Rick Lawn: Lessons I’ve Learned

I guess when you begin to see your runway getting a little shorter you think more about the things you’ve learned over many years of teaching and writing. These moments of reflection also prompt you to want to share this information with others and begin to document your findings, conclusions, and lessons learned. I was happy to accept the invitation to contribute to the ISJAC blog and have this opportunity to share just a few of these lessons I’ve learned. Notice that none of these observations and suggestions has much to do with the mechanics of writing e.g. chord voicings, form, orchestration, and so forth, but have more to do with my view of writing from 1000 feet.

Lesson I: Don’t be too eager to compose original music.

Reflecting back many years to my undergraduate years, I had great teachers. For example I had Joseph Schwantner for beginning orchestration class before he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, and Rayburn Wright for jazz arranging courses and related jazz curriculum. Who could have asked for anything better? They were very open to whatever projects I chose to do, even though they sometimes fell outside the intended guidelines of the assignment. I often preferred to write original music rather than arrangements, though I did write several arrangements as I recall. Years later as a teacher myself I offered the same latitude to my students. But it was many, many years later that I realized how allowing this kind of freedom might have actually been a disservice to my development. For some reason much later in my career I began writing arrangements, carefully analyzing them first, deconstructing them, re-harmonizing, reconsidering style, tempo, key, meter and so forth. In creating a number of arrangements of both jazz classics for my 10-piece band Power of Ten such as “Giant Steps,” “Naima,” and “Bass Face” along with remakes of pop tunes I grew up with, I found that my writing was suddenly moving in new directions. I was learning more from myself and by myself. Perhaps this growth and further maturity in my writing was going to come about anyway as I grew older, wiser and more experienced. But I have to believe that my growth was in part due to working with other composer’s materials and discovering how I could make it my own. As a result, I found that my own compositional efforts were advancing. The lesson here is that arranging with an eye (and ear) towards transforming someone else’s material is a very valuable process in the path towards developing as a well-rounded writer. I learned, for example, that typically the meter dictates the rhythm of the melody.  On the other hand, reversing this relationship by letting the rhythm of the melody dictate the meter, can lead to some interesting outcomes.  Working on assignment from Danny Behr at Walrus Music I had a great deal of fun transforming tired old public domain pieces like “Yellow Rose of Texas” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” I honestly feel that while I continue to compose original music, some of my best work recently has been in the form of arrangements.

Lesson II: Don’t rely too much on the computer to do your creative work.

Computer notation and sequencing software has revolutionized the way we can work. These applications have in some ways provided a new resource in our toolbox, removing some of the guesswork and tedious aspects of writing. But don’t let this tool become a monkey wrench that works against creativity. I learned this lesson the hard way.

I have always been a technology geek so embracing the technology was fun and enticing, especially when the young student writers came to their lessons with their scores on disk. In some ways they made me feel behind the times as I was not using computer sequencing and notation software to the full extent that they were. I decided I needed to catch up and started a new original score, working almost solely at the computer and MIDI keyboard. I brought the new score for reading by the UT Jazz Orchestra and it was the worst piece of music I had ever written. After spending some time with it in rehearsal I asked the band to pass it in and I threw it out. I had never done that before, always keeping things that I had written for possible use at some later date. After doing some soul searching I began to conduct an informal survey of much younger writers who I admired, for example Vince Mendoza and Maria Schneider. I was interested in learning about their creative processes, and particularly how they used computers. Surprise, Surprise…..they didn’t! They still relied to a great extent on using pencil and paper, the piano, and their own instruments. They only introduced computers towards the end of the process or as a means to perhaps check something they had written and could not easily play at a keyboard. This age old approach to creativity hasn’t changed nor has it been improved.

There is something much more linear about having pages of manuscript in front of you, all visible at once that provides a better sense of flow, pacing, musical evolution, and the dramatic aspects of your score. I found that the computer didn’t provide the same essential insight during the initial creative process, and I had let the computer actually replace my own creative muse instead of helping it in the tedious, repetitive aspects of writing.

