We had the outstanding Mirò String Quartet in residence this week. There were many highlights to their visit, but the best part to me was the seminar they gave for our composers. They did a reading session on one of my students’ works, giving feedback on notation, pacing, expression and string technique. Several good points were raised. One in particular resonated strongly, I hope.

Composition students learn a lot about how each instrument functions, and what techniques are specific and idiomatic to each instrument. With this newfound knowledge, there is sometimes a tendency to rely too heavily on the technical side of the instrument, forgetting that this knowledge, for a non-performer, is conceptual, as opposed to tactile.

Example: composer wants a really rough sound from a passage, and instructs the violinist to do a tremolo bowing near the bridge. The result is satisfactory, probably. But it might have been better to simply mark the passage “roughly” and leave it to the violinist to find the best way to get that sound.

I’m not saying that specific technical instructions aren’t a boon in many situations, and, in fact, absolutely necessary in some. But it’s easy to fall in love with a superficial awareness of how the instrument works, at the expense of a deeper awareness of how the musician works.

Giving the performer an idea of the resulting sound you want can actually be much more challenging — and much more rewarding — for everyone than simply saying “put your finger here and move the bow like this.” I suppose there may be some people who go into music because they enjoy following instructions, but I can’t believe there are that many. And I don’t think I would want them playing my music.

All of this brings to mind an experience I had a number of years ago in a similar reading session. The ensemble came to the conclusion of a passage, and I turned to the student composer and asked, “How was that?”

His answer: “Well, could we bring up the volume a bit on the cello?”

Great example of a young composer spending too much time with technology, to the point of being out of touch with what it actually means to perform a piece of music.

Speaking of which, I was a bit disconcerted to see most of the students with their faces buried in copies of the scores at this reading session. There is plenty of time to follow a score while listening to recordings. Young composers need to make use of their opportunities to sit close to a first-rate ensemble, watching their bows, watching the way they interact with one another, gaining insights into how four great musicians think as one.

(And finally, I have to note how much fun it was to have Sandy Yamamoto, Mirò’s second violinist, back all these years later after she swept through my theory classes with flying colors in the late 1980s.)

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