When I compose, I sometimes like to bounce ideas off of my wife, Maria.  It has its risks, though.  An idea that I have in my head may provoke a completely different reaction from her than what I envision.  But one of the nice things about being married for almost 20 years is that I no longer need to tell her if I disagree with her.  She can read that look in my face … the one that (unintentionally) says, “OK, I hear what you’re saying, but I disagree, and this conversation is no longer helping me.”  And she politely backs off from her point and lets me take what ideas I did like from her.

I find it well worth bouncing ideas off of her, because sometimes, as a composer, I need a fresh perspective to throw in some new directions.

So, today I took a risk, and I learned what it was like to get fresh perspective from a high school band.

This past week – I was verging on stuck.  I had a decent beginning to the band piece.  I knew what I wanted the music to say next (or at least I thought I did), but nothing I came up with was working.

So, Monday morning arrives, and I get to present to the band my results of the past week.  This is what I’ve written so far.  You like it?  Great!  Now, for what happens next … I don’t know.

So, I asked them to suggest ideas to me.

I’ve never done something so uncontrolled with a band residency before.  Typically, I build careful restraints around the questions I ask.  Questions like: What ideas for orchestration do you have here?  What kind of things can I do to create this effect?

But what I was about to ask was something completely different.

After quickly going through what I (as a composer) think about to keep the music sounding “organic,” I asked them to take out their instruments and fiddle for a few minutes, and then present some ideas back at me.

“Go!” I declare.

Nothing happens.  I get back only deer-in-the-headlight eyes staring at me.  I can imagine their thoughts … “You want me to improvise an idea here in front of everybody else?”  Uh, oh, I think.  This was way to risky a step … After all, this is the first day back from break, and what is the likeliness that any of them are truly awake?

But, I offer a little more coaching.  A little more assurance that there are no wrong ideas.  And, “Go!” I exclaim again.

Someone picks up an instrument and starts experimenting.  After a while, most of the band is trying out ideas on their instruments.  In one corner, a few are staring blankly.  I invite them to form a small group with folks from the row behind and collaborate on ideas.  Soon, they’re engaged in the process, too (or at least it looks that way to me …).

After a couple of minutes, I quiet the band down and start soliciting ideas.

Sam spoke first:  How about taking this figure you have in your melody and transcribing it to a diminished scale?  (Actually, that wasn’t his words, but that’s what they amounted to.)

Off to the piano – I played back what he played on his trumpet.  He suggested passing it back and forth between some instruments, and then he started playing smaller, more frantic, fragments of the motif in quick succession.

Cool idea, I thought.

Someone else … How about doing a repeated note in the bass … and he did a bit of scat for me … ba-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-DAH-da-da-da-DAH-da … At the piano again, I played back what he had, and threw Sam’s idea on top of it.

Oooh – they liked that.  The band started to sit a bit taller now.

From the far left side:  How about changing the meter to maybe 3/4 in the second section?  Well, I responded, you gotta be careful that you don’t create a middle section that sounds too different from the first section, but if you’re going change meter – why not something a bit more driving, like 5/4?

To the piano again, I change the bass line to 5/4 and add Sam’s idea back on top.  They really liked that.

Another hand go up … How about upper woodwind accents, like “deeddle-leeddle-leeddle … deeddle-leeddle …”

More improv at the piano, adding the accents.  Ooo’s & Ahh’s from the band members.

They’re hooked, and so am I.  I think I now have a plan for the middle section.

And, thank goodness.  The ideas start to peter.  Clearly things have come to an end, and I’m very lucky – I’ve barely reached the end of my allotted time, with no more lesson plan to spare.  (No instructor wants to run out of lesson plan before the class is done …)

Next?  I recorded the whole class on my laptop, so I get to listen to the ideas again to make sure I remember them correctly.  I will read all of the comments and suggestions that the students wrote onto the questionnaires I handed them.  Then, off to the piano, to improv more ideas, jot down what I like, and eventually paste it together into a middle section.

To put it short, I’m jazzed.

And after that, all I have to do is write the final section.  That should be easy … I think … or if not … um … Hey, Maria, would you come here for a second?


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