The computerized musicians inside that box never have to take a breath, never falter or tire, never complain about playing an impossible passage or something at the extreme ends of their ranges. Computers remove the essential need to create space in a score because they can play anything and do anything you ask them to do, but of course this is entirely artificial. I’ll pursue this a bit more in Lesson III that follows.

Computers also tend to diminish the composer/arranger’s need to internalize the sound, range, timbre, special characteristics and technical capabilities of the instruments. Without a personal awareness of these attributes arrangers can find it difficult to develop their own sound and may even create music that tires the listener. I believe it orchestration that defines a significant aspect of an arranger’s identity.

I have found that students can be mislead by computer software which tends to bypass the need to internalize things like instrument ranges, timbre in certain ranges, transpositions, the sound of mutes, instrumental combinations, saxophone sub-tone, and how difficult it might be for a real instrumentalist to execute a particular passage. I decided to help them by creating a software tool that provides a quick easy reference for nearly all the instruments that are typically found in an extended jazz ensemble. I call it The Orchestrators TooKit and it offers aural feedback on nearly every pitch possible by these instruments and it features REAL instruments not samples. It also provides useful information on transpositions, idiosyncrasies, special effects including the sounds of brass mutes, possible instrumental combinations, and so forth.  It is Mac and PC compatible and I’m offering it here exclusively at no charge. Click or copy the link below and paste it into your browser.


Download the compressed .zip file of your choice (Windows, Mac or Linux) which will keep the download file size down. Extract the program from the .zip file once you’ve downloaded it to your computer. All I ask in return is to let me know if you find it useful to you or your students and how it might be improved.

Of course the controlled recording studio circumstances make the samples somewhat unreal by comparison to more acoustic, live performance situations, but you still might find it to be a useful tool as some of my students at UT did.

Lesson III: Evaluate your work through the ears of the listener.

As I suggested previously, it is all too easy to over write. I think it was Sammy Nestico that suggested our best friend is the eraser.  While cutting and pasting is easy at the computer, be careful investing too much creative time sitting in front of one. I found that some of my students fell into this trap. I remember an occasion sitting at the piano with one of my graduate students who, some time later, won the Brussels Jazz Orchestra composition contest. We were reviewing a print out of a score he was working on. At one point I asked him if he had any idea how much time had elapsed during a section of the score. He looked at me puzzled and I could tell he had no idea. I then explained the simple formula to compute how much time elapses from one point to the next.  Understanding your music at this basic level helps to determine if you’ve dwelled too long on a section using the same orchestration, or at the same dynamic level, or before something significantly new is introduced. I then explained to him that by multiplying the number of measures times the number of beats per measure and dividing that total by the metronome marking, he could determine how much time had elapsed. For example, 80 bars of ¾ meter times 3 beats per measure equals 240 beats divided by the metronome marking of 100 equals 2.4 minutes or 2 minutes 24 seconds (.4 x 60 = 24). In that way it is easier to begin to disconnect as writer from the score and begin to get a better impression of what the listener hears, helping to avoid ear fatigue or boredom. This is a simple guideline but one that is very easy to overlook.

I found in analyzing some of my favorite ballads, for example, that a good arrangement often featured significant changes every four measures. In that short time something usually changed  orchestrationally, or perhaps in others ways. Four measures isn’t a long time, but it is when the tempo is only 60mm!

Lesson IV: Learn to recognize the appealing “hook” in your music and make the most of it.

