Nerves and New Music: Does the audience’s opinion matter?

Filed under:Personal reflections — posted by admin on May 29, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

Recently a friend asked me, “Are you nervous when you are about to have a new piece premiered?” I wanted to answer honestly, but the honest answer seemed less than courageous and less than sophisticated. You see, when I was younger, I had an impression that all accomplished composers are supremely confident in the purpose of and quality of their own music. I guess that impression has affected my judgment and attitudes as an adult and I feel that I should be supremely confident as well. Don’t get me wrong, when I write, I’m confident in my work and I believe I’m being honest about what I’m composing. I just know that the more I compose, the more I learn about composing. The more I learn about composing, the more I discover how much more there is to know and learn.

When I write, it is an offering of myself to others. Most of what I write is for the pleasure and enjoyment of my audiences. It’s a gift to them. Sometimes I write something with the intent of being shocking or unsettling, but it is always with the intent of evoking emotions or sharing something I value with the audience. I hope they enjoy it.

I have met a few composers who don’t seem to care what an audience thinks and appear to have no doubt that EVERYTHING they write is a little slice from the genius cake. For these composers, their reaction to those who don’t respond favorably to their music is one of insolent condescension. Their behavior suggests that they believe the listener simply isn’t insightful or intelligent enough to grasp the music’s profound nature, or that the work is an example of such true genius that it won’t be understood and appreciated for it’s brilliance until the next generation of concert-goers experiences it. How can they feel so confident about everything? Is it bona fide genius that results in this extreme self-assurance or something else?

For pioneers of unique, progressive work, audience acceptance may not be important. True genius is often not understood or appreciated at first. Those forward thinking individuals who see the world differently than the majority are sometimes looked upon as crazy or non-conforming. For those composers, supreme confidence is something they exhibit, because they DO have an understanding that transcends the ordinary and the average.

I suspect there are also a fair number of composers for whom the desire for audience acceptance is so extreme that it manifests itself in what appears to be antithetical behaviors. In other words, they so desperately want people to like their music, and they understand that for a variety of reasons they won’t get that universal acceptance, that they feign disinterest and arrogance.

Whatever attitude the composer exhibits regarding the importance to himself/herself of the acceptance of his/her music, I would suggest that every composer writes with the intent of making an impact on the audience. The reasons for writing a particular piece of music are as varied as the composers themselves and have differing degrees of significance, relevance and worth. For some, the purpose is simply to get the music out of their heads. For some it is to complete a commission or publisher imposed deadline and to make a living. For some it is to express a personal, political, religious or philosophical conviction. For some it is to fulfill an intellectual aspiration. For some it is to create great art. For some, unfortunately, writing may be reduced to some empty, contrived exercise. Hopefully composers are writing intellectually, emotionally and aesthetically honest work that truly reflects their beliefs and convictions.

 For those of us who fall somewhere between the extremes of paralyzing insecurity and absolute confidence, the desire for the favorable regard of an audience is a perfectly natural human response. Fair criticism of one’s work is not only acceptable, but I think, desired. Cruel, unwarranted disapproval, though, is what is hard to deal with, and without proper perspective, can be debilitating to the younger, less experienced composer.

Obviously, composers, artists and authors need to develop a thick skin in order to deflect the overly critical and unproductive rants of some, and a welcoming attitude for the feedback that is intended for personal and professional growth. If one is willing to put his/her work on display for others, he/she must be ready to accept the inevitable critique of others.

Back to my friend’s question: “Are you nervous when you are about to have a new piece premiered?” The honest answer is, “Yes I am, and I don’t think there will ever be a time when the approval of the audience won’t matter to me.” Will it stop me from writing? No. The need to write outweighs the fear of failure. The compulsion to create is more important than the concern of criticism. Some pieces are going to work and some pieces aren’t. Some pieces will be well received and some will be ignored. Music is not about absolutes. The creation of new music is about offering something honest of your self to others. Whether the gift is accepted graciously or not can’t be the only reason for giving it.

Forge ahead, nerves and all!

Episode 11-Chapter 6-My Motivic Makeover: Manipulation and Modification

Filed under:Announcements — posted by admin on May 23, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

Want some advice on ways of varying your cells, motives and melodies? Listen to Episode 11 of THE COMPOSERS NOTEBOOK podcast. In this episode, Nolan discusses expectancy in music and methods of varying motives by using the following techniques:





•Meter changes

•Rhythmic changes

•Pitch substitution

and the importance that the choice of keys and tempi has on the character of a composition.

UPDATE: As of 4/20/15 the audio podcasts are currently offline. Stay tuned for their return.

The Nebraska Composers Alliance

Filed under:Announcements — posted by admin on May 20, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

The new Nebraska Composers Alliance web site is up and running! From this web site, you will be able to make connections with Nebraska Composers, learn about commissioning a piece of music, and connect to resources for integrating composition into school music programs.

Check it out at:

Television Interview

Filed under:Announcements — posted by admin on May 16, 2008 @ 10:17 am

Hey friends!

