Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Art of Music Composition

The following blog contains material I originally posted in February, 2007.

After a concert we had in November, a woman from the audience asked me where I get my ideas when I compose. Simple question - emotional response. It could be the newspaper, an overheard conversation, or an event on the big or little screen. However, I have been inspired by high and low points in my personal life (marriage and divorce), a worldwide issue that we are all facing (wage stagnation or climate change) and the ups and downs of our friendships.

While it is useful to know these things about my music I suppose, I feel the woman was asking me a more fundamental question, what do I do to bring my music to life. Equally simple question - challenging to answer.

What happens in composer's heads?
"While my performing may serve as the vehicle for expressing moods and feelings in real time, my role as a composer is one where I attempt to capture my soul in a bottle. The sounds swirling in my head are given a home and my deepest and darkest reflections are brought to life. It is the opportunity where my musical training is brought to bear and society's thoughts and directions get a place to call home.

"Composing is liberating. You get the chance to create a work of art that will influence those around you. They may be asked to think. They may be expected to laugh or cry. The composer has the responsibility for seeing the world around them - real or imaginary - and giving others (performers and listeners) the opportunity to experience that world. I find composing the most difficult and natural at the same time. Given the confines of Western classical notation (which is where my training lies) capturing ones soul can be a challenge to realize on paper. Nevertheless, when the act is done, the whole episode inspires and uplifts me in a way that nothing else can." Feb, 2007 Blog Post

It all starts with ideas in my scrapbook. For 30 minutes each day, I trade off between writing with pen/paper in silence or at the piano.  The ideas typically fall into 4 distinct categories or a combination of them: melodic fragments, harmonic progressions, rhythmic concepts and potential forms. I try to start and end on time although I will go over time occasionally if the creative juices are really flowing. Many of these ideas will never see the light of day in a composition. However, some will rise to the top and be incorporated in a work.

Whether it is a commission or a work for one of my chamber groups, I like to work, from the beginning, with an emotional thread or concept prevalent throughout the work to give it cohesion. Whenever I haven't done that, I feel my results are often forced. Once I settle upon a concept - see the first paragraph - then I set about 1) rediscovering ideas from my scrapbook that would be suitable and 2) creating brand-new ideas to bring the work to life. In the subsequent weeks of development, I use pen/paper, the piano, and ultimately notation software. I use Sibelius software now after using Finale for years. Can't say that I adore either at this point. If you've got a better idea, I'd love to read about it in the comments below.

The development phase is trying. Ideas stick or they don't. And sometimes, an awesome idea gets thrown figuratively in the recycle bin because it just doesn't fit what is around it. That is really frustrating when you started with that idea in the beginning only to see the piece take a completely different shape and leave it behind. Sometimes, the development goes by very quickly. Especially when the emotional thread is happy and uplifting. Takes a lot fewer muscles to smile they say. :-) The brooding works, take time and an emotional toll. It is as if you are reliving the painful moments again and again until you capture it in its most gut wrenching. For an example, listen to my Loss movement from my In Time suite for horn quartet.

Once the draft is finished, I get the work played in rehearsal. After that rehearsal, there are usually a lot of revisions if the instruments are new to me. If I'm very familiar with the instruments, then this part of the process usually goes much faster. I like to be very involved in the initial performance. I feel it is vital to create a work that you can be very proud of its emotional content. And with any luck, the work will have a similar impact on your audience.

Upon hearing ones work live or on a recording, I'm rarely happy with it. There is always something I could have done better. However, with time, my critical ear starts to fade away, and I start to see the music through, what I feel, must be a similar lens to my audience: initial indifference followed by a moment or two of raised eyebrows, heartbreak, or laughter. And that is where all that work is made worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Seeking Board Perfection

It has been said that there are three kinds of boards:

“The one you wish you had, the one you use to have, and the one you do have.”

I apologize that I don’t know who to specifically give credit for coining that phrase. Wherever they are though, they are absolute right. Boards are tricky. And finding the “right” one for your organization talks time, effort, and patience.

Let’s start with the basics.

Not-for-profit organizations need a board of directors. It is legally required of them. However, for-profit businesses can benefit from them as well. They are a group of people that “ensure that all activities and resources of the organization support pursuit of the mission,” says Amy Kweskin, Program Director of the Arts Management Career Development online certificate program at California State University East Bay.

