Sunday, March 22, 2015

4 Strategies to Boost Your Composing Skills

Over the years, I have developed a few strategies to aid my composing process. While these strategies might not work for everyone, I have found them to be particularly effective, and offer them in the hope that composers can adapt them to suit their own needs.

1. One Minute a Day Challenge 

One of the biggest hurdles in starting a new piece is staring at a blank score page. That page can be quite intimidating! What if the notes I scribble down aren’t good enough? How can I possibly fill up the entire page with amazing, earth-shattering music? Self-doubt and high expectations can be real buzzkills. So years ago, I decided that whenever I start a new piece, I would write one minute of music a day for seven days. It doesn’t have to be a great minute of music, or even a good minute, but it has to be one full minute. Giving myself permission to compose without judgment is an essential point to the strategy. While the first few days are typically challenging (with some truly terrible ideas littering the page), I eventually produce solid ideas that have real potential. I also get increasingly focused on how to creatively use the instruments. By the end of the week, I look over all of the sketches, choose the best ideas, and officially start the composing process for the new piece.

2. Create a Road Map

When I was in high school, I had an economics class in which the teacher proposed a problem: two people in two separate cars want to drive from California to New York. One person hops in his car and just starts driving, randomly selecting highways as he goes. The other first studies a map, lays out a plan, and then drives. Who would get to New York first? Now, this discussion took place in the mid-1980s, so we didn’t have access to the internet yet to the extent that we do nowadays, nor were commercial GPS devices available, and a mobile phone (if a person could afford one) was the size and shape of a brick. The point of this exercise is that the person who took the time to lay out a plan (probably using an AAA TripTik!) had the better odds of arriving in New York ahead of the other who elected to just randomly select a route. I feel the same is true with composing. How can a piece have direction if you don’t have a road map of its formal structure? Once I have a general concept of what I want a piece to be (fast, slow, lyrical, sweet, dramatic, etc.), then I draw a graph for the work. The graph can show many elements – how many sections the composition will have, what characteristics each section will contain, how will the music grow and release tension, and so on. My graph often evolves over time – I might want to add or delete a section or change some characteristics – but I keep the graph in sight as I compose to ensure I know where the piece is headed.

3. Part Artist, Part Scientist

One of my favorite teaching strategies in working with students is one that I have been employing since my own graduate days: we should consider ourselves as part artist and part scientist. Composers need a creative spark to get a piece started. But once they’re composing, what happens when they aren’t sure of the best way to shape a phrase, or how can they move past a roadblock? Composers can’t help but be subjective about their work. So I propose that we become objective in moments that we are indecisive or find that we’re stuck. For instance, when I get stuck, I back up to a few measures before the trouble spot and begin experimenting by rewriting the passage at least two more times, each time leading to a different musical outcome. Within an hour or so, I then have three or more possible options to consider. Not only does this process usually unearth a new way to proceed, but it can also supply additional musical material that I can use elsewhere in the piece. This strategy also serves to bring home the point that there’s no one exact path that a composition needs to follow. Instead, there are several potential paths, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. My job as a composer is to discover the path that best fits the musical material at that particular juncture in the piece.

4. Adding Buffer Zones to Deadlines

When I was in college, I had the habit of finishing a composition only a few weeks before it was to premiere. While this is not an unusual pattern for students in school, it doesn’t bode well in the real world. Professional musicians expect to receive their parts six to eight weeks prior to a concert; large ensembles need even more time than this. I made these longer deadline adjustments rather easily, but a new issue became apparent: if I was composing a piece right up to its due date, I ran the risk of having to compose so quickly that I didn’t have the proper amount of time to make the piece do something original. Or, worse yet, life events would unexpectedly intrude on my already-scarce composing time, leading me to have to write even faster than I’m comfortable doing. It took a few bad experiences for me to realize that unless I did something different, I ran the risk of turning out a long string of half-baked works. This isn’t what I wanted for my career, nor for my own musical development. So I instigated a two-month buffer zone rule on all pieces: if a work was due August 1st, then I had to be done with it by June 1st. This strategy has been immensely helpful. Sometimes I’ll have an unexpected event crop up in my life that takes away from the time I thought I’d have to compose; the buffer zone provides me with enough extra time to still do a good job composing the piece. Better yet, if I finish a piece two months early, then I can get a jump start on the next piece.

Ultimately, each composer needs to find strategies that best fit his or her own writing habits and schedule. Once you identify weaknesses in your composition process, explore various options to increase your productivity while giving you ample time to write exactly the piece you want.