation and length, you must also ask questions that you might not normally think about, such as:

  • What are the current skills of the players(s)?
  • Do you want it easier or harder than their current technical abilities?
  • Who, if any, teachers/adults will be playing the piece?
  • What is their comfort level with new music?

Ironically with this particular job, I did not follow my own advice. As a composer that prides herself on using collaboration and getting players’ input during my composing process, I found I still fell into the trap of my own assumptions. For whatever reasons, I did not do enough communicating with the involved parties as I was writing their piece. Had I done so, my expectations of the players would have changed. I would have caught it and would have composed a piece that would have satisfied everybody the first time around.

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2 thoughts on “Always Ask More Questions

  1. JKG

    Welcome to the real world…
    I know the feeling, which is why I take my time now dealing with anyone who commissions a work from me. The actual composing takes virtually no time at all, but the emphasis must be on the desires of the commissioner. One item I see regularly – composers seem more interested in writing for instruments than for players, and this is something that needs to be matured into. Once someone is willing to invest in his/her own personhood, then they are willing to truly see the needs and desires of others. Even when I write for a virtuoso (such as Thomas Stacy), the emphasis must be upon keeping music both “musical” and fun.

  2. jaquick

    I know how you feell
    Cleveland Composers Guild does a custom commission project for young players. I’ve generally been lucky in this. The one time I did not get a good performance, it was because the teacher oversold the student’s ability, and the student was good enough to be involved in many things, so he didn’t have/put in the time to really learn the piece. Also, it was string bass, not something I’d written for before as a solo instrument, and I wanted to believe the kid was that good (bass music in first position, yeah, I really want to write that…).


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