|Dr. Beth Wiemann, Composer|
Starting to compose…Beth Wiemann
Growing up in Burlington, VT, a lot of my early musical experiences were similar to those of many generations of northern New England kids. As many elementary school students do, I started music lessons in beginner band, playing a plastic clarinet in simple arrangements of marches and a few excerpts of well-known symphonies or operas. The ensemble sound was impressive to me, something I still remember from 4th grade. A little later, I joined my mother singing in the church choir, which also had an impressive sound to me – though the sheet music was very different. Seeing what everyone was singing on the pages in front of me instead of just my clarinet part was intriguing; you could see how you’d write for a group of people. The pages were confusing at first, but they made the music’s sound less mysterious.
At the time, the singer/songwriter model was pretty strong in pop music, whether it was the Carole King model or the Elton John model, so I got interested in playing the guitar. Obviously, the guitar was a much cooler instrument than the clarinet, but it also made the harmonies I heard playing in groups sort-of possible to play by myself.
With these new perspectives, I started to listen to a wider variety of music, forcing my guitar teacher to help me figure out the progressions in different pieces. I went from learning guitar with tab/lead sheets and memorizing fingering patterns to reading staff notation with classical etudes. I also began reading about some of the composers of those songs and etudes, including how many of them started with chord progressions when composing, adding melodies above them depending on the musical style. Eventually I discovered (or rediscovered, according to my Mom) the classical record collection we already had in the house.
With these models in my ears, I began writing short pieces, eventually trying to set parts of the Mass in English for our church choir, with the encouragement of the director there (who also was my guitar and piano teacher at various times). That director assigned me various things to practice both composing and thinking about composing - asking me to arrange pieces (writing out a song for a specific ensemble starting from a simple piano version of the song), add obbligato melodies to existing songs (adding some simultaneous tunes that would go along with the original song), and to write essays responding to other composers’ opinions about music. He also suffered through my beginning piano playing, when it became obvious that I would learn harmony better on that instrument than only on the guitar.
Some of my pieces were imitations of pieces that I had played, like Vaughn Williams’ folk songs for band. Sometimes I made arrangements for school shows, being asked to adapt songs for small vocal groups plus guitar. (Rice High School Stunt was an avenue for some of these arrangements, and apparently Stunt Night is still a thing.) Most of the time, I was involved in the performances of these short pieces after I wrote them – either as a singer or instrumentalist – which I encourage other beginning composers to do as well, just for the experience.
When people ask me how to start composing, I usually ask them if they’ve tried to write down or record any musical ideas already. I believe that most people that really want to compose try to share music of their own even before they have “real training.” This doesn’t mean that your first efforts will be masterworks when you try. But it does make you think about how to present a musical idea, whether it’s a rhythm, a melody, a chord, or just a particular kind of instrument noise. This gives you a place to start. You can get training as you go, but the training will always come back to presenting the musical ideas you want to hear.