She says that the board accomplishes this goal by:

1. “Establishing broad governance policies and objectives”
2. “[Hiring], supporting and reviewing the performance of the [CEO]”
3. “Ensuring adequate financial resources and approving an annual budget”
4. “Accounting organization’s performance to its stakeholders”

Essentially the board has to make sure there is enough money, plan for the future with budgets and by putting a great person in charge, and make sure everyone is talking to each other doing what is necessary to make the organization run smoothly.

So where do you find the right people to make this happen? Where can you find people who know how to be on a board of directors and are intimately aware of your mission, vision, and values?* (For more information on mission, vision, and values check out last month’s blog entry.)

The simple answer: you can’t. They aren’t there. Sobering, I know. As an executive director/CEO of a not-for-profit, I was rather disillusioned in the beginning when the board of directors didn’t seem very aware of what they needed to do at the first meeting. However, there are people that really value your organization and are willing to learn how to support your mission as an active board member. With proper guidance, they can make all the difference for your organization.

Now I’m going to attempt (wish me luck) to spell out a five step recipe for creating a great board of directors.

I. Make a List, check it twice, figure out who is naughty and nice
Start by making a list of all the people you know who have supported your organization in the past: donors, audience members, collaborators, etc. If some of them are accountants or lawyers, they can be very helpful. Also, consider the personalities of each of these individuals. Are some of them natural leaders? Work well in a team? Enjoy putting together social events?

II. Assess what skills are needed for your organization to fulfill its mission
This is where you can turn to your organization’s business plan if you are just starting out or if you’ve been together for a while, your strategic plan. Amy states that “the strategic plan is the backbone to the organization’s annual activities, setting the Board’s work plan. With it you can create a board matrix of skills and resources to put the plan into action. From there, continued Board engagement is reinforced with commitment worksheets capturing the motivation and contribution to the organization.”

III. Put together a prospective board member “show and tell” packet
This packet will be used to inform the prospective board member about what membership means and help them and your organization discover whether they are a good fit. This packet should contain your organization’s mission, vision and values; recent financial history; a summary of your activities; a list of current board members (if applicable); and most important, a board responsibilities page that clearly lists your organization’s expectations of them and their expectations of you. Other packet items can include a business or strategic plan, bylaws, and promotional materials.

IV. Approach and meet in person the prospective board members
After you have assessed what your organization needs and have your packet ready-to-go, meet with each prospective board member that is interested and discuss possible membership. I suggest emailing the packet ahead of time and bringing a hard copy with you to review in person. Look for signs that they read the documents. Are they asking a lot of questions? Do they seem engaged? Do you feel they understand what is expected of them? Clearly and succinctly state what you expect them to do in terms of hours per week and what minimum financial commitment you expect from them annually. It is critical that every one of your board members is invested in your organization. That means you need 100% of your board contributing annually in addition to giving time and resources in support of your mission.

V. Choose wisely and bring them together
After you have spoken to the prospective board member and considered whether their personality will fit well with the current board members or other prospective members (if you are just starting out), invite them to a meeting. At the end of the meeting and after the new prospective member(s) have left, discuss with the current membership if they feel it is a good fit. Then, follow-up with the prospective member and offer them a seat on the board of directors. If they decline, go back to your list in step 1.

Now, all of this takes a lot of work. However, writing grants, raising money, making connections in the community, hiring a CEO, creating budgets and making sure your organization is in strong financial health takes even more work. With the “right” board of directors, all of these aspects of a nonprofit get much easier.

A couple final thoughts:
1. Usually a board has between 5 and 15; even larger the longer the organization has been around. Pick a number that feels comfortable.

2. Boards of organizations that are just starting out are often “working” boards that do a lot of the hands on tasks necessary to move the organization forward. More established organizations often require larger boards due to needing adequate governance oversight and often having greater financial goals.

3. All the work, time, and patience to do the 5 steps above can be accomplished by the founder, CEO, staff members, a board committee, a board chair, or a combination.

4. Once you have a board in place, having a board chair is important. They should work closely with the CEO to set the agenda and make sure that there is an open dialogue between the board of directors, staff, and artists.

Creating a great board can be daunting, but well worth it at the end of the day. Your organization will be more connected to your community and ultimately, will reach its goals faster and with greater ease. Good luck.

About the writer: Daniel Wood is an entrepreneurial musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since 2000, he has worked and mentored large and small arts not-for-profits in the areas of management, marketing, development, and board governance. As a founding member and executive director of the horn quartet Quadre (www.quadre.org) and teacher at the Community School of Music and Arts (www.arts4all.org), Daniel publishes his music with Solid Wood Publishing (www.solidwoodmusic.com) and lectures on the business of music nationally as a "Savvy Musician" advocate (www.savvymusician.com)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Take Control of your Artistic Mission

Whether your artistic business is a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a not-for-profit corporation, you need focus to make things happen. You need to know why you are doing the things that you are doing, otherwise you may steer way off course and not get anywhere.

