Thursday, April 15, 2010

How to become a more-skilled composer

I ended my March 25 blog with a statement that I hoped would provoke (inspire?) some responses, saying:
Good composers are good by virtue of the fact that they work hard; mediocre composers are not as good because they do not work as hard. If a composition is not considered to be very good, it probably indicates more about the composer's laziness than it does about talent or inspiration.
Do I believe this? Not exactly... Here is what I do believe (stated in a less-provocative way!):
In order to become a good composer, it is necessary to work very hard at it for an extended period, and one must constantly challenge oneself to improve.  Hard work is not the only factor that leads to becoming a good composer, but it is arguably the most essential ingredient; a person with oodles of talent but a poor work ethic will not become a good composer; a person with average talent and a strong work ethic can become a good composer. 
There is something attractively democratic about this, because it suggests that any musically-skilled person is capable of becoming a good composer if they work hard enough.

If this is true, then the argument could be made that one reason that some composers do not write better music is that they have not put sufficient work into becoming better composers, which is essentially the point that my "provocative statement" attempted to make (but if you state things too reasonably, people tend not to feel provoked into responding!).

Is Bill a lazy composer? If Sarah has invested significantly more hours in compositional training than Bill, and, by virtue of that fact, Sarah is the more skilled composer, this in no way suggests that Bill is lazier than Sarah. However, if Bill wishes to become a better composer but is not interested in committing the time necessary to achieve this improvement, then perhaps Bill can be said to be lazy... or just naive.

But let us stop all this talk of laziness and move on to ask what specific things can