Mentoring Program

Senior Year

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It starts off scary, but it becomes beautiful.
Grade Level: 12
Intended For: Live Instrument Performance
Software Used: Noteflight
Instrumentation: violin and cello
Key: Starts in A minor. Ends in C major.
Meter Signature: common time
Tempo: 104
Status: Completed Work
Noteflight URL: Website Title


#10 Zachary Sheets 2017-04-03 15:07
Dear Emma,

Unfortunately, as you've probably heard by now, your piece was not selected for live performance at Music-COMP's Opus 32 event. I imagine this is disappointing news, but the field of pieces this year was at a higher level than ever, and the talent at the high school level in particular was extraordinary. As I said last time, I think this is really effective, inventive work, and I hope you're proud of what you've accomplished! It's also clear that you learned and developed a lot, and I hope you'll continue your music-making next year after high school, wherever that may take you. It was a pleasure getting to know you and to work together, and I hope you're enjoying senior spring.

All best,

#9 Zachary Sheets 2017-03-31 14:10
Thanks for all your hard work, Emma! I think this turned out wonderfully. That you're happy with the result and feel you learned something from the process is the most important thing! It was a pleasure working together.

All best,

#8 Emma Stuart 2017-03-30 07:37

After a lot of hard work, I have finished my piece. I'm not sure it's perfect, but it sounds the way I wanted it to. Thanks for all the help. I really appreciated the advice you gave.

#7 Zachary Sheets 2017-03-28 11:18
Hi Emma,

Okay, great, keep up the good work! I have one tiny suggestion for the beautiful section—I would be careful about landing on perfect fourths. In some contexts they sound nice (like old-style, medieval choral music, or in tonal music as part of a larger chord), but in a duo setting they can risk sounding a bit dull and a bit harsh at the same time. You use them in:
-bar 18, beat 3
-bar 20, beat 4
-bar 22, beat 3

Perhaps make some little adjustments to those? To thirds, sixths, fifths, whatever? It will take just a few minutes and I think will give an overall sweeter, more sonorous quality.

Oh, and my ear doesn't quite follow bar 21: you outline C major in the violin but have an F in the bass. Especially on the heels of that E/A perfect fourth in bar 20, beat 4, this one doesn't work quite as nicely as its neighbors, for me. I might propose a subtle alteration, here, in the violin: starting from the fourth beat of 20, how about quarter C, then quarter B on the downbeat of 21, eighth notes A-G on the 2nd beat of 21, quarter note F on the 3rd beat of 21, and quarter note D on the last beat? That's a modified version of the melodic line you already have, but by starting just a bit higher you get a descending line that meshes with the cello quite nicely. In that case, I think the F/B that would result on the downbeat of 21 is ok, since it's really more of an expressive dissonance that resolves to F/A. Try it and see if you like it!

Oh, and I love the major seventh between the F and the E in bar 19! It's so expressive!

#6 Emma Stuart 2017-03-27 07:59

I'll see if I can use some of your advice to add a little to the scary part, but given the time, I may make it shorter than I originally intended. I have almost finished the beautiful part. The violin has a solo part for a few measures with the cello as background. The cello will also have a few measures of solo, and then, I will both come together for the last couple of measures. I have somewhere between 10 and 12 measures left to write.
#5 Zachary Sheets 2017-03-22 12:48
Dear Emma,

Thanks for your comment and your update. This is coming along well, and I think your beginning is very strong. You've got clearly defined ideas as well as a great mix of variety and detail—and a really distinctive, effective sense of melody, harmony, and character in this opening bit.

Time is pretty short before the Opus deadline next Thursday, so I'll dive right in to some possibilities for your for your scary part. I trust the beautiful part is coming along well on its own.

I imagine one reason that you feel stuck is that the rhythm is in kind of a groove, and your melodic ideas and accompaniment patterns are on the short side. This isn't necessarily a criticism—you could say the same thing about several of the Beethoven symphonies. But, what this means is that you'll have to think about your use of contrast. You've done great work making contrast in the form of small changes to the details to keep these ideas fresh. Your nuances of rhythm, harmony, and accent patterns are all great (and could be taken even further, I think, either as you keep this section going or when you return to it, after the beautiful section). Another possibility for contrast would be to make a sudden shift to something totally different. For instance, what if in bar 15 you had a beat of silence on the downbeat, and then a sudden fortissimo chord of a dotted half-note on beat two, until the end of the bar? And then repeat that idea maybe 2 more times, with different chords each time? They would be like three flashes of lighting that clear the air—such a dramatic moment would free you up to return to only slightly modified versions of ideas you've already had and they would have a brand-new context.

Another simple thing you could do to keep the scary material going is to transition to a different key area. Right now you're in A minor (ish), but what if you shifted to somewhere farther away around bar 14 or 15? You could go somewhere close, like D minor or E minor, or somewhere really wild far away on the circle of fifths, like F, C, or Eb? I often find the mere act of making a transition to a new key propels me forward with some new ways of thinking about the same ideas.

Another thing you could do when the scary part returns later in the piece (after the beautiful part) is to switch the cello and violin parts. You may have to adjust a few details to keep things sounding fresh, but having the cello take up those quarter triplets as a low, rumbling pattern, and the violin play the cello's melody up in the high register will instantly produce a result that's familiar and connected to what we know, but distinctive and new at the same time.

All right, Emma—these are just a few ideas out of many possibilities. You may have noticed that some are contradictory or mutually exclusive: I don't mean for you to do each thing I've said, but rather to provide you with a variety of possibilities for how you can keep pushing forward. The last advice I'll leave you with is: if you're really stuck on the scary stuff, work on fleshing out the beautiful section in the mean time! Maybe some little snippet or fragment of an idea that comes from it will be the clue to pushing forward with the scary part. Creativity works in funny ways.

