The 40-piece challenge: A composer’s opportunity

This morning I read a fascinating article by Elissa Milne about a challenge issued by music publisher Hal Leonard Australia: the challenge is to music teachers, for each of their pupils to learn 40 new pieces over the course of the year.

My first reaction was “WTF???” but Elissa’s blog post neatly outlines the value and purpose of the challenge, as well as offering sound tips for teachers as to how to approach the challenge and how to present it to their students.

The challenge, it seems, is aimed at preparing students with the skills they need which will help them to carry on playing once they stop taking lessons, at whatever level. Working through more pieces and faster will expose them to more variety of repertoire, get them thinking more about musical issues, improve their musicality and change their thinking about what ‘starting’ and ‘finishing’ a piece might mean – it doesn’t have to be an academic year’s worth of slog. It could mean 1 week of intense work.

This seems to me a simply fantastic opportunity for composers. Where a composer has short pieces (of which I personally have loads) of varying difficulty, these could be a brilliant resource for teachers who are daunted by the prospect of finding 40 pieces for their students, while keeping them interested with a range of sounds. It’s also a great chance for teachers to explore the work of composers who may be appropriate for, say, students who have their HSC coming up and need to fulfil the requirements of including a contemporary Australian piece.

From my own work, the following pieces could very well be appropriate for teachers looking to take on the 40-piece challenge:

  • Pieces of Eight (solo piano or solo pedal harp – eight movements in just over a minute)
  • the series of piano Eggs (11 so far – all for solo piano, varying levels of difficulty)
  • Nest (for solo oboe or flute)
  • Flit (for solo oboe or flute)
  • Diabolus (for solo violin)
  • Solitary Fanfare (for solo trombone)

Now to work out the best way to find teachers who want to do the challenge and are looking for repertoire…

The pitfalls of perfectionism

I have a confession: I’m a perfectionist. I always spend far too long on pretty much everything I write, tweaking and poking and looking for that point where the whole thing seems to balance on a pin. So far it’s worked out OK for me. I mean, people quite often say rather nice things about my music, so I must be doing something right, yes?

But it bugs me, this perfectionism. I am positively green with envy for people who can dash off a piece in a weekend – my 60-second solo violin piece, Diabolus, which was supposed to be a quick project, took me 3 weeks to complete. The 3 minutes of Carrion Comfort has taken 10 months! So on my private list of things to work on this year, and especially with the prospect of a Masters degree coming up, has been to experiment with some techniques to get the writing happening faster.

My feeling is that if I can write faster and fuss less over the tiny details, then maybe I’ll learn more. In David Bayles & Ted Orland’s fantastic book Art and Fear, one of the authors tells a story:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated a “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

This story makes me wonder: if I’m currently someone who only had to produce one pot, and the work of those producing many pots was ultimately better – how much better could my work be if I could make myself loosen up and produce many more works in the time I’d usually take to write one?

So this month, I’ve let myself be talked into doing the RPM Challenge. It’s a bit like NaNoWriMo or Creative Pact, but the goal is to record an album (10 tracks or 35 minutes) over the course of February – that’s 2-3 recordings a week! Obviously for me to even try to write 2-3 pieces a week would be seriously jumping in the deep end, so I’m setting myself a goal of writing 4-5 pieces in the month – about one a week – and the rest of the work will be finishing off recordings of other pieces I have that have been languishing without even decent MIDI recordings for far too long.

If you want to follow my progress, I’ll be blogging it (more or less) daily over at One Creative Thing – and of course, burbling about it regularly on Twitter.

If you want to join in, please do! You can find out more at the RPM Challenge website and join up, then post a comment here with the address of your blog or SoundCloud feed or wherever you’ll be documenting it.