Second in a series on the “business” of being a composer…
After an unintentional hiatus, I return this month to the second in a series on the “business” side of being a composer. Longtime readers of this blog (and I appreciate both of you very much) will remember from my last post that these blog articles are expanded versions of lectures I give in my Composition Seminar class every three to four years. In the inaugural post of this series, I suggested that if one is interested in a career as a composer of art music, it’s best to begin by asking three very fundamental questions: Why do I compose? What should I compose? And how do I go about composing?
Last time, I spent a lot of virtual ink on the questions of why and what (although I still have more to say on this latter question in a future post). For now, as promised, I’d like to more fully tackle the issue of how one should approach writing music.
I’d like to begin by presenting a scenario that many of my composer colleagues, who also teach for a living, will surely recognize. It’s about the fourth or fifth week into a new semester; just about the time schedules start to squeeze students and they begin to realize that they may have bitten off more than they can chew. The amount of newly composed material has slowly been diminishing over the weeks after a heady start to a new term full of promise and resolutions. Finally, the lesson arrives wherein a student informs me that there is hardly any new music to show because “I had so much work to do for [fill in the blank] this week that I just couldn’t find the time to write much.”
This is the point where I pounce upon the word “work.”
When the excuse of having “too much work” that interferes with composing is offered, I remind my students that they are confusing their work with their obligations. These are not always the same thing. I believe that a composer’s work is to write music. Period. It should be the single most important aspect of a creative life. If it is not, future disappointments will be unbearable.
As my students will attest, I constantly preach that a composer should furthermore write everyday. This may seem unreasonable at first; especially given the time demands of a student composer then considering the even greater time demands of a professional composer. To my way of thinking, however, there are three ways to develop the discipline of daily writing despite heavy schedule constraints. One way is to consider when and where the creative act of composition takes place. Another way is to consider the creative process as taking place in five stages. The third and most important way to truly develop an ongoing and disciplined creative output, however, is to recognize the difference between work and obligation.
I often use myself as an example. As a professor at a moderately large school of music, I certainly have my share of obligations. I must prepare and teach classes; I must teach individual composition lessons; I must plan and curate new music concerts; and I must endure a never-ending parade of meetings and produce volumes of bureaucratic paperwork. All this is just for my university gig. I’m also heavily involved with other organizations (both professional music organizations and other non-music groups). I’m certainly not alone in rattling off a plethora of activities. Every composer and professional musician can probably cite even greater lists of obligations as compared to mine. The point is, all of these activities are very important.
But they are not my work.
That committee meeting? An obligation. That class? An obligation. These are activities that I take very seriously and undertake to the very best of my ability. But they are not my work. My work is composing music. I always find myself wanting to complete obligations as quickly as possible - without sacrificing quality - in order to get back to work.
I want to get back to work because I have answered the question of why I want to compose. If a person has really thought about why they write music, the question of how begins to answer itself. Once the mindset of work vs. obligation took hold, I began making the time to compose daily. It became a necessity for me. In approaching composition in this manner, I also found it much easier to prioritize my tasks and not be led too deeply down rabbit holes that robbed me of creative energy. This is the critical first step in learning how to compose. Composition must be a priority. It is a life’s work.
As a composer accepts the commitment of dedicating his or her life to creating music, it follows that time must be carved out to compose. Time is a tricky subject and one that I probably could write another whole article on. A composer has to be in control of two rates of time simultaneously: the actual performance duration of a piece of music and the time it takes to actually compose the music. These can be wildly divergent. The best example is music at a very fast tempo. Let’s say a certain section of a piece requires about 60 seconds of very fast moving music written for several instruments in intricate counterpoint. To work all that out may take hours. It might even take days. What it won’t take is 60 seconds to compose. This might seem self-evident but often less experienced composers seriously underestimate how long it will take to compose even a very few minutes of actual performed music. Couple this underestimation with a confusion about what constitutes work versus an obligation and you arrive at the lesson I described earlier where a student has not had time to compose during an entire week. For a student to miss this type of deadline for a lesson is problematic but correctible. For a composer to miss a professional deadline on a commission could be career threatening.
There’s no way to get better at predicting how much time it takes to write a piece outside of learning how one’s personal creative energy flows. To learn this, a person must compose a lot of music and that brings us back around to the notion that one should write everyday. Otherwise, gaining the proper experience might take too long or stall altogether leaving a composer hopelessly frustrated.
What I am describing is no different, of course, than what it takes to become a fine musician, actor, dancer, painter or athlete. All these disciplines (and many more) demand daily commitment by their practitioners to move beyond mere hobby status. Serious composers must work likewise. In order to aid in the development of this daily practice, I often advise students to pick something that is consistent with respect to their daily writing. This can be either a time of day or a physical location (or both). Sure, ideally one should be able to compose anywhere and at anytime. This is an admirable goal yet rare is the composer who starts off able to work in this fashion. For less experienced composers finding a time of day that feels best or a special desk or room helps immeasurably. While I can now compose just about anywhere and anytime, I still have my special preferences. I personally prefer to compose either in the early morning or very late at night while the world is quiet. I also have a special corner of my studio where my composition desk sits. No other activity ever takes place in this corner. I do not grade papers or do taxes or even write long blog articles there. I only compose. Simply by sitting in the chair of that desk, I am somehow ready to work.
So if you are ready to be a professional composer, know why you must write; understand what types of music you are interested exploring; and recognize the difference between your work and your obligations. Then, find something consistent everyday that will aid you in your work.
In my next post, I will continue on this topic of how to write music and drill further down into more of the nuts and bolts of my philosophy of composing. What are those five stages of creative activity alluded to above? Can one really compose everyday? Can more than one piece be written at the same time? I’ll explore these questions in the next installment of this series. (This time, I hope it won’t take four months to get uploaded!)
As always, if you find this series useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here!