Use the Copying Technique to Study Composition

If you have ever spent some time in an art museum, you may have noticed an art student with a sketchpad and pencil drawing a work of art. Sometimes they are sketching the main outlines, sometimes they are going into every little detail, but either way what they are doing is copying. By actually putting a masterpiece down in their own hand, an artist can feel and think about the work more intimately than simply by looking at it alone.

I propose that composition students take the same approach when learning how to write music. By literally copying a piece of music you can learn far more about what makes it work than by simply listening. Depending on the style this might mean literally writing out the notation, or it might mean trying to duplicate the music exactly in your DAW.

This can’t be a passive task, however. Mindlessly copying out notation while you watch TV is about as useful as using a photocopier. I’ve made this mistake before, thinking that if I simply copied out twenty pages of Debussy I’d somehow absorb everything and become a brilliant orchestrator. But I was merely drawing notes, not paying mindful attention to the music, and so I wasted my time.

You need to actually pay attention to the work, to think about each note. You need to question it’s existence. Why did the composer use that motive there? Why the decision to change to that harmony? Why two half notes instead of a whole note? And so on.

I read about a composer who used this method in an even more challenging and brilliant way. I believe it was Ernst Toch, author of The Shaping Forces in Music. He would copy out by hand the entire exposition of the first movement from a Mozart string quartet. Then when he reached the development he would stop looking at the Mozart and instead write his own development section.

Afterwards he’d go back and compare his development to Mozart’s. Every single time he was blown away by how Mozart had handled the same material, but more importantly he really understood WHY and HOW Mozart had done it. He had lived intimately with the themes and motives of the exposition. He knew them in his bones, and so he had a better insight into Mozart’s decisions than practically anyone else who was merely listening.

It’s hard work. Really hard work, especially when you are first starting out and the approach is new and difficult. But if you want to reach elite status, hard work is what it’s going to take.

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On Being Fully Committed With Your Music

Photo by Ed Schipul

Occasionally I teach private lessons in composition, which it turns out is one of the best ways to learn and improve on my own writing. Explaining a particular concept or technique helps bring it back to my attention and solidify the idea in my mind.

Among the many problems that my students have with their work (including low production value, rambling, using too many ideas at once, etc.), perhaps the most significant is a lack of commitment to their ideas.

By this I mean that their “loud” and “quiet” moments are both just kind of medium. Their chord “progressions” are static and don’t go anywhere. Their “fast and driving” tempo is more like a walking pace.

There is a lack of commitment to what they are trying to say, or at least what they think they are saying. Whatever it is they are attempting to express, they just don’t seem to be getting there.

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2014 – The Year in Review

(image by Artis Rams)

As 2014 comes to an end, I’d like to look back on some highlights of my work over the past year.

– My music was featured in the beautiful short film “Carry On” by Yatao Li. The film has taken the festival circuit by storm and is on the list of only 10 films eligible for the Academy Award for Best Short Film!

– Feature film “Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs”, directed by Academy Award winning creature designer Tom Woodruff Jr. and written/produced by Brian Lubocki and Michael Hayes.

“The Emissary” by Rudy Dobrev, starring Emmy winning actress Margo Martindale, co-starring Law & Order: SVU’s Diane Neal, and edited by Richard Marizy, editor of the Academy Award and Golden Globe winning film La Vie en Rose.

– My second film with writer/director Albert Chan was completed. “Descendants of the Past, Ancestors of the Future” stars Chan and Golden Globe and Emmy nominee Tina Chen. The music was recognized with an Honorable Mention for Best Score at the Asians on Film Festival.

– Several new projects with writer/director Ben Shelton and SoulPancake including:

– Trailer for “The Dancing Pumpkin and the Ogre’s Plot”, an awesome feature animated film I scored last year.

– A ton of new library music, including new tracks specifically for the upcoming third season of “King of the Nerds” and the brand new show “Wake Up Call” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

– An album of orchestral Fantasy Adventure music.

– Many  miscellaneous projects, including string arrangements and recordings with my company Short Order Strings, additional music for an android game, and over twenty new projects with pharmaceutical animation company Viscira.

– 10 Tutorials/Articles for Audiotuts:

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Lowe’s & SoulPancake Magical Holidays

I wrote music for a video that came out today directed by Ben Shelton and produced by Lowe’s and Soulpancake. They asked kids from the Boys & Girls Club to draw their perfect holiday, and then they took those drawings and brought them to life!

The music is an unashamed nod to The Nutcracker, which is a work of genius so why try to fight it?

