The Importance of Being Playable

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I essentially ignored playability for the first half of my composition career. I have definitely spent many a performance of my compositions cringing at how bad it sounds, usually blaming the penurious rehearsal schedule. It wasn’t until a piece of mine was flat out canceled due to difficulty that I recognized I had a problem.

Cellos in the Orchestra Pit

I’m currently combing through my past compositions and slowly revising them for playability. The issue is that I do tend to favor ideas that are inherently complex. I love really convoluted hockets (where two or more instruments are playing in each other’s rests to create one melody), composite melodies, and African polyrhythms. So the question becomes: How do I keep the extraordinariness without the absurd difficulty?

A few years ago I had an extremely informative meeting with Thomas Leslie, the director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Wind Orchestra, about playability. We talked about my wind ensemble piece, Sankofa, which is now scheduled to be performed at UNLV in the 2019-2020 concert season. The suggestions that Mr. Leslie gave me transformed that piece from being impossible, to being utterly functional, without compromising my original ideas. Here are a few of the tips that I learned:

If you’re going to write a difficult piece, the entire thing can’t be difficult.

This was my favorite piece of advice. It means that I don’t have to change everything. I can keep the hard moments that I really love, as long as I simplify other parts. It allows the players relief as they’re playing, and also enables more focused rehearsals.

Starting ideas on the beat will always be easier than starting ideas off of the beat.

Early on in my composition education I had a colleague encourage me to offset all of my quarter notes by a thirty-second rest or two, just to avoid down beats. Does a thirty-second-rest offset really affect the sound of the downbeat? ….It’s debatable. The major difference is a massive performance headache. This example is a bit extreme, but in the first movement of Sankofa, there was a moment where I had the entire ensemble playing offset triplets. While some of the triplets started on the down beat, others started an eighth rest later, and so forth.

Sankofa Triplets Off and On Downbeats Image

It looks simple, but was deceptively challenging to make sound clean. We were trying to line up 10 or 15 different players all starting at different times. I’ve since changed this section so that all the figures start on a down beat, and you know what? It sounds exactly the same. It’s just much easier.

Sankofa Movement I Excerpt

Do not fear repetition.

Repetition is a 20th century compositional stigma. The third movement of Sankofa opens with a large percussion ensemble soli, in which I at first repeated nothing. The groove was basically continuous, but every sixteenth note was in a different place than the last. It would have taken decades to master, but since the rehearsal lifespan of a band concert is approximately one or two months (if we’re lucky), this section would have never sounded good. So I broke the whole thing open and repeated chunks like a crazy person. It’s now more playable, sounds cleaner, and as a bonus, the audience has something they can recognize and tap their feet to. (And guess what? It sounds pretty much the same.)

Make the music easy to read.

I didn’t actually learn this tip until I became a professional. It seems so basic, but clean sheet music is imperative. If the sheet music is messy, having to do things like find your place in a 20-measure system, navigate impossible page turns, or pencil in rhythms all take time away from the rehearsal. One of the most efficient things you can do is make your music as easy as possible to read. Split your systems (lines of music) at intuitive spots according to the phrase. Beam over rests to show where the beat is (this is a favorite of my mentor and composition professor David Lefkowitz), and always, always, place your page turns in convenient spots. Professional musicians sometimes put a concert together in two or three rehearsals, or less if necessary. As a pianist once said to me, “You don’t want any of that time being spent on figuring out how to turn the page.”

Very unplayable decoration on Alfred Schnittke's Grave Stone
Decoration on Alfred Schnittke’s Grave Stone, Russia

If you have any questions or comments about this article, don’t hesitate to contact me!