Thursday, February 5, 2009

Running into a Brick Wall

"Running into a brick wall" is, in this case, a metaphor for getting stuck, something that everyone who has tried to create something (music, books, art, science, relationships, etc.) has probably experienced. Things may go reasonably well up to a certain point, but then you begin to struggle with whatever it is you are trying to create, and, if the struggle continues, you begin to feel like you are stuck; you've tried x, y, and z, but none of them worked, and you may feel at a loss as to how to proceed.

I wrote about this in part 8 of my "Composition Issues" series that I posted last August, and, because I know that at least one of you is feeling stuck right now, I thought I would revisit and significantly expand the part of that blog that deals with this issue:

There is no simple solution for feeling stuck, so you may need to try several approaches until you discover one (or more) that helps you get out of your predicament. Here are some options to consider:

  1. The "boot camp" approach, AKA Suck it up, soldier! Bull your way through that brick wall until you break through! The main requirements for this are stubbornness on an epic scale and an extremely hard head. The upside is that it sometimes works! The downside is that it can really make your head hurt. [I used this approach to finish "Dream Dance" ten years after having started it; the opening 30 seconds had been gathering dust in my compositional recycling bin during that time.]
  2. When feeling stuck, we tend to focus our energies on getting unstuck from that point forwards. It sometimes turns out that the root of the problem was much earlier in the composition. We may need to go back several pages to identify the point where things began to go awry, and then 'fix' it from that point forwards. We may need to scrap (or at least set aside) several pages of music, but it will be worth it if doing so results in a better piece.
  3. Take a break – do something else for a while. Frequently all we need is a different perspective, which may be gained by simply not thinking about the piece for a couple of days.
  4. Analyze your music. We learn analytical tools to help us understand music better, but you might be surprised at how often composers don't fully understand their own music until they analyze it. The composition process is inherently subjective, which makes it easy to lose perspective on your composition, but analysis forces you to think more objectively about it. Don't just browse the score to figure out where the major sections are; do a full structural analysis that includes pitch centers, cadence points and types, phrase structure, musical character, and formal structure.
  5. Did you have a plan? If not, now would be a good time to make one. A good starting point would be to analyze what you have written, then make your plan based on that. Plans are definitely useful, but don't be afraid to change them as you go.
  6. Lower the bar! Stop trying to write great (or even good) music! We can sometimes put too much pressure on ourselves when we do that. You may have to lower your level of expectations in order to finish the piece. You can always come back to it later, if you wish, and tinker away at sections that are less than you feel they could be. But frankly, my advice is generally to finish the piece, and then start your next piece; your tenth composition will likely be better than your first one, or your first few, but you won't get to your tenth composition until you finish the first nine!
  7. Exercise. Some scientists suggest that strenuous exercise releases endorphins in the brain that make us feel better. And if you feel better, you might be able to think more clearly about how to get out of the 'writer's block' that you are experiencing.
  8. Stop listening. Or, more precisely, stop relying on the playback capability of Finale or Sibelius to give you a sense of what's going on in your piece. Try not playing back your music for a day, then two days, then longer, if possible (it's tough to do; most of us are addicted to MIDI playback!), and see what difference it makes. It may cause you to think more about motivic relationships, or you may begin paying more attention to structure, or set theory, or gestures... You will almost certainly start to think of your piece in a different way if you try this. (This suggestion courtesy of Andrew Staniland.)
  9. Perspective; use it or lose it. This is a quote from a Richard Bach book (Illusions), and my point in mentioning it here is that perhaps the most common reason that we get stuck is that the inherently subjective nature of the composition process makes it remarkably easy to to lose perspective on our own creations. All of the above suggestions (except the first) are ways of overcoming this loss of perspective.

