by Eric Lacy
No Substitute for Hard Work
An aspiring composer was working on some music he was writing for a small orchestra. After several months of composing, he reached a point of frustration with the outcome. When his teacher looked at the score, he assessed the music as being above average. However, he insisted that if his student wanted to improve the weakest parts, he would have to work on it. Well, the student took those words to heart and he got started right away. When he finally met with his teacher, the professor was surprised. The music wasn’t much better than it was previously, but the score paper was wrinkled and disorganized. When he asked the reason for this, the student replied, “You said that if I wanted to improve my music, I needed to work on it. So that’s what I did. I placed the sheet music on the chair beneath me and I sat down. I worked on it!”
If you want the music that you compose for flute to be exceptional, you have to work on it. However, I would not suggest sitting on top of your score to make it happen. Instead, I’d like to recommend three things that you can do to drastically improve your flute compositions.
1. Choose the right harmonic language
If melody is the water that musicians use to nourish an audience, harmony is the pipe through which that water is channeled. The right harmonies can make or break a piece of music. The composer needs to thoroughly consider both the mood and the message that he or she wants to communicate. I have always been an ardent believer that composers are communicators. If the message of the composition is not clearly articulated, there is a breakdown in the communication process and the music loses its function at the most foundational level.
While any number of scales or modes can function beautifully in flute compositions, one of my favorites is the diminished scale. The diminished scale is one of Olivier Messiaen’s “Modes of Limited Transposition”. One of the benefits of using this scale is the harmonies or implied harmonies that form the scale. Diminished harmonies bring out the rich, dark tone quality of the flute in particularly unique ways. Also worth exploring are scales associated with the Middle East, such as the Arabic Maqam scales. These scales sound great when played on the flute. Using different scales and harmonies will allow you to compose with a greater degree of depth and musical expression.
2. Use extended techniques
Oftentimes, emerging composers are reluctant to try writing extended techniques into their compositions. This likely occurs for two reasons. First, inexperienced composers are typically much more eager to imitate the composers of the past, the compositions they have seen performed, and perhaps the music they have performed themselves. Second, the inexperienced composer may be nervous about whether the techniques will actually work. Although there is nothing wrong with writing traditionally for the flute, extended techniques add more interest to a composition.
Key clicks and pizzicatos, for example, can add a percussive sound to your flute music which is particularly useful when composing for flute ensembles. You can also add multiphonics to your music as well. These techniques, and many more, can be interesting and fun to write into your music. They can also make your music more interesting for the people who are listening to it. And let’s face it, these techniques can also be fun to play. Spend time learning about the many extended techniques that are possible on the flute.
3. Don’t forget to leave space for the musician to breathe
One of the simpler, but oftentimes forgotten aspects of composing music for the flute is the fact that woodwind musicians need time to breathe. Many advanced musicians will find space in an otherwise dense or cluttered solo or ensemble work. However, that is not very enjoyable for the musician and it won’t produce the best results. Moreover, as a composer, you could face the possibility of losing the respect of the performer along with his or her eagerness to perform more of your music. It’s often overlooked, so remember that leaving enough space in your music to allow the musician to breathe will go a long way in your ability to create a better composition.
The flute is a beautiful and versatile instrument. Its tone can range from dark and mysterious to bright and whimsical. As beautiful as the flute can sound, composing for the flute can present many challenges. If you are an aspiring composer, remember to explore the many scales that are available as well as the numerous extended techniques. Finally, remember to leave room in your music for the musician to breathe during performances. Incorporating these features into your music while continuing to work hard will take your flute compositions to the next level.
Eric Lacy’s music can be characterized as “stylistically lyrical and heavily motivic.” His compositional style reflects influences from Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss, and many contemporary composers. His unique ability to combine romanticism with 21st century compositional techniques brings a lush and expressive quality to his music.
Eric has composed music for every medium. Among these are his works for chamber ensembles and orchestral music, as well as music for film and video games. A Maryland native, and primarily a self-taught musician, Eric began his compositional journey by writing inspirational Christian songs. His passion for composition and his strong Christian faith sparked an interest in praise and worship music. Consequently, he was inspired to become a church pianist and music minister.
Eric is a recipient of the Huel D. Perkins Doctoral Fellowship at Louisiana State University where he received his Ph.D. in Composition. He earned a Master of Music degree in Composition from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He also holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Film Music Composition from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. His principal composition teachers include Mark Engebretson, Alejandro Rutty, and Dinos Constantinides.