Best Composers Online Institute and best creative learning.
By Sharon Bernstein Kaplan (composer, piano teacher, member of the National Federation of Music Clubs and the Music Teachers National Association)
Every teacher has heard a zillion times that it is important to encourage your students to improvise and compose. And every one of us has asked where to find the time – technique, theory, repertoire in a 30- or 45-minute lesson and we’re supposed to teach composition, too?! And some kids just won’t do it. And some kids love to make up pieces but won’t write them down.
Well, I want to encourage you all. I just wish I could tell you all the things that I have tried, some successful and some not so successful, but don’t give up. This year I have finally found a few – just a few – who don’t mind writing their music down and who entered pieces in the Federation Composition Contest. No matter what happened, I let them know all the great things about their pieces and made suggestions gently which they usually ignored. But they are also my best little students because they are beginning to understand that music is just another means of communicating and they are learning faster and playing better.
So what? you might ask. Well, you just don’t know where your encouragement might lead. And here is the proof of the pudding. Eventually, some of these students continue composing into junior high and high school, and they study composition at Junior Composer Summer Programs and Composers Online Institute. Randall Davidson has kept in close touch with alumni of these programs, and has shared what some of them are doing today (only a very small sample from many success stories):
Jonas Fisher just had his 2nd year recital for the MA in music composition at the San Francisco Conservatory.
Oliver Krause is coming to the close of his MBA at Villanova in accounting…he got married, he’s working full-time at KMPG and is composing music every week.
Tim Guillaume is an 8th-grader in Brooklyn Park MN who has just won the Minnesota and North Central Region Junior Composers composition contest with his 8-movement solo piano suite, Selcouths. He is currently working on his tenth symphony, the Urban Suite for large orchestra, and his Gloria for choir and orchestra,
Milo Zimmerman-Bence has sent samples of his latest music composition that accompanies a film that he’s also creating at film school.
AJ Isaacson-Zvidzwa’s Angels Sang to Me song cycle will be featured on Classical MPR in May. Performers include Maria Jette and a string quartet made up of members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra. Her proposal has been chosen for the National Association for Mental Illness regional convention featuring music for this same ensemble and featuring her Angels song cycle. She is now working on a commission for Artaria String Quartet and vibraphone. She’s at AJmusicMN.com.
Kelvin Ying is now a staff sergeant in the Army Field Band based in Maryland having recently worked as the accompanist in the resident apprentice artist program at Virginia Opera. He graduated with an MA from the collaborative arts program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
Flannery Cunningham’s projects and accomplishments are better observed at two websites: www.flannerycunningham.com and she also has created an institute similar but re-envisioned from our Junior Composers Institute called SPLICE. She’s a PhD candidate in musicology and composition at the University of Pennsylvania.
Wouldn’t you like to think that you made that profound impression on your students that led them down this path?
Composers Online Institute is the result of the COVID-19 coronavirus. In early May 2020, it became clear that the annual two-week summer music camp called Junior Composers was not going to happen. After some back-of-the-envelope calculations, the faculty and staff decided to offer a 100% online experience that would emulate the residential camp we've been offering 20 years.
I was one of the faculty members who had been offering songwriting lessons and I had a special affiliation with Junior Composers; I had attended the camp as a high school student and was brought back to develop their pop songwriting program after I graduated from USC's pop songwriting program.
During my time at Junior Composers we began to move out of the classic multi-track recording studio and by the summer of 2019, we transformed or experience to laptops and interfaces...just in time for COVID-19.
This video is on COI's YouTube channel and is a recording of the zoom session where I gave a Creator Salon on my professional experiences and how songwriters have enormous resources at their fingertips. I hope you enjoy!
By the way, we all enjoyed being Randall Davidson for about an hour.
MacPhail Center for Music is an incredible resource in the Minneapolis-St Paul area and beyond. Both composer-pianist Dr. Sarah Miller and percussionist Bob Adney are faculty members at this find community music school.
If you attended Mr. Adney's Performer Salon in July 2020, you can attest to the breadth of knowledge he brings to every performance. As a follow-up to that salon, he has sent along some additional resources. First, a YouTube video on percussion notation.
In addition, to being a generous and positive teacher, he has established the reputation for providing a steadying hand on the shoulder of composers of all ages when it comes to creating music for marimba. Here is his video:
We will keep following Bob when he creates any more online content that would be helpful to composers interest in writing for percussion.
"Living the Dream" is a song I recorded last week on my eleven-year-old MacBook using Reaper (a digital audio workstation, or DAW), a Shure SM58 microphone (plugged into an interface), and a few instruments - both acoustic and electronic. This was my first time using Reaper, and after an hour of learning how the heck it worked, I found my sea-legs I had a pretty slick experience! My (very?) old computer had no problem running Reaper. In fact, Reaper ran way smoother than Logic Pro (my preferred DAW!). I wrote most of the song beforehand - just me, an acoustic guitar, and a lot of coffee.
Not everyone creates in this way, by the way. Lots of people like making beats on the computer before writing the song, or while they write the song, or whatever! There are as many songwriting processes as there are songwriters.
The Skeleton: drums
Anyway, after I had written most of the lyrics and had the general song form planned out, I put on my headphones and started arranging the drums. I like doing this so the drums can keep the tempo when I record all the other instruments (guitar, voice, bass, piano, etc.). Also, arranging the drums creates a clear map of the song for me. Once I have all the drums for each section of the song, I feel like a lot of the hard work is over! Now I can sing, play, and have fun. I usually edit the drums later to add little details, but it feels good to have the song skeleton. I played the drums using a MIDI keyboard and conformed them exactly to the beat (a thing called "quantizing" which sounds fancy but is indeed very simple). To create the drum sounds, I downloaded a program called Power Drum Kit. I recommend it, especially if you like "real" sounding drums (versus electronic drums). They offer a free trial period,. Download it here, from Power Drum Kit.
