Travis Weller: Music Composition, A Love Affair With Sound

Guest Author Series #2: Music Composition, A Love Affair With Sound
Author: Travis J. Weller
Profession: Director of Bands, Mercer High School, PA
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As I write for my good friend Joe this warm May evening, I must first put a disclaimer on this article: I do not consider myself a composer…yet.  I am a high school band director that loves sound. I love to teach it. I love to manipulate it. I love to listen to it.  I also love to create it.  The invitation to write about something that I am very passionate about is an honor, and also very humbling.  As far as composition goes, I am still in my infancy when I consider what I have written compared to the likes of Alfred Reed, W. Francis McBeth, and Clifton Williams.  Even compared to the current composers led by Camphouse, Boysen, Hilliard, Hazo, Gillingham, Giroux, Mahr, Melillo, Stamp, Ticheli…..it would not be proper to place myself on it. I write music to honor those composers whose music speak to and inspire me to grow and develop as an educator and a musician, and to share my voice with a new audience that will hopefully inspire a future composer.

Over the Christmas break of 2003, I made a personal decision to resume composing so that I could keep an active role in music as an educator, and writing was the best possible venue for me to pursue.  After all obligations as a father of two (at that time) were completed, I utilized the time between eight and midnight to begin my work.  At the request of a couple of close mentors and friends, I also resumed arranging on a more regular basis during the spring of 2004.  Over the next two years, I invested a significant amount of time experimenting, listening, sketching, and composing building a list of works for elementary to high school concert bands and numerous arrangements for marching band.

The creative process for me works in a number of different ways.  I have had two experiences in which ideas and pieces spontaneously came from my ear to the paper with minimal amount of development.  This was very exciting as the piece continued to grow, but it also demanded a significant amount of time over a short period and was very exhausting.  In another instance, I was experiencing difficulty developing a certain motif.  I felt the line had a good amount of integrity, and was hopeful that it could be developed into a grandiloquent ending.  After two weeks of fruitless nights at the keyboard, I picked up my sketchbook in which I had logged a number of pieces, motives, and phrases.  Within that book I found my answer in a small phrase that I had written a year and two days prior to work on that piece.  The sketchbook has been a valuable resource for me as a composer to hold ideas until they can be further developed.  In a way, it is much like brainstorming with yourself.  There is always something brewing, ready to come to fruition.  For the majority of my pieces, the biggest factor in the creative process is the time I spend with each idea that I put to paper and develop it to its potential.  I take every minute I can when I have the ideas – late at night, over lunch in front of the band room piano, driving to work, mowing the grass – I would not trade those moments in time with this art for anything.

After some brainstorming and development, I can put several guidelines for the entire piece in place (length of the piece, key, reason for writing).  If it is programmatic in nature, I will spend time researching and gathering background material that can help inspire musical ideas.  The meter, key signature, and main ideas may already be determined and sketched out, but I do not consider myself to be bound to them if through the course of development that a better idea presents itself for use.  As I develop ideas and experiment, especially at the elementary and middle school level, the range of the music as it applies to the instrument factors into my decision making.  I try to create music that has an even distribution of technical demands for all parts so that the student’s will remain engaged and interested in the piece.

My efforts in composing have been very rewarding for a number of reasons.  Many directors have the opportunity to play or conduct an outside group that keeps them active musically. Even though my role as a father and educator do not afford me that chance, this keeps my personal musicianship alive and it sets a good example for the students.

Another reward from actively composing, I have found that my score preparation and study is significantly sharper than it used to be.  When I encounter certain sections of music, my analysis now takes into account the composer’s intent in his orchestration, or the development that a phrase is undergoing.  I am able to get past the question of “Why did he write this?” much quicker so that I can instead focus on the best manner to present the music to the students, prepare them for new tonal or rhythmic concepts, and have a deeper connection to unlocking the music the composer has given to my ensemble.  Through email and phone conversations, I have contacted many composers to ask them about their piece and also general thoughts about composing.  Wonderful composers, educators, and people like Samuel Hazo, Quincy Hilliard, Mark Camphouse, James Barnes, and Timothy Mahr have answered my questions, and been very supportive of my own efforts.

The compositional process has also been very beneficial to exposing me to new sounds, new composers, and new pieces of literature.  I make it a point each year to learn at least one new work and one classic work (of which I am unfamiliar) with each of my ensembles every year.  I take to heart the advice I give my students when they see a challenging piece of music put in front of them: “Don’t be scared of notes on a page”.  Now I see and hear opportunity to learn and grow as a musician and as an educator.  I have sought out not only band composers, but now have a renewed interest in the music of the likes of Persichetti, Stravinsky, Respighi, Sibelius and Mahler.  I find myself dedicated to be open to new sounds and considering what those masters were trying to say through music.

I would encourage every director to try their hand at writing and arranging.  It is an extremely rewarding process on the different levels I named earlier.  It has also made me more informed and discerning about my literature choices with my ensembles.  When you gain the perspective of what is going into the music, and what can be gained by performing it, this process provides a wonderful opportunity for growth as an educator and musician.  For this reason, my students view me much differently now that they have been witness to this process.  They see I teach music.  They see I create music.  They see I share music. They see I love music.  I may not be a composer….yet.  But I am a better educator and musician for giving these thoughts song, and giving that song to those who would hear it.

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About Travis Weller:

Travis J. Weller has been the Director of Bands at Mercer Area Middle-Senior High School since August of 1995.  He earned his bachelor’s degree in Music Education with a concentration in Tuba and Conducting from Grove City College, and graduated from Duquense University in May of 2007 with a Master’s Degree in Music Education.  He has taken additional studies at Youngstown State University, and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Beginning in the fall of 2006, he will begin term as Vice-President for PMEA District 5, and will move into the Presidency in the fall of 2008. He has been a guest speaker in music education at Grove City College, Westminster College, and Duquense University for Methods Classes and PCMEA workshops. Travis is also a free lance arranger and composer of music for school bands.

[tags] composer, composing, compose, high school, wind ensemble, marching band, concert band [/tags]

Joseph M. Pisano, Ph.D. is the creator of many education websites, a lecturer, clinician, trumpeter, and conductor. He is currently the Associate Chair of Music and Director of Bands in the Calderwood School of Arts at Grove City College in PA. He been named a TI:ME Teacher of the Year, received the JEN Jazz Educator Award and the PA Citation of Excellence. He is a past Vice President of the Technology Institute for Music Educators and the current Vice-President of the PA Intercollegiate Bandmasters Association. He also writes for DCI Magazine, Teaching Music Magazine, and is the Educational Editor for In-Tune Monthly Magazine; he has contributed hundreds of articles to various publications. Find out more at his website jpisano.com.
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