When Worlds Collide: Understanding the Practice of Pre- and Post- Production in Contemporary Classical Music vs. Commercial Pop Music

Not so long ago, I asked the head of a small label for help in one of my projects. I wanted to be mentored in the recording of one of my pieces which would be released commercially. At first, they gave an enthusiastic response to my inquiry, saying they would help me however they could. I rarely ask for help, so I was quite pleased with my bravery and the response that I got. Good job me! *self-pat on the back*

We set up a meeting to talk about the direction I would be taking and what I needed from the label. But when I asked about the process of recording, the answer I got was different than what I was expecting. First, I was to hire a producer and someone to do the post-production to mix the tracks. Then, I was to ask a couple of arrangers to go over the piece and add stuff to it to make “my song” sound the best that it could. My perplexed look said it all, because the conversation stopped in its track, and the question was asked: “Does this makes sense?”

What the…

“Well… all the performers have to be in the same room for the recording, so no need for mixing layers other than levelling the instruments and splicing really… And in this case, I would be the producer and the arranger, because that is part of my skill set.” Perhaps I came across as pompous and full of myself for saying that I was skilled at arranging, because the answer I got was that I was “probably not the greatest arranger in the world” and that I would “benefit from having a second person take a look” at my music. (I regret not explaining better right then that a composer’s craft is valued on a set of skills that includes arranging, just like a singer would be judged on their ability to reach her high notes for instance.) With the arrangement being done “pre-production,” care is already taken to shape the form of the work. Attention is paid to the bass line, the counterpoint, the timbres, and the work is inherently written for the instruments that are going to perform it. Therefore, there’s no need to fix, for example, the recorded voice of a singer who had a hard time performing a song that was not written for them by adding autotune. No need!

In this meeting, we didn’t see eye to eye on whether to record everyone in the same room or not. In this era, there is no need to understand the physical and sonic properties of voice ranges or instruments, or for performers to acquire a sense of balance. That’s someone else’s job, post production, to mash it nicely together so the quiet acoustic guitar will be heard over the drums. Or even in live shows, mics and pickups will do the trick. But the magic happens when the musicians are interacting with each other, breathing together and listening to one another. The resulting frequencies meshing together creates a refined cloud of resonance and beatings that could never be reproduced by technology. The subtleties that comes with paying attention to what is going on and feeding off of it are not the same as when one is in their respective room banging away on their instrument seemingly without consequences. What about the balance? It’s been taken care of by the skillful composer. Yes, the piece is also INHERENTLY BALANCED!

What we gain from post-production arranging and balancing is an absolute control over every aspect of the sound. Sure, you can create a pretty good recording of a song in no time, picture perfect even. Flawless. But what we loose is the natural meshing of the sound, the roundness of it all resonating together, the organic evolution of the piece as the performers move as one, starting a note at exactly the same time because they can see each other and have been trained to do it perfectly for years. The result is multidimensional, and no amount of digital mixing could replace that. There is a finesse in “pre-arranged” music that is not present in popular commercial music. And here, I’m talking about the past two-three decades, not about the multilayered kind of music that felt like something and meant something: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Hearts… there’s a rawness to these artists’ recordings that is so human and relatable. And guess what? They didn’t record in separate booths…

To sum it up, the beauty of contemporary classical music is in its pre-production craft and its infinite attention to details from the get go. You can’t cheat; you can’t fix after the fact. The “fixing” happens before you hear the first note, so extensive knowledge of the instruments used is necessary while putting pencil to paper. Yes, it might more time to write and produce, but it might pass the test of time better in the end…


Accepting Rejections

I often get frustrated by colleagues posting online about never getting accepted into any composition workshops, never winning competitions or always being shortlisted. Mostly because I can relate. I just want to yell at my laptop screen: “Would you stop whining??? We’re all in the same boat!!!!” It’s an emotional punch to the stomach for everyone who receives a letter or email containing the response they’ve been awaiting for weeks when it starts with: “Dear *insert name here*, Thank you for your interest in such and such…” and you know what follows. But does it have to be so painful?