Here’s the interview I did with NTV from this past Wednesday. We discuss my new work for brass quintet called, “PRISM: The Dance of Light.”

Check it out here:

Podcast: Dr. Timothy Mahr

Filed under:Announcements,Podcast — posted by admin on @ 10:07 am

What’s next on The Composers Notebook podcast? Look for the interview with Dr. Timothy Mahr that is posted at THE COMPOSERS NOTEBOOK podcast page. Dr. Mahr is an internationally respected composer and is a professor of music at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, where he is the Conductor of the St. Olaf Band and teaches courses in composition, conducting and music education.


You’ll find the podcast here:

UPDATE: As of 4/20/15 the audio podcasts are currently offline. Stay tuned for their return.

There’s a difference between composing and writing notes on paper.

Filed under:Advice and Tips — posted by admin on May 14, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

There IS a difference between composing music and writing music on paper. Composing is the act of creating musical ideas. Writing it down is simply translating the musical ideas into a form that can be read by others. Think of the oral tradition of storytelling. The stories were passed down from generation to generation orally. They weren’t written down, but yet, many of those stories still exist.

Why do I even mention this? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to suggest that we eliminate written music. Lord knows there have been many wonderful stories and songs that have died with the storyteller or musician. However, it isn’t necessary to be able to write down music in order to create it. The paper isn’t the music. The music is the living sound. Writing it down simply is an insurance policy that it won’t be forgotten.

I think some people are scared away from composing, because they don’t know how to notate (write down) what’s in their head. Writing down the ideas and composing are two entirely different activities. Allow me to illustrate the point.

I can drive a car, but I can’t fix one. The ability to fix a car, while a valuable skill, is not necessary to use the car to get where I’m going. Granted, the ability to repair a vehicle can have some benefits like saving money and personal convenience, but it isn’t a prerequisite for using the vehicle.

Likewise, being able to notate one’s music has many benefits, most importantly, the ease of communicating one’s ideas to others and, as stated before, the insurance that it won’t be forgotten. Writing it down, however, isn’t absolutely necessary.

In an age when digital recording is easily accessible, many people have the opportunity to record their musical ideas and share them with others. Resourceful, aspiring songwriters, can plunk out ideas on a piano or guitar and record the session.

People can create their own notation system for their own reference. They can sketch out the ideas on regular paper, without using traditional notation, in a form that they alone can understand. It isn’t useful for other people to read, but it is a way of “storing” ideas so they can be remembered at a later date.

I recently met a songwriter who is interested in pursuing composing as a career. I invited him to show me his work and he showed up to our meeting with several CDs he had recorded AND a large book of graph paper on which he had written lyrics to thirty or so songs. In addition to the lyrics, he had written out the music in a shorthand version that, while it made no sense to me, allowed him to perform his music on the piano. The point is that HIS system allowed him to remember what he’d written.

I sometimes wonder how many people in the world have musical ideas floating around in their heads, but have never tried to share the ideas with others simply due to the fact that they assume composing means writing it down. Some really talented songwriters may be out there who may never explore the possibility of letting us hear their songs.

If a person has original music in his/her head, he/she needs to find the means, ANY MEANS, to get the song out of the isolation of their hearts, minds and souls and into a form that can be shared and remembered. Use a tape recorder, computer, sequencer, personal notation system or anything that works for you. Just get the ideas out of your heads and save them.

You can always learn to notate if that is important to you. I would recommend learning how. It does save time and, in the long run, makes it easier on you and your performers. However, don’t let your inability to write it interfere with your ability to create it!

What to do for “writers block.”

Filed under:Advice and Tips — posted by admin on May 13, 2008 @ 11:31 am

Sometimes composers, authors and artists have dry spells when they can’t produce work. They lack inspiration and struggle to get started on projects. This desert experience is frustrating for the composer and unfortunately can cause periods where the writer stops working for a while.

When these periods happen for me, I can become disinterested in writing and if I allow that to last too long and give up trying, it can be really hard to get back to work. The solution? Keep working!

“Huh? What do you mean keep working? I don’t have any ideas.”

It sounds like I’m saying you need to bang your head against a wall. That’s not at all what I’m saying. Allow me to explain.

When you run across a dry spell where the ideas just aren’t flowing or if you are losing interest in your work, try some of the following ideas:

1. Organize your workspace so it is a place you want to go. Place pictures, plants or anything that is pleasant for you in the space to make it comfortable. Keep it free of clutter and keep it clean and orderly. Have things you need easily accessible like staff paper, pens, a tape recorder or keyboard.

2. Put yourself on a schedule. Try to work daily during the same hours as possible. Remember that inspiration is only part of the composing process. It takes time and it takes work. Set aside time so that you do it everyday.

3. Have balance in your life. Don’t overburden yourself with your work. Work for a couple hours each day. Take time off. Do other things. Don’t live in your workspace. Don’t become bored or frustrated with work. Do enough each day to get your writing done, but don’t try to complete it all at one time. Keep yourself coming back for more.

4. Do some of the non-creative work. Use work-time for promotion of your composing. Use work time for the more mindless tasks like copying parts.

