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Composer 101: The Secret Behind the Music in 5 Stages

What Really Happens When a Composer Writes Music?

When you watch your amazing composition performed for the first time, audience members are usually wowed by the amount of work that it took to create the work. They often can't fathom the hours behind such a great musical feat, even if they didn't care for the music, they still remark on the ingenuity it took to pull together the latest song, whether it was a string quartet, an avant-garde percussion piece, or an electroacoustic work. 

The reality is that it takes a lot of time to write a composition, and usually the work takes several stages.
STAGE 1: The Planning Stage
Most composers take some time to plan out their piece. This can include writing sketches in a notebook, jamming on an instrument, listening to recordings, or even reading books. Like composer Leonard Bernstein, my routine also involves many hours lying down, inert, letting my brain figure out how I will create my next work. 
Sketches from Destiny: Eondwyr

STAGE 2: Writing the Music
Some folks use piano, paper, and pencil (still my first choice), but other composers will composer directly into music software like Logic or Finale, or even work out a piece with a performer, especially for a commission. This process usually ends with a finished score ready for the performer. Some composers are lucky enough to have an assistant who will orchestrate a work or input music notation for hours on end. Most do all the work themselves. For my current piece, Destiny: Eondwyr, I spent a couple of hours yesterday slowly improvising to a click into Logic using my Malletkat just to save time inputting literally hundreds of notes.
Composing Music on my Malletkate for a new Commission

I personally hate this stage. This is usually when you have completed the score and either fix problems or have given it to a performer, and then have to fix problems. It is the moment when you hit yourself in the head and go "Egads! I forgot about the B flat!" or wonder "But oh why can't the timpanist play the triangle with her teeth???!?!" Ok, maybe not that dramatic, but after poring over your music for months, or even years, it can be disheartening to have to rewrite everything. Best bet, get it right the first time. 

STAGE 4: Rehearsals
English: Description - Leonard Bernstein with ...
If you are an electronic composer, congrats! You can skip this stage, but most of us have to deal with rehearsals, either in person or remotely online. It's usually best if you can be there for most rehearsals, but often that is not the case. I can't remember the last time I sat in on a live rehearsal of one of my works since I usually collaborate with folks online.

STAGE 5: The Concert
This is the stage where the composer sits on pins and needles, listening to a work for the first time. Old pros might not stress as much, but almost everyone has the jitters with a premier - the first time a piece is played. Will they love it? Will they hate it? Will you be run out of town? Sometimes a job is on the line with each premier, or future work with an ensemble, so the stakes are high!

Opera Highlights from Libertaria: The Virtual Opera

After writing a composition, especially a large scale one, most composers are a bit burned out. Unless their sole job is churning out symphonies or ballets or operas, most will take some time for some R&R or spend time working on less strenuous projects. For example, I finished my first opera Libertaria last year after over two years of hard work. I currently am working on a commission and a few short electronic pieces, and a novel. I have ideas for a new opera, but it's a little too soon, and I am still promoting the new opera, so instead I am stepping back from writing another choral work for a little while. But who knows, maybe next year the opera bug will bite me again!
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Music Secrets: How to Write an Opera, Part 1

Feel like writing an opera is only for big name composers with big budgets? Or are you willing to take the plunge and create a work in one of the most compelling and cutting edge musical opera? Almost two years ago I embarked on the largest musical production I have created to date -  Libertaria: The Virtual Opera. After writing the award-winning Creation Oratorio and dozens of multimedia works, I wanted to combine my love of the audio and the visual into a single large scale work.  Find a Great Dramatic Story You need a strong story to write a compelling opera. Fortunately you can easily borrow from thousands of public domain works and modernize them. Think of West Side Story (just a contemporary version of Shakespear's Romeo and Juliet) .   Many great operas use Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm , and Biblical stories, all of which include interesting characters, strong themes, and action.   Libertaria borrows heavily from messianic stories, but is se

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Music Secrets: How to Write an Opera, Part 2 After the incredibly positive feedback that I had from Music Secrets: How to Write an Opera, Part 1 , I thought I would talk a little bit about the composition angle of writing, at least how I do it in regards to vocal music . Here's a quick primer for anyone learning some of the basics of writing vocal music for opera, musicals, classical music , etc.  1. The Sketch I have had several great teachers in my life - Dr. Clare Shore , Hilton Jones, Dr. Kristine Burns, Paul Reller , Dr. Frederick Kaufman, Dr. Orlando Garcia, Chuck Owen, etc. My composition prof (and USF SYCOM guru) Paul Reller helped me develop the composition technique that I have had for years.  Download the Libertaria: The Virtual Opera Soundtrack at iTunes When I have the time to go through the entire composition process (because sometimes I have to skip a step or two for deadlines), I will start out with pencil, paper, and a piano (or keyboard, in my case).

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