The art of musical composition


Dr. Heinemann plays the clarinet but says it isn’t necessary to play an instrument to compose parts for it.

By Jacqueline Kelly

For three Bradley professors, composing music is a personal outlet for creativity and provides valuable classroom lessons for students.

Inspiration doesn’t come naturally to music professor and composer Dr. Stephen Heinemann. Instead, inspiration comes from putting pencil to paper for months at a time.

“Most artists, unless they’re working in a form that provides instant gratification, like photography, are more inclined to believe that inspiration comes from work,” Dr. Heinemann says. “A composition takes months and months to put together.”

Dr. Heinemann is one of a handful of Bradley music professors who not only teach, but also put together musical notes that eventually become the melodies and harmonies of a composition.

For Dr. Heinemann, the composing process imitates the writing process used by authors. He never begins with the introduction to any piece. That, he says, would be akin to writing the table of contents of a book before writing a chapter. Instead, he gets notes down on paper, often hearing what they’ll sound like in his head. The beginning of composing consists mainly of sketching or generating ideas and getting them in writing.

From there, he decides what the various instruments will need to do, such as play a solo or provide harmony. Once he has the different parts in place, he arranges the music in sections and decides where each sounds best. Throughout the writing process, he has an idea of how the piece will end.

“The ending should be surprising — but not to the author,” Dr. Heinemann says, comparing composing to writing. But even after he writes the ending and fits each section in its place, the piece may not be complete.

“You print it out; it has the double bar signifying the ending. The parts are each printed out and it looks done,” he says. “I would be done if it were perfect. But it’s never perfect. There are no finished pieces. There are just pieces you stop working on.”

Take, for example, Dr. Heinemann’s composition Spirals. He wrote the piece several years ago but revisited it when he was asked to add an orchestral composition. In the process, he changed a few details and pushed the creative possibilities of the piece further.

Music professor Dr. Stephen Heinemann prefers the traditional method of composing music — putting pencil to paper.

Though computers now allow for composing without using pencils and paper, Dr. Heinemann prefers the traditional method. Music notation programs are useful, he says, for separating parts of a composition and proofreading his work. But the music emerging from the computer is synthesized and doesn’t quite sound like the actual piece eventually will.

“It’s the difference between seeing a picture of a painting on TV and seeing the painting in person,” he says. “As a composer, one of the most valuable things I have is a fragile sense of how I want a piece to sound. You have to be careful not to let the synthesized sound substitute for your own sense of sound.”

Dr. Heinemann plays the clarinet and saxophone and says it isn’t necessary to play other instruments to compose parts for them. He does, however, use his cursory knowledge of the piano to plunk out a tune while composing.

“You do have to know what each instrument is capable of, what is idiomatic about each instrument,” Dr. Heinemann says.

Part of composing well is being able to play at least one instrument masterfully. “It’s very important to know how to play something very well, or you can’t relate to the best musicians or how to write successfully for them,” he says.

His primary instruments influence the way he composes. The clarinet and saxophone are single-line instruments and are predominantly used to play melodies. So his work has fewer harmonies than other composers.

While composing, Dr. Heinemann rarely thinks about the audience. He realizes some people will like his work and some will not. “It’s the people who like it you were writing for all along,” he says.

He considers his first audience to be the musicians who will play the piece, and he finds it especially gratifying when the performers say they enjoyed his work.

As a young composer, Dr. Heinemann often found himself nervous before hearing his compositions performed live for the first time.

“It was the biggest thing in my life, and it was in the hands of someone else,” he says. “Now I know what the piece is going to sound like, so there are very few surprises along the way.”

Dr. Heinemann benefits from teaching composition to his students. “Teaching composing is such a great way to clarify your thinking on composition,” he says.

Nine of his students won the Slane College of Communication and Fine Arts Dean’s Award at Bradley’s annual student scholarship exposition for their project titled Enneapropaedeudodecaphonia, which means nine pieces for the purpose of teaching twelve-tone composition.

Campus composers

For Dr. Todd Kelly, a professor of music who heads Bradley’s jazz band and performs in a jazz quintet, inspiration comes after listening to music.

“I’ll get a groove in my mind, and then I sort of fill in the blanks from there,” Dr. Kelly says.

Because he is not a full-time composer, Dr. Kelly works in bursts. But composing affects all aspects of his life, including his teaching.

“Composing has deepened my understanding of harmony, made me appreciate the difficulty of creating a memorable melody and tapped into a side of my creativity that would otherwise be untouched,” says Dr. Kelly, who plays trumpet and uses the piano when composing. “I feel that composing makes me a more complete musician, and while I often find the process grueling at times, it is ultimately rewarding.”

Dr. John Orfe, assistant professor of music, has been called a “virtuoso pianist” by some of his colleagues, and playing the piano has a large influence on his composing.

“I learn through practicing, performing, and making music with others,” Dr. Orfe says. “As long as one does not allow one’s musical ideas to be shaped exclusively by one’s instrument, performing is a wonderful complement to composing.”

However, “creating something from nothing” is always challenging, he adds.

“I find the initial stages of composition the most difficult because possibility is infinite. Once those initial choices are determined and settled, they usually inspire other choices, sometimes to the point where a piece seems to ‘write itself.’ But this varies from piece to piece.”

Like Dr. Heinemann and Dr. Kelly, Dr. Orfe wants his students to benefit from his experiences. “I see all of my musical work as being part of living cultural traditions — American, European and increasingly, global. I get to share lots of wonderful music with my students, and that’s exciting.”