At the same time, you need to be adaptable to the market and try different things out, see what works, and develop a list of best practices. Where to begin?

Start with your mission statement.

Unfortunately, nothing drums up a feeling of dread than being locked away in a room for hours with your colleagues mulling over the significance of this word and that as you develop it. However, it needn’t be like that.

You can successfully put a mission, vision, values and aesthetic core together in an hour. In fact, you probably shouldn’t spend any more time than that in the beginning!!

I started giving these ideas some serious thought after attending a basic presenting workshop led by Ken Foster at the Western Arts Alliance Conference in September 2000. I will use his definitions of these terms while adding my two cents.

MISSION – A short, comprehensive statement of purpose; identifies what we do and for whom it is done.

Essentially, the mission has to describe what you do as succinctly as possible. For example:

MISSION: The XYZ String Quartet performs and sings 21st Century jazz and Afro-Cuban music in small venues throughout the United States and Central America.

From this mission we can gather that all of their music will be written in the year 2000 or after, that they sing in addition to play their instruments, and that their audience probably speaks Spanish and/or English.

VISION – A compelling conceptual image of the desired future; a picture of the organization’s ideal future.

Now, your vision serves as a motivator for your audience, community, staff, and if you are a not-for-profit, your board of directors. To continue with our example from above:

VISION: The XYZ String Quartet seeks to bridge the divides that often separate the United States with their counterparts to the south. Through language, music, and presentation, the quartet produces programs that seek reconciliation and inspire collaboration for future generations.

The quartet’s vision is well-defined and inspiring while being broad enough to leave the door open to a variety of artistic approaches and programming decisions.

VALUES (PRINCIPLES) – Core values and philosophies describing how the organization conducts itself in carrying out its mission.

The values often touch upon essential ideals that you want for your business. Most people want their organization to have high standards of quality, be financially prudent, have creativity, and be passionate. This is where you can list your priorities for the organization and decide what is the most important for your business. For example, the XYZ String Quartet could use the following values for quality and financial health:

1. We are a quality organization. We are committed to achieving excellence and hold ourselves to the highest professional standards in the field.
2. We are a financially responsible organization. We understand that our financial health is dependent upon our ability to execute our annual objectives and be opportunistic to any unplanned alternatives.

Now, once you have hashed out a draft of your mission, vision, and values in 30 minutes, set it aside for a week or so. Then, return to them and make some refinements as you see fit. Once that is done, let people know who you are by putting them on your website or running them by your board of directors.

The most important thing to remember is that this document is flexible and should change with the times. Every month for your first year, return to it and see if the statements still ring true. If not, adjust them.

After a year, return to it annually. After a while you will probably find that these simple statements point you in the right direction when your organization is facing tough decisions financially or artistically.

AESTHETIC CORE - It is the artistic point of view and vehicle by which the organization realizes its philosophy as well as the context in which artistic choices are made.

You can think of the aesthetic core as helping to more specifically guide the artistic decisions made by the organization. I would spend 30 minutes putting this one together.

This is where the XYZ String Quartet can talk about their reasons for repertoire choices and venue locations. For example, let’s say that the XYZ String Quartet chose to: 1) commission 4 new works annually; 2) perform music by women composers 25% of the time; 3) collaborate with two other disciplines annually (eg dance, theater, juggling, magic, visual art, etc.); and 4) work in schools 50% of the time. Their aesthetic core may have the following sentences in response:

1. We believe in the creation and promotion of new music.
2. We believe in the performance of music composed by women composers.
3. We seek collaboration with artists of all disciplines.
4. We strive to serve the communities where we live and recognize the need to offer affordable music education.

Again, this document is not designed to hinder the activities of the quartet but rather help steer them in a positive, artistic direction. As with the mission, vision, and values, it should be constantly reviewed and adapted until a brand identity has been established.

As with any journey, it helps to have a map. Depending on who you are, you may look at it a lot or not very much at all. However, without the map, it is really hard to know where you are going. Think of your mission, vision, values and aesthetic core as the map and enjoy your artistic journey. It can be quite a trip.

About the writer: Daniel Wood is an entrepreneurial musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since 2000, he has worked and mentored large and small arts not-for-profits in the areas of management, marketing, development, and board governance. As a founding member and executive director of the horn quartet Quadre (www.quadre.org) and teacher at the Community School of Music and Arts (www.arts4all.org), Daniel publishes his music with Solid Wood Publishing (www.solidwoodmusic.com) and lectures on the business of music nationally as a "Savvy Musician" advocate (www.savvymusician.com)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Crazy Rhythm Commission

Hi everyone. The following are the answers I recently provided a student in Alabama about one of the works Quadre commissioned in 2000, Crazy Rhythm by Michael Kallstrom. I thought you might find it interesting.

1. What is Quadre’s relationship with Michael Kallstrom?

I first started talking to him when Quadre was in residence in Selma, Alabama during the 1999-2000 season. I believe the ensemble met him at the Southeast Horn Workshop in 2000 at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. We stayed in touch during the commissioning process and followed up once after the premieres. We have lost touch since although we still send him updates care of our mailing list.

I might add that this relationship is not unusual. In working with composers and other artists over the years, often there is a very close connection during the project and then everyone moves on afterwards. In some ways, this is probably necessary to give the kind of focus that is required for each new endeavor. That said, please send him my regards since it has been a while since we talked.

2. When and why did you choose to commission a quartet from Michael Kallstrom?
We had played Starflame, liked it, and wanted him to compose a multi-movement work for us. He sent us the final copy in April or May of 2000 I believe.

3. Where and when was the premiere of CRAZY RHYTHM?

The premiere was on Friday, December 14, 2001 at San Jose City College in San Jose, CA. It was repeated on Sunday, December 16, 2001 at Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco, CA.

4. Was it well received by your audience?
We didn't survey the audience after that concert, so I can't give you specific feedback. Although, from what I remember, I believe the audience enjoyed it.

5. Who were the performers? Do you remember the part assignments?
The performers were Armando Castellano (I), Meredith Brown (II), Carrie Campbell (III) and myself - Daniel Wood (IV).

6. How would you describe each movement of CRAZY RHYTHM?

First movement - Moderato, quarter note equals 88
A rhythm predominants the first movement: 2 sixteenths, eighth followed by an eighth rest and then four sixteenths, eighth. The quartet starts by playing this rhythm together and continues to return to that figure as a melodic device and accompaniment. Energy slowly builds until the quartet plays in unison a triplet passage in m.55. This is followed by a caesura in m.61, the only one Kallstrom employs throughout the work. A short espressivo section follows at m.62 before the movement returns to the opening figure at m.75. A couple bars employ stopped horn, however the color Kallstrom achieves in this movement is mostly from exploring the sonic qualities of multiple players in unison rhythmically, melodically or both.

Second movement - Adagio, quarter note equals 66
With a focus on the low range of the instrument, movement 2 has a murky quality with many low notes occurring in seconds in the beginning. As the movement progresses, a canonic like section begins that rises to an Ab written above the staff for the 1st horn. A bass drum like syncopation supports the very legato texture throughout the work. After the climax at m.53, the movement gets softer and softer until all players are asked to merely whisper their parts. It closes with the same murky seconds from which it began.

Third movement - Allegro moderato, quarter note equals 120
In the third, the opening three bar figure in horns 2 and 4, repeats itself for the entire movement. The figure varies over the course of the piece, gets passed between parts, and switches from a melodic to an accompaniment role from time to time. In contrast, a melodic theme that uses eighth notes and triplets occurs in the other parts with occasional solos, subito dynamics, and very staccato notes. While the metronome mark is 120, the work feels more like 60 due to the ostinato of the opening figure.

Fourth movement - Allegro assai, quarter note equals 144
This movement has a lot of moves from a quarter note to a dotted quarter note feel. For example, the first nine bars change meter until the work settles in common time in m.10. (6/8 to 3/4 to 9/8 to 6/8 to 9/8 to 3/4 to 2/4 to 3/4 to 7/8 to 4/4) These changes of meter continue throughout the movement, but in less frequency after the beginning. There is a great deal of time where all four players play the same syncopated rhythms. The rhythmic opening leads way to a climax at m.37. A melodic section follows until the work begins its trip at m.67 towards the finale with numerous entrances that match the earlier underlying syncopated rhythms. A nice subito forte four player octave slur happens in m.122 that grabs the audience's attention with a build that follows to the climax at the very end.

We did perform the fourth movement on its own in a number of concerts and masterclasses the most notable being the Manhattan School of Music in January, 2002.

7. Besides the obvious ‘crazy rhythms’ found in CR what, in your (or the quartet’s) opinion, were the most challenging aspects of the work?
Despite the name, the piece doesn't focus on 'crazy rhythms.' I asked Michael how he came up with his titles. He said that he just uses the names found on the back of the scratch manuscript paper he uses which is from an old radio station I believe. The title on the back for this piece was 'crazy rhythm.' Nonetheless, the rhythms can be a little tricky to line up at times. Getting all the parts to play in perfect unison can be difficult and getting the seconds in tune in the low range as well as at the endings was a little challenging. However, the piece pretty much played itself. For a quartet that has been together for some time, it would be easy to program it.

8. In your opinion, how approachable is CR (and by what level of playing)?
It is approachable. I believe a talented college group in their second or third years would be able to manage the work with minimal rehearsal. Even a talented high school group with a good deal of practice and rehearsal could do it. The highest note is a horn Ab above the staff. The lowest note is a horn Bb an octave and a step below middle C. These extremes are used sparingly however. The first and third horn are predominantly the high parts while the 2nd and 4th are the low. Adequate break time is given within each of the parts so that no one has to play constantly.

9. How many other original horn quartets has Quadre commissioned?
We have commissioned:
14 original works for horn quartet (includes 1 trio and 2 quintets)
7 original works for horn quartet + soloist/ensemble (flute, percussion, wind ensemble, choir, etc.)
24 arrangements for horn quartet alone
15 arrangements for horn quartet + soloist/ensemble (piano, soprano, handbells, steel drums, etc.)

10. Has Quadre performed any other Kallstrom quartets?
I believe we played Starflame during some of our concerts in 2000 and 2001. Jeepers was also considered for a few concerts, but we have not performed it.

11. CRAZY RHYTHM is Kallstrom’s first 4-movement horn quartet. How else is CR different from the other horn quartets Kallstrom has composed for the TransAtlantic Quartet?
Besides Jeepers and Starflame, I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with Kallstrom's other horn quartets. However, I feel that Crazy Rhythm is more introspective than Jeepers and Starflame.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Should I start a Non-Profit?

First off, I have to confess that I’m not a lawyer. I was the jury foreman once, but I don’t think that counts. So please don’t take my advice and quote me in a court of law. They would probably laugh anyway. However, I did start a not-for-profit performing arts corporation in California and have acted as its executive director for the past ten years so I have learned a thing or two.

With that experience, individuals take me out for coffee asking how to start their own not-for-profits. They want to know:

1) How do I apply?
2) Can I make money with a not-for-profit?
3) Is a not-for-profit time consuming?
4) Is it worth starting one?

For number 1, I tell them to buy a book for the application process. I used the Nolo Press book, How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation. It is available from online retailers and will probably have the latest information on the process in your state.

Number 2 is easy. Not-for-profits can make money. They just can’t funnel that money into employee’s pockets at the end of year as bonuses. They have to use any extra income they make and put it back into their organization. For example, the extra revenue could be used to buy equipment or build up a savings account (read that as unrestricted operating cash reserve in “nonprofit-ese”.)

Not-for-profits are time consuming. You are setting up a corporation. (All not-for-profits are corporations.) You are breathing life into an entity with its own unique tax ID number that can “never die.” More on that later. Any time you start something like that, it is going to take some time to keep it running smoothly.

And finally, given the mission and focus of your idea, a not-for-profit can be well worth it and the way to go. For most people who talk to me, it isn’t. They are doing it for insurance reasons, to get donations, or to apply for a grant. You don’t need to be a not-for-profit to do these things. I explain at the bottom. Hint: fiscal agent.

As most people know, contributions to not-for-profits are tax deductible, but the organization also benefits from a variety of other factors. Simply put they are: tax exemptions, limited liability, perpetual legal existence, employee benefits, and formality.

The first two are pretty self-explanatory. Being tax exempt means that you don’t pay taxes on your revenue. Woohoo!! If you are a performing arts organization that makes a lot of money every year and the taxes would be a big blow to your organization, then being a not-for-profit due to your charitable existence is a very good idea. Many smaller organizations, like chamber ensembles, don’t have that issue of rolling in money so this wouldn’t be a driving factor for them.

As for perpetual legal existence, this can be a really nice thing. It kind of makes you immortal. When you are a not-for-profit, your audience can feel confident that you are going to stick around. Funders and donors are more inclined to invest in what you do too. Of course, if you do go under, there are some legal ramifications with this. Check out the disadvantages for that.

While a not-for-profit corporation can't share profits amongst employees, salaries can and should be commensurate with for-profit organizations. Your organization should make sure to have the necessary funds for administrative and artistic compensation, healthcare, pension, and benefits such as professional development.