5. Revisit older works. Take some of your older pieces and re-work them. Take the time to improve upon your past work.

6. “Lift” music from recordings. The skills developed from taking a recording and transcribing the music are necessary and invaluable. The ear training alone makes “lifting” music worth the time and energy. After practicing this skill, you will discover that it will be easier and easier to write down the music in your head.

7. Develop long-term goals. Plan for your success. Think about what type of composer or song writer you want to be in a year, or 5 years or 10 years.

8. Develop relationships with ensembles or individual performers. Write for these groups so that you can have your pieces performed.

9. Have specific writing goals and create deadlines for yourself. Deadlines encourage you to complete what you start.

10. Enter contests and write for scheduled concerts. Specific events for which to write also encourage you to “get to work.”

11. Study scores and recordings. Learn from the work of others. Take advantage of the opportunity during your writing time to expand your music writing “vocabulary.” Become more fluent at composing by having more sources upon which to draw. Don’t re-invent the wheel. Rather, learn what’s already been done and then invent a new form of transportation.

10. Read about composers. Take the time to read about the lives and, specifically, the work of composers. Find out how they went about their own writing. Learn about their struggles and triumphs. Learn about their work habits.

11. Study books on orchestration. Get to know the established practices of orchestration. Learn how timbres can be combined to create interesting and unusual sound colors.

12. Learn to play a new instrument and write for it. Get to know an instrument really well. Learn what it is capable of and write something for it.

13. DO NOT plant yourself in front of a piano or computer when you are stuck. Go for a walk. Some of the greatest composers of all time became inspired and came up with new ideas while walking. Something physiologically, psychologically and musically beneficial occurs when walking . . . don’t ask me to explain it, but it works.

I could go on . . .

The point is, when you have writers block, do something that relates to songwriting or composing. I am willing to bet that by continuing to work each day, you will work through the block. Also, remember that “beating a dead horse” gets you nowhere. If you are getting nothing done and just getting angry or frustrated, get up, get away from your work for a little bit. Get some fresh air and come back later. You’ll be more productive and less frustrated.

Now go out there write some music. 🙂

PRISM: The Dance of Light

Filed under:Personal reflections — posted by admin on May 12, 2008 @ 10:23 am

Well, the Nebraska Brass had their first read through of PRISM on Saturday evening and said that it should be very playable. I believe many composers are nervous that their new pieces may not work and, even though one may be an experienced composer, I suspect that there is a certain level of apprehension everyone feels.

It is comforting to know that the commissioning group is pleased with the piece and that they are able to “put it together” without too much difficulty. Inevitably, little things like typos always crop up and groups have questions about notes, chords, rhythms, etc . .  I’m pleased that only 3 typos were caught. As I get older, I’m becoming a better proofreader. 🙂

I’m anxious to hear it at the next rehearsal. Regardless of how many pieces I’ve composed, I still find the first listening to be exciting. The big difference between when I was younger and now is that when I was young, I was just happy to hear the piece and was excited with experiencing the sounds that formerly were just in my head. Now, I’m much more critical, because the sound produced never matches the perfect version that is in my head. When I say “perfect”, I’m not referring necessarily to how the piece was composed, but rather, the perfectly in tune, perfectly played version that I hear. 

Rehearsing my own work is really a dreadful experience for me as I have a hard time putting up with the errors which inevitably happen during the rehearsal process. Fortunately, I don’t have to rehearse this one and can simply offer suggestions and enjoy the piece.

I hope you can all come to hear the piece. It is exciting to share the piece with the world!

American Dances, The Nebraska Brass in Concert

Filed under:Announcements,Events — posted by admin on May 9, 2008 @ 10:07 am

Join the Nebraska Brass for “American Dances,” the finalé of its 2007-2008

season, “American Premieres.”  At this final concert, the Nebraska Brass will

feature the world premiere of Lincoln composer, Nolan E. Schmit’s new work

for brass quintet, “PRISM:  The Dance of Light.”   This piece is dedicated to

the memory of late UNL Professor Emeritus Robert M. Beadell, Nolan

Schmit’s first composition professor during his undergraduate career at the

University of Nebraska.

Thursday, May 29, 2008 • 7:30 p.m.

First United Methodist Church

614 Hastings Avenue

Hastings, Nebraska


Friday, May 30, 2008 • 7:30 p.m.

First Unitarian Church

3114 Harney Street

Omaha, Nebraska


Sunday, June 1, 2008 • 3:00 p.m.

First Presbyterian Church

840 South 17th Street

Lincoln, NE


Omaha/Lincoln: Adults $15  _  Seniors $12      

Hastings: Adults $12  _  Seniors $10 

Children and Students are FREE

Tickets available at the door or in advance by calling (402)-477-7899.

Welcome to The Composers Notebook blog!

Filed under:Announcements — posted by admin on May 8, 2008 @ 7:31 am

I decided that having a blog was the way to go! Finally I can update the site more frequently and let you know what’s going on!

I’m really excited to begin and will begin posting soon!

Check back frequently for updates.



image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace