Recently my muse inspired me to push myself as a musician. This last weekend, I met a string quartet in a bakery. Set up some microphones, and recorded them performing a piece I wrote completely from scratch. It has been one of the most satisfying experiences in my musical life. I have zero classical training and I’m a beginner level at reading music. I wanted to document here how I pulled it off in the hopes that others might find it useful.
First. I listened to a ton of quartet music. I created a playlist of pieces that had elements I enjoyed or wanted to use.
Then I went and found the sheet music for those pieces (musecore was an absolute treasure for this). Sticking with more well known masters made the sheet music easier to find. Then I studied all the sheet music. Just mostly listening and taking in the notation and how it mapped to a player playing it. Did some music theory studies for the chord qualities and progressions for phrases I liked.
The above process went on for probably 3 months. I also watched all the youtube content about quartets and string players I could.
I waited for the Spitfire Audio Sacconni Quartet string library to go on sale and picked it up. Once I had that in hand I started making little doodles. From this I learned how to set up my daw sessions for midi composition. Learned how to swap sample banks based on the tonal quality and volume I was going for, and also midi automation.
At this point I started emailing quartets. Following local chamber music groups on facebook and instagram is a great way to connect in to your local classical players. Also going to performances.
Smaller venues yielded much better experiences than the big performance halls. I found a quartet and we figured out a timeline and fee that worked for both of us.
Then I started composing the piece. I knew it would be 8 mins long so I chose a very slow tempo of 50bpm to help fill that space easier and picked a key i was comfortable in. i decided to hand draw in every single note. no midi performance at all. the intention here was because this would eventually end up as sheet music, so being rigid would translate to cleaner midi files and onto sheet music better. This was pretty tedious and time consuming but yielded what i feel are better results. i was able to dial in the exact emotions and phrasing i was going for. if what i had didnt fit, it was deleted or reworked. I would work for 45mins to an hour at a time. it took probably 5-6 weeks to get a first draft.
Then i exported a midi file and imported it into musecore and began cleaning up the sheet music. All the dynamic markings had to be redone by hand. I made a “read along” video with the sheet music and “mockup” library music and sent it and a PDF to my quartet contact who was the Violist.
They gave some good feedback, I had to change the key to something with no more than 2flats/sharps. Luckily Gm was only a half step down so I transposed everything to that key.
I then listen to my piece every couple of days and made notes about what i didnt like and made very small adjustments. i sent the final version to the quartet a week before recording. They ran through it at their regular weekly practice which I was not present and told me everything was good to go and they were ready to record.
I did a “practice” recording where i brought all my equipment, set it up, ran REW, and banged on my acoustic guitar for a sound check about a week before the recording. I uncovered all sorts of flaws in my setup and process that i ironed out over the next week.
The day of the recording went nothing at all like I thought it would. I was bombarded from all sides by the players with questions about various phrases and how they should be delivered. i did my best to answer them but i think that there was still a bit of ambiguity and uneasiness with a few of the players. two of the players immediately understood that this was more “jazz” than classical. as long as they delivered the “feel” of a phrase that there wasn’t a need to 100% accuracy for what was notated for some of the phrases.
The players were very good at policing themselves when they got it wrong. One player was rushing(a natural thing to do for a 50bpm piece) and another player asked them to count out the part, then corrected their rushed tempo when they started counting.
We had 2 takes where we had to stop then punch in a few times. These were pretty much the practice runs and mostly unusable. I was nervous everything was going to fall apart at this point. Then the players asked to play to a metronome as 50bpm was just too slow i think for all the nervous energy that was in the room. we setup the metronome and saw good results immediately. we had two fantastic takes, then we had one final take without the metronome. The take without the metronome was a full 30secs shorter than with the metronome!
There were mistakes but with 3 good takes, splicing together a perfect piece was easy enough. All in all the whole thing the took 1.5 hours.
If i could do it again i would do these things different:
A simpler piece. Whole and half notes go further than you think.
Never write a phrase you cant count and/or hum. Midi can get you in trouble with this.
Be very familiar with the notes during transitions. I was more familiar with ”number” of the note in the scale/progression. “Right after the Eb.” is how the players communicate about the piece.
Simplify at every step. Parts that i thought were “a tiny bit tricky” had a 4x multiplier in complexity the day of and were way more troublesome than i thought they were.
Don’t make composition decisions based on the “players boredom” or to “impress” the players. It wont be boring.
Im trying to keep this short so i left a ton of details out. Feel free to ask questions or share your own composition experience!