Next on Parade: Baptism

If you haven’t read my first post about this month’s parade of losers, start there first.

To review the big lessons learned from the first featured piece, I Am His Son:

  1. Follow the guidelines, including ease of performance for amateur musicians in the Church.
  2. Submit a song that will be flexible enough for use by a broad range of Church members.  (One exception might be the Relief Society Music category: you don’t have to write men’s parts to be inclusive).

Let’s explore a little more.  Today’s entry that didn’t quite make the cut is called Baptism.  It received a Special Recognition in 2008, which is similar to a runner-up.

I’ll be honest about this piece: when I submitted it, it wasn’t ready for prime time.  The sheet music I released today is not the same sheet music I submitted to the Church.  Some changes include:

  • Improved handling of repeats (yes, the repeats in this piece were even more confusing in my earlier drafts)
  • Dynamic and expressive markings
  • Fixing typographical errors

This piece was certainly not polished when I submitted it.  Additionally, as I look at the writing nearly six years later, some things could be improved.  The intro/interlude figure is nice, but it may be used too much during the piece.  The verses’ mixed metaphors may also become confusing.  And the piece just doesn’t look great on paper when compared with how I imagined it.

This brings up a big point: the committee that judges these pieces only sees your score.  If they heard you perform your song, their opinions might be different, but recordings are not accepted (except for complex multi-voice anthems and instrumental works).  That means that a submitted piece is only as good as its notation.

Still, I liked the song.  I still do.  The bigger lesson from this piece is simple: sometimes others will submit great music in the category you choose.  I’m glad to lose to excellent music.  It gives me a reason to work harder the next year.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series.  At the end of the series, I’ll post a full list of my recommendations for musicians who are thinking about submitting their music.  The Church really does need more great music, and I hope that this series will help that to happen.

The next installment is here.

Let the Parade of Losers begin!

Wasn’t that a catchy title?  It’s true.  I’ve decided to post some songs in the next couple of weeks that have lost (i.e. not received an award) in the annual Church Music Submissions.

This is also my backhanded way to give advice on how to win an award in the Church Music Submissions.  No, I don’t have a magical formula, but I can give some solid advice based on success and failure.

I need to say up front that I’m not a sore loser.  In this competition, I’ve won my share of awards, and I’m grateful when I do.  But in the past few years I’ve submitted some pieces that are a bit outside the box, hoping that I can in some small way elevate the musical culture of the Church.  I expect that some of those risks will not pay off in the competition.  But when they do, I’m thrilled.

Generally, my losing entries are perfectly good songs.  But they didn’t win for a variety of valid reasons.  Of course, since the committee does not give the submitters any critiques, these reasons are just guesses.  But I think they are pretty educated guesses since I’ve had the privilege of hearing so many of the winners over the past several years.

The losing entry I’ve posted today is I Am His Son.  I submitted it in the Primary Song division of the General Music category.  Why do I think it didn’t win?  Triplets.

There may be other reasons, too, but I think the triplets were the biggest drawback to this piece.  A lot of people think triplets are hard to sing and play.  Remember that one criterion for these submissions is ease of performance, especially Primary music.  I decided to take a risk by submitting a primary song that had a whopping 5 sets of quarter-note triplets in the refrain.

Add that to the fact that the song is written specifically for boys (so the whole Primary wouldn’t be able to participate in performing it), and it was just not a winner for this competition.

That said, the song fulfills the purpose for which it was written.  And for the record, the triplets in this piece are remarkably easy for kids to sing (my 3- and 5-year-old boys can do it).  It’s just not what the committee wanted.

Click for the next loser in this potentially fascinating series!

Practice is theory is practice.

I’ve been pondering the idea of music theory lately.  As some of you know, my choral setting of the text Far Far Away on Judea’s Plains has recently been published by Jackman Music.

Having a print publication out there opens me up for some criticism.  On the one side, I’ll hear from people who know just enough theory to be dangerous: “Um, didn’t you see all the parallel fifths?  They’re even in the first measure!”

For the record, yes.  I saw them.  Actually, I wrote them.  On purpose.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ll have some comments from people who are very well-versed in theory: “It was a good attempt, I suppose.  But didn’t you it came out a bit predictable?

If you equate listenability with predictability, I suppose you’ll apply that label to most music.