Finally, the formality of the organization in regards to its documents (Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws, Minutes of Meetings, Board Resolutions, etc.) creates a "built-in set of ground rules...that is an important advantage...where the composition of the board includes diverse members of the community with correspondingly divergent interests." (Nolo Press, How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation in California) Without these guidelines, reaching collective decisions that benefit the community at large would be difficult if not completely futile.

Things are not completely peachy however. Not-for-profit corporations have a great deal of paperwork to deal with, the high price tag of incorporation costs and fees, and lots of time and energy to maintain.

And while the rosy gates often are opened to you if you are a not-for-profit in terms of grants, tax deductible donations, rental rates, insurance premiums, etc., two words very often can help you avoid setting up the not-for-profit in the first place: fiscal agent. Another not-for-profit with a similar mission can act as your fiscal agent and be used as a go between you and the grant, donor, insurance company, etc. Arts councils and national service organizations often act in this capacity for their constituents.

And if you form a not-for-profit and it doesn’t work out, all of your assets need to be given to another not-for-profit that does comparable work. Therefore, if all the music you bought for your symphony was paid for by the not-for-profit, every last piece of it needs to go to another not-for-profit group if the bills can’t be paid. Hopefully it will never come to that. In this economic climate though, you never know.

Forming a not-for-profit can really help you organize your mission and get your idea off on the right track. However, it can be a ton of work to maintain. If you have an idea that will keep you working throughout the year and it has a charitable mission, then perhaps starting that not-for-profit is the right way to go. Either way, good luck and make your idea happen.

About the writer: Daniel Wood is an entrepreneurial musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since 2000, he has worked and mentored large and small arts not-for-profits in the areas of management, marketing, development, and board governance. As a founding member and executive director of the horn quartet Quadre (www.quadre.org) and teacher at the Community School of Music and Arts (www.arts4all.org), Daniel publishes his music with Solid Wood Publishing (www.solidwoodmusic.com) and lectures on the business of music nationally as a "Savvy Musician" advocate (www.savvymusician.com)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top 10 Tips for Composing and Arranging

In Quadre, Nathan and I create a lot of the original music and arrangements that we play. The process of creation can be the most agonizing and exhilarating experience at the same time. Below are some of the tips and stories that I've gathered along the way.

Feel the Beat Concert
In March, 2008, we did a concert with percussionist extraordinaire Jim Kassis at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. As part of that concert, we performed 2 premieres: one by Nathan called Midlife Crisis and another by me called In Time. Nate wrote a wickedly hard marimba solo that was accompanied by a not so easy horn quartet background. The piece was written in two movements: 44 1/2 and Fresh Beat. The first was rather introspective yet soaring at times while the second was a kind of "hold on to your hat because this is going to be a wild ride."

Nate got the parts to all of us in plenty of time. I, on the other hand, was having a very difficult time with my work. I knew how I wanted it structured as well as the moods I was going for, but I just wasn't satisfied with the motives I was coming up with. Needless to say, it was the week of rehearsal prior to the concert and I still wasn't done with it. At the last rehearsal before the concert operating on less than 2 hours of sleep, I presented the missing movement. With minimal "woodshed" time, we did it. I thought it came off well and as far as the audience was concerned, I don't think they could tell that it was considerably newer than the other premiere.

Later, before we went to record it, I realized why I was getting so unstuck writing it for the concert. The work loosely captures my personal history with women - in particular, my ex-wife. We were only married for a month and a half, so it wasn't much of a marriage although it did create some angst. However, angst for a composer can be a good thing. Before I revised the work for the recording, the movements were titled Luck, Love, Loss and Laughter. The movement I had the most trouble with was Love. Surprise, surprise. When I revised it, I realized that Love was really a fifth movement called Lies. I wrote a new movement titled Love, which was now easy, and the work finally came together as Luck, Love, Lies, Loss and Laughter. You never know when inspiration is going to strike.

Valentine Concert
About a year later, Nate wrote for a huge collaborative concert we had with a flute quartet, Areon Flutes; flute soloist, Molly Barth; and four combined school choirs. He composed three brand new works for horn quartet and choir called Mother's Chocolate Valentine, Skeleton Hiccups, and To the Groundhog. As you have probably already surmised, they were all written with holidays in mind. Unfortunately, they turned out to be kind of difficult to sing as well. So, Nate, true to form, sang all the parts so that the choirs would have a tape to sing along with. He has a nice voice you know. Hearing him belt out those Soprano parts was pretty amazing.