    Another way of gaining perspective on your music is to play it for others (your teacher, another teacher, your classmates, a non-musician) to see what they might suggest — but make it clear that you REALLY want their honest reactions/suggestions, as opposed to a pat on the back. While it can be encouraging to receive compliments on your music, sometimes what we need most is an honest critique. I have received some great suggestions about my music from my wife, who is not a musician. Not all feedback you receive will be equally useful, but even suggestions you reject (or comments with which you disagree) are sometimes helpful if they cause you to reconsider some aspect of your composition. Part of making good decisions is discerning when to take advice and when to reject it.
  10. Listen to other compositions that are in some way similar to yours. If you are writing a string quartet, listen to a few different models and study the scores as you do so. If you are writing for a non-standard collection of instruments, just listen to different examples of chamber music while studying the score. The models don't have to be of music composed in the last 50 years, but it probably would help if some were. Or just listen to any music, even if it has nothing to do with what you are writing; you may get some ideas that way.
  11. Look at an orchestration textbook. Orchestration texts have information about the capabilities of every orchestral instrument, often including contemporary extended techniques, some of which you may wish to try There is usually also information about writing idiomatically for instruments, different articulation possibilities. etc., all of which can be inspire ideas for your own compositions.
  12. Stop the piece you are writing and start again. This is a pretty extreme option if you have already invested a lot of time into the composition (after all, you are almost guaranteed to get stuck at some point, especially in a longer composition, and if your default response is to scrap it all and start again you are unlikely to ever finish anything), but if you are still in the early stages of a work, a fresh start sometimes gets you back on track.

Never throw your rejected ideas away; I recommend keeping a compositional "blue box" (recycling bin) for ideas that don't get very far. At some later point, when you are in a different frame of mind, you may be able to browse through your recycling bin and find a compositional fragment that inspires you to complete it, or to use it in a completely different composition. I once tried this approach in a piece called Memory Quilt (1999), in which I began by laying out a some compositional fragments that I liked but had never used, and then I experimentally combined them in different ways until I found a result that I liked. I also composed a significant amount of new material based on the musical fragments to give cohesiveness to the overall musical structure.

One of the two worst cases of "running into a brick wall" I ever experienced took place a long time ago, when I abandoned a composition that I had spent about 6 months writing (I had about fifteen minutes written, but it was during a particularly low period in my life and I could not figure out how to finish it), and started a new and completely different piece ("Steppin' Out") that I finished in about a month. I have never been able to bring myself to even look at the abandoned piece again; too many bad memories.

Getting stuck is common, so perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it is a normal part of the creative process. If you can learn to take it in stride you are less likely to stay stuck for very long.

Sometimes, the solution(s) you come up with to being stuck end up being the the most inspired part of your composition. Here is an axiom that may sound trite or corny, but it is true, or at least it is if you allow yourself to see things this way:
Challenges present opportunities for inspired solutions.


Kate Bevan-Baker said...

This post was very helpful and inspiring - thanks! I've been 'stuck' for a few days now, and I know I'm not the only one, judging from other people's blog posts.

Getting to meet with Larysa really changed my view of my piece. I had a really rough plan, but she encouraged me to have a more concrete one so that I knew exactly where my climax would be, etc. I analyzed the poem, and made a structure for my piece to follow. This has made it a lot easier to work on my piece lately.

Taking breaks is also helpful for me. When I come back after not worrying about it for an hour or so, it's a lot easier to concentrate and get stuff done. If I sit down and tell myself I'm going to write, it usually doesn't happen. It needs to happen when I want it to, and not when I just tell myself it will.

Oops, this is kind of long. Sorry!

Happy composing, everyone!

Melissa B. said...

I also think this post was very helpful. (As most of your posts are.)

I think a big thing for me is realizing that my composition doesn't need to be the next BIG thing.
It's okay if I don't reach the status of Beethoven or Mozart.

Right now I'm happy just truckin' along writing what I want to write and so far I haven't gotten stuck yet!


Anonymous said...

The exercising component is crucial for me. I just wish I had paid more attention in my early music theory classes. Why did I despise them so?:)

Jenn Vail said...

"Running into a brick wall" describes my feeling about my piece right now...I'm stuck, and have been for a few fays. I am someone who needs to have a plan set out for the whole composition, from beginning to end. I think I may need to rethink some upcoming musical ideas, or go back and expand on the 5/4 section.

It's a tricky situation to be in - I agree with Kate; you can't just sit and write. If I don't feel anything, nothing will come out of my writing. If it does, I probably will end up not liking it and deleting it.