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emissary poster

“The Emissary” Short Film by Rudy Dobrev

I recently wrote original music for “The Emissary”, a short film written and directed by Rudy Dobrev. The film stars Dobrev, Emmy award winning actress Margo Martindale and Law & Order: SVU‘s Diane Neal.

The film was edited by Richard Marizy, editor of the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award winning film La Vie en Rose.

I collaborated with Rudy previously on Morning Calm, which was an official selection at Clint Eastwood’s 2012 Carmel Film Festival.

Per the official description:
“Margo Martindale (Emmy Award winning actress in a Drama Series, ‘Justified’) takes on the lead role of Natalie Ray, a mother longing for her son. Loosely based on Bellini’s opera ‘Norma’ and inspired by the final days of opera legend Maria Callas, director Rudy Dobrev (‘Morning Calm’), editor Richard Marizy (Academy Award and Golden Globe Award winning film ‘La Vie en Rose’) and cinematographer Daniel Katz (Academy Award winning film ‘Curfew’) bring the viewer on a journey of self realization, discovery and reckoning. An obsession with a young man who resembles her son leads Martindale to a surprise encounter with the stranger when he suddenly shows up at her New York City apartment. Their seemingly fortuitous meeting opens the door to a maelstrom of unpredictable realities as paths cross and lives collide.”

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“The Dancing Pumpkin” on Vimeo on Demand

I’m very excited to announce the release of “The Dancing Pumpkin and the Ogre’s Plot”. The Dancing Pumpkin is a 45 minute animated children’s Halloween special. It features the adventures of the title character and his band of pumpkin friends as the set out to prevent the evil ogre Finkgrinder from hosting a monster clinic to teach monsters how to scare children.

The film was written/directed by Eric Pearson and produced by Silver Hammer Studios. It is available now for rent or purchase on Vimeo on Demand.

I wrote a very fun and adventurous orchestral score for the film. It was a rare opportunity to go truly grand and all-out in true animation score fashion, and it was one honestly of the most fun projects I’ve ever gotten to work on! It’s not often you can write big orchestral music without worrying about being over-the-top, but in the case of an animated film like this one, the bigger the gesture the better.

Here are a few excerpts from the score:

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Photo by Nathan E Photography,

Compose Faster By Breaking Up Your Writing Sessions

It seems counterintuitive, but one of the most effective ways I’ve found for writing music quickly is to break my writing up into multiple sessions.

You might think that the best approach to writing quickly would be to sit down and knock it out in one go. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t account for natural lulls in your energy level and the loss of momentum that can occur during a regular work session. Our minds need fuel (glucose) and rest (breaks and sleep). We can’t simply force mentally taxing work, like creating and producing original music, for extremely long stretches of time.

What works best for me is to write a track in two sessions over two days. The first session is the creative one; this is where I come up with the main ideas, plan out the general outline of the piece, and generally let the music find it’s voice. This is when I figure out what the track is going to be. As soon as I feel myself slowing down, when I notice that I’m looping the same sections over and over, or even if I just feel kind of “stuck”, then I know it’s time to stop.

Assuming it’s not due that afternoon, I’ll wait to come back to it the next day. And a miraculous thing happens: the day before I may have thought I was about half way done. But whenever I come back to it after some time away I find that it’s about 90% complete. I still am surprised that this happens even though it is a very common occurrence. There is something about the perspective of time away that makes the piece feel fresh again and make me realize that I was slowing down and getting stuck not because what I was writing was bad, but that I was simply running out of energy! Hearing it for the “first time” on a new day allows me to actually hear what the music sounds like without all the clutter of “what to do next” going around in my mind.

Then the process of getting the track done becomes quite easy. I flesh out the few sections that are incomplete, add finishing touches, and voila. By splitting the writing process up into two days (writing, then editing), I am able to produce music about twice as fast than if I plow through all in one go. And I’m usually much happier with the result too!

What are some techniques you use to make the writing process easier and faster?

I have had students tell me that their number one problem is writing too slowly. It can take them days or even weeks to produce a single track that is only a few minutes long. But in the professional world you can’t afford to be slow; often deadlines are just days or mere hours away!

I’m considering writing an ebook on this topic, How to Write Music Quickly. If that’s something that interests you please let me know!

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“Descendants of the Past..” Premiere

“Descendants of the Past, Ancestors of the Future” will be part of the Shorts series at the 2014 Boston Asian American Film Festival on October 26th.

The film was directed by Albert Chan and stars Albert alongside Golden Globe, Emmy and Drama Desk nominee Tina Chen. Albert and I previously collaborated on “The Commitment” which has had a very successful festival run with over 25 screenings!

