Collaboration – the spark to creativity

Guest post by Alison Mathews

During my career in music, I have always tried to find ways to balance the inevitably large amounts of time spent working alone – whether that be practicing, writing, preparing lessons or as now, composing works aimed at the intermediate pianist. Collaboration has always felt like the key to a healthy working life! At college, that meant a large amount of accompaniment and duet work. In private teaching, I developed and ran workshops with a like-minded colleague. As the focus of my career shifted to composing I naturally looked for ways to continue collaborating. This was not so easy to achieve!

True collaboration means inviting another individual into your creative process, which of course, requires trust and mutual respect. You need to have a shared vision that allows room for the expression of personal ideas. This of course, is true in many forms of musical collaboration, but in composition, where you essentially begin with nothing but an idea, perhaps something fairly abstract, it takes a special form of relationship for a partnership to be able to grow and flourish.

I was very lucky to make contact with the composer Barbara Arens through Facebook about two years ago. Over a few months we developed a friendship, which quite quickly became a working partnership. We discovered early on that we had many things in common, both musical and non- musical! Significantly, despite our differences in compositional style, we have a similar aim in composing, linked to our long experience as teachers. We both know that in setting a goal for a pupil, the imagination needs to be engaged through the music learnt. Progress through meeting technical challenges is important but above all it must be achievable – it cannot be out of reach. Engagement provides motivation and allows for expression, success leads to progress and development. To this end, we both aim to write music that is appealing, that uses the wide tonal range of the piano and encourages expressive playing. We take care to write as pianistically as possible, using shapes that fit well under the hand with potential technical challenges carefully placed. For example, my pieces may use wider stretches or leaps and Barbara’s may use cross rhythms.

So how does this partnership work in a practical way? Barbara lives in Germany and I live in the UK so we rely heavily on email and messenger, along with the regular sending of pdfs and mp3s. The free exchange of ideas early on in a project can spark creativity, which is especially motivating when perhaps one of us needs a push or a little inspiration! Very happily, similar things, for example art, history or literature, often inspire us, which will lead to time spent researching. This is an important part of the process as I know we both feel that no matter what level we are writing for or what the subject matter or theme is, background knowledge lends authenticity to the finished project.

When it comes to the actual process of composition we tend to send each other “work in progress” or pieces in various stages of completion. This is the point at which we invite each other into our individual process of creativity. This is where trust and respect is vital. We both value honest feedback and suggestions to improve the work shared. We both have a similar view on criticism – it can be healthy and constructive when balanced with a dose of encouragement or praise! Accepting that the joint goal is more important than the individual is so important. There has to be give and take and very often compromise! After some misgivings, I ended up rethinking the keys of several pieces to ensure they balanced with Barbara’s – a good decision. We would both be prepared to rewrite or discard work if ultimately it didn’t fit well within a book.

This summer, we did get the chance to work together at the same piano. I spent time with Barbara at her home, where we were able to explore new ideas for future projects. As we both compose at the piano and develop ideas through playing and listening, we naturally spent some time “noodling” as well as discussing and bouncing ideas between us. This was a particularly enriching experience. Not only in terms of working on specific ideas, but just the chance to play other music together and develop our friendship.

There is only one occasion so far when we have both independently wrote a piece at the same time, on the same subject matter without the other knowing! Not so much of a coincidence perhaps, when you consider the project was an exploration of the joys of winter, but interesting as the outcome differed so much. We both wrote a piece of music inspired by frost. For Barbara, this was after an early frosty morning walk. For me it was seeing the wonderful patterns created by frost on a windowpane. We both used similar compositional techniques such as ostinato patterns and syncopated rhythms as well as a similar tonal range with the higher register of the piano and yet each piece is individual in style. Barbara makes use of rhythmic devices such different groupings in each hand, which propels the music forward as well as giving a light, fresh, extrovert feel. Although mine also begins with an ostinato-like pattern in the left hand, it relies much more on harmonic shifts to provide colour and is more thoughtful and introverted.

These differences are another important feature of a good collaboration. Although we do consider aspects of our composing jointly, such as the keys we use, difficulty levels and the style or character of a piece, we are well aware our differences create variety within a similar genre of writing. Pieces which are complimentary but distinctly our own work best. There are plenty of differences between the way we work – Barbara much more quickly and usually late at night. I’m the opposite! Early morning can be a productive time for me and I find Barbara’s meticulous approach, especially to detail in scores, keeps me on my toes!

With any form of collaboration, if you are open and generous in your approach then it can be an excellent learning experience and a real opportunity to improve and develop. We began with a book of arrangements of ancient Christmas carols, transformed into contemporary, lyrical solos. Our second book mixed arrangements with original works and the following projects (one just complete, one planned) will be only original compositions.

As I said in my opening, collaboration provides a healthy balance to my work. I enjoy my solo projects and continue to work on more personal ideas but have found that working in partnership has increased my confidence, sharpened my critical ear and given me a far more objective and questioning approach to my own compositions. No matter what area of music you may be working in, collaboration and if you’re lucky, the development of a longer working partnership can be very rewarding and lead to personal development.

dscf5710_1Alison Mathews is a classically trained pianist and composer living and working in Surrey, UK. A graduate of the Royal College of Music, London, she holds both a Teaching Diploma and an Honours degree. Alison went on to complete a Masters degree at Surrey University, with the aesthetics of music at the heart of her studies. This led to a wider exploration of the links between art, myth and music with the award of a scholarship for a Doctorate at Surrey University. She was unable to complete this, as having a family intervened and a career in music education came to the forefront. Alison has been running a thriving private teaching practice for over 25 years along with workshops integrating art and music. Alison’s interest in composition grew out of a desire to provide students at all levels with imaginative music to play and the opportunity to explore the full range and sonority of the piano. Alison’s solo and collaborative works are published by Editions Musica Ferrum.