Here's hoping for some success this weekend!!

Clark Ross said...

Jenn, sorry to hear you're stuck, but, if it's any consolation, it's a pretty typical part of the creative process.

Taking some time away from your composing can be beneficial, but so can forcing yourself to stick with it until a breakthrough is reached… try different approaches, because you don't usually know in advance which one will work best in a particular situation.

Also, a plan can be a useful tool to guide you in the composing process, but I don't think any composer would suggest that the plan should remain unchanged; you usually need to tweak it (and sometimes overhaul it!) along the way.

If you want some specific suggestions from me, feel free to drop by my office on Monday.

Jill A. said...

Thanks for this post it's great and much appreciated!
It seems that every time I go to compose something new I encounter Composer's block. This can be extremly frustrating! Ihave ried many of the solutions that are listed and they seem to work wonderfully. The main thing is definitley to just keep going, everything will works its way out eventually!

Jessica Blenis said...

Thanks for all the tips, Clark! I personally find the exercise thing to be a big help, especially while outdoors. I think the fresh air and scenery helps to influence where I want to go with a piece a lot if I just keep playing it over and over in my head while I walk, adding to it as I go and trying to write it down when I get back/as I go on a piece of paper.

It's reassuring to hear, as well, that we shouldn't pressure ourselves into writing something that's great. Lower standards make things a lot easier and takes some of the crunch off composing which is nice and liberating.

meg293 said...

This has happened to me a couple of times over the last few months in this course. I find that a lot of times I'll begin a piece for the sake of beginning a piece and it's hard to find a motive. The biggest issue I had with this was that I'd get so far, and then I wouldn't have any idea for any direction whatsoever.

I find that this is almost always helped by taking a break. I can be so fixated on certain issues with my piece at the time that I can't hear anything else. When I go back to the piece the next day I can't remember exactly how it went, so it's like I'm listening to it with a new set of ears.

Jon Rowsell said...

You know, I find that getting stuck can usually help a piece sound better. For me, "getting stuck" usually just incourages me to step back and take stock of what I've written thus far, what I think is good about it, and I think is bad about it. I find myself thinking on that piece for sometimes weeks, until BOOM, something clicks in my head. I think that time away is important because it forces us to critque what we've done before we finish a potentially large piece of music that we don't even like.

Michael Bramble said...

I think the lowering the bar is a good point! I've been writing ditties since early high school and whenever I go back and listen to those older pieces I always cringe and spend many moments in anguish.
Composition is the same as any skill, you get better at it the more you do it, the more educated you are about it, and how long you have been at it. I find this helps set my mind when writing things. I am not capable of writing a grand symphonic work yet, so I don't! I start will little steps and see my progress over time. One doesn't play Liszt at the piano the first time they touch the keys.

Kim Codner said...

Points #7, #8, and #10:

Especially #7.

This semester seems to be the worst ever for getting "stuck" in composition and practice and study and exercise and lions and tigers and bears oh my! haha.

Thanks for the post! It refreshed my brain on why I was getting stuck.


A. Rideout said...

I find presenting in class very helpful when I feel as if I am stuck. I find that if I mention I am having trouble with a certian section or transition to the class they seem to inspire me in some way. They may not give me the exact formula to fix my problem but generally they may mention something that will turn a light on in my head. I totally agree with one of Dr. Ross' points, he said that sometimes his wife will give him great ideas even though she isn't a musician. I think even though some people may not be musically trained they still have ears and can tell if things make sense or not. That's why when I get stuck I usually like to show people my work, to see what they think.

Adam Batstone said...

For me i find the best thing to do when stuck is too take a break! Letting a compositon sit for awhile is never a bad thing. I usually end up coming back to it with new ideas, a new prespective from which I can work from. Usually if you are not enjoying or having an extremely hard time doing something you should stop.... life is to short to sit and stare at a screen waiting for ideas to fall from the sky... Time can only make things sweeter...

Tim said...

This is an awesome list of ideas to try out. I agree with all of them and I will be sure to refer back to this page often when I feel like I can't be creative, or am in a rut.

This year I have encountered many "stuck" situations with the two compositions for 4100 and the orchestration course where I was writing excerpt arrangements for different combinations of instruments and an original string quartet piece.

I have mostly relied on class time discussions, asking honest opinions of others, and the "bull" approach. I need to work on letting my expectations be realistic. As I work I am finding that it takes a very long time for me to be happy with what I have done, sometimes trying five different ways (each taking 10 minutes or so for a couple bars of music) before it is "okay." I believe that this is fine if the end result is good, however I need to realize that in a time-crunch situation, I need to work on being "okay" with material that is less appealing. After much more experience and years of writing music, I will raise the bar back and beyond what it is now.

David said...

I always find it comforting to that I'm not the only one who experiences writer's block. I can't think of the last piece I wrote that I didn't get stuck midway through on. I've never had to go to the extreme of scraping a piece but I've certainly come close to that. I find that if I spend enough time with the piece eventually I'll find a way to get out of the rut but I've used many of these strategies and they've worked very well for the most part. There's a very good quote in a book on conducting that I've been reading recently for my conducting class that's basically about lacking motivation which I'll now butcher horribly:

No great composer or artist has ever been completely motivated and inspired all the time. Inspiration is a guest that knocks at odd hours and isn't always what you may expect. If we constantly give in to a lack of motivation then we quickly become apathetic and stagnant. We must become masters of our own disinclination.

There you have it, horribly butchered, but the point is there. I found that quote to be particularly inspiring. It kinda brings me back down to earth.

Aiden Hartery said...

These are great points! Any help trying to get out of the ol' writers block is definitely good help.

As everyone else has stated, I too sometimes find myself stuck in a mind knot. It sucks to be in one, and can often feel more discouraging than I would like, but sometimes I find them helpful. Whenever I am writing and suddenly come to a point where I say... "now what"....I usually take that as a signal that it is time for a break. Step away. Go for a walk, play a game, do a puzzle, listen to other music, ANYthing to get your mind out of a slump as soon as possible. I usually find that if I sit at the computer and stare at a piece that is currently going no where, I will just get ticked off with it, and that doesn't help anybody. Instead of developing a growing resentment towards my creation I take a break, which usually cools my mind off, and often times gives me fresh ideas/perspectives, and I can continue on writing whenever I'm ready.

That all seems like a load of bull, heck, even I kinda think so too after writing it, but I think that parts of that are true. And I'm stickin to it.

Elliott Butt said...

Really great advice here. The one that stuck out to me was the "Stop Listening" point. As it says, we are all addicted to MIDI playback, and I am certainly not the exception, but I've been having trouble with Sibelius MIDI playback for a while.

The result has been me having to compose without the aid of playback, which I must say has gotten me out of a rut at times. I find that somehow, this lack of playback engages me with what I'm writing far more than if I could just play it back because I can focus on what I'm seeing on the page rather than what I'm hearing.

Not to mention it saves me hours and hours of sitting down to compose and just hitting "Play" over and over again!

Andrew Noseworthy said...

Great post Dr. Ross! I think I may get stuck very often with almost anything I ever write. Which may actually contribute to how I write very sporadically. These suggestions not only help with solving some of these writers block problems but also make me feel a little less discouraged about how often I get stuck!

I've never thought about the exercising solution, or the perspective one specifically so that may be something for me to try. I think the playback suggestion is probably the one that resonates the most with me though. Last time I was completing a piece I remember being really discouraged or unhappy with a lot of the piece. I think the effectiveness of it really relied on certain tonal or expressive qualities. I knew that midi playback clearly wouldn't capture those aspects, but even just hearing parts of the piece played on an actual instrument was very encouraging. So this also kind of relates to the lower the bar point. It sometimes really helps to not worry about whether what is written down is good enough as it's written and just let it be played!

Thanks for the great post Dr. Ross. I'll be thinking of all these tips while working on some pieces this week!

Tony Taylor said...

Thanks for the post Dr. R. I will certainly be using some of these ideas or approaches to help me pull out the last half of my piece... I sort of have to!

Mitchell wxhao said...

I have a lot of pieces sitting around that started off and I got stuck immediately, and I'm thinking about how much more music I would have if I'd had even a single strategy for becoming unstuck, and here is a full list of them.

When I didn't have to compose, back in the high school days, if I became stuck I would say, "Well, this cannot go anywhere. Time to start a new piece." I now have a folder full of bits and pieces of music.

The upside to having so much "trash" is that now I have an inventory of ideas to use if I ever need help starting a piece or continuing one. Now I'm at least slightly more skilled and these strategies are here to help, so I might be able to make some great music out of something from the past.

It's not plagiarism if you're stealing from yourself!

Aislinn Dicks said...

This is a great post. It's so encouraging to hear from yourself and all those who commented how frequent getting stuck occurs. I feel much less like a bad composer now having read this post.

Your suggestions were enlightening. One that I know to be extremely true is that of stepping away to exercise then returning to your piece. My mind frame is entirely different after a workout than before I began, so it's no wonder this could be channeled in the composing process as well.

Though I've never consciously considered the cessation of listening to midi-playback as a compositional aid, I can see it's benefit, and I know that I've unknowingly done this before. As someone else mentioned above, it's almost a more personal relationship with your piece when you stop listening and force yourself to become acquainted with what you're putting on the page. I find myself doing this regularly, and often times I really like the product. It allows me to come up with things that I probably wouldn't have thought of if I had been re-playing each idea.

I think the most common tactic I employ when I'm dissatisfied with something I've written is just to push through and keep going. I choose to ignore that passage for a while and then when I return to it later, with fresh ideas, I can inevitably find a way to tweak or rewrite what is there and make it something far better.

Next time I'm stuck, I'm going to refer back to this post so I can try out some new ways of getting through that wall. Thanks!

Robert Godin said...

This is a great list that I'll be coming back to. Especially for someone like me who constantly uses the last option of starting over. It feels quick and easy but actually just takes more time and energy :S

Colin Bonner said...

Of course!

Its easy to step back from what you think is a dud work, but the important part of this separation is to find a fresh way to look at your work! From my experience, trying to critically/formally analyze my own work does help to see where I may have gone "wrong" or just helps me make an objective decision on where to go next. For other instances I recognize that, for myself, the problem more often lies in my poor attitude I can sometimes fall into when forced to get something composed when the world seems to be running at a fast clip behind me. These instances are when I may opt to take a break, exorcize, noodle on an instrument, or even read something of unrelated personal interest.

As someone new to composing and still new to immediate midi playback, your suggestion to no rely entirely on it is one that stuck out to me. It can be easy to get caught up in trying to get a result that just sounds fine through the playback. More importantly, it's necessary to be thinking in a way where you want something bigger from your work and ideally have a direction where you want to take it. If that isn't there, than that should be your first aim, not coming up with something that you don't mind listening to over and over again.

Kelly Perchard said...

I can relate to this post because I remember "running into a brick wall" during our third composition project using modes of limited transposition. I was finding it very difficult to achieve the sound I wanted while sticking to the mode. I kept powering through anyways, like the first method says, but eventually I got to a point around the 8th measure where I started to think it sounded awful and whenever I would go to write the next measure I would get stuck. So I left it for a day, hoping it was just writers block, but when I came back to it I found the same thing was happening. Eventually I just had to scrap it, like another of the methods suggests, and start over new. The new composition turned out much better and sounded more the way I wanted. I did, however, waste a lot of time trying to figure out that bar before I started new, so I learned that sometimes you just need to write something, even if it's not exactly what you want at the time, in order to get past the block.

Becca Spurrell said...

I found a lot of these suggestions very helpful and interesting. They also can refer to more than just music, like writing stories for example.

I find myself getting stuck more often when writing literature than with music, but that's not to say that I never get stuck while writing music. Your second point, about finding the problem earlier on and fixing it from there rather than trying to move forward from where you left off, was extremely interesting. I never thought of that. This could definitely help me with both writing music at literature.

I also really like your suggestion to keep the ideas that ended up getting scrapped. I find myself starting an idea, and after some time of writing, it becomes something entirely different. I think it would be interesting to keep the original idea locked away somewhere for when I can't find any inspiration to write. If the idea went I different direction before, it surely can go another direction again. Or maybe (cross my fingers) it may go in the direction I intended it to in the beginning...

Peyton Morrissey said...

The first time I heard the expression "hitting a wall" was during my days of cheerleading. We would spend hours perfecting gymnastics, and one of the girls working on a particularly hard trick told me she had "hit a wall". Upon seeing my reaction she had to explain she had not physically back flipped into a wall, but had mentally backflipped herself into a state of no longer being able to get past the thought of doing the backflip.

This "wall" is something I have personally experienced in many aspects of my life, from ballet to practical, to composing. I have tried the boot camp approach, and I find it leaves me more frustrated and mentally exhausted, leaving me with something of lower quality than if I had taken some time away from the piece then returned later. I also find stopping listening helps, or instead of listening to it on MIDI playback, actually playing it myself.

Finally, I definitely agree with the suggestion of playing my music for non-musicians! I typically get my mom who doesn't have any musical training (other than the MYC classes she attended with me when I was a child) to listen, and get her feedback, whether it's on things she liked, or if she has any title suggestions, or what kind of mood the piece has to her. This provides some insight as to how someone who wouldn't analyze it musically or ever play the music thinks about a composition.

Timothy Brennan said...

This is a great post Dr. Ross! Like many of the above comments, I have had experiences with being stuck and not able to see my way through a problem. For me, I find taking a break and coming back to the piece with fresh eyes and ears is often the best solution to that problem. However, I find that the "boot camp" approach can be successful as well, especially when time is limited and deadlines are approaching. I find that during those hectic times I'm less self-critical and tend to not over-analyse every idea or gesture. Sometimes this produces a great result, sometimes not. As well, getting another person's perspective on your work is often great, as they can present new ideas and solutions that I may not have thought of before. This is why I really like the seminar-style format of your composition course. I think that the key to overcoming any compositional obstacle (or obstacles in any other field) is to not become too frustrated and discouraged. Every problem has a solution, so stick with it and use the method(s) that work for you.

Flutiano said...

I find it interesting that many of these points relate to anxiety. Numbers 3, 6, and 7 (take a break, lower the bar, and exercise) are pieces of advice that I have come across, and specifically given, many times as ways to lessen anxiety. Sometimes what you need to figure out what is going wrong is a clear head, and that’s what you need to help control anxiety, so the correlation makes some sense. Number one is related to anxiety in the opposite way; to stay too long trying to bash through something that just is not working can be very frustrating and anxiety provoking. As recently as yesterday I was given the advice that I need to take a break from working on something when it’s getting frustrating and come back to it later with a clear head.

I also like the ideas of analyzing the music, creating or revising a plan, listening to other compositions, and reading orchestration textbooks. Those are all ideas that I will think about using when I am stuck – I am going to write them inside my composition notebook to think about when I am stuck.

I realised after reading this that “stop listening” is the opposite of what I do when I’m stuck. When I don’t know what I’m doing or what to write next, I will often listen to the MIDI over and over just to hear what is there, and tweaking little things that I see along the way (dynamics, articulations, etc.). Since I usually start composing on manuscript paper, the first time I get stuck in a composition might be when I transfer the composition to Finale (if I can’t figure it out using the piano, so that I can stay away from the computer longer – my preference is to finish a first draft completely on paper before putting it into the computer. If I put it into the computer sooner, it is usually because I want to hear the MIDI playback).

One of the greatest things about composition seminar and/or lessons is getting an outside perspective (or, in the class setting, multiple perspectives!) on works in progress. Having to present something every week also helps push me to write something, even if it isn’t magnificent. I don’t want to think that I’m practising writing garbage, but only something that is written can be fixed. I like the idea you end no. 6 with: “your tenth composition will likely be better than your first one, or your first few, but you won’t get to your tenth composition until you finish the first nine.”

The combination of this post and “How to Become a More-Skilled Composer . . .” are encouraging me to compose more. Thanks for the ideas!

Robert Humber said...