I came across an interview by Marie Forleo on her YouTube channel (which I’m addicted to)  with actress, director, producer and writer Bryce Dallas Howard, who was talking about the reality of being an artist. She explained that she gained perspective on the whole thing when her grandmother, actress Jean Speegle Howard, told her that on average, actresses working in Hollywood, the ones who could make a living and comfortably pay their bills out of acting, would succeed on 1 audition out of 64. Knowing this, Bryce Howard entered her career knowing not to get discouraged when receiving rejections, that she had to keep at it and eventually, she would receive a “yes.” (See the interview here https://youtu.be/E-DF4LUm0Rc )

Why was anyone told this before? I know I wish I had been told! What a great way to handle rejections! What if every time we got a “no,” we counted it as one step closer to a “yes?” Plus, how easy is it to get feedback to make up a better application or proposal the next time around?

I was always hesitant to do so, being afraid to ask for too much time on the part of the organizers or committee, until I applied to an opportunity conjointly with a wonderful soul and performer I love working with. She had sent the application, so she received the email that started with: “Dear team, Thank you for your application…” She didn’t hesitate and sent an email back asking for feedback. We received a short, but efficient email outlining two strength and two weaknesses in our proposal. We are in the process of applying to several opportunities with the same project, so it’s great to know how we can do a better job at pitching our idea.

That’s one strength that we have as composers that actors and actresses don’t have: it’s mostly not about the way we exist, physically, mentally or creatively. It’s about the way we talk about our ideas: we have the ability to review again and again a proposal. So maybe the ratio of successes to failures experienced by composers is even more than 1:64?

On Just Asking.

I recently came accros an opportunity for a project that would help advance my career as a composer. The problem is that the deadline for its application was very close, and there was a long list of steps to take in order to complete it. Including people to contact. And documents to get from them. And you know that the more people you contact and need documents from, the longer it takes to get everything together. Or that’s what I tend to think.

I tend to give up too easily when time is an issue, but didn’t want to pass on this one. So I decided to do everything in my power to put this application together, even if it meant trying until the very last minute.

In four days, I found all the musicians that would be involved in this project (people I truly admire), and a compagnie to mentor me and support me in this endeavour. I started emailing everyone one by one, when usually I would be too ashamed to ask for people’s time at the last minute (and show my flaws as a last-minute-kinda-person). But one by one, they replied back quickly with enthusiasm and the will to make this happen. “Let me know if I can do anything else!” they’d say. I mean, I’m the one supposed to be enthusiastic about their responses, no? One of them even reviewed my application countless of times, helping with my ESL funky grammar. That level of support felt so good! I’m loving a good team work, when a group works towards the same great goal. I just never realized that that goal could be mine and that it could be worth working towards.

I knew I wanted an outsider to support this project, and so I spent a few days brainstorming in order to find the perfect fit. I ended up asking someone I knew through my job whose sole purpose in life seems to be helping others and making others happy. Despite them being off work due to illness, they did everything they could so that their company would get involved and give me a hand.

This is what I learned from this experience:

1 – I have no clue how I got everyone on board so quickly, but I did just by asking…
2 – …maybe by believing in my own project.
3 – I have no clue why people got on board so quickly, but something inside makes me feel that it’s all about making music together and helping each other. And I liked it.
4 – Some people are just plain kind and devoted and worth trusting.

Pause vs. Rest: French Wins

via Daily Prompt: Pause

The French words for “whole rest” and “half rest” are “pause” and “demi-pause” respectively. I find this concept interesting, as the literal sense of “pause” means a brief stop in the action. The word “rest” suggest taking the attention away from the current activity to do something else, which is not what musicians do when encountering the upside-down hat symbol. No matter how many rests a orchestra brass player encounters, they still need to count or pay attention to the conductor, or at least to the music. Hopefully they don’t go off and have a nap (though I have a feeling that happened before…)

It’s the same with “quater-rest,” or “soupir” in French (literal translation of “sigh”). The quarter rest doesn’t exist to help one rest their fingers as a player, but to let the music breathe in order to create tension or release. Some could argue that it does exist in some cases to let a wind player breathe, to which I would say: “Exactly, to breathe as part of the action of playing, and again, not to lie down for a second!”

