Overlapping Responsibilities

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What is your attitude about sight reading poorly written music? If you are a composer or arranger, how do you feel when people don’t play your music correctly? I believe in overlapping responsibilities and my opinion may not be what you would expect.

Thriving In The Overlap

As a musician who both composes and performs on a regular basis, I realized early in my career that the best music happens when the responsibilities of the performers overlap with the responsibilities of the composer/arranger. This doesn’t always happen and I believe it’s important to understand those responsibilities and the roles both sides play.

The Role of the Performer

Great performers can read even the most difficult music. We are trained from the beginning in a way that prepares us to be able read any music we might possibly face in our careers. The way we train for this is both direct and indirect.

Indirectly, we spend time working on our rhythms and technique. By practicing scales, arpeggios, interval patterns and other technical studies, we cause the building blocks of music to be engrained into our minds. That way, when we see the notes on paper, any notes in any combination, we will play them subconsciously. When we do not have to think about the notes, our bodies become something akin to the most powerful computers on the market today. They handle demanding tasks with absolutely no lag time, no hesitation. That’s how we are when we train properly on the technique. No hesitation. The notes are automatic.

The same is true for rhythms. Pros don’t consciously figure out rhythms on the fly. We have been playing those rhythms for so long now that we tend to play them by feel. We see the rhythms and they invoke a feel that we plug the notes into.

More directly, we also spend time sight reading. The more time we spend sight reading, the better we get at it (assuming we have the technique to do so). In this way, we grow our skills in hopes that no leader will ever give us a part that we cannot play.

The Role of the Composer/Arranger

The person writing the music has the responsibility of making sure that the music he writes is easily executable and “idiomatic to the instrument.” A great composer/arranger has vast knowledge of the strengths and limitations of every instrument. Over the years he acquires a variety of skills that help him write music that almost anyone can play and make it sound good.

Some of the issues the writer must consider include endurance, range, tricky keys, tricky fingerings, flexibility issues, intonation issues, balance, breathing, page turns and many other problems. The best composers/arrangers learn these skills first from books and/or classes at university. But as they grow in their abilities, they learn more and more from experience.

A good composer will query those who perform his music and ask what parts of his writing were awkward or unreasonable. A very good and obvious example from my earlier writing days was when I asked my good friend, Ed Lowe, about my trombone parts. I used to write my bone parts too low with too many fast slide changes. I learned from those mistakes and you can see the difference between my earlier writing and what I do today. Good composers do that sort of thing constantly.

Where They Overlap

When well trained musicians are hired to perform well written music, the result is some of the most beautiful and inspirational experiences you can imagine. When the composer invests all his practical care and concern for the musicians, while at the same time the musicians approach the composer’s music with their utmost diligence (having been well trained to do so), it sets the musicians free to be expressive and to communicate with the audience.

Where It Fails

Unfortunately, sometimes we carry the wrong roles to the wrong side of the equation. A musician who blames the composer/arranger for his mistakes is not honoring his own commitment to be able to play everything that is put in front of him. Many times in my career, I have heard musicians excuse their own mistakes while shifting the blame to the person who wrote the music. This should never happen. As the performer, it is our role to play, to the best of our ability, anything that the put in front of us. When we lose sight of our role, the performance suffers for it.

The same is true for the composer/arranger. Anyone who blames the musicians for a poor performance of his work is a poor writer. Once again, the music suffers when this happens.

The worst performances are those when both sides blame each other. The musicians refuse to take responsibility for their own performance and the composer/arranger refuse to take responsibility for his writing. It’s a miserable way to work with everyone pointing fingers and back stabbing. No one benefits from these experiences, not in a directly beneficial way.

All Walks of Life

These overlapping responsibilities do not only apply to music. I learned it first through my music, but then I began applying it to many aspects of life. I use it in my marriage. Consider how wonderful marriage would be if both sides tried to overlap their responsibilities instead of bickering about each others faults. The same is true with employers and employees, leaders and members, pastors and congregations, teacher and student, T-bonds and stocks…. ideally, we want all of these to overlap in their roles. That is when we will experience all the greatest that life has to offer.

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