Horns for the Holidays Album
I leave you with one final story about our Holiday CD. It is kind of a Nate/Daniel story, so you get two for the price of one here. Now, this album has a lot of our arrangements on it with even one original holiday carol by yours truly called Hug Santa for Me. (I guess I did my job well since the first time Lydia played it she asked, "Where is this carol from since I haven't heard it before?" I also got Amy Jo's son, Norty singing the melody endlessly. BEWARE - it can get stuck in your head.) Besides that tune, Nate and I arranged 30 of the other 48 minutes on the album. That is a fair amount of music.

Nate really likes the tune Infant Holy, Infant Lowly. So we talked about it a lot. We finally settled on having him arrange it for bell choir and horn quartet. That created the additional issue of finding a bell choir. Our recording session fell on a busy Saturday and a few ringers had to cancel last minute. Fortunately, Lydia knew a few people and we were able to get a full bell choir by the downbeat. Certainly is easier coordinating schedules with just four people!! Not much easier, but easier.

As for me, when we rehearsed Hug Santa for Me with our guest soloist, Jim Thatcher, the pacing just wasn't right. We had three hours between the rehearsal and the session. I took off to the local copy center and came back with new parts for the evening. Nothing like a deadline to spur creativity.

Now, I wasn't trying to go with a moral with all of these stories, but I guess all of it can be summed up in a top ten tips for composing and arranging:

10. Write it with plenty of time to spare for revisions and compositional angst.
9. Make sure you know where the nearest copy center always is.
8. Write for what you know and learn as much as you can.
7. Deadlines can help give you a kick in the pants.
6. Make it easy enough to play, but hard enough to keep it interesting.
5. Have a backup plan in case the musicians forget to show up.
4. Think about what you write, but let your ear be the judge.
3. Make sure you can sing/play/express your music if there is a question.
2. Mistakes can be new opportunities.
1. Remember the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid.

Oh, and if you want to check out that holiday CD I mentioned above, more info about it is here. Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story, as told by Nathan Pawelek at Quadre's "Horns for the Holidays" CD Release Party (12/14/08)

My dad takes on many responsibilities during the holidays at church. There was one Christmas Eve service that had me clutching my pew cushion, two-handed, and looking at my shoes. Was I the only one embarrassed? I think he was at the peak of his energies, or the last reserves of his multi-tasking faculties before the onset of his post middle-aged years. He doesn’t take on quite as much these days. Part of me is relieved about that, but I do sometimes miss the vigor with which he handled his roles.

He has many abilities—cellist, tenor, playwrite, teacher. He also has plenty of ambition. He sees a way to doing all, and all is spurred on by the prospect of public approval. He seems busy to the point of frazzled, yes, but always with good intentions and always with a logical, if spontaneous, plan in his mind. He is not a delegator. If I can only move quicker, he must tell himself, as he run-walks from place to place with conviction. But for the most part it goes off okay, whatever it is.

For this particular Christmas Eve service, though he was not the minister, my dad had gotten himself in charge of delivering the main message. How could he present a fresh perspective on the holiday season, something new and transformative that congregation members would go home pondering as they lit their candles and prepared for their own family traditions?

Initially, he planned to write his own sermon, but he instead decided on a personalized version of Christmas in the Trenches. This is a true story about a brief unofficial cessation of hostilities between British and German troops on Christmas Eve in 1914. They emerged from their trenches along a front in France, exchanged gifts, food, cigarettes, song and camaraderie, and may have even played soccer. (Paul McCartney made a video about it on MTV years ago called Pipes of Peace).

My dad painstakingly adapted the story into a neat little piece for narrator and pantomimes. The senior high youth group, of which he was the leader, would dramatize the action. He thought it would be spectacular to have special lighting, real gun-fire sound effects, army uniforms, and wooden rifles that clicked (quietly) when you pulled the trigger. He spent a lot of time locating and renting the props and lighting, and then installing the lights himself.

As I recall, there was little rehearsal. I think he just sort of explained the basic idea to the teenagers, and that they should essentially improvise their blocking. He gave them their rifles and uniforms and told them to show up a little after the service started. Meanwhile, he had the choir and the orchestra to worry about. He was in both. Plus, he had the lobster dinner to prepare, which is a tradition in our house on Christmas Eve.

There was a lamp by his seat as cellist in the orchestra, one of ours from home. He said he couldn’t see his music. The church had only one music stand light, which was the organist’s. It must have looked like mood lighting to the congregation, adding a certain living room ambiance to the pulpit area, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just…different. But no one else in the orchestra had a lamp.

