Guest post: Open Letter to Composition Students

I have a friend studying horn and she was telling me some of her experiences reading music by student composers recently. I asked her to write up an “open letter” so I could share it on the blog. Here it is.
Quick editorial note: if you are a composition student, you’ll probably recognize a lot of these comments and suggestions. They are the things your composition teachers tell you to do. My hope is that hearing this from someone else will help the lightbulb go on and the “oh yeah, I really SHOULD look at the ranges of the instruments” moment come sooner.
This week I had the opportunity to read a lot of new music. My orchestra held a recording session for ten university composition students enrolled in an orchestration course. Their assignment was to take short piano pieces and write them for full orchestra. We read each piece down once, gave the students a few minutes to make any changes or be made aware of issues (“this note doesn’t exist on the contrabassoon”), and recorded. I also played this week in a chamber orchestra specializing in new music. While in the first case the orchestra musicians were happy to give the composition students the opportunity to hear their work come to fruition, both orchestras groaned and grumbled over so many issues in their parts – especially the horns. Stepping away from Mahler and Berlioz for a few days, I thought this would be a great opportunity to address some of the observations I made and offer suggestions to composition students out there writing for orchestra and the ever-so-mysterious horn.
Some general comments:
1. Know the ranges of the instruments.
Chances are likely someone told you to buy an orchestration book at some point. This information is actually in there! But even if you never bought one, a quick Google search of “contrabassoon range” will tell you all you need to know. While it may very well be unfair, performers will often instantly assume you have no idea what you’re doing if you haven’t taken the time to learn the basic capabilities of the instrument – even if what you wrote sounds great!
2. Know the functional ranges of the instruments and parts. Study scores!
Yes, the horn has a very large range. That does not mean all four parts should be in bass clef, in thirds, with the first horn never going above middle C. Study lots and lots and lots of scores. Notice how Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, Mahler, Berlioz wrote for the horns. Notice how the 1st and 2nd play together harmonically, the 3rd and 4th, etc. (NB: When studying scores, keep in mind the transpositions. Beethoven 7 has “Horn in A” parts where the horns read up a third from where they’d typically read an F part, whereas Brahms wrote for “Horn in H” in the 2nd Symphony, with the players reading down a diminished fifth).
3. Make friends with instrumentalists.
99% of the problems we found in the parts during the recording session this week could have been fixed in 3 minutes by asking a horn player (or clarinet or violin or…) to glance over the part and give some feedback. If you are in a music school, you have the greatest tool all around you! Ask your colleagues! Take an oboist out to lunch one day in exchange for some knowledge about the oboe. Ask her to look over what you’ve written for her instrument and provide feedback. This is the best way to learn!
4. Please, please, please, please proofread your parts.
Notation software programs are great but they are not perfect. Just because something shows up in the score does not mean it shows up in the part. I know it can be tedious work and you may be up against a deadline, but until you have some amazing editor doing your dirty work while you make the big bucks, please make sure my 4/4 bar does indeed have four quarter notes. This came up in almost every single piece we read in the recording session. Many of the pieces had very obvious wrong notes as well. Make sure your directions remain consistent and clear throughout the part. For example, if you write “con sordino” make sure there is a “senza sordino” if and when you want the mute removed. Try to look at the part from the perspective of a performer about to sightread your work. Otherwise, we will guess or simply do what is easiest and safest, which might not be what you want.
5. Effects and special instruments – the cool thing to do or the sound you want?
Stopped horn is a really great sound. It gives the horn (and thusly the orchestra) an even broader palette of colors. But don’t use it “just because.” Every single piece we read during the recording session had stopped horn sections, most of which didn’t really make any sense. It made the bouché sound lose its effect because it was used so often. Please save the stopped horn, mutes, flutter tonguing, blowing air (without tone) through the instrument, multiphonics, and other effects for when that is the sound you really want, otherwise in excess they become cheap parlor tricks. Finally, please never ever ask us to INHALE through our horn.
On the horn:
1. Low horn = bass clef
If you are writing for a low horn part and most of the notes are going well below our written treble clef middle C, just put the part (or that section of the part) in bass clef. Below G and F we really don’t like counting ledger lines. A random note or two down there is fine in treble, but if you’re writing more than that, put it in bass clef. Also, regarding the “old” and “new” bass clef notations – either is acceptable, just make sure it’s clear which octave you mean.
2. Stopped horn and its notation
a) Write the horn pitch that you want to sound, and we’ll take care of the rest.
b) The lower you go past middle C, the more difficult it will be to play and less likely to be heard.
c) There are multiple ways to notate stopped horn. Modern composers seem to lean most towards notating “+” symbols above stopped notes and “o” above the next open note. For a passage of stopped notes, I prefer seeing the word “stopped/bouché/gestopft” and the corresponding “open/ouvert/offen.”
d) If you have a note tied to another note, they do not both need to have +’s. The first carries over, just as an accidental would.
e) Cuivré ≠bouché. Cuivré means “brassy” and does not instruct the player to play stopped horn.
3. Mutes
a) Unlike our trumpet colleagues, we play with one kind of mute – a straight mute.
b) We also use stop mutes, but these serve as alternates for our right hands during stopped horn passages. This gives a more cuivré sound. This is typically up to the player or conductor, but you can ask for this specifically by notating a passage to be played stopped horn AND asking for a stopped mute or brass mute.
c) Give us at least a beat or two for mute changes. We not only have to remove the mute and either put it down or let it hang on our wrist, but we have to get our right hand back in the bell.
d) Muted low horn can get stuffy and out of tune. Avoid giving moving prominent lines to a low horn if the part is muted.
e) Wah-wah – just notate a pitch bend and we will do this with our hand in the bell.
4. Range
The horn has a very wide range and this is to your advantage! The Ligeti Horn Trio reaches up to a high E-flat above the staff in one movement and requires the player to hold out a low pedal D later on. However, take special care to write to your performers’ capabilities. Younger players are of course typically less developed in the extreme registers and this will be most obvious in the high range, where the horn’s natural harmonics lie close together. Above the staff, this can lead to accuracy nightmares. On the other hand, some of the student composers writing for our orchestra wrote the horn parts a little too low, erring on the side of caution. However, write too low for the horn and it will not resonate as it would in the treble staff.
5. Bells up/pavillon en l’air/Schalltrichter in die Höhe
This does not need to happen every time the horn section plays fortissimo. This should be saved for extra huge enforcement. Use very sparingly.
6. “The sound of the horn is the soul of the orchestra.” – Robert Schumann
The horn is a beautiful instrument with a large palette of colors, so don’t be afraid to write for us!
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  1. Posted March 15, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Proof reading blog posts is also a good idea to make sure you havn’t written everything twice…. But otherwise I agree with the sentimant. It can never be said enough how important it is to know the intruments your writting for, although I guess that was the point of the orchestration excersise in the first place.

  2. Jay C. Batzner
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    It happens to the best of us. Especially when writting comments… ;)

  3. Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Nice letter.

    It’s important for student composers to understand the role of the player when writing music. It’s possible to write something for one person another says isn’t possible. Keep this in mind when you write difficult passages. Don’t write them too often, not as a student anyway.

    Get yourself more than one orchestration book. There are many good ones, don’t rely on just one to answer all your questions.


  4. Scott L. Hines
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    As we all have learned, no matter how many times you look at a piece of music or a blog post, you always miss a mistake. If possible, have someone else help with the proofreading — another composer, a performer, someone with good musical knowledge.
    Our brains have a tendency to put things (words or notes) in a document, but they aren’t actually there. I learned this the hard way while working in the the newspaper business. A second set of eyes may catch something you missed.

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