Interview with Kevin Costley, Part 1

 Posted on Oct 12, 2009 in Composer Interviews, Piano Teaching

Thank you to all the students and teachers who submitted questions for the interview with Kevin Costley. All of the questions were interesting and thought provoking. I found that several of the questions overlapped, so it was easy to find 10 questions that at least touched on every person’s interests. Here are the first five questions and Kevin’s answers.

Kevin’s History:


1. How did you become a composer? How old were you when you first started composing? Was there any particular person that inspired you? What composer has been most influential or inspiring to your composing?

 I became a composer quite by accident. In the late 1970’s I wrote several hymn arrangements and a helpful piano teacher friend helped me clean up my drafts. She taught me a lot about correct rules of notation. I laid these arrangements aside and paid no attention to them for years. Every year, I would take my own piano students to our local piano festival. Every year after returning home, pieces would roll around in my head. I thought, “I think I can write a piano piece.” Yet, I never sat down and wrote one. Finally one year, I went home from the festival and actually wrote five pieces. A dear, published composer friend, Glenda Austin encouraged me to publish these pieces. She said, “They are good!” After these pieces were published, my wife was very supportive of my writing. Also, I used Glenda’s pieces as models in writing, yet Glenda told me to refer to a well-known composer, William Gillock’s solos. She said that “Everything you need to know about pedagogical composing is in Bill Gillock’s works.” And so I did refer to him frequently during those early days of writing.

Kevin’s Ideas:


2. How do you come up with fresh ideas for your pieces?

 I must say that I am very fortunate to never want for an idea to write. Most of my compositions come from inspiring locations, themes, or memorable events. 99 percent of my pieces begin with a title; I then build the piece around the title. I seldom write a piece and then say, “What am I going to name this piece?” I am always motivated by sights and sounds of the environment. I find motivation in what people do for enjoyment. I like to write about the beautiful earth where we live. I like to write about human emotions (i.e. “Remembering” – a romantic piece). I like to write to the heart of people. If a piece is about people, teachers will use it and it will sell.

Kevin’s Technique:


3. How do you first approach your composing? Do you have a checklist that you use (i.e. title, form, performer level, etc)?

 As stated in an earlier question, I usually have a title and a scene or image in my head. While writing, I gradually build that scene until I get the desired outcome I want, an outcome I think the audience would want to experience (audience being piano teachers, students, and audiences who listen to these pieces). I don’t have a checklist while writing; however, as a major writer for the FJH Music Company, I do write to FJH’s keyboard director, Helen Marlais’ criterion for leveling (i.e. early elementary, elementary, late elementary, early intermediate, intermediate, late intermediate, early advanced). Therefore, while writing my own projects and “assignments for hire” (assignments assigned by FJH), I always have these important checklist by my side while writing. I check it carefully to stay within the chosen level. Some people might think that this criterion stifles the composer’s creativity. Actually, the opposite is true for me. Although the leveling of any piece is a challenge, even for the most seasoned and experienced composer, creativity can still abound within a specific level. There can still be ‘creativity within limits.” I believe that beginning composers should begin writing simple pieces with limits, then expand into repertoire of greater complexity.

4. Do you usually have some sort of inspiration before composing something which leads to your title or do you create the music and then give it a title that fits?


 How do you come up with titles?

 I have a title book where I save some titles. Titles come from many places (i.e. roadmaps, signs, sights, sounds, travel brochures/magazines, children’s books, catalogues, etc.). However, although I have many titles in my “Title Book”, I don’t use them all. The point is: never lose a good idea; it might serve the composer well later on in writing. I have written many pieces in the middle of the night after experiencing something wonderful or emotionally impacting during the day. While in Boston several years ago, I rode the trolley. In the middle of the night, I wrote, “Old Town Trolley” and “New England Getaway.” As you look at all of the titles in my duet collection, “Travel’s for Two”, most of those titles came from my traveling to various places. Sights and scenes motivate my very best and most imaginative writing.

Kevin’s Routine:


5. Do you have a composing routine? How often do you compose? Do you compose with pencil and paper and then input your work into a notation program or do you compose directly with a notation program?

 At this point in my composing career, I have no routine at all. Most of my work at this point is “work for hire” for the company. In essence, major writers spend much time writing collaborative projects together at different levels. I also submit some of my own personal works and will continue to do so in the future. When I began composing, I became addicted and would often get out of bed and write in the middle of the night. I no longer do this. I’ve learned how to turn the creativity off (like a water valve) when I need to it off (in order to get other personal/professional things done in my busy schedule). I write most all of my compositions with an erasable pen on staff paper. I occasionally compose first on the Finale, yet very rarely. My goal is to write the grunt draft first (the hardest work!), then without delay get my original ideas on Finale, then…tweak my draft several times from the Finale copy before sending in the copy for publication. The best publications aren’t sent in immediately; the best writers sit on them and revisit them several days in a row, checking all details!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview with Kevin Costley, coming Wednesday!


