Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Keep? Discard?

Simon's guest blog (below; March 16, 2009) mentions having varying degrees of attachment to his own musical ideas, which I suspect anyone who creates things has experienced. You've come up with idea x, which you really like (and to which you become quite attached), but you're not so sure about idea y.

I think this is a normal occurrence in the creative process. More importantly, I think it is an essential aspect of the creative process. If a composer were to like everything s/he created, chances are that composer would be not a very discerning individual, and their music would likely reflect that.

One of the skills that I think composers need to develop is discernment; the ability to evaluate whether idea y is worth pursuing or not.

The difficulty for most student composers, as I have mentioned before, is that their level of musical sophistication exceeds their level of compositional technique.

Why? Because most students begin formal training in composition when they reach university, but, in order to get into a Bachelor of Music programme, they need to have spent years developing skills in one or more instruments, often coupled with some music theory and history training as well. This results in the phenomenon of knowing that a composition, or section, or musical idea, is less than it could be, but not knowing exactly how to go about improving it.

The solution I typically recommend is to just push forward with your musical ideas, even if you are not convinced of their quality, because it is often only by doing this that you discover the potential of that idea to grow into something bigger, or at least something to which you can feel more attached.

It doesn't mean you necessarily keep and develop every musical idea you ever come up with; it just means that you often need to work with an idea a fair bit until you come to a better understanding of what it can develop into.

Should you ever discard your musical ideas?

I don't think so. For two reasons:
  1. If you have worked very hard on a musical idea, there is a good chance that it has value.

  2. You don't have to use it right away. You may find a use for it later, possibly in a different section of the same piece, or possibly in a different composition. You also may never find a use for it, but since we don't know whether we will eventually find a place for it or not, it makes sense to keep the idea, but just set it aside for now if you don't feel it works in the particular section of your composition for which it was originally intended.
But it all starts with working harder with the musical idea to which you were initially not very attached — not being too quick to give up on it — and frankly, my experience as both a teacher and composer leads me to feel that, if you do this, you will usually find a place for that idea in the composition on which you are working.

24 comments:

Kim Codner said...

In my concert band piece I thought it would be fitting to combine the two concert band ideas i had going (the first- the kind of cliche flute motif) and the second- the wind sounds.
I chose to keep these two ideas and combine them instead of dumping the flute cliche-like motif because I liked them both. That's probably why my piece sounds so Sectional right now. But i chose to take one motif (so-fa-mi) and make them related with that motif and with the wind noise.

So... I found another way to use an idea that I thought I would never use again!

I usually NEVER "discard" material... I always keep it in a folder I have for all my compositional thoughts. That or, it stays on my computer in the finale folder waiting to be developed!

Jessica Blenis said...

One of the things that I like about having a notation program is that you can save something and whether or not you decide to use it again, the computer keeps it there. I found when I wrote stuff on staff paper if I didn't like something it was gone. I guess the materiel form of a composition has a bit of an effect on whether it is kept or not.

Bus said...

When I was working on one of my compositions last term I was trying to find a motif to use and I came across a short idea I wrote a few years back but never used, it just kinda sat and gathered 'dust' in my computer. The old idea that I thought would never work in anything started to work really well in my piece. It was a pleasant surprise.

Jill A. said...

Notation programs are definitely awesome for saving random musical ideas that one comes across in the compositional process. I create many motifs before sticking with one and fully developing it into a piece. Sometimes I do end up saving my random ideas on my computer for other projects, but a lot of the time I get so frustrated with my inability to develop motifs that I just "trash" it and delete it all together, which can turn out to be an unfortuante decision.

Kate Bevan-Baker said...

I definitely have the problem of holding onto my musical ideas and wanting to use everything in my piece. They usually come to me at really random times, and I'll write them down and end up with a big collection of totally non-related ideas. I've been getting a bit better at letting some go and realizing that they won't work in this particular piece, but I still find it difficult to make my pieces sound coherent and unified. It's probably just something that will take lots of practice, but until then I'll just keep writing down my ideas and saving them in case I find the right time and place for them.

Melissa B. said...

Fortunately, most of the ideas I come up with fit into the piece I'm working on. I'm pretty sure I've used everything I've ever written. I've had to expand on a lot of it, but it's all there.

I'm very thankful for this because I'm sure I would find it very hard to get rid of anything I've written.

Jenn Vail said...

I don't think we should discard our ideas either...chances are they'll be just what we're looking for in a year's time and we'll say "WHY did i throw that out?!"
For ME, it's a case of expecting too much. If I'm stuck with something, or I don't like what I've written, I don't give it time to grow. I think our expectations are sometimes too high. (I know this is completely true for me, maybe not everyone, but if it doesn't sound like a million dollars, we never like it. Which is certainly not a bad thing - it shows we're thinking about it, but I think a balance between the 2 is completely necessary!) There are tons of pieces in my Finale folder waiting to be started or finished!

I agree with Kate - I hear SO many things, but they're not usually connected. Connecting them and making a coherent piece is the tricky part!

saird.larocque said...

I don't think anything should be discarded. No matter how small something is (even just a few chords), I keep it because I could find a use for it somewhere. When writing my pieces I try to come up with lots of ideas. I don't use alot of the material I originally write but if I thought it sounded good, then it is useful to me.

David said...

I'm so bad for this. I have a tendency to be over-self-critical and discard my ideas before I really even know what they're about. I am getting better in this regard though. I think that being conscious of it is the key. I guess it's hard change something you aren't aware of. It's strange though, it seems like the more I compose the more critical I become of myself, the more I have to tell myself not to be so critical. Perhaps I'm just trying too hard to make everything better than what I've done before.

Brooke said...

In my 3rd character piece I had made my main motif that I was going to use and then one day got this random tango-ish idea and just plopped it onto the beginning of my piece. It didn't fit at all but I really like it so I thought I'd just throw it in there! haha And then it was one of the first things the class noticed - that my opening material was totally unrelated to the rest of the piece. It was sad, but I cut it out and the piece was much more coherent for it.

squinlan said...

I find in Sibelius the 'idea' thing is awesome! There were so many times in which I'd try to move ahead in my pieces, but the idea that I was trying just wasn't getting me anywhere. So I'd usually capture the idea in the program before discarding it. Then in later pieces I'd sift through a bunch of my captured ideas to see if they could spark anything new, or would fit the new section or piece.

A. Rideout said...

I am like Melissa B because I find that most of my ideas will fit into the piece that I am working on. However if they don't seem to be working with the rest of the piece I will take the time to sort through it and somehow make it work. I have also changed idea x (old idea) into something that will work great with idea y (new idea. In terms of this I guess it all depends on where you want the music to go and which idea you like the best. Is it worth changing idea x to make idea y work?

Adam Batstone said...

With my second compositon (text setting) I ended up writing much more music than I used. The piece ended up being 5 pages but I had an extra 4 pages of ideas that did not quite "flow" with my paticular vision.

I think it is important to keep everything you write as you never know when you might suddenly have a use for it.

Aiden Hartery said...

Sometimes I have a couple of ideas floating around in my head, but I usually try to write them all out so I can find a way to use them all, and if I can't, then try to use them for something else.
During both of the compositions this semester I had an x idea which I really liked, and then a could other y and z ideas that didn't seem to fit anywhere. I also have trouble developing and expanding on my ideas. I never seem to know how far is too far, or visa versa.

I would never discard anything (it'll come in handy SOME time) and I do like writing on a notation software, because it is so easy to save and organize.
In the end, especially on my second composition, I really just tried to keep going with my ideas, and just push ahead. Most times I think it worked out well!

SarahClement said...

This post made me feel a little better about all of my unfinished compositions. Before taking composition I had a tendency to start working with a musical idea and then almost immediately discard it, I think mostly because I was afraid of my own ineptitude. I think this course has taught me that with perserverence I can learn something from every musical idea and that I can create something of value if I just push forward enough. I think that that's not really something I knew before. We're not encouraged to be composers before third year university and I guess I just ended up thinking it was because I didn't have the capability to.

CapedSam said...

I believe that nothing should be discarded, and that is is not exactly the same as saying that everything should be kept.

With cheap storage of data, it's easy to justify the recording of all practices and improvisations in an effort to 'keep' all ideas. However, the task of categorizing all of this information can become quite large. Additionally, searching through of all of this data and finding that seed of an idea later on can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

I think we should use discernment in deciding what to actively 'keep', but once something has been written down or recorded it should never be actively 'discarded'.

Olivia Budd said...

It is really frustrating when you come up with something great, only to come to the realisation that it in no way fits with the rest of your piece. At that point it's sometimes hard to keep that little fragment stashed away somewhere, even if I like it, because I get so annoyed with it not working. I usually immediately change it into something else and then forget what the original thing was. Maybe that's just me...

Timothy Brennan said...

I agree with your opinions Dr. Ross! In my percussion piece, I wasn't happy with how the middle section was progressing, so I restarted the section with a new syncopated rhythmic motive, but I kept my old material on hand. As I continued composing, I realized that the material I had taken out would work in a latter part of that same section, and I was really pleased with how it was progressing. So, I do believe that there's no such thing as "bad musical ideas," as in the right context they can work and produce great results!

Luke said...

Really enjoyed reading this post! One of my most prized possessions, one that I carry with me at all times is a small musical sketchbook. I started jotting down one or two bar ideas and the book is slowly filling up with notes and sketches for pieces and illustrations of ideas that are only small seeds waiting to be planted. Another fantastic asset that I use to keep track of my musical ideas is an iPad app called Notion, a rudimentary notation software that lets me get music down quickly and easily. I find it particularly useful in the mornings when some idea blossomed during the night and I don't want to forget about it. With these tools, I have almost a scrapbook of musical materials that I can always access and take inspiration from. Some of these 2 bar phrases have become 200 bars of music, and some are still waiting to be expanded. I think it is important for composers to keep track of all these little ideas, and most of the time, something good always comes from them.

André McEvenue said...

I think that good composers are able to use their critical skills as effectively on their own compositions as they are on others.

This is a very difficult thing to do because of the fact that we develop a strong personal connection to our own ideas. I think the benefit is that once an idea is detached from you and you can view it objectively, you are better able to see that idea in context, and recognize when and where it fits, and when and where it doesn't.

Perhaps there is value in applying Dr. Ross' "composition toolbox" analogy here. If our techniques are the tools, then the ideas are the bricks, wood, and clay. A carpenter who is strongly attached to a particular piece of wood might fail to recognize how it won't fit the frame and could potentially cause structural collapse. On the other hand, he might really love the look of that exposed brick in the den, so as long as no one else can tell the wall is uninsulated and hazardous, he can get away with it.

Robert Godin said...

I'm guilty of discarding too many ideas. I'll go through many ideas but once the piece is handed in I usually scrap all the excess material not used. Apparently that's not cool... Damn lol It's hard to think ahead in a way that would allow to say, this doesn't really work in my piece now but maybe it could. I definitely need to work on sticking with material longer.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I very rarely discard ideas, but sometimes this is a problem for me. I tend to have a very large of ideas of varying quality. Since I don't discard them, I have vast scrapyards of unused ideas, both on paper and on my computer. In a lot of ways this is good, as it's a resource I can draw from. But sometimes I find the sheer number of scraps and snippets somewhat overwhelming; I feel like I HAVE to do something with every idea. My ideas folder can be a bit paralyzing in that it's just too much to know what to do with. I don't plan on getting rid of it though. It's good to have it as an option to draw on when composing, and if I don't feel like using it, then I don't have to.

Josh Penney said...

I think this has a lot of truth to it. I know as a composer, and other composers I work with do have great ideas, and know how they want a certain piece to turn out, however having the compositional "Chops" is another story. As for never throwing away material, this is something I haven't experienced. I have come up with ideas, some I've liked, and some that I haven't, and the ones that I haven't I have simply discarded. I did so because it possibly wasn't what I thought would capture the piece I was writing.

Thinking about it now, the real problem was probably that I simply didn't have the Chops to develop it in an effective way. After reading this post, I will definitely not discard things I don't like, because as I get better at composing, that idea can definitely become a bigger and better thing.

Flutiano said...

I think of Johannes Brahms as I read this. We are told that he destroyed a significant amount of his music. A couple of quotes from Wikipedia are as follows: "Brahms was later assiduous in eliminating all his early works; even as late as 1880 he wrote to his friend Elise Giesemann to send him his manuscripts of choral music so that they could be destroyed" and "Brahms was an extreme perfectionist. He destroyed many early works – including a violin sonata he had performed with Reményi and violinist Ferdinand David – and once claimed to have destroyed 20 string quartets before he issued his official First in 1873. Over the course of several years, he changed an original project for a symphony in D minor into his first piano concerto. In another instance of devotion to detail, he laboured over the official First Symphony for almost fifteen years, from about 1861 to 1876. Even after its first few performances, Brahms destroyed the original slow movement and substituted another before the score was published. (A conjectural restoration of the original slow movement has been published by Robert Pascall.)"

This is much more significant than throwing away an eight-bar melody or other such musical idea that could be worked into a piece! On one hand, we can store an awful lot of data pretty cheaply. We can keep a lot of finale files on a hard drive or even a $10 USB stick. There's not much chance that others will see these tucked away files and we can refer to them when we're stuck. However, if we become well known composers, who knows what people will look at on our computers and drives? Maybe deleting things that we don't want others to think of as our composition isn't such a bad idea after all . . . but then again, it would be nice to be able to see Brahms' early compositions!! So I'll stick in the don't discard anything camp. For now.