The trouble is that for so many musicians, a working knowledge of music theory gives a false sense of expertise.  Traditionalists want stringent adherence to rules.  Never mind that the greatest composers in history intentionally broke those rules on occasion; we must honor their memory by following the rules without deviation.

Some modernists, on the other hand, find the rules of tonality and trite and boring, and they dismiss any music that follows the rules as unoriginal, repetitive, and dull.

The problem in music theory, as in politics, is that there are so few moderates.  I suppose this makes sense: how many people are passionately moderate about a given subject?  I have never seen a rally to encourage moderation on any issue; it’s either left or right, either for or against.  In music theory, it’s either traditional or modern.

Here’s my trouble: I agree that music written strictly by the rules is often dry and unappealing.  I also agree that music written without any rules is often unpleasant and irrelevant to the audience.  I want to have it both ways.

So like so many other composers do, I pick and choose.  I decide when I want to be tonal and when I want to be atonal.  I sometimes resolve suspensions properly, and I sometimes don’t.  I am not a Mozart or a Beethoven, but I do something they did: I write what sounds good to my ears.  My audiences generally seem to appreciate and agree with those choices.

In my listening, I also try to be empathetic.  I listen for what the composer was trying to accomplish and the road he took to get there.  I consciously choose to avoid thoughts about how I would have done it differently.  All composers (even those I really can’t stand) have lessons to teach and techniques to examine.

Theory is a science that simply examines practice.  Practice comes first.  Musicians make music first, and then theoreticians dissect it.  Some theoreticians do become great composers, but they must bring more than theory to the table; they must combine their knowledge with an undefinable human element in order to make organic music.

Essay: Why I Don’t Listen Like You

I teach music for a living.  At the beginning of the semester, kids who are just getting to know me always ask the same question: Mister, what music do you listen to?

I never know quite how to respond.  If I say I don’t really listen to much music, I sound like the least credible music teacher in history.  Occasionally I fib and name a few styles that I enjoyed . . . back when I listened mindlessly.  The truth is that I still listen to plenty of music, but the way I listen is weird.

Getting Consumed

Let’s go back for a minute.  Do you remember the days when the primary way to find new music was the radio?  For decades, we cared about the top 40 – that is, the top 40 songs that were played on the radio, as chosen mainly by people who ran the stations.  The record companies and station managers largely dictated our taste in music.  They were right a lot of the time.  From the Beatles to Sinatra to Journey, they placed pop music in our ears that was worth hearing.  They also promoted some music that was not so great.  That’s radio – delivering popular products to a large consumer base.

Fast forward to this decade.  Radio is still around, but we have Pandora, last.fm, and hundreds of smaller internet radio options.  Those services still take on the job of curating and promoting music, most often by genre.  Although the range of options has expanded, the idea is the same: you will hear what somebody else thinks you will like – and what they think you will buy.

We’ve added deeper social connections to the process, too.  Now if I listen to a song on just about any online music service, my contacts on Twitter, Facebook, and other networks can see what I heard and click to listen themselves.  The addictive system is optimized for maximum consumption.

YouTube, MySpace, and related technologies have democratized music promotion a little bit.  It is now possible for a kid making music in his mom’s basement to become moderately well-known (like Adam Young of Owl City); however, the big labels are still heavily promoted, and the little guys with real talent are hard to discover.

So basically, it’s very difficult to find music that I like because I like it, and not because a company is trying to sell me something.

Learn More = Consume Less

When I first began really looking at the labels on the food I eat, the immediate effect was that I consumed fewer calories.  I never try to diet, and I still eat some junk, but simply knowing what is in the food I eat causes me to make conscious choices.

Music is similar.  A person without a good music education may happily listen to whatever music is in the environment.  When people truly don’t know about music, they can listen without listening.  They can consume without caring.  But as soon as they start to understand how music works, they cannot listen without noticing – and having a strong opinion about – certain components of every song.

For me, that means that much of the pop music my peers have adored over the years seems bland and formulaic.  After a very satisfying half hour listening to Brahms, it’s hard to turn around and try to enjoy Taylor Swift’s latest offering.  I suppose if you’re accustomed to eating handmade artisinal cheese, it’s really hard to go back to Velveeta.

