Getting the Priorities Straight

Getting the Priorities Straight

One of my most respected mentors in matters of music pedagogy once initiated our weekly gathering by asking all of her students to make a list of their top three priorities in life. While most responded with answers such as “my family”, “my religious beliefs”, or “my work”, our mentor quickly pointed out that while these concerns are undoubtedly important, they weren’t really priorities in the crucial sense; and then (with no small amount of wry enjoyment) she reminded the class that the list of a human being’s literal priorities might be more accurately topped with things like food, shelter, and breathing.

This little joke was intended to make us think about our priorities when working with students, but in my own composing efforts as well I’ve found it useful to consider my musical priorities—defined as that which, if lacking, would cause the whole effort to cease being worthwhile. Some of these priorities reflect basic goals I have in most of my music, while others only played a part in certain pieces; but taken as a whole, here are the top priorities that have shaped my composing:

To challenge the known (and knowable): I feel very little motivation to compose unless I’m trying something that I don’t already feel confident doing. For me, composing is a means for exploring my own curiosity—curiosity about sound, and also about myself and my own limits. This has been perhaps the most constant priority in my music, and those few works in which it hasn’t been serve to remind me why!

To be personal, even idiosyncratic: Although I’m not terribly concerned with my music “expressing” something of my personality or emotions, I am concerned with my music expressing its own personality. I want my music to be rich in character and homemade rather than a canned generic, so anything that comes out feeling even a bit “blah” or emotionally vague always prompts a rewrite.

To make the performers sound good: While I haven’t ever been concerned with writing “the kind of music that performers might want to play” as an end unto itself, I’ve found that striving to write passages that make the players sound good leads to my composing passages that frequently are good as well. When I’m not thinking about how my music will actually take shape at a performance, anything else that I did accomplish in that piece can risk being lost in a poorly-balanced cloud of sound.

I’d be interested in hearing from any composers out there: what kinds of musical goals drive your composition, and which present themselves to you as absolute priorities?

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7 thoughts on “Getting the Priorities Straight

  1. barakperelman

    1. choose the most difficult path, the new
    2. be able to play own composition
    3. be focused in composing, but open minded in general


  2. Chris Becker

    Not too long ago I told a friend of mine that I wanted to have a clear reason for whatever I do next musically.

    But what I find over and over again is that the music I compose inevitably has its own goals in mind.

    During the compositional process (which includes improvisation), I believe my job is to listen to what the sounds are telling me.

  3. danvisconti

    Hi Barak, I’m glad you brought up being able to play your own composition–do you mean that it’s important for you to be able to play your music on the instruments for which it was composed? Or do you mean something more along the lines of being able to realize the parts on your primary instrument and perform the rhythms accurately, etc?

    I was once put on the spot and requested to clap a difficult passage at a first rehearsal, so I can definitely attest to how important it is to be accountable!

  4. rskendrick

    Had to cheat and add a fourth one!

    1. To mean what I write
    2. To communicate to a broad spectrum of listeners
    3. To try something new
    4. To write something that is ‘playable’ by a very good (but not necessarily virtuosic) performer

    Ralph Kendrick

  5. barakperelman

    When I state:
    “2. be able to play own composition”
    I mean more indirectly that the composer composes for his own self first, and that this can only be achieved in that manner.



    Interesting topic! Off the top of my head:

    1. To create a clearly-intentioned dramatic trajectory.

    2. To only write music that is necessary to the piece at hand, and trim out all that is unnecessary.

    3. To make myself smile.


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