Patrick Cornelius Masterclass – "You’ve got to have a hi-hat in your horn"

It’s been a few weeks since NY alto player, Patrick Cornelius gave a masterclass at the Conservatoire. The masterclass coincided with a gig featuring his music from the album While We’re Still Young which was being released on that day. The masterclass was given in the form of an open workshop so there was a plentiful amount of wisdom imparted throughout. There’s a Herbie quote I’d found recently that compliments visits such as these pretty well “You can practice to attain knowledge, but you can’t practice to attain wisdom.” Personally, I think we’re pretty lucky at Birmingham to have a strong body of regular visiting teachers who pass down wisdom on a weekly basis and masterclasses such as these are the perfect opportunity for their intelligence to be reinforced.

There were several things that stuck out to me so I thought this would be the perfect platform to share them:

The Importance of Groove:
Patrick began by reminiscing about an old professor who was famous for saying the phrase “You’ve got to have a hi-hat in your horn.” The professor was getting at the fact that as a member of the frontline you have to make sure you are able to make the audience groove and dance without any external support. Essentially, the groove should come from the horn and the rhythm section are just for complementing that.

Patrick talked about getting out of Berklee and being told he had awful time; something he didn’t understand because he knew his time was metronomically precise. However, being metronomically precise doesn’t alway mean you’re grooving. He was advised to go back and listen to the likes of Sydney Bechett and Louis Armstrong because remarkably, they could get a whole group of people dancing with just quarter notes.

In the words of Patrick “No matter how hip music gets, when it eventually comes down to it the fundamentals of good music don’t change. You can get as intellectually sophisticated as you want but if those fundamentals aren’t met on some kind of level then it’s simply not good music.”

He said it’s not like playing like Mike Tyson on every bar but instead you should think of it like paint on a palette. You can mix them to make new colours. It doesn’t have to be all Trad but you could combine a pigment from that along with a pigment from the avant-guard. That way “it just becomes an organic way of speaking.”

Compositional Approaches:
Patrick’s album, While We’re Still Young is a suite of music that was inspired by the poems from A.A Milne’s When We Were Very Young. This was the first time he had composed music as part of a suite rather than just single, standalone compositions. This meant that the overriding compositional element for the whole suite is that nothing should be superfluous and anything that he wrote had to somehow come back or be tied into something else. Ultimately, thinking about the overriding picture of every line and harmony being in service to the greater picture and paying tribute to its inspiration.

As composers we’re always on the lookout for inspiration for new works and literature is a great resource for finding it. For Patrick the most important part of writing each composition was capturing the essence of a poem and creating a musical picture of it. In my opinion there’s some very clever writing happening which really connects the music to the literature. In particular one poem is about a guy who he suspects might have been the village alcoholic, stumbling around with a paper bag and acting in a generally drunk manner. To symbolise this Patrick has incorporated the idea of composed mistakes which work in a way that make it seem like the horns are trying to hit something but have come in at the wrong place. This makes the audience perceive it as a mistake. With this happening again and again it eventually becomes a compositional element.

We’re pretty lucky in this day and age to have a lot of technology available to our dispense and embracing the 21st century can work incredibly well in respect to enhancing our compositional journeys. Patrick talked about the ability to capture sound recordings on a smart phone –  Capturing a melody, groove or bass-line instantaneously is something he talks about this as being one of the greatest aids to the modern day composer. His voice memo app is filled with hundreds of different ideas and most have made their way into a whole host of his compositions.

Practicing Composition:
When Patrick talked about the idea of practicing composition it seemed to be a complete given but actually it’s been quite a revelation. He suggested that if you want to get your compositional chops together then just like practicing your instrument it’s a good idea to set aside time every day dedicated to practicing it. For myself, composition is something I only do when I have to write for something in particular so I often find that progress from piece to piece isn’t exponential but as from now by setting myself the daily task of practicing composition I’m confident that this will change.

Patrick said the best thing to do is be methodical about and treat it like the practice of an instrument.  Set yourself goals and do your best to achieve them. Studying with guru Dick Oatt’s, it came to Patrick’s attention that “the only way your going to find out who you are as an artist is to write music.” Patrick talks about the importance of being at music college and how this environment acts as an incubator for the composer as on a daily basis there were opportunities available to bring in something he’d been working on and try them out with a band. I find that in Birmingham the positive energy that everyone brings wanting to be a part of each others thing creates the perfect environment to get the compositional band-wagon rolling.

In the process of composing on a daily basis you’ll soon amount a large portfolio of your own originals and the more you compose the more you’ll have to work with. Practice can then involve rearranging and coming up with alternative versions of existing material. In fact, Patrick talked about how on this current tour he’s played with a variety of line ups so he’s had plenty of opportunities to rework and rearrange his compositions for different formats.

The Macro Approach:
It’s often very tempting to jump straight onto Sibelius and get the job done. However, Patrick marks the fact that if you want to approach composition seriously then this approach isn’t going to get the vast majority of us very far and is probably going to become overwhelming very quickly.

The importance of seeing the big picture first is something Patrick couldn’t stress enough. For him, his three hour daily commute on the subway is the only time he can’t be at the piano or saxophone so the perfect opportunity to take this into account. Once he has a melody or a compositional idea the following process involves sitting with a notebook and creating a roadmap of the arrangement. By seeing the bigger picture first, Patrick finds it easier to keep control of the composition and keep his goals in mind. The advantage of this also makes it easier to consider the recycling of material. There should hardly ever be a need to compose new material for solo backings or underlying parts because really, any good melody contains a plentiful supply of material that can be manipulated and reused.

Thinking beyond a solo:
When you consider how much time and effort a composer has put into a composition its pretty gratuitous to take a solo and not pay any attention to its material. There are essentially two different schools here. The first being that a composition is the vehicle for improvisation and that the improvisation should be in aid or service to it. The second contrasts and instead is more interested in the self and the mindset of “playing my ridiculous solo.” It’s always nice as the composer of the music for someone to pay a little bit of homage or reference to the composition whether it be a construction element or a launching pad to get into something else. This generally means that the music being improvised has more purpose and obviously comes with a lesser element of being self absorbent.

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