Collaborative Commissions – You Can Do It!

Dean Sorenson and Nolan Hauta

Dean Sorenson and Nolan Hauta completed a collaborative commission experience in the spring of 2021. The piece “Farther Down the Bank” was composed over the course of a semester and was premiered by the University of Dubuque Jazz Ensemble on April 14, 2021. This article will share elements of that project from the perspectives of the composer, director, and student musicians.

Of all the takeaways that will inevitably come out of this pandemic once it is over, one of the most prominent is the idea that distance collaboration can be done in a meaningful way. Distance work has many positives. No travel to worry about, more flexible scheduling, and access to anyone is possible literally around the world. To be clear, the gold standard for collaborative work is of the in-person variety. However, we can use some of the positive elements of distance collaboration as an enhancement to in-person work to create something even more meaningful for students. 

The Director Perspective

In the fall of 2020 I was searching for flexible repertoire for the spring semester. I noticed that Dean Sorenson has several Flex Jazz compositions published by Kjos. I did some more looking and found something interesting on his website; a description of a commission project that didn’t look like a typical commission.

This commission was designed to begin with student input, include student feedback of drafts/revisions, help students better understand what composers do, and improve their grasp of how music theory works. I knew this was a very rare opportunity so I contacted Dean immediately. We quickly went from emailing, to calling, to signing a contract. He and I have met before and of course he has a great reputation so I felt comfortable trying something new. The 2020-2021 school year was already full of uncertainty, why not take on a new project?

The best part of the project was frequently interacting with Dean via Zoom. On the other hand, finding time for all of these meeting sessions in rehearsals was the most challenging part for me as a director. Since the project would span two concert cycles, I invested a lot of time mapping out the semester and each rehearsal. I recommend that directors spend time developing a plan and that they stay organized.

I thought that I had adequately prepared students to understand the purpose of this project: explaining how it works, their role, and advising them to ask questions and offer input. Some of the students were fully on board from day one, others were unsure of what we were doing, and most fell somewhere in between. Looking back, I see that I could have done more to explain the project to them ahead of time or find ways to get more of their input earlier in the process.

Provide yourself with rehearsal time between the project completion date and the performance/recording. Students will spend time throughout the project playing various drafts and providing feedback. They will develop an overall sense of the piece but actually rehearsing the finished product won’t occur until later. Rehearsing the drafts is important, but as the piece evolves students need to be made aware of any harmful habits they picked up earlier in the project (e.g., a unison rhythm which is now presented canonically, a change of key, a swing feel which is now straight). Students may also not be self-aware of their own potential or limitations when influencing the construction of the piece. Some ensembles may need a composition that relies heavily on repetition (i.e., a formal structure similar to ternary form) whereas others are capable of less repetitive forms and more intricate development of themes. One sure way to invite stress into this endeavor is to “bite off more than you can chew.” Consider deliberate under-programming of the other concerts during the semester in which you tackle this project. A project like this may even be downright uncomfortable at times: it is a new mindset for directors and students to focus less on the product (the performance) and focus more on the process (collaborating with a composer).

Whether it be Zoom, Teams, or any other video conference technology, practice using it ahead of time to avoid user error. Time with the composer is limited and the revision process does take time out of rehearsals. Sometimes technology in the classroom operates differently than it does at home so try to have everything ready early if you can. Have a backup plan and have the composer’s phone number on hand. For my purposes, beginning rehearsals with a Zoom call with Dean was helpful in that we never ran out of time to speak with him. A downside was that Dean would often end up hearing our sight reading attempts of each new draft of the piece instead of a rehearsed version. Keep in mind that performing over video conference technology will have its own limitations anyway.

Our project concluded with a world premiere performance in front of a live audience. I had intended to also have students record their parts individually. Unfortunately, I did not budget enough rehearsal time at the end of the semester to accomplish this goal. If I had it to do over, I would have been more specific in my expectations and my plan for students to record their individual parts.