I think this might be one of my favorite posts on the blog. Learning effective strategies to jump over the brick wall is so important to the sanity of a composer. I think that the exercise suggestion is not to be overlooked. When the weather is okay (10 days of the year), I find so much satisfaction from a nice walk around the pond near my house with headphones in, listening to something I really love. I do not limit the amount of time I feel I can spend outdoors, I just go until I feel refreshed. The fresh air, nice scenery and enjoyable music is kind of like soul food. The feeling of hitting a brick wall is made worse by the fact that you are indoors, cramped up in a chair, breathing in the same air over and over. So for me, the walk is my #1 strategy to chill out and become re-inspired. Not to mention you will probably notice things in the music you are listening to that spark your creativity!

Last year, I had my worst "brick wall" moment. I was trying to write a wind ensemble piece in orchestration and a mass setting in composition. Neither were going anywhere but I had no choice but to use the "drill sergeant" method and push through. Maybe it works for some, but for me it was nothing but frustration. I remember one particular Sunday where I said "Robert, you're going to sit down and work on this wind ensemble piece for 10 hours today and by the time you go to sleep, the final bar will be filled." Well, I worked for 10 hours and ended up no further than where I started. When I listen to any of the music I wrote that semester, it all sounds so frustrated, forced and unimaginative apart from a few cool moments.

One idea to get the ball rolling: this semester I wrote a series of very short pieces for a small ensemble (speaker, viola, piano). I realize this doesn't solve the issue of an already-in-progress piece, but I think it can be a real confidence booster for chronic brick-wallers. By limiting yourself to short character sketches, you basically eliminate the big problem of developmental material or knowing when to change, etc. When your little message has been relayed, you can just... stop the music--end of movement. No matter the length or scale of a piece, reaching the double bar line at the end is an extremely satisfying experience! Knowing that your next double bar line is within arm's reach is enough motivation to keep the ball rolling forward! Of course, you will eventually need to go back to writing music which is larger-scale, but you will be more confident to tackle it, having completed the shorter works beforehand. For me it was a very effective strategy, I wouldn't call myself a fast composer at all, but was able to write 4 pieces in about a week and a half!

One other thing that I think works is composing in smaller chunks almost every day. Sure, you will have some marathons, but if you are constantly pecking at your piece every day bit by bit, your marathons will stem from a burst of creativity and productivity rather than "holy crap, this is due tomorrow... well, here goes nothin'."

Again, a great post on an issue that everybody seems to face.

Nader Tabrizchi said...

I certainly ran into a brick wall during my experience with composing for our fourth composition project consisting of piano, voice, and another instrument. I did in fact use the advice you give on pushing through, however as I read further into the blog I have concluded that one thing I was doing wrong was not thinking through my composition before jumping into it. Put it simply I had no plan, which is probably the biggest factor that had an impact on this composition. Through the time I spent trying to achieve unique harmony causing myself to scrap chords, to the rhythms that I did not like, despite the fact that I was not creating a foundation for myself to go about. It was as if I was creating ideas all around the place with no sense of direction. It took me a while to realize this after looking back at my piece that I did not like it, nor was it a piece that reflected what I wanted to achieve. Another problem I noticed in this composition which is also a point you mention in this blog, is that I was relying too much on Finale during the early stages of this composition. During the times I listened to this piece my ideas changed a lot, perhaps that is because I was trying to achieve a sense of direction which continuously was being changed due to the frequent playback listening’s I was doing. I think that through this composition experience I learned that I need to formulate a foundation or plan during the early stages. Gradually expand upon this plan, and not rely on a program to create the sense of a piece.

Kristin Wills said...

Being stuck on specific pieces is definitely something that's happened to me a lot in the past, and a few times I have been completely stuck with composition in general, as if I'd lost the ability to write music at all. This is apparently a common problem as well, and I think the best thing to do in that situation is to try writing very short, simple pieces for a while, instead of focusing on bigger ones. Another helpful exercise is to write something that's based on an existing work, such as a poem. I found this very helpful when I wrote a vocal piece using a poem as the text. Whenever I got stuck, I found that just looking at the content of the poem gave me lots of ideas, it worked particularly well since I chose a poem with a lot of auditory imagery. The idea of exercising is good, too, I find that some of my best ideas just seem to appear in my head while I'm walking somewhere.