The music I wrote for the film received an honorable mention for “Best Original Score” at the Asians on Film Festival. Here is a track from the score, as well as the film’s trailer:

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Insights from the 2014 Production Music Conference

On Friday September 12th I attended the first ever Production Music Conference in Culver City, hosted by the Production Music Association. The event included keynotes and panels by composers, publishers, library reps and network executives. Here are a few interesting ideas or thoughts I picked up from the event.

  • There was some disagreement about now specific your music should be. One person said that the best way to compete was to do something very specialized, that you do well and no one else does. However another person said they hated receiving submissions that were “too specific” because that meant the uses were limited. What to make of that I’m not sure.
  • It seems like the best money for placements is in trailers. Reality TV tends to be back-end only (ie. no license fee for the music but you will see it in your performance royalties) but trailer music still pays very well up front. One person mentioned that a major studio film trailer could pay anywhere from $80k – $300k for the music. You’re expected to record a live studio orchestra for that kind of money, but you will still have a decent payday after all expenses are handled!
  • A music library’s role is to provide the music that the show’s composer can’t do. The composer can handle underscore, but producers come to the library when they’re looking for hip-hop, rock, etc. that is outside of the underscore realm. This seems to conflict a little with my experience in reality TV, which is a lot of underscore, so perhaps this panelist was referring more to network and promotional music. It is worth keeping in mind though that there is much more use for contemporary styles and songs in a library that does that sort of thing.
  • You should submit music to libraries that already have works in that style. This seemed counterintuitive to me, because I would have thought if a library already has a lot of jazz they don’t need any more. What one owner explained to me, though, was that if you see a library has released several albums of a certain type it means it must really be working for them. If they have released two “Big Beats” albums, there is a pretty good chance they are going to want to produce a third.
  • The last tidbit comes from composer and Police drummer Stewart Copeland, which echoes a lot of what I say and write about here. Someone asked him for advice on getting through creative blocks and coming up with new ideas. His answer was that you just show up and work. Doesn’t matter if it’s bad, you just write from the beginning to the end. Then you move on to the next cue. By the time you’ve made it through all of your cues you’ll have come up with some interesting ideas, and then you can go back to the beginning and work those back in. But never just sit there stuck and “blocked”. Just write through it. If you’re interested in reading more about this type of process I highly recommend “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott and “On Writing” by Stephen King.
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“So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport

I have only just finished reading Cal Newport’s book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and I’m already recommending it to people. I’m a big fan of Cal’s blog and have always been impressed with his productivity, work ethic, and both the quality and quantity of his output. I wish I had read his other books when I was still a student! Perhaps I would have actually done my homework instead of spending all day playing guitar and video games… (not that those ended up being complete wastes of time!)

Anyone who has ever struggled with “what do I do with my life” should give this book a read. Or anyone who is considering giving up on their current career and trying something completely new. He goes into great detail on why the idea of “I’m going to quit my 9-5 and go start a cupcake shop because I love baking” is extremely flawed thinking, and instead explains how to turn that 9-5 job into something you are excited to do every day.

In my case, I would especially recommend it to people who “think” they want to become a professional musician but haven’t really put in the decade + of serious study. Just because you like to listen to music or you used to play guitar in high school doesn’t mean you can just quit your day job and start scoring films!

The best line in the book is “You have to get good before you can expect good work.” So many young composers write to me asking for advice and almost all of them focus on how to get their career started. How do they get an assistant job, how do they get a feature film, how should they market themselves, and so on. Instead they should be asking “How can I write music so good that people will be approaching me to write for them?”

You obviously can’t live in a bubble; you have to put your work out there. But unless your music is speaking to people, it doesn’t matter how many business cards you print out or what font you choose for your website. What matters is how good you are at your craft.

Another great line comes from near the end of the book: “Working right trumps finding the right work.” This is especially useful to someone who may already have a career in music but isn’t getting the projects they wish they were. The ultimate lesson is that when you do whatever it is you’re tasked with extremely well, the right people will take notice. Better to spend your energy making that corporate video sound amazing than to seek an elusive dream project. Because that amazing sounding video is the thing that’s most likely to lead to your next great gig, not a chance encounter at a networking event.

Check out the book. It’s an easy and quick read, and you’ll either realize you’re on the wrong path or confirm for yourself that you are headed in the right direction. And if you’re in the latter camp, Cal’s insights and advice will help you shape your career path into something meaningful and fulfilling.

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