A musician is not a conductor is not a composer.

Why are not all musicians also composers? Or conductors? They know everything there is to know about music, some of them are walking wikipedia’s, but still, they don’t write music. Why?

Sunday I was at an organ concert and it dawned upon me, that the music did not ‘play the room‘. We heard the best organ player of the Netherlands on a top 10 Dutch organ in Delft. So, we did hear the best version of the music possible. But the church was huge with a long echo and the music vast en jumpy. There was not a chance you could hear all those short notes separately, because the music wasn’t written for the church or for the organ to shine.

Toccata, E. Gigout, played by Jan Hage. Maarchalkerweerd orgel, Maria van Jesse Kerk Delft

In the program it said that the composer was an organ player himself. So the music was designed by musicians for musicians to excel on the instrument. It was written to de glory of the musician. And you could hear that.

When musicians compose, it is often a technical difficult piece to show off.

When I was taking classes, there was a student who had much jazz experience. I always thought that jazz musicians were free to do whatever they liked. I learned that jazz musicians need to use known forms and progressions to make music and that it is very hard to let go of that when you compose jazz music. The student wrote a jazz piece that sounded nice, but it was not new. He used material known to sound well, but that didn’t give him new music.

When jazz musicians compose, they repeat known harmonics and structures, because they need that to make music together.

How to train your dragon / John Powell, arr. by Ton Van Grevenbroek.

We once had a conductor, Ton van Grevenbroek, who wrote amazing arrangements for wind band, listen to his arrangement in the video. Isn’t it marvelous? He told my husband, he would never be able to compose. He just could not come up with the ideas. In his music you hear that he knows how to write music, all the effects are correct, the instrumentation. But you don’t hear something new or different.

An arranger is not a composer. He redesigns the orchestration, but not the musical idea itself.

Composition by Ton Van Grevenbroek

Conductors are trained to analyse a score and reproduce the 3D musical landscape that composer wrote. This is a different kind of training than a composer needs: The composer learns it all, forgets all about it and then starts to work. A conductor cannot do that, he would not be a good guide taking his musicians on a musical journey, forgetting everything.

Conductors write arrangements, they write down what they have already heard in the beste possible way.

Apparently, musicians and conductors are not composers. They are all very good at something else: playing the music. (In my opinion, a conductor is a musician playing the instrument ‘orchestra’.) They perform at such high technical levels that a composer could almost write anything for any instrument. Musicians and composers spoil the composer, that is for sure.

Now let’s turn this around: What happens when the composer plays, conducts or arranges?

What happen if a composer is on stage as a musician? He would start ‘improving’ his part in the composition, change the dynamics, ritenuto, articulation. Until it sounds ‘better’, that means, more like his own work.

What happens if a composer is on stage as a conductor? Exactly the same thing: now the composer has even more power and will change the tempi, the dynamics, the articulation, even the orchestration. Until it sounds ‘better’, again.

You can hear the difference in the audio below, where first a composer conducts a part of my composition Thaleia and second a conductor:

Conductors experiment with phrase from Thaleia: first you hear the composer (S. Melillo) second you hear the conductor (J. Lorenz)

What happens if a composer works as an arranger? He will certainly add his fingerprint: his orchestration. And since he now even has the power over the score, he will rework it, until it sounds ‘better’.

It is best to let a composer only play/conduct/arrange his own work, because he will ‘improve’ and mess up other peoples compositions.

But a composer has to be also a musician and a conductor. Why?

What happens when a composer is not a musician? There are composers that don’t play any instrument, they exist. When composers only write for digital orchestra and use samples, they end up with flutes overpowering trombones or strings on top of trumpets. Since we developed software to make this possible, we created the option to design an impossible musical world. Now we can hear things that in real life don’t exist.

Mike Verta is an excellent teacher when you want to get away from sound samples and composer for real orchestra’s. All his online classes are great.

First of all, it is nice when a composer understands what your instrument is about, so the composition doesn’t force you to do complicated technical stuff. It is also nice when you notice that the composer took really interest in your instrument and orchestrated it the right way: A tuba is not a bas-guitar, yet, I have to play those parts on my tuba very often. A viola is not a violin, yet, Mahler writes very high notes for it.

Composers who are musicians but don’t play in orchestras also have trouble understanding how an orchestra works. They never sat in them and experienced the beauty and difficulty of being a musician in an orchestra. It is also very difficult to explain verbally what is so magical and difficult about singing together, playing phrases on a violin with the right bowing with a group, watching the conductor and reading sheet-music at the same time. There are also great cultural differences between the different orchestras: symphonic, wind, choirs. They all have a different culture with different conducting styles.

Even the registers within one orchestra have a different atmosphere: Never underestimate the proud low brass, take time until the flutes are seated, don’t make fun of the waving body-movements of the violinist. When you play those instruments and mingle with the musicians, you get a feel of all those groups and why it is that they behave in that particular way.

Which instrument should a composer play? All of them!

Stephen Melillo even bought one of each wind-instrument second hand, to play it. I think that is indeed the best way to become a great composer. What I try to do now, is play with different amateur orchestras and experience all of that. Though I am taking piano-lessons, just playing the piano is not good enough to get a real feel for music. You need to at least sing with your piano-playing. I discovered that playing several instruments at mediocre level in different orchestras is the best way to learn.

You have to be a musician in order to write properly for real people in a real orchestra.

Now, let’s see what happens when a composer cannot conduct.

First of all, it is useful to know what a conductors task is and how difficult his instrument (the orchestra) is. But there is more to it:

When a composer cannot conduct, he cannot demonstrate to himself how the music will develop over time. When a composer is conducting his own music before an imagined orchestra, he feels how the music and the sound-colors are developing over time. You can feel where the music stops flowing, where the hurdles are.

You can even conduct a new musical idea, record it on video and use the video to write the music. Being a conductor makes you a more creative composer. To illustrate this, you see me conducting a text. I could use this video and write music to it.

Me, conducting a text from a magazine about Mount Everest

You can only feel your music in time and space when you conduct the air in your room.

For a composer it is really hard to conduct their own work, because they are very emotionally attached to it. The emotions of hearing your own composition in real life, can be so overwhelming that you forget to conduct and go with the music. But for a composer, conducting his work is the best way to learn from all sounds and faces around him, what he can do to improve in his work.

What makes a composer a ‘real’ composer?

To be a good composer, you have to be the musician in and the conductor of your own work while composing it. But that leaves the question: What makes a composer a ‘real’ composer? Apart from all the skills needed?

I think this is the creative ability to come up with something new. Composers often describe it as ‘music comes to me’ ‘music is part of the universe’ or ‘music is part of nature’. They have a talent to hear new music in their heads. It is just the way their brain is wired: they don’t repeat music, they mix unconscious music-memories and make them into something new. Composers always have their own sound, DNA, fingerprint, orchestration. They never sound alike because they compose their own personal ‘story’.

Composers also have an inner need to express themselves in music. It does not really feel as a choice to compose or not. They experience a lack of personal expression when they cannot write music. They want to hear their own story in music, that is what makes them composers.

Categorized as Composers

By Anneloes Wolters


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