Thursday, March 20, 2014

Interview With Scott Ninmer, Jazz Composer

This is the first in a series of interviews with current members of the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop. With thoughtful consideration, they have answered questions about their compositional process, motivations and aspirations. I hope it will be insightful for musicians, students and fans of progressive big band music.

Our first featured composer is Scott Ninmer.  A native of Taylorville, IL, Ninmer has won many prestigious awards for his work, including the “2 Agosto” International Composing Competition, the Detroit Jazz Festival Arranging Competition, the Jazz Education Network Student Composition Showcase, the Downbeat Magazine Student Music Awards, the New York Youth Symphony First Music Composition Competition, the United States Air Force Sammy Nestico Award, and the ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Awards.  Additional honors include being selected as a participant in the 2013 Metropole Orkest Arrangers Workshop in Hilversum, The Netherlands, and serving as the lead trombonist in the 2010 Disney All-American College Band in Anaheim, CA.
A graduate of the University of Illinois in jazz performance studying trombone with Jim Pugh, Ninmer recently completed a Master’s degree in jazz composition at the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Jim McNeely.  Ninmer's music can be heard on the University of Illinois Concert Jazz Band's album "Free Play" and the Cal State Long Beach Concert Jazz Orchestra’s album “High and Mighty”.   He also has several compositions and arrangements published through UNC Jazz Press.  For more information, please visit

Do you write music daily?  What is your routine?  Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night?  When are your most productive hours of composing?  Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours?  How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

I write daily.  I prefer to wake up early and get writing right away.  My brain is most alert in the morning/early afternoon, and since I work four part-time jobs in addition to teaching and other gigs, etc., I want to relax when I get home.  I usually try to write for an hour or two before I start my day. 

My ideal day of composing is when I have a large block of time where I can write for an hour, take a 20-30 min. break, and then continue alternating in this fashion throughout the day.  As my weekends are mostly kept free of commitments, I get a lot of writing done on these days, despite taking a lot of breaks.

Describe your compositional process.  From where do your initial ideas come?
What happens next?  What’s “step two?” (and three...)

Initial ideas usually come from improvising at the piano.  Once I’ve found something interesting, I usually come up with a melody and some harmonic ideas.  I usually write all of the material that I will use for the piece at the piano, but I really don’t use very much material in each piece.  Once this is done, I usually play through it a dozen or more times to get it into my head.  This might be at the piano or I might orchestrate it on Sibelius and play it.  I usually hit a brick wall at this point so I take a break, maybe for half an hour, maybe for a week.  I find that when I take a break, my subconscious does a lot of work in processing what I’ve written and finding new avenues.  I will keep coming back to the piece and if nothing happens within a few minutes I stop and do something else without getting frustrated.  Eventually I get an idea and the brick wall comes down.  Then I just write until I hit the next wall and the same process continues.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

I mostly compose away from the piano.  When I first start a piece, I improvise at the piano until I come up with something, ranging anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or two of music.  From there it’s completely away from the piano.  I usually write a lot in my head throughout the day, and then just input it directly into Sibelius.

Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius?  How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

I utilize MIDI playback extensively.  Though I don’t rely on the MIDI playback to tell me anything about what will work in an actual performance orchestrationally, it is very helpful in getting an idea of what contrapuntal passages will sound like that are too complex to realize on piano.   I think it’s also helpful to feel the pacing of the piece, even if I have to imagine drums in my head.  Sometimes I use Sibelius as a quick way to try several different orchestrational approaches and see which one I like best, keeping in mind that again, MIDI doesn’t reflect an actual performance.

What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

I’m happy with Sibelius!  Nothing comes to mind at present.

Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly?   If so, can you site examples?  Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

Transcription has always been a huge part of my development as a jazz composer.  I would guess that 95% of my musical knowledge has come from transcription and analysis.  In high school I transcribed a bunch of “Singers Unlimited” and “Take 6” scores, and in college transcribed many Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider, and Jim McNeely scores either in my head or to piano reduction and studied them extensively.  In my first big band pieces, I would find the central theme of a work and write my own composition based on it.  Though those compositions are fairly derivative, they were immensely helpful in learning the craft.  Though I no longer do this consciously, I’m sure that ideas from various pieces come forth in my music from the hours of listening I have put in.

How important is musical innovation to you?