This is yet another example of how French speakers use more words in their common use of the language to make the most subtle of discernments compared to English speakers, with their efficient umbrella terms. The language with the most authority on the question, the Italian language, uses “pausa” for to designate a “rest.” And strangely, English’s cousin, German, uses “pause.” So…where does the term “rest” even come from?


Première of Words Fail Me – About the Piece

This work, which I’m very excited about, uses parts of a recording of Virginia Woolf‘s lecture broadcasted by BBC, called “Words Fail Me.” Oddly enough, I don’t think words ever failed her. This brilliant woman, one of my true hero, part of an intellectual circle of men in the early 1900s, had ways to put words together from which true feelings, true atmospheres emanate. Words become secondary to the journey she drags one through. Something in me fantasizes that, when I read her novels, I somehow experience what she experienced in her mind.

Composer Allan Gordon Bell, on a recent encounter with him, said something about music beginning where words fail you. Coincidence that I heard these words when I had just finished the piece? Nevertheless, what an amazing conjunction of two worlds and abilities; one of the words and that of the music, put together to create meaning. I’m not trying to compare my art to Woolf’s, as she was a true genius, but rather to express my appreciation for those whom can use words with such finesse to fine means.

Thus Words Fail Me (the piece) truly begins where words fail me. In my confusion of it all, perhaps even frustration, Woolf provides advice, wisdom, and an understanding of the art of writing throughout the work. She does with candor and humility. I imagine her saying “Don’t worry, this is how it goes… and it’s as simple as that,” but with much eloquence.

In terms of compositional techniques, the work asks the players to react to the tape part, as well as to each other. Events rarely line up. Thus the musicians must be alert to their sonic environment at all time, which I hope will generate spontaneous surge of energy and tension.


Words Fail Me

performed by / interprété par
Evan Bowen, percussion
Branko Džinović, accordion
Wesley Shen, piano



Thursday, March 24, 2016
8 PM, Array Space (155 Walnut Ave, Toronto)
Tickets:  $15 students, arts workers, seniors | $20 regular

Also featuring works by Patrick Arteaga, August Murphy-King, Bekah Simms and Tyler Versluis.


Recital by Amina Holloway, Dec. 15, 2015

Many thanks to Amina Holloway for entrusting me with the writing of a piece for her recital. Although I could not attend, I am certain the performance exceeded expectations.




performed by / interprété par



Toronto, ON
Tuesday, 15 December, 2015                   Mardi, 15 décembre, 2015
12 pm, Yorkminster Park Baptist Church                 12 h 00, Yorkminster Park Baptist Church


Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata for Piano and Cello in F major Op. 5 Nr. 1 

I. Adagio Sostenuto 
II. Allegro
III. Allegro Vivace 

Johann Sebastian Bach, Suite for Solo Cello Nr. 3 in C major BWV 1009 

I. Prelude 
II. Allemand
III. Courante 
IV. Sarabande   
V. Bouree I & II 
VI. Gigue 

Sophie Dupuis, “Prosopagnosia” for Cello Solo* 
Cecilia Lee, Pianist  

*premiere performance

Prochain évènement :



Orchestre Philharmonique du Haut-St-Jean – Page Facebook

Edmundston, NB
Sunday, 20 December, 2015          Dimanche 20 décembre, 2015
2 pm, Centre Maillet          14 h 00, Centre Maillet
Tickets: $15 at the door      Billets: 15$ à la porte


A Most Wonderful Christmas                    arr. Robert Sheldom
Gabriel’s Oboe*                                                Ennio Morricone
                                                                                       arr. Robert Longfield
Sparks**                                                               Kenneth J. Alford
                                                                                       arr. Daniel Finzi
30 P’tites Variations***                                  Daniel Finzi
5 P’tites Variations                                           Daniel Finzi


Candide****                                                        Sophie Dupuis
The Little Drummer Boy                                arr. Bob Cerulli
The Sound of Music                                        Richard Rodgers and 
                                                                                Oscar Hammerstein
                                                                                       arr. Robert Russell Bennet

*Soliste: Michael Seeley, Saxophone soprano
**Soliste: Michel Thibodeau, percussion
***Soliste: Monica Dubé, premier violon

****Première Mondiale

For non-musician role models: support the learning process of young musicians. Even if you don’t get it.

