How to Talk to a Composer

I premiered my first pieces just four and a half years ago at a studio recital of my teacher’s students. My work, done over the previous 8 months, made up 30 minutes of the program. I had worked hard, my teacher was very pleased with my work, and I was feeling proud of my accomplishment. None of my friends attended, only family. I understood. I had gone back to school as an adult, was not studying in a traditional program, and all my friends had adult lives with adult responsibilities. They couldn’t take time out to attend a weeknight recital an hour away. But I had recordings which I shared with quite a few people – friends, church members, parents of my students, colleagues.

I did get some positive comments from a few people, but most did not seem to care what I was doing. One parent of a student told me she listened to about 30 seconds of a piece. “Not my thing,” she said. OK. I certainly do not expect everyone to be interested in my music, or even classical music in general. I respected her honesty. A colleague wrote back when I sent him links to recordings, “I don’t have time for this!” OK. That stung, since I had worked with him long enough to think he might be interested. But, yes, he was very busy. Again, I respected his honesty.  The winner of all comments, though, was the one from a professional musician I used to be friends with, who after listening to my unaccompanied saxophone piece said that it “needed more cowbell.” At the time, I blew that off as a poorly chosen attempt at a joke, but I later learned it was indicative of his disregard for me.

Most of the time I was met with silence. Silence is deafening, as they say.  There is an old rule, “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Silence seems to follow this rule, or at least communicates disinterest.  I will never speak to most people who listen to my music. But when I personally know listeners, getting silence from them is painful.  After spending a great deal of time and effort, and often money, into writing a piece of music and getting it performed, it feels to me like a thoughtful comment or question from someone I personally know is a legitimate request.

In rare cases, perhaps someone felt so moved by the piece that they don’t want to share their inner feelings.  But for those whose silence comes from not knowing what to say, here are some tips:

Most composers will not expect you to come up with anything intelligent to say about their work. Even professional performers often do not know much about composition, and the technical aspects of our work are beyond their understanding. If you want to say anything at all, stick to your own personal reactions. If you liked it, say so. If you found it moving, say so. If you found it exciting, or surprising, or if you were wowed by a particular moment in the violin part, say so.

But what if you didn’t like the piece, or if you really don’t have enough experience with music to make any comments at all? In this case show your interest in the composer by asking questions. The composer may not be willing to answer some of these questions, but asking shows you are interested. Here are some ideas for questions: Why did you choose this instrumentation (and text if it is a vocal piece)? What inspired you to write it? When did you write it? How long did it take you? What kind of process do you use for writing music? What kinds of tools do you use for your composing? If you have more musical knowledge, you could ask more technical questions  about the piece’s tonality or lack of, or how the composer created a certain effect you noticed.

I don’t care if you like my piece. Liking is so subjective. There are pieces by famous composers throughout history that I don’t care too much for. If I don’t like Beethoven’s 9th, then how could I expect everyone to like my work? I don’t. But silence and comments in poor taste are not what I want from people I know. I will have plenty of critics outside of my personal circles.



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