While some of you might find it demeaning to use the pop music term “hook,” I find it a useful term to describe that kernel in a score that helps listeners to remember a piece, follow the composition, and want to hear it again. It’s important to remember that unlike other art forms, music is not visual and is quite ephemeral. The hooks become tangible objects that provide listeners with something concrete and reoccurring that guide them through a piece. The hook usually appears multiple times in the score, possibly reoccurring each time with a slightly different variation. If we aren’t careful during the creative process we can easily not see (or hear) a great hook that can be influential as we develop the score. The hook can actually be the initial creation that then spawns the rest of the composition. Hooks can appear in the form of a harmonic progression, a melodic line, and particular rhythmic figure that might have slightly different melodies or harmonizations each time it reappears. Hooks provide a form of gravitational pull or grounding for the listener. They are a target or a goal that helps to provide glue to all of the other aspects of your composition. As small as these kernels might be, they often provide the musical DNA that one associates with a particular writer. We can often successfully guess on first hearing who might have written an unidentified piece based on the hooks we hear.  They can range from relatively simple figures to more complex. Hooks can also provide valuable material when we search for the elusive way to end a piece, or begin it. Many of my favorite contemporary jazz composers use this device to great affect, and it is an ingredient I frequently make use of in my own writing.

You can hear a few examples of how I’ve used hooks in my music on YouTube:

Click here to listen to these tracks on YouTube

Particularly listen to “Hopscotch” for the 4-note melodic/rhythmic gesture that serves as the basis of the A section of this chart. You’ll also hear a hook appear in different ways and for different purposes in “Quiet Please!.” It first can be heard from 1:56-2:18 and it reappears throughout the chart in various ways. Multiple hooks can be heard in “Retrospect.” The first occurs at 00:40-00:42 as a 4 –note phrase that either ascends or descends and is used many times and in different ways throughout the chart. The second hook immediately follows it from 00:54-1:17, occurring several times throughout the chart. Lastly, I used a similar reoccurring device with variations in “Never Too Late.” The first occurrence is heard from 1:03 to 1:13.  I guess I should thank whoever illegally uploaded these tracks to YouTube without my permission as it’s made sharing these examples easy!

I hope these few lessons I’ve learned, having more to do with the process and art of writing than the mechanics, will make sense to you and offer something to consider passing on, or perhaps benefit your own work. The older I get the more I find I have to learn!


About the Author:

Richard (Rick) Lawn

Richard (Rick) Lawn has received several significant composition grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and, as a member of the Nova Saxophone Quartet, has recorded on the Musical Heritage Society, Crystal and Equilibrium labels. The Sea Breeze record label issued “Unknown Soldiers,” a CD recorded by the Third Coast Jazz Orchestra that features his compositions and arrangements including his arrangement of “Donna Lee” recorded by Bobby Sanabria’s New York Latin big band on his 2001 Grammy nominated CD. In fall 2011 his Philadelphia based little big band Power of Ten10 released Earth Tones that includes his original compositions and arrangements. The CD received coast-to-coast radio play and favorable reviews.

Kendor Music, CL Barnhouse, Walrus Music, Concept Music, Alfred Music, eJazzlines, Warwick Music, Dorn, LawnWorks Publications and UNC Press among others publish his music. Rick’s books entitled The Jazz Ensemble Directors Manual (in its 4th edition), Jazz Theory and Practice in its 2nd edition (that includes interactive ear training software) and Experiencing Jazz now in its 2nd edition have become staples among jazz educators and students.

Rick’s performing experiences outside his own ensembles include extended engagements with Lionel Hampton, Chuck Mangione, the Rochester Philharmonic, and the Austin Symphony others. He has performed in back-up orchestras for Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Joe Williams, Natalie Cole, Marian McPartland, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Dianne Schuur, Rosemary Clooney, Aretha Franklin and a host of others.

Richard Lawn is the former Dean of the College of Performing Arts at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia where he is now Professor Emeritus and part-time faculty member teaching jazz history online. He also teaches online for VanderCook College of Music in Chicago. Recetly Rick has become involved with the International Society of Arrangers and Composers. Formerly, he was affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin serving as Founding Director of Jazz Studies, Chair of the Department of Music, and Associate Dean for academic affairs. Visit his Web site at: http://www.RickLawn.com.