Composition — a NON Composer’s Perspective

It’s been really productive and busy in the Humperdinck workspace!  Our composers have been working tirelessly with our students to hammer out the melodies that will make up our opera.  I recently had a chance to sit and watch some of what they’ve been doing, and it is really impressive.

Even though I’ve spent quite a bit of time with modern composers, the process of composing itself has always seemed mystical elusive to me (as I imagine it might seem to most people).  Do you just sit at the piano and simply plunk out different sounds until something ‘clicks?’  Do you create some kind of structure and then try and work within that?  What does this process even look like?


Flute composing



Luckily, our composers are both experts at their craft, and can also reshape that craft into words, games, and questions that are perfect for the Humperdincks to explore.  They are also starting with lyrics our students have already written (see Eva’s previous blog post here).  As a result, they have quite a bit to work with, and so they started by asking the kids a series of questions.

– What’s going on in this scene?
– How would you describe the mood?
– What does that mood look like in terms of body language?
– What does that mood sound like?

Today, nervousness was displayed through quivering lip, quivering voice, or seeming frightened and in a slightly crouched stance.  We say so much more with our bodies than we do with words, sometimes.


Evelyn with composing cards


Since we’ve been writing about, drawing, and acting these characters for a while now, our kids have really concrete ideas about what the characters look like, act like, and sound like.  They’ve been rolling these giraffes, lost girls, and ice spiders around in their minds for quite a while…and it shows.

Our composers also worked with the kids using their Composer’s Toolbox – a set of cards developed earlier in the season that had all sorts of musical choices.  Should this song sound bumpy or smooth, loud or soft, should it have a rhythmic pattern?  The most popular cards were then used in the piece.

While this was fun to watch and take part in, I want to emphasize that the process our Humperdincks are working through is often difficult for college-age students!  This is high-level learning, melding ideas about characters, emotions, sounds, rhythm, and language into something cohesive and entertaining.  Our Humperdincks are filling a tall order, and I couldn’t be more excited for what comes next – dance, staging, and learning the songs we’ve just written.

– by Ariana Strahl
Partner Teaching Artist, 2014-2015