Abstract Thinking (and Writing)

Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday/Saturday!

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As I was going through my email this week, I discovered a number of calls for paper/presentation abstracts for upcoming 2019 conferences. Writing an abstract may sometimes be intimidating for performers – How do we put into words what we intend to communicate without words? “You will love this piece,” will sadly not earn you a spot on the conference agenda. In today’s blog, I will be discussing some of the basic guidelines for constructing a convincing abstract. I hope this topic will be useful to those currently trying to boil down completely brilliant ideas about the flute into 300 words or less.

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First thing’s first – Brainstorm Ideas. The most challenging part about constructing an abstract is coming up with a great idea that you would either like to speak about or music that you would like to perform for an audience. A good place to start is by simply asking yourself what interests you about the flute. Are you curious about flute history? Are you attracted to new, exciting pieces of music utilizing extended techniques? From there, you can narrow down your topic by focusing on certain composers, compositional eras, techniques, and so forth. You may even start looking at particular pieces in your collection and, through the magic of compositional analysis, begin to make connections between the notes on the page and the affect those notes produce when performed on the flute.

Too many ideas? Narrow down by selecting ideas that fit into the theme of the conference. Many conferences have a title or theme that changes from year to year. Check out the conference website – what type of music are they showcasing at the upcoming convention? What composers or performers are they highlighting? Can you tailor one of your ideas to include these themes or musicians? For example, if the conference is emphasizing world music, you could discuss pieces that include non-traditional techniques taken from around the globe (hello, Takemitsu). Perhaps an easier way to connect your topic to the conference is by researching the location of the conference and discussing or performing works by composers or styles connected to that particular area. A good example of this would be to propose a recital of Jazz inspired works for a conference taking place in New Orleans or performing variations on a movie theme song for a conference taking place in Los Angeles. Tying your project to the conference is not necessarily a requirement, but if you are having trouble coming up with a good idea, this is another great place to start.

Too few ideas? Crack open a flute magazine and research current trends in the flute world. Performance anxiety is always a hot topic, but the way we discuss coping techniques has changed over the years. You might find a topic that interests you – How can you take it to the next level? What other topics can you connect to those published in these periodicals?

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Organize your ideas into a clear format. What do you intend to perform or discuss? What pieces and/or composers are involved? Why is it important to you? What would you like your audience to take away from your presentation? Before putting paper to pen (or fingertips to keyboard), create a bullet-point list of these items, identifying clearly the who, what, where, and why of your topic. From here, writing your abstract will be a piece of cake!

Writing the abstract. The key to writing an abstract is to be clear and concise, yet powerful. Begin with a wonderfully inspiring sentence or question that addresses why your topic is interesting and important. Why should your reader care? How does your idea relate to the flute community at large? This should be limited roughly to one or two sentences. You may throw in a quote from a composer or performer if it seems relevant and/or powerful to your message. The middle of your abstract should outline exactly what you plan to present to support your idea and in what order. Which pieces will you discuss or perform? What concepts will you address? Which composers will you highlight? What group activities do you have planned? What handouts do you plan to circulate and discuss? This should also be limited to 1-2 sentences tops. Finally, the closing sentence should state exactly what you expect your audience to walk away with after listening to your presentation. Is this a new understanding of the works of a particular composer or an appreciation for compositions written for a specific type of flute? What is the overall point of your topic?

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Need an example? Below is an abstract that I submitted for the 2015 Canadian Flute Association Conference, which was accepted and converted into an hour-long workshop. Feel free to use this as an example to format your own abstract:

PAPER PRESENTATION

The brilliance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s compositional construction transcends numerous musical mediums, most notably that of opera. Intricate relationships, particularly those between men and women, serve as preeminent themes in operas such as The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro. “Character” development can also be found in Mozart’s instrumental works where dynamics, rhythmic figures, changing styles, patterns of articulation and ornamentation serve to illustrate masculine and feminine qualities of the musical line. Mozart’s Concerti for Flute and Piano in both D Major and G Major outline such character distinctions within the solo flute line using sharp staccato rhythms and forte dynamics to initiate strong, antecedent phrases (masculine) which are often followed by legato, melodic consequent replies ranging from mezzo piano to mezzo forte dynamics (feminine). This paper addresses the various compositional techniques used in both Mozart flute concerti that depict masculine and feminine “characters” in the flute solo line and how these “characters” interact with one another to create an instrumental opera without words. In this regard, Mozart shows us that music does not necessarily need a libretto to convey intricate relationships between multiple characters.

Remember: You will likely have a word count limit. Be as concise as possible. Going over the word count is a no-no. Avoid run-on sentences or over-explaining concepts that could be easily be abbreviated into a short, sweet sentence. When it comes to abstracts, following the rules is key to getting your idea through the velvet ropes of the review committee. Be sure to dot your “I”s and cross your “t”s.

Finally, keep in mind that a rejection does not mean that your idea is no good. I have had abstracts rejected from smaller, regional conference that ultimately went on to become published articles. Take any rejected abstract and turn it into something new and wonderful. A “no” is not a “no” forever. A “no” can become a “yes” with a little bit of elbow grease.

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Are you preparing an abstract for an upcoming conference? How did you come up with your idea and translate it into 300 words or less? What other tips do you have when it comes to constructing a good paper abstract? Please comment below!

 

Happy fluting (and writing).

 

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