That’s not to say that all people who know a lot about music end up liking the same music.  Whether it’s the Foo Fighters or Stravinsky, interesting music will always have educated critics and advocates.  But education always encourages the formation of an opinion, one way or the other.  There is no neutral ground.

That’s why the radio (analog or internet) is hard for me to consume: if I have time to listen to music, I want to choose what I hear.  The iTunes music library is already so vast that I cannot hear everything in it by the time I die.  Life is literally too short to waste with music that I find annoying or uninteresting.

The Real Reason

These frustrations are not the primary reasons why I don’t listen to music nearly as much as my students.  They are convenient excuses, but they don’t tell the real story.

I listen less because when I listen to others’ music, I am not creating my own.  This applies to the broader scope of creative experience: When you read, you are not writing.  When you watch videos, you are not creating them.  Consumption and creation do not generally happen at the same time.

I have students who claim they cannot do homework without listening to music or watching TV at the same time.  Conversely, when there is music playing, I cannot ignore it.  I may dislike it, but my mind must dissect it.  Analysis has become involuntary.  That is the biggest reason I must do all of my real work in silence.

One of my kids stuck the change from my ashtray into the tape deck in my car, and the resulting electrical problems rendered my radio useless.  That was about two years ago.  At first, I was annoyed at the inconvenience of having to fill long drives with my own thoughts instead of having them given to me over the air.  Now, I appreciate the rare solitude provided by my inability to tune in during my brief commutes.  I develop my best musical and poetic ideas when I am on a bicycle, but now my car is a close second, because I have to think for myself.

Music is more powerful than we acknowledge.  The next time one of my students asks What do you listen to?  I’m still not sure how I will answer.  But inside, I know what I will think:  Less is more.

May we all consume our media with a little more attention and intent, and a little less by accident.

Technical Notes about O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

This year’s Audio Christmas Card project was again recorded in Audacity.  Last year I took a little more time, but this year I had a strict 2-hour time limit for arranging, recording, and processing.

To save time, I arranged as I recorded, and I didn’t bother with any notation. The arrangement is pretty simple this time – simple solo first verse, duet with a drone for second, and fairly standard four-part third with a brief tag and pickerdy third at the end.

I began with the solo line for the first two verses.  Then I recorded and looped the oohs over verse two, followed by the second verse duet harmony.  Then I recorded the third verse, beginning with soprano, then bass, then alto and tenor.  I usually record the inner voices last because they anchor themselves on the soprano and bass notes.

I was not pleased with the stock Audacity reverb plugins, so I installed and applied Freeverb.  I wanted to apply some chorus effects during verse 3, but I wasn’t satisfied with the sound I got from the plugins I tried.  If any of you have a recommendation, I would love to hear it.

For a two-hour project, I thought the results were decent.  Obviously not studio-quality.  Hopefully Santa will bring me a Blue Spark Digital microphone for next year.  🙂

Merry Christmas!

Who cares if you listen? Me.

The musical landscape has changed dramatically over the past half century. In 1958, Milton Babbitt’s article known as “Who cares if you listen?” appeared. Among other things, he questioned the need for composition with an audience in mind.  With the possibility of technologically-assisted performance at very low cost, Babbitt reasoned that an audience might not be necessary in the future.

That future is here.  With the technologies available, it now seems common that composers make music without any regard for the audience. The modern art music scene is especially trending in this direction.

Maybe the problem is inherent in 21st century creativity. We constantly strive to be unique, to travel some previously undiscovered musical course.  Perhaps, some think, the universe’s pleasing combinations of notes have all been taken, and to be truly artistic, we need to use only the permutations which the old masters left alone.

Maybe it can be simply attributed to ego. The composer is simply so smart that the masses will never comprehend his work.  This elitism is common among theoreticians who also compose.

I hope that in the future, I will be seen as a composer who dabbled in music theory, rather than a theoretician who just happened to compose.  Natural composers allow their music to be governed by sound; they let their ears take the lead.  Theoreticians are often more concerned with process and procedure than product and purpose.

Please understand, I do not advocate a return to strict tonality or a stop to innovation.  I simply suggest that music must be written for a listener, even if that listener is only in the composer’s imagination while the piece is being written.  Music written exclusively for the composer’s pleasure is contrary to the nature of music.