During the semester of our project, Dean and I faced snow days without rehearsals, a flat tire, and other unforeseen hiccups. Work together to compromise and make things work as best you can. Having a contract at the onset is useful, but the unexpected can happen. Again, part of having backup plans is to be ready to pivot to a new idea if something unfortunate springs up. A snow day could become a Zoom listening day with the composer instead of a live reading of the latest draft, for example. Dean and I knew each other at the onset of this project, and since we debriefed after each Zoom session, we understood each other’s ability to be flexible. That provided critical for this project to be so successful.

The Student Perspective

Some of the students were quite hands-on and enjoyed being involved at every step along the way whereas others preferred to be observers. Naturally, those most knowledgeable about music theory took more of a leadership role. As the director, I took a backseat to allow the students to do all the decision-making with Dean.

Even at the first meeting with Dean, the students surprised me: they requested that the commission explore less-common key signatures than is often found in band music. They had several other ideas to experiment with and set this piece apart from other jazz compositions they had encountered: a tempo change, alternating between a swing feel and a straight feel, etc. 

Student names on each part was a fun little perk that Dean added (e.g., Zach vs. Tenor Saxophone). A little thing like that can help with the student buy-in or investment into the piece. Initially, students may not realize how uncommon this type of opportunity is and that it truly is something special to experience.

These Zoom sessions with Dean emboldened me as the director to discuss music theory and form more in rehearsals and in my Jazz History lecture course. I also began comparing elements of our commission with other repertoire from the spring concert cycles and from the previous semester. When students began to draw parallels between the commission and other music, their excitement level increased. At times, we as directors can run the risk of “teaching to the test” (i.e., teaching repertoire) rather than providing knowledge and skills that are transferable to other music – whether that be inside or outside of the classroom. I observed students learning new things, considering new perspectives, and contributing to a new composition while still having multiple performances that semester. I count that as a win. I hope other directors try this approach too.

The Composer Perspective

I conceived of the commission project in the summer of 2020, as everyone was scrambling to come up with meaningful performance activities in the distance learning environments caused by the COVID pandemic. Soundtrap was introduced to me by my good friend and long time colleague at the Shell Lake Arts Center, Tom Luer. Soundtrap (along with similar apps such as Bandlab) allows distant collaborators to upload recordings directly to a web based DAW platform. It seemed a very elegant solution for remote recording projects. We used Soundtrap at the all-virtual Shell Lake Jazz and Big Band camp that was held in the summer of 2020. It was not a perfect system, but it certainly worked well enough to allow for some very high quality student recording experiences.

I wanted to take advantage of the distance connectivity to give the students a “how it’s made” perspective of the composition. For many commissions, the piece is composed, delivered, rehearsed, and performed. The students and players don’t get the opportunity to see how the piece came together in the first place. The idea of having students collaborate and be aware of everything as it was being written was something that I felt made this project very special.

I laid out a rough timeline with some “marks” to hit along the way. This, for me, was frankly one of the more challenging and enlightening parts of the project. Artistic Process is difficult to define. It is unique to every artist, and unique to every project. Not all work flows in a linear fashion. By laying a piece out ahead of time, before even a single note was written, I was committing to a certain way of doing things and was forced to kind of “stick with the program.” In the end, this method of working kept me more disciplined and on task. The predetermined framework also allowed me to more clearly explain “the process” to the students as the piece evolved, and I have since used similar tools on other projects.

When Nolan and I first began to work together, he started by sharing recordings of his ensemble so I could get a sense of their performance level and instrumentation. Another pandemic scramble that many directors talked about was the need for flexible instrumentation as their ensembles went virtual. Many composers offered “flex” arrangements of their works. The beauty of a brand new piece is that it can be customized right from the beginning, and written specifically for the instrumentation available.

In the case of UD, that instrumentation was quite unique! Clarinet, two altos, one trombone, guitar, piano, bass, drums, and percussion. There was eventually a tenor saxophone added to the mix. This was another advantage of creating something new. Changes in instrumentation resulted in new parts being created, not simply transpositions of existing parts.