When the service started, my dad was seated in the orchestra, a piece-meal ensemble including a tenor sax and a baritone. He was the only cellist, and there beside him was that big lamp. The first few carols medley of the prelude went off pretty well for a group of amateurs. Then there was the first reading from Luke, another orchestra carol, and now it was the choir’s turn to sing. I wondered how he was also going to get up on stage? Space was tight and he seemed pretty well boxed in.

I watched as he hurriedly clunked down his cello and stepped over the lamp cord to the stage stairs. The choir was already assembled, waiting for him to join the tenors. Once the choir was finished singing, he quickly returned to the orchestra for the congregational hymn, where he carefully stepped over the lamp cord again and picked up his cello.

Maybe because I am his son and as such, overly critical, I found myself focused entirely on my dad that evening. To me, he was the side-show of the service. Once the hymn was done, dad got up to leave his orchestra seat, but not to join the choir this time. He wanted to make sure the teenagers were dressed and ready to go. He clunked down his cello again, and this time he didn’t step high enough over that cord. The lamp jerked off its pedestal, crashed to the floor barely missing his cello, and the light went out. Some people reacted with gasps. He picked up the limp lamp and tested the switch unsuccessfully, unmindful of the people watching him. It still didn’t work after he tried tightening the bulb. All this happened while the minister delivered the second Luke reading.

Leaving the lamp, he walked straight down the middle aisle, the same one the clergy used to process, to his army of teens in the back of the hall waiting with helmets and rifles. He’s a tall man, hard to miss. I thought he should have been more inconspicuous and ducked around to a side aisle. I remember he wore a cream-colored sweater, gray high-water corduroy pants, and brown zip-up boots that were trendy in the 1970s. This was the 1990s.

Just before the narration of Christmas in the Trenches, a competent soprano from the choir, Peggy, began singing O Holy Night with the organist accompanying. While she sang the first verse, my dad thought it wouldn’t hurt to quickly test the spotlights he’d installed, and they suddenly shined in Peggy’s eyes. She recoiled at the abrupt brightness, and her vibrato briefly widened. She blinked rapidly but kept going.

Then, during the second verse, unbelievably, as she approached the dramatic high C, we all suddenly heard gunshot. I knew what it was. He was now testing the sound effects. Peggy paused, calmly looked at the ceiling as if someone were up there banging around. I watched as she kept smiling, her hand poised in front of her like she was a conductor holding a fermata. The organist held the chord. And when the shots subsided, she took a huge breath and resumed like the machine gun fire was a natural part of the piece, hitting the high C boldly, exasperatingly, the way only a soprano would handle such a moment.

Christmas in the Trenches that followed was powerful, but it might have been more dramatic had the gunshot sound effects actually worked. When it was time, he pressed the button on his remote control to a Bose CD player in the back of the hall, but there were no sound effects. The teens, assembled impressively in uniform on stage with their rifles and helmets, suddenly had nothing to authenticate the pantomimed firefight. My dad furiously worked the remote like a joystick, holding it up over the congregation and pointing it to the back. The youth began doing what anyone would do, I suppose. They battled on, now making their own sound effects—explosions with their mouths, and pulling their triggers to steely soft clicks. They hunted each other, and I think I actually heard one whisper, “You’re dead. Hey I got you!”

During the candle lighting, dad’s role in the service was done, except for the orchestra’s Jingle Bells to close the service. I relaxed. When my candle was lit, I looked out across the congregation, a packed house with extra chairs set up in the lobby area, candles all ablaze. It was beautiful. I had forgotten about the rough moments of the service. And I did go home imagining those soldiers in WWI, despite having to look at my shoes in embarrassment. Those soldiers had the courage to come together in an absurd moment of good will. That was the fresh perspective on the season, successfully, if chaotically, imparted. And we, the congregation, who had come seeking renewal, were fulfilled. The music and the message delivered.

Our family lobster dinner was scrumptious. But dad was afraid he might cut himself on the shells so he came to the table wearing thick blue surgical gloves. He also complained of a cold coming on and had a dust mask on to protect us, “Like the Japanese do,” he rationalized.

While we ate he reflected in muffled voice, “Well the service wasn’t so bad, was it?” No. But that’s when we gently advised that he not take on so many roles in future Christmas Eve services. He didn’t make any promises that night, but he seems to have internalized the advice consequently. Those services, however, have not been as exciting in recent years. There is something to be said for the nuance of imperfection in the context of a genuine good effort to follow through with some pretty darn good ideas.