The young clarinetist - which I will sarcastically refer to as "client" - had originally requested the arrangement for four bass clarinets. Initially, this set off a few red flags because I knew that no serious musician in their right mind would request a piece for four bass clarinets. If the client were anything but, say, a high school student in marching band with four bass clarinet pals trying to impress the rest of the band, or perhaps a newly converted middle school band geek browsing the web for some "cool songs to learn," he would have done the arrangement himself. Despite my skepticism, I didn't want to miss out on an opportunity so I emailed him back to make sure that he was - you know...real, and also to confirm that he did in fact want to perform Requiem for a Dream with a quartet of bass clarinets. After a few days, he replied to that email asking if he could alter the instrumentation to be for 2 B-flat clarinets and 2 bass clarinets (which, shocker, is also an uncommon instrumentation). As uninformed as his new request was, it was much more feasible than his original request, so I told him that this new instrumentation would not only be possible, but much easier on my part. However, I explained, since 50% of the ensemble was now in an entirely different register, arranging the piece in the same way that I did for baritone quartet would not be possible. I went on to say that the only way to make this arrangement possible would be if I were allowed to take some liberties - totally re-conceiving my original arrangement. He agreed with my amended terms and said he trusted my judgement. I estimated the amount of time I would be devoting to this project, and politely asked him if he and his “colleagues” (yeah, that’s what I’m calling them) wouldn't mind paying me a small fee under the table at an undisclosed amount in order to compensate for my labor. To my excitement, he agreed to this as well. I began working.
I spent more time on this project than I care to reveal to any of you. (Let’s just say, I took it very seriously.) He had given me a deadline that was more than manageable to operate under. I would send him emails periodically asking questions concerning each members’ skill level and each of their ranges. He made it clear that he believed they could “play anything that I threw that [them].”
How fortunate for me, I thought, it looks like I'm casually collaborating with four prodigious clarinetists. Right? Wrong. As the deadline approached, I was still sitting on the arrangement, editing and tweaking like I normally do with pieces before their deadline. But then, three days before the deadline, he emails me: (*Disclaimer: this is not a direct quotation of our conversation, I’m just paraphrasing for length’s sake.*)
“Hey, are you finished with that arrangement yet?” - Client
“Yes, I’m just making some final edits.” - Me
“SEND IT TO ME ASAP, WE HAVE TO PLAY IT IN 3 DAYS!!!” - Client
Did this kid actually set the deadline to be the same day as the performance? Who does that?! No one does that - that’s who. Professional musicians don’t do that, and even if you’re not a professional musician, understanding that musicians need to rehearse to effectively perform is not rocket science!
This laughably outrageous news actually kind of shocked me and sent my blood rushing. All at once, I had to set aside my idealization of the music that I created. This feeling was similar to the total-chaos moment you feel when you realize all too suddenly that you have forgotten something important or that you don't have enough time to finish. After a few panicked moments, I settled down and realized how funny my reaction was. I wasn't even involved in the performance, yet, I briefly panicked. It was like the client wasn't at all worried about what he had gotten himself into, and because of this I felt obligated to worry for him.
At this point, even though I had resolved to myself that their performance (if it even panned out) was probably going to suck, I wanted to give the group ample time to prepare it. I quickly finished my final edits that day, and sent over everything to him - score, individual parts, and extracted audio file. I waited about 10 minutes and then I got an email back from him:
“Can it be more like the baritone version? I'm not in favor of the changes.”
Worst nightmare: realized. The client is unhappy with my product. What do I do? Do I apologize? Do I simply comply with his request?
Ordinarily, I’d like to think that I would apologize profusely, comply with his request, and then apologize again. The customer is - or should be - always right. Then I realized that I had gotten so emotionally attached to the arrangement during the writing process that I had projected my idealization of who would be playing this piece - other actual musicians - onto this kid and his clarinet buddies. Sadly, that was wildly inaccurate. So yes, ordinarily I would be exceedingly apologetic and quickly correct the problem, but this situation felt totally unprofessional on the part of the client: from the “can you use an uncommon instrumentation?” question, to the “we can pretty much play anything you throw at us” remark, and, my personal favorite, the parenthetically stated afterthought, “oh, by the way, the deadline is the same day as performance." Yep, this situation was different and therefore had to be handled differently. (By the way, if you can’t follow my “run-on” sentences, read them repeatedly until you do because they aren't run-on sentences. They’re just really long sentences. Haven’t you listened to classical music with long phrases? Besides, this is my blog and syntax is my decision.)
Because of this thing that I have called “self-confidence,” I knew the arrangement I sent him wasn't bad, he just couldn't play it or - perhaps even worse - understand it. You tell me by listening to the audio file. (Quite different from the euphonium link, right?) I suppose that what perhaps caused him to not want the arrangement - the degree of difficulty - is my own fault. I mean, why did I think that a 14-year-old kid could actually play to the level that he had advertised? Silly, Greg.
At this point, I was thoroughly displeased with the client, but I still had to handle the situation at hand by responding to his email. I certainly wasn't going to waste my time copying the old baritone parts that I had arranged four years prior into clarinet parts verbatim. I explained to him that the YouTube video to which he is referring was one of my first arrangements I had written. It was written for three high school students at All-State level, and one student with mild Asperger’s syndrome, and the parts were written accordingly based on that information. I mean, I listen to that old arrangement and think, “this is the most immature thing I have ever written.” I then went on to remind the client that even if I spent the time copying and pasting these old baritone parts into clarinet parts, it would sound terrible because (once again) 50% of the ensemble is in an entirely different register. I closed the email sarcastically, saying that if he really wanted to play Requiem for a Dream, I could take a picture of the old baritone parts, email them to him, and he could transpose the parts himself. I thought this would ensure his acceptance of the new arrangement that I really did work hard on, but I was sorely mistaken.
He replies with, “OK, let’s do that.” My plan had backfired. I then had to take a picture of each of the pages, email it to him, and politely ask for that small under the table fee we agreed to (I figured it can’t hurt to ask). The result? I haven’t heard from this kid since, and I have absolutely no idea what he ended up doing with the music.
So there you have it: an example of how not to deal with composers when asking them to devote their time to something. Hindsight is 20/20, but of course, I would never have taken the job if I had known he wanted a version of Requiem for a Dream that was about as simple to play (in my mind at least) as filling a car up with gasoline. Perhaps this is just as much a lesson to me as it is it to the young clarinetist. I went into this process thinking I was going to gain experience and also make a small amount of spending money, but instead came out losing my belief that young musicians can accurately assess their abilities (which isn't necessarily their fault - that has to fall on the educators), working for an undisclosed amount of hours on a project for which I ended up not receiving reparation, and ultimately, wasting my time. But it’s okay, at least I got experience, right?
And to the kid who this story is about: I am sorry to embarrass you like this (at least I’m not revealing your name). Hopefully someday you will learn.