 Interview with Kevin Costley – Part 1


Interview with Kevin Costley, Part 2

 Posted on Oct 14, 2009 in Composer Interviews, Piano Teaching


Kevin’s first experiences as a composer: 


6. How did you practice the art of composing when you were first learning? What kind of exercises did you do to practice writing forms that were not only theoretically sound but pleasing to the ear? Did you use method books? If so, what do you use? If you did, how did you branch off from there? If you didn’t, what approach did you use?

 These questions are very interesting. My first goal was to learn how to dictate melodies quickly on staff paper. Therefore, I did much practice writing nursery songs such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I knew that it was vital to learn to write my original ideas quickly. Therefore, I practiced a lot of dictation, something that young budding composers often refuse to do (even after I advise them to do so). The next step for me was in writing down the original melody I heard in my head and could play on the piano for the entire piece (ABA). I would then try to write accompanying harmonizing notes in both the right hand and left hand that sounded pleasing to me. I thought if they sounded pleasing to me, they might sound pleasing to other people. My advantage has always been being an ear player in the first place. I was playing piano at church when I was 10 years old. I learned to play by ear before learning to read music. Therefore, my hands still often just simply fall on notes (sound combinations) that sound good. In other words, I don’t have to hunt for ‘pleasing sounds.’ When pedagogically challenged (such as the transition to the B movement then back to the A movement), I often look at other models in music (method books and other predominately successful writers in the field for ideas). Looking at quality models in writing is essential to developing sound writing skills! Even the most experienced and successful writer should play through other composers’ published works.

7. On average, how long does it take you to write a piece? Can you estimate how often you revise a piece?

 This is all according to the level of a piece. I usually can write an intermediate piece much more quickly than a late elementary piece. Many composers say that writing elementary pieces are the hardest to write! When it comes to intermediate pieces, my first notation of a piece usually takes me one and a half to two hours at the maximum. Then I engrave the piece on Finale, which usually takes 30 to 45 minutes). Then I do several modifications to the Finale draft. I prefer to write articulations on the music by hand and my publishers are agreeable with this process. I always lay the piece out on a big table and see it in “WHOLE” before adding dynamics, articulations markings, pedaling, etc. Quite to the contrary of what a lot of people may think, a late elementary piece can take much longer to write, due to the many limitations in the leveling!

Composition Theory:


8. Do you think about AB or ABA when you compose or does the song just come as is? How much of your composing is thinking through theory and intentional effort before the inspiration comes and/or how much is song comes without any thought to that and then revise after have a melody? In college we learn all about the “rules” of smooth voice-leading. When you compose, are you always thinking about this, or does it come naturally after awhile?

 I never sit down and purposely write an AB piece or an ABA piece, yet this might be a good idea to pursue. Basically, I notate what I am thinking and/or playing on the piano. Although most of my pieces are ABA, it is interesting to take a look at “A Visit With Chopin” in one of my Romantic Portrait collections. It is not ABA at all. I wrote the piece to a certain point and then I wrapped up the piece very quickly with a riveting ending! I even surprised myself with this idea and said to myself, “Where in the world did you get this idea!” I was very pleased with the idea (it wasn’t ABA). I’ve never quite duplicated this idea on any other piece since the writing of that piece. A lot of my writing and voicing comes naturally. I was writing piano pieces with correct voicing and “smooth voice leading” quite naturally before I took a graduate class in voicing. The professor told me I did this naturally, yet it was important that I now know what I was doing, so I could teach this type of voicing to other new composers. My main rules in voicing are to watch out for doubled notes that sound very hollow and empty. Also, I’m startled when I hear a lot of doubled notes in piano music today and some editors don’t catch these flaws. Eventually, with practice in writing, the rules of writing won’t dictate your writing; much of it will be come natural to you.

Kevin’s problem solving strategies:


9. What do you do when you get stuck?



 I’m human. I SCREAM LOUDLY! Sometimes I do, yet I usually approach areas where I get stuck as a big challenge to overcome. I am never comfortable being stuck, yet these challenges are good for me. I usually try for a few minutes to get over the hump; after about 45 minutes, if I have no solution, I come back later in the day or the next day. Once it took about three days to come up with a solution after getting stuck!. 

Kevin’s advice to composers:


10. To be a good composer how often do you have to practice and what are good compositions to play?


 Practicing the piano (as a composer) is a rather personal decision. I know I don’t practice enough. Also some composers are not good pianists or good performers at all. Yet, the best composers have had or have much experience teaching students. They must be in touch with what they can play. They must be experts at good fingering and multiple details in music. They must be good editors of music. They should continually play through literature, either literature in the composer’s library and/or new literature (new releases from the leading piano publishing companies), staying abreast of the new trends in composition. Composers must lead the field, not just follow the field!

Do any of Kevin’s answers surprise you? Which of his responses were most helpful to you?