“I don’t know how to play piano. I’m not good at it.”

“What do you mean???”

“I don’t know any songs…”

This tiny little princess, with eyes big as moons, was looking up at me. Each piano lessons we had before then, she had managed to impress me with improvisations filled with a surprising sensibility and maturity for a six-year-old. Her passion for piano was enviable. Then for the first time, she was afraid of playing because she thought she wasn’t good, and that she wasn’t good because she couldn’t play “songs”. By that time, she had had six piano lessons in total.

Many years ago, I was teaching this little eight-year-old angel who was such a perfectionist, she’d start crying because she couldn’t lift her fingers to her liking (even if it was to mine). Her mom would say to me (and in front of her): “You know, I can’t wait for her to play real songs.” “Well she is playing real pieces that are at her level,” would I reply. “Yeah, but they’re not real songs…”

Let’s come back to my six-year-old princess of a student. From what I could observe, this sudden mind of shift was prompted by someone older who had criticized her playing. And I’m not talking about constructive criticisms here, but about a negative opinion stated as a fact. Since she’s an obedient little girl, she believed it. It is not likely that that person who diminished my student with their words played piano or knew anything about music. (Our music resources are very limited in our little town, few people have a music background.)

When people tell me my work is not real music and that I don’t have talent, I can take a step back and think: ok fine, this person is entitled to their opinion. But I know with my many years of experience as a human being and member of this society that it might not be true and that this individual might just not know anything on the subject matter. I don’t take it personally. A 6 year-old does not have that perspective brought on by life experiences, that filter that allows them to make the difference between an opinion or a fact. Therefore, words can be very damaging.

And by the way, I can assure you that my student knew her five-note scales perfectly, could read music, KNEW SONGS, could clap rhythms, etc… But my philosophy is to never kill the music in my music lessons. I want my students to remember that despite technical exercises, we aim to make music. I thus encourage improvisation, which doesn’t work for everyone but sometimes makes wonders. My six-year-old student was able to experiment with sounds and had naturally a much better technique while doing so than while playing scales.

Furthermore, let’s not kill the joy of an eight-year-old whom just finished the first ABC piano book by saying that she hadn’t been playing “real songs” all along. Improv, easy C-D-E-D-CCCCCC songs, they’re all part  of the process of learning. It might not be everyone’s ideal of “songs” or “exercises”, it nonetheless has it’s purpose. As an adult, a role model, a big sister or brother, we can very easily shut down the potential of young students by criticizing this process harshly, and we must be careful. Plus it’s not the kid’s fault if you disagree with the teacher!

If you don’t understand what a young musician is trying to do on their instruments, try asking the question to the student. It will likely result in an answer like: “This is just thunder” while smashing down the keys. If you’re still not sure, ask the teacher. Always keep an open mind. Remember that students shouldn’t aim to please people, they should aim to try and be better than the day before. If they succeed at that, congratulate them.

Brushing off the hard stuff post-performance

I’ve recently begun performing in public again after a year of hiding in my basement practicing when I could. The last performance I gave a year ago was a disaster. The piece was an easy one, totally within my capabilities, but I was stressed out, anxious about what people though, and exhausted both mentally and physically. I was burnt out, but I still had to go for it. Obviously it was a disaster, and I felt like what people have been saying all along (“You can’t be a performer, you’re a composer. But it’s cute to see you try…”) was being proved right then. This year, I’ve been practicing… this huge mental exercise: after a performance, I ONLY focus on the good stuff that happened, not the bad. Sometimes I feel like I’m fooling myself by not admitting my faults and weaknesses, but then realize that it doesn’t make me unaware of them. It just diminishes the gravity of it all for the time being so I can focus on getting better and not wasting time by letting anything drag me down. I’ve learned to smile and say “thank you” to compliments, and “it is possible” to any negative comments. A real mental workout for someone who’s been constantly replaying the rough spot of a performance over and over again right after the fact, like a real torture.

What do you do right after a performance? How do you make the experience better or worse?