I was clear from the beginning that I did not want a piece that was “composed by committee”. I wanted to discuss different musical ideas with the students and of course I wanted to write something that they would wish to play. As the piece evolved, there were times when I would present them with different musical approaches. I would play for them different orchestrations of a melody and have them compare and contrast them. We had a wonderful discussion at one session about the form and structure of the piece. Students simply playing parts in ensembles often don’t get to experience music at this level. It was a very important element that I wanted to include in this project. And even though it was not “composed by committee” many of the student suggestions and desires were incorporated into the final product.

There were six meetings scheduled, each spaced 2-3 weeks apart. For each session (except for the very first one, which was more of a “get to know you” discussion) I provided a new score, set of parts, MIDI realization of the progress to date, as well as practice tracks for students to practice along with. If there were to be alternatives presented, as discussed above, that meant either another set of parts OR a heavily edited single set of parts that made the different alternatives as clear as possible to the players. I am very thankful for my fluency in Finale, as I was able to create the scores and parts with relative ease.

I created the audio files in Logic, as I was able to get them to sound a little more authentic (they were still MIDI, though!) and it also allowed me more flexibility to create custom mixes as needed. I was not used to working in parallel platforms like this. I am old enough that my initial ideas are often on (gasp!)….paper! I use Finale as my playback engine even if it is not as accurate (especially for articulations, balances, and don’t get started on intonation or tone quality!), as I can ‘fill in the blanks’ aurally as I need to. I felt the student experience would be better served with better quality audio files so I used Logic along with Finale.

I tried to write at a level that challenged the students technically, but was also at a level that they could approach and play well. This is another advantage of something new – it can be customized for the individual players. This was a custom orchestration, right down to the individual student names on the parts! As I got to know them over the course of the project, it was fun to think about the individuals that would be playing the parts and I tried to write to their strengths (and avoid their weaknesses!) as much as I could.

Titles often come at the very end, and all of the draft scores and parts had the generic “Dubuque Session_X_date” as a title. I finally settled on calling the piece “Farther Down the Bank”. My office at the University of Minnesota sits on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, as does the city of Dubuque, just a little farther down.

The final project was to be a recording made in Soundtrap. As it happened, though, the group decided to perform the piece on their final concert of the semester. Soundtrap was still used throughout the project as a way to upload practice files. Some students did upload recordings and a couple asked for (and received) a few pointers on improvising over the chord changes of the tune.

It is said that if you want to better understand something, teach it. This wisdom has become very clear to me throughout this entire project. While I wanted to teach the students about the compositional process and give them a behind the scenes look at how music is created (my approach, anyway) I came away with a good many insights of my own that I have since applied to my work. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Nolan and with all of the students, and I look forward to doing this again!

Visit http://www.deansorensonmusic.com/commission-project.html to hear a recording of “Farther Down the Bank.”

Dean Sorenson is Associate Professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Minnesota and is a composer, arranger, trombonist, and clinician. Mr. Sorenson’s most recent publication is Standard Of Excellence First Jazz Performance, a collection of jazz charts for elementary bands and jazz bands. He is the co-author of the Standard Of Excellence Jazz Ensemble Method and Advanced Jazz Ensemble Method, an innovative and comprehensive series for middle school and high school jazz ensembles. He also maintains a full schedule of concert and recording dates as a Yamaha performing artist. For more information please visit www.deansorensonmusic.com.

Dr. Nolan Hauta is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Dubuque. He conducts the concert band and teaches jazz history, conducting, and lessons for low brass, guitar, and improvisation. He previously led the jazz ensemble and pep band. Hauta completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota, Morris and a master of music education at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He earned a doctor of musical arts degree in wind conducting at the University of Iowa. His K-12 teaching experiences were as a band director in Minnesota’s Eden Prairie, Ely, and Roseau school districts. Hauta has led concert bands and jazz ensembles of all ages. He is an active clinician, trombonist, and guest conductor. Hauta lives in Dubuque with his wife and two sons.

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