Keep up the great work! I think a good goal would be to push to post once more at the end of this week or very beginning of next, if possible, and I can get you a comment straightaway to help before you add any finishing touches on or before the thursday deadline? Let me know how that sounds to you.


#4 Emma Stuart 2017-03-20 07:43
I used your advice and changed both the violin line and the cello line to make the piece a little less repetitive. I'm kind of stuck on what else I what to write for the scary part. I know I want more than I've written, but I don't know what to write. I've started a beautiful part and plan to get back to the scary part when I get some ideas.
#3 Zachary Sheets 2017-02-23 23:06
Dear Emma,

Hi! Thanks for your posting and your revision. This has come along nicely—good work! I like how effectively you've established an anxious, scary character. It really paints a clear picture! It's good that you're diving into working with repeated rhythmic patterns in different layers (as you might know, a repeated figure like this is called an "ostinato"), and I think your expressive and creative use of dissonance is really beautiful and striking.

Basically my advice to you at this point is one big-picture suggestion: that is, be careful about overusing literal repetition. I love that you're carefully and consistently relying on familiar ideas, but I think the repetitions are too exact. I'm wondering about the possibility of repetition with a higher degree of variation. I agree a certain incessant, relentless quality is really useful to achieve that anxious quality you're looking for at the beginning. BUT, as we hear something over and over we build familiarity with it, and as we come to know what to expect, it ceases to have the same freshness and emotional weight.

So, let's start with the violin part in measures 5-12, where you have a four-beat pattern repeated 8 times, total. One thing you could do immediately to enliven the repetitions is add more detail and nuance in terms of dynamics. It may not be that obvious in the noteflight playback, but for a live performer it makes a huge difference! One idea might be a big crescendo through bar 8, and then drop back to subito pp, suddenly, on the downbeat of 9 with the cello re-start of the melody. Or, what if you put accents on different notes in the pattern? Then you could consider having two interlocking patterns; if instead of putting accents on strong beats, what if you put it every 5th note, or every 7th note? Then you have two different layers of repeating patterns just in the violin. These are just two of many possible ideas.

This also may be a case where a handful of small changes to the pattern may give it a whole lot of life. What if you keep the same contour in one bar but move all the notes up a step? Or, replace a quarter note triplet with 4 eighths in a slightly different pattern? Little smudges to the pattern like that will add a layer of detail that can make music really jump off the page.

Now, let's look at the cello. The 8-bar cello melody from 5-12 is good: it has a clear framework, it's well structured, and has a variety of interesting features of pitch and rhythm. And I like that you make a change between the 4th and 8th bar of the tune (I.e. bar 8 vs. bar 12), but I think it's still risky to have the first three bars of each half of the melody be identical (i.e. bars 5-7 and 9-11). Your melodic idea is really inviting and has a lot of creative possibilities, so I'm wondering how you would feel about making the second set of four bars a bit more different than the first set of four bars.

Otherwise, Emma, I think this is working quite well as an opening. I'm excited to see where you go from here, and I would love to see you push ahead into some new territory in your next posting. In addition, of course, please spend some time working with my comments, here, about literal repetition vs. repetition with variation. Just a bit more time finessing them will do wonders, I think! Keep up the good work. Happy composing,

#2 Emma Stuart 2017-02-21 08:03

I have changed my cello melody so that it is now 4 bars long instead of 3 bars. I have also continued the triplets in the violin. They will not continue forever, though. As for my plan for the piece, I want the piece to be about half scary and half beautiful, and I want to have a sudden change form scary to beautiful.

Thank you for the advice!
#1 Zachary Sheets 2017-02-08 23:27
Dear Emma,

Hi! My name is Zach Sheets, and I'll be working with you as your mentor for this piece. Thanks for your first posting, and nice to meet you!

I really like that you have an idea for what you want the emotional qualities of this piece to be, and I think you're capturing the scariness well, so far! It sounds to me much more like A minor than C major, but I think that's the right fit for a scary beginning!

Those triplets in the violin have a kind of sinister quality about them that works for a very interesting opening, because 1. some of the notes are dissonant against the cello notes while others are not, and 2. it's a very insistent pattern that you repeat over and over in a loop. Do you think of this idea as an introductory one to "set the stage"? Or perhaps will it continue on? If so, I think you have a lot of possibilities to explore. For instance, you can move all the notes within one triplet up a step, or down a step, and then return to the original version. Or you can slightly change individual pitches here and there, to affect the overall shape (we call this melodic shape its "contour"). If you can link together different changes in the contour and perhaps also some different patterns of dynamics and articulations, this triplet idea could be a really effective feature of your piece that has both a "scary" and "happy" quality at different times.

The melodic idea in the cello in bars 5-7 works well too, I think. Although, typically melodies and tunes tend to sound most complete when they're an even number of bars long—especially 4 or 8 bars long. What would you think about adding one more bar to the end? Perhaps end on a note other than A at the end of bar 7 (so we're still "away from home"), and then bring us back to the home tone of A by the end of bar 8?

Otherwise, Emma, I would just love to hear more about your plan for this piece. About how long do you want it to be, and how much of it is scary vs. beautiful? Will it be a gradual transition or a sudden one? Maybe will you explore some keys besides A minor and C major? You don't need answers to all these questions now, but the more you think about them, the more you'll be in a good place to make decisions at every step of the way. I find it's helpful to sketch these things out on paper. Make a little "road map" for your ideas; how will they come together? I find shapes or colors or timelines can be really helpful to help me visualize what I want to do.

Keep up the good work, and looking forward to your next posting.

Happy composing!


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