Adding tracks in order or importance
After that, I recorded the acoustic guitar using my microphone.. Whatever instrument I compose the song with is the first one I like to record (after drums, if the song has drums). It contains most of the important song information other than the melody. After that, I sing the lead vocal part. Trying to perform an awesome vocal take can be pretty time consuming, so most people (myself included) initially sing a "scratch" vocal AKA a temporary vocal take. That way, the whole song (main instrument, voice, drums) is laid out and you can work on all the other instruments without stressing out too much about delivering the best vocal performance of your life. Besides, it's easier and more fun to sing the real vocal take once the other instruments are recorded!
After that, I fill in the other instruments. This time, I recorded a bass guitar (plugged in to my interface by a 1/4 inch cable), some shaker (using the microphone), some piano (my keyboard plugged in to my interface with a 1/4 inch cable, and background vocals/harmonies(with my microphone). This is the really fun part! I like to experiment a lot with different sounds, but usually I'm reinforcing the ideas already presented by the voice and guitar/piano/main instrument. You don't need any particular combination of instruments (you could just have piano and your voice!), but a lot of times I like bass because it helps fill a song out. Using a MIDI keyboard is fun, too, since you can use it to create a piano, synthesizers, digital strings or flutes or anything you can think of.
Balancing, Bouncing & Sleeping on it
After all the instruments are recorded, I finally get to replace my scratch singing with the "real" lead vocal. Then I edit the levels (turning volumes up or down to make sure all the instruments are balanced) and "bounce" the song - AKA turn the whole song into an mp3 so it can be shared with the world! I always like to sleep on it before committing to a final version. Stepping away from a song/recording and resetting/refreshing your mind is so helpful to get a clear picture of how your song sounds. When I come back to a song a day or two later, it's like I'm hearing it for the first time and I can make clear, confident decisions. I also like to play the song out of different headphones/speakers while editing to get a less biased view of how the instruments are balancing. In the case of this song, I came back to it a few times over the course of a few days before committing to this final version.
Is this always my course of action? No! Sometimes I record a bassline and improvise over it and the song is done in 30 minutes. And sometimes it's the opposite - sometimes a song can take months! But this is the general flow I've found for myself: I write most of the song (away from a screen), then I record the main instruments (drums, voice, main rhythmic instrument), then I fill in the bass and whatever other textures I want, and then I edit. I'm always curious to see how other write songs - how do you like to create?
A digital audio workstation (DAW) is an application that lets you record, program and arrange audio. Think of it as Photoshop for sound. DAWs allow you to visually edit your recordings until they sound exactly how you want them to sound. Almost every musician in the popular realm uses a DAW to create music, whether they're making demos (rough, imperfect recordings) or professional, high quality recordings.
DAWs can come in all shapes and sizes (and prices!!), but the most popular ones share the same elements. Some examples of DAWs are ProTools (the industry standard DAW), Logic, Ableton, Garageband, Reaper, FL Studio, Cakewalk. Any one of these is great, and people have made very good recordings with all of them so it really doesn't matter which one you choose. The main barrier is price, but for our purposes in this camp you do not need to spend extra money on ProTools or Logic. If you own an Apple computer, you're in luck - you already have a highly functional DAW built into your computer: Garageband. If you can't find Garageband on your Mac, you can download it for free from the Apple website.
If you have a PC, I would recommend Cakewalk. Cakewalk is a powerful and free DAW that comes with everything you need to make great sounding recordings. Another alternative for PCs is Reaper, which comes with a fully functional free trial period. It also works well on old, slow computers (I made a song on a 10+ year old laptop!). Should you like Reaper and wish to purchase a license, they have different prices depending on your income and intended use.
Bottom line: for a free DAW - if you have a Mac, we recommend Garageband. If you have a PC, we recommend Cakewalk. If you are looking to invest some $ in a DAW, talk to us and we'll give you some recommendations!
Below are links to Youtube videos about using GarageBand, Cakewalk and Reaper.
All you need to make basic recordings is:
That's all, you ask? Well, almost every computer these days come with a built-in microphone, which doesn't sound terrific but it is totally fine for recording your voice/guitar/piano. After all, this COI can be seen as a songwriting experience, not a commercial recording studio!! If you'd like to take your recordings up a (big) notch, here's some gear that will cost money, but will really help (and are investments that will last a lifetime):
Buying used gear is totally cool. That's how I roll, personally. But with the virus going around, I understand if you're weary. Regardless, connecting these instruments to your computer and getting the hang of it is a little frustrating at first, but once you understand it, it's a breeze.
On top of all this gear is plenty of free applications you can download to add cool sounds to your songs (drums, violins, whatever). Again, you don't need any of these things, but if you're a committed music maker I recommend you get them!
As far as music notation goes, since songs are chord and lyric based, most songwriters don't need to write out everything but the melody and chord symbols. But using notation software to arrange awesome string and horn parts is always an asset. So while music notation software isn't required to be apart of songwriting camp, it is most certainly a powerful tool (I use it!).
Collaboration. The standard way people share music online (to collaborate over the internet) is simply email, or Dropbox, or Google Drive, or whatever method of sharing information sharing you prefer. I'll show you how to easily share song files with other musicians so there's nothing lost in translation (hint - it's all about the metronome!).
One thing to note - DAWs are powerful tools, which naturally means they're complicated. Learning this tool will be a huge asset for your music creation, but it might get frustrating at times. With this in mind, we aren't going to try to do anything extremely complex during COI. Our primary goal together is to help you learn to lay down the most basic information so you can have a clear recorded version of your new song!