13 Tips for composing a Piano Concerto

1. Write down all of your ideas

As soon as you get an idea, write it down. Singing it into a voice recorder is not enough. You need to see the sheet music in your mind. As you are imagining new movements to your work, it helps to envision the music on paper. This serves as a back up in case you are matching two things together that don’t work. For example, you could come up with a theme in the morning in 6/8 time signature and jot it down. Then during linch hours you begin to sing the same theme in your mind but this time it’s in 4/8 time. It’s a small change that can lead to a bit of a disaster. I’ve done this before where the woodwind section was in 6/8 and the rest of the orchestra was in 4/4 at the same section of the piece. It was a huge clash and I didn’t under where I made the mistake after listening to the playback.

2. Get the correct scale for your chord progression

Confusing a scale can lead to some terrible problems. I’ve done it several times. For so many years I always put the root of a chord in the bass, never made a change to it. I was under the impression that whenever there is a cord change the base note how to change to and it had to be the route of that cord. So, when I started to compose large Orchestra pieces there was plenty of space for me to make mistakes. I got the most confused when I started to use transposed instruments. Changing between French horns, trumpets and clarinets gave me the most issues. I would look at one of these transpose instruments while I was editing another instrument and think oh wait I’m in the wrong key but I would forget that I have looked at an instrument that transposed so I would change the key signature of one of the other instruments and completely destroy my cord progression. I’ve done this so many times. I would end up with music that sounds bad and I can’t figure out what’s wrong. It looks like all of the notes are correct everything is right I’m in the right key signature but I didn’t realize I had the confusion. Before the blender with the transpose instruments I would always make the mistake of of finding the wrong key signature when I would use different notes in the base. So if I had a C major triad but I had F in the bass then I would assume that the scale was an F major. This mistake has caused me so much time.

3. Figure out which VOICE you are hearing

Are you hearing soprano, alto, tenor or bass. You’ve determined the range to be alto, great. But the alto and tenor range overlap. So, are you hearing a tenor singing in the alto range or an alto singing in the alto range. This comes with practice and preference.

I do this often. Sometimes I hear the Violoncellos singing high into the viola range. I love to show off the Violoncello’s high voice. The same idea can go for French Horns and Trumpets. Are you hearing a low trumpet voice or a high French Horn voice?? This decision has to be made and determined before you move on. Other wise you will go forward, forget about it, then when you listen to your playback, your work won’t sound good at certain parts and you won’t know why.

4. Play the music that you compose

This is simply a good practice. More ideas come from playing it and you are able to “proofread” your writing. So many times I have been in the wrong side of a chord or at the wrong root of a scale and I would end up having the wrong key signature which leads to screwing up the transposed instruments.

5. Avoid too much self criticism

Too many times I have deleted ideas because of what I thought musicians or other composers would say about my work. I would convince myself that they would reject it so, I would delete it. If something that I create sounds bad to me, then I need to study. I have to find out what I’m missing or what I don’t know that’s making this idea sound bad. This could take days or weeks. But, I get to keep my music, my piece gets finished and I pick up another grain of knowledge.

6. Memorize YOUR work first

Sure, it’s impressive to know all of the works by every composer but if you are a composer then you are the most important composer that you know. Give yourself the respect that you deserve by prioritizing your creative works. You need to know yourself better than anyone else because who better to answer questions about your music than you. This concerto is your literature. This story was created at the tip of your pen, this makes you the most valuable asset to the music that you create.

7. Listen to music that you like

I don’t spend too much time with music that does not move me. I do think it is important to hear all of the classics and all of those hallowed names in Classical history. However, I don’t spend too much of my time with them if I don’t live what I’m hearing. Usually, the music that I like is the kind of music that I want to compose. Therefore, I need to figure out why I like the music and how I can use the same principles to create music that I can enjoy and be satisfied with.

8. Compose multiple works at once

I find this to be good practice because many times there have been lessons that I needed to learn that only certain pieces could teach me. For example, I was composing my first set of preludes for piano but I got the idea to try a small woodwind quartet in the style of John Williams. I realized that I was missing a lit of principles that would allow me to harmonize and orchestrate my ideas for this piece. This lesson only occurred to me because I got started on the quartet at the same time that I was composing an album for solo piano.

9. I have to memorize every major scale

This sucks but it is absolutely necessary. I don’t know any other way to “know” a scale than to memorize it. Memorizing is probably the least fun way to learn something but it can be effective if you continue to use the material after you’ve memorized it.

10. I have to memorize every minor scale

Let’s not neglect the minor scales. I spent so many years in all of the major scales, C, D flat, G, those are of my favorites. Later on, I realized that I didn’t know the minor scale without mistakes. If I don’t know minor scales fluently then I don’t know progressions fluently. Scales are needed before progressions can be understood. The instrument represents a geographical landscape, scales represent a GPS device and the progression is your vehicle. If you don’t know the neighborhood, how you gonna know where to go??

11. Observe your mental health and well-being

My own thoughts can discourage me faster than any words from any other person. I can discourage myself with the feedback that I assume people will give. Before anyone hears my work I’ll deem it unworthy and never even keep it. Mental health is a large part of this work. Finishing a concerto is not easy when I know that I have flaws. That knowledge will whisper unkind thoughts, words and spells to me with every note that I play.

My mind shows me the visual image of a packed audience laughing at my work and being disgusted by my audacity.

12. Write down what you did in a day

There is no Demotivator like spending an entire workday working on music and everything else that you need to work on and then you sit down at your desk and think what did I do today?? Get used to keeping a notebook, or a composition book with you. Keep a physical one, it’s a little bit different from using your phone. As you accomplish little things throughout the day write it down. If you spend an hour on social media connecting with new artists, connecting with other composers, or whatever the case may be, write that down. This counts as work.

13. Don’t beat yourself up

Some of the best movies in Hollywood get the worst reviews by their biggest fans. These aren’t even the haters, it’s the people who like it!! Sometimes you won’t be entirely pleased with your work. There will always be someone else who isn’t. So?? Mozart, Beethoven and Bach probably composed some of the most perfectly structured music in the history of orchestra. I hate almost all of their shit. I hate it. Does that make the music sound any different?? Nope. The people who love Beethoven’s 5th symphony still love Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

This step closely relates to step 13 and it’s for a reason. A delicate mindset can ruin an entrepreneur or composer. In my opinion, a composer is an entrepreneur. Let’s just take a look at a few fan reviews from Instagram in the form of screenshots.

Screenshot of Marvel Studios Instagram post.
Marvel Studios Instagram post.
Marvel Studios Instagram post.
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