10 ways you can impress your composition examiners

Tips from composer Harry Sdraulig



The final countdown to Year 12 exams is on! Across the country, thousands of music students are putting enormous efforts into new compositions for their crucial final assessments. Harry Sdraulig – composer-in-residence at Sydney’s Abbotsleigh School for Girls – offers his advice on how to impress the examiners, and have fun in the process.


So you need to start writing your own brand new (and completely original) piece of music. You haven’t composed anything like this before, and that page of blank paper is looking a bit intimidating…

Do not fear.

Composing is a wonderful opportunity to be creative, inventive and imaginative through the artform you love: music. If you’re stuck, there are great ways to break your creative block and start getting notes on the page. Here are my top 10 tips to give you the best possible chance of ending up with a piece you’re proud of.


  1. Find inspiration in music you love

Most syllabuses require you to explore a musical topic or genre. Before starting your composition, try to find music you enjoy which relates to your topic. Your teacher should be able to direct you to some of the most successful composers within your field, and hopefully you’ll find a few you like. But don’t listen blindly – you need to write your own piece, so be analytical. Ask yourself: ‘What specifically do I like about this piece? How did the composer accomplish it?‘. Consider how the composer has manipulated every element, whether it be pitch, rhythm, tone colour, texture, or structure.

  1. Decide on a powerful idea or narrative

A great composition – like any great work of art – will have a strong idea at its core; something which binds the whole architecture together. Don’t just start writing – an author or painter would never begin without an idea of how their final work will look! Will your composition be based on a chord progression or motive? Will it build from the quietest pianissimo to the most intense climax, or from slow to fast? Perhaps the other way around? Will there be a literary or other non-musical inspiration? If you have lyrics, how could they affect the planning and shape of your music? Questions like these are a step towards giving your music a purpose – a reason for being. Be imaginative, curious and clever!

  1. Work to your strengths

All composers have their own strengths. Some can vividly imagine different textures and colours. Others have a natural ear for harmony and voice-leading. Some might have an innate ability to come up with catchy or groovy rhythms – if this is you, you might consider featuring percussion in your composition. Try to show what you do best, and write for instruments you are familiar with or excited to learn about. Often, your strengths can be found in the aspect of music you respond to most. For example, if sumptuous harmonic progressions are what send shivers down your spine, chances are you’ll be good at creating your own!

  1. Plan, plan, plan

Once you’ve settled on instrumentation and concept, you’ll need to make some key decisions about your process and structure. Try to be detailed but don’t be constrictive. A good starting point is to describe your composition in words, chronologically. You might write something like: ‘My piece begins with a lyrical, ascending flute line over the soft shimmering of tremolo strings’. Or: ‘In this section, the rhythms and accents become increasingly grating and complex as the dynamic increases’. With this information, you can then formalise a defined structure and begin converting your ideas into notes. Ultimately, there is no one correct way of planning – but planning itself is essential.

  1. Don’t play all your cards straight away

Student compositions often begin promisingly, but the hard part can be coming up with a great second or third idea. A good trick is to keep some element in reserve for later in your piece. For example, if you’ve started with pizzicato strings, you might decide to wait a dozen bars before introducing bowing. If you have a large ensemble of instruments, don’t use them all straight away. You could even save a particular effect for the very end of your piece, as a final ‘twist’.

  1. Meet the criteria

This may seem obvious, but ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward in meeting the assessment criteria. For example, in New South Wales the time limit for HSC Music 2 students is only two minutes! In this scenario, you might want to avoid writing an extended, tranquil largo, or you’ll end up with just half a page of music. Make sure your compositional process is clear and articulated across the work, and that it relates to the topic it represents.

  1. Seek regular feedback from teachers and composers

Composition can be a solitary activity. You’ll probably hear your piece over playback so many times that it might seem impossible for it to sound any other way! That’s why seeking regular feedback from fresh, informed ears is so important. Your classroom teacher’s knowledge will be an invaluable asset, while a practising composer has gone through the process of writing many times over and is essential to offering more specific technical advice and guidance. Be open-minded, but remember that you don’t have to take every suggestion on board. It’s your piece, and the process of considering and reacting to feedback is in itself an invaluable exercise which will help you clarify your musical vision.

  1. Write what you think sounds great!

Not everyone relishes the process of composing. But pretty much every musician is capable of producing music they’re proud of. If you’re not convinced of how a section of your composition sounds, the chances are that other listeners will feel the same. It’s not all about craft – make sure you feel and connect with your own music, or nobody else will.

  1. Make your score beautiful to read

When it comes to final submission, you want your score to look impeccable. Collisions must be avoided, while dynamics and articulation markings should be carefully placed, and the vertical and horizontal spacing should be just right. Pretend that you’re sending your piece to a publisher! Give yourself at least a couple of weeks for proofreading – a perfectly presented score enhances the impression that you’ve been careful and considered. This can make a big difference to how your music is perceived by examiners (and performers!).

  1. Procure the best possible live recording or audio representation

Depending on your circumstances or instrumentation, the ideal of procuring a high-quality recording may not always be possible. In this case, get your hands on the best available sound libraries to create a virtual performance – never submit in general MIDI! The Sibelius or Garritan sound sets will already be an improvement, while you might be able to ask a composer to run your piece through top end sound-sets like East West Symphonic Orchestra.

Our muse Harry Sdraulig in the flesh.

Good luck!

Remember to have fun – and look forward to the feeling of pride and satisfaction when you’ve submitted your final piece!


Listen up!

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