Meetings with a Remarkable Man..

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Orchestral music - string section

Some years ago, after having produced two CD’s of electronic/rock music, I decided that I wanted to be a ‘proper’ composer and to learn about orchestration in order to incorporate orchestral sounds and textures into my compositions. I had studied jazz composition and arranging previously and had written several pieces for jazz big band so I was no stranger to writing and arranging for large ensembles. However this was different as I had never written for full orchestra before, even though I had always loved (modern) classical music and its variants.

So I did some research which led me to two active composers who were offering online lessons at the time. I checked them both out and decided to make contact with one of them, namely the Canadian film composer Alain Mayrand. We clicked very well from the start and so I embarked on what turned out to be four years of more or less weekly composition lessons..

And what a journey it was! Alain is a very thorough teacher so we had lessons on both classical and modern harmony, counterpoint, composition principles and techniques, instrumentation, arranging and orchestration among other related topics. It proved to be a full-on music education, very similar to what would have been covered in a university music degree course. Which was great because even though I have studied music quite broadly both alone and in the context of various courses I have taken through the years, I always regretted that I didn’t study music at university.

Now it wasn’t always easy or even particularly pleasurable because Alain, being a highly skilled composer and orchestrator himself, was quite a hard task master and could be highly critical at times, although he could also be very constructive and supportive in his feedback. I remember inwardly cringing during several lessons when he would analyse and criticise the work I had done during the week. He certainly wasn’t afraid to say what he really thought! Anyway, because his approach was highly practical where every principle and aspect of theory that we discussed would be applied to real-world musical contexts, I always had a lot of work to do between lessons. Which was a fantastic way to learn.

Hand turning page of music while studying a score

The other thing we did a lot of was score study, which was an absolutely invaluable source of learning. We would choose a piece of orchestral music and really take it apart by deeply analysing the score. Often we would take a short section and break it down asking questions like “What was the composer trying to achieve here and exactly how did he achieve it? What techniques and principles did he use to produce the desired effect?” Then he would get me to write something similar using the same principles. This was an amazing approach to learning from the masters and to internalising some of their skills. And let’s face it, those composers were complete geniuses so the idea of “standing on the shoulders of giants” was a big theme in our lessons. 

Through this process we studied works by Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Bartok, Vaughan-Williams, Holst, Prokofiev, Haydn, Respighi, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Benjamin Britten, among others. It was an exhilarating, though often very difficult, process. There is nothing quite like listening to a piece you have come to know in detail at a deep level and appreciating all the nuances and subtleties that have gone into creating it. At times I can remember being literally moved to tears by some of the magnificent pieces I had entered into in this way, though that was only ever while listening in private!

Igor Stravinsky composing at the piano

Anyway, Alain’s thorough and at times tough approach really worked because by the end of the four years I had learned and practised many principles and techniques which I was then able to apply to my own compositions. I believe my skills and abilities developed hugely through the process, although by the time we finished I was definitely keen and ready to ‘fly my own kite’, which I have been doing ever since. My latest release “Islands Suite” is an example of some of the work I have done as a direct result of the lessons. Recently I have been incorporating other instruments and styles more, including many of the rock and electronic elements I had temporarily put on hold while deeply exploring the vast world of orchestral composition and arranging.

Boy flying kite in the sunset

Nowadays I frequently go back over the notes from those lessons in order to refresh and maintain my knowledge. I also keep up the score study process and do a lot of listening to orchestral music as I am always trying to both consolidate and further my learning. I believe that’s the best way to develop and improve as a composer. As far as I know Alain no longer teaches individually so I regard myself as highly fortunate to have been one of his last private students. However he has gone on to develop an online composer training portal which is another great way for him to share his considerable knowledge and expertise with the world. A “Remarkable Man” indeed! 

 

 

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