I can’t really say that I’ve thought that consciously about it.  When I write, I’m trying to write something that I will enjoy listening to, that an audience of both musicians and laymen will enjoy, and that the band will enjoy playing.  I’m also trying to work on things that I may not have worked on before or don’t feel completely comfortable with.  If the piece is really easy to write with no speed bumps along the way, that’s a problem for me as it means I didn’t challenge myself.  In this way, I’m being innovative within my own sphere of compositional output.  But I’m definitely not on a mission to change jazz as we know it every time I write a piece.  However, there are always times when I’m frustrated with an element of sameness that permeates my pieces on some level, and I would like to be more adventuresome in my future writing.  Unfortunately, I have yet to commit to this goal wholeheartedly.

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

It seems that the majority of my most recent work is largely tonal, utilizing more pop- or classical-oriented harmony instead of jazz harmony.  I don’t really think of harmony in terms of chord symbols, and I think this helps me to write more contrapuntally and freely than I would otherwise.  My most recent piece exhaustively uses the aforementioned harmony in movements of major 3rds, which is a new practice for me.  I’ve gone as far with tonality as I want to for now, so I look forward to returning to my exploration of modal harmony in future pieces.

On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

8-12 hours, though this is usually over the course of a week or two when I have some free time.  I rarely second-guess myself, so I think this helps me to write efficiently.

Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year?  How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

In looking at the past year, I've written eighteen big band charts (nine arrangements, nine compositions).  I've also written twelve arrangements for orchestra, a concert band piece, a multi-movement brass quintet piece, and several chamber ensemble pieces.  I also orchestrated a musical that’s hoping to get on Broadway.  I’m lucky in that I have the BMI workshop, a rehearsal band, orchestration lessons, and a handful of commissions to keep me busy writing all the time.

Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally?  How do you balance writing and playing?

I’m ashamed to say that my trombone rarely sees the light of day, as I don’t have much motivation to practice other than pure enjoyment or in preparation for the occasional gig.  I’ve channeled most of my free time into writing.

When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense.  It takes hours to write and prepare the music.  It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording.  The audience for it is miniscule.  Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band.  Big band CDs sell poorly.   So….   Why are you interested in writing big band music?  Why do you do it?

I’ve never really thought about it.  I grew up listening to the music, and my dad had written some pieces when he was in college, so I guess I was just following in his footsteps.  Writing in my undergrad made me stand out and I loved the thrill of hearing a piece played for the first time by a great band and knowing all of the hard work I spent in learning my craft and writing the piece was worth it.  I think what I love about the big band the most is that unlike small group music, I can have complete control over what is played while, unlike writing for orchestra, I can still leave a large amount of improvisation imbued in the piece.  Balancing the elements of composition and improvisation is very exciting.  Also just hearing the sheer power of seventeen people playing their hearts out!

Do you have a job outside of being a composer?  How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

My main source of income is as a copyist/transcriptionist for a few well-known jazz figures.  I also work as the Jazz Manager for the New York Youth Symphony and as the Administrative Assistant for the Manhattan School of Music Residence Life Office, as well as teach a few lessons on the side.

Define success from your vantage point.

Working towards one’s goals with earnest and steadfast devotion.  I don’t think the end result is nearly as important as the process of getting there.

What are your career goals?

Eventually, I would like to be able to make a living solely from writing in any capacity and through teaching if need be.  I am keeping my options open and am always working on improving my abilities in writing in all styles for all instrumentations.  I also love teaching, so I am always welcoming new students to further my abilities in preparation for someday teaching at the collegiate level.

Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

I wanted the opportunity to hear other people’s music while getting insight from Jim and Mike on my own pieces.  I’m normally fairly confident in my work, but it’s really nice to have a second and third opinion to help me to see the music in a different way.  It also is nice to have deadlines and it forces me to write more than I probably would be doing otherwise.

Do you have a degree in composition?  What training have you had in composition?  What have you done to supplement your training?

I have a Masters degree in jazz composition.  Before this, I was completely self-trained.  I have many books on composition, arranging, orchestration, harmony, etc. and dozens of study scores and hundreds of transcriptions.  I think listening intently to big band music has done the most to supplement my training.  I basically learned how to write for big band from listening to Bob Brookmeyer’s “Get Well Soon” album twice a day every day for months during my commute to my summer job.

What do you enjoy doing outside of music?  What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

I read a lot.  I take online courses in things I’ve either always wanted to know or just want to brush up on.  I really enjoy good film and TV!

Music has the power to….

make people laugh, cry, smile, frown, or feel any other kind of emotion.  We are ruled by our emotions and moods to some extent, and thus music has the power to affect the choices we make and how we relate to others.  For me, music is an uplifting experience, and I try to showcase that in my own work.

I compose music with the goal of....

creating a feeling that will permeate both the musicians and the audience.  Ideally, I would like the audience to leave a concert in a different mood/state of mind than when they came in and give them something to think about in a purely emotional way and also in an intellectual way.

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