Harmonium recently hosted its 15th annual Choral composition contest and I had the privilege to listen to the piece I wrote performed by an amazing choir. But, that was the easiest part of process. My composition, Sea Fever, set to the text of John Masefield's poem, took hours of vigorous work to complete. The end result, however, was well worth the work and I was ecstatic when I heard that I had won second place. Let me start from the very beginning of the process. My peers at my school, New Providence High School, had competed in this competition before and encouraged me to do it too. My mind began to whirl as I began to think about which text I would choose, which key the piece would be in, and what the meter would be. Sadly, creative thought cannot be forced and I stared at a blank piece staff paper for a few days. A week after I had first decided to enter the competition I attended a weekly Jazz Choir rehearsal. By the time it ended it was around ten o’clock and it was drizzling softly outside. I was waiting by the door for my mom when I received a text message telling me to walk home or wait a while. It was slightly chilly outside but it was mild compared to most February nights so I decided to walk despite the drizzle. The night was quiet since it was late and few cars were on the road. Suddenly I just started humming. I wasn’t humming any song in particular just a melody I pulled out of my head (I often do this). Next I sang some of the verses of the Sea Fever to this new melody and I was surprised to find it fit perfectly. It’s hard to explain it but it just felt right. It was like finding the sweet spot on a baseball bat or the proper power on a telescope. I quickly whipped out my phone and recorded my melody so I wouldn’t forget it over the course of the night. The next day as soon as I got home from school I sat down and got to work. Once I had the melody the harmonies began to flow through my hand onto the paper. Some parts were weird; at one point I had a part in 9/8 while the rest of the song was in 4/4. I can’t explain the source of the music but it felt natural as I put it on the paper. I could hear the music in my head and I took pieces of the collage and used them together to form the music for my piece. I then began putting my work onto a free notation software so I could hear all the parts played back at once. The next step of the process was how I can make this piece better. This was by far the most difficult part. The key to doing this, (in my opinion), is to sing each part along with the track. This way you can hear problems in voice leading. If I had trouble singing it or I could find a note which worked better I would change the voicing of the chords. This is where my music theory knowledge came into play. I tracked down part writing issues and provided solutions. At one point I needed to change an entire verse around to improve the quality of the chord progression. Finally after hours of working I finished my rough draft. This draft lacked dynamics and accents so the next part of the process was to feel the music. This was the fun part. I would stand in front of my computer and conduct and dance as I listened to my piece performed. From this I was able to find which parts should be loud and which parts should be soft and which notes should be accented and in what way. I based my findings off the motion of the sea. This meant that the dynamics of the song rose and fell like the tide. When I was pleased with my work, I asked my choir director to sponsor me for the contest. She was surprised that I finished early because other students hadn’t even started yet. She gladly offered to sponsor me. She reviewed the piece for errors, I fixed them, and then I sent all the requirements to Harmonium. A month later I received an email telling me I had won second place and my piece would be performed in a concert. I was stunned. This was the first piece I had ever written and I had won second place in a high standing competition.
My advice to other composers consists of four main things. Don’t force your creativity otherwise you will produce a piece that is trite and sounds as if something is missing. Always feel the music. Engage yourself physically with your piece so that you can insert dynamics and accents that feel right. Always allow yourself enough time to compose. The process takes a lot of time so procrastination will hurt your piece. And finally don’t be afraid to take risks when composing. People came up to me after the concert and commented on how I was different and I did things few others would do. Fellow composers told me that my ending was brave and that few composers would dare do that and make it work the way I did. Taking risks separates your piece from the other composers who fit their work into a tight box. Music should occur as easily as writing a story. Rules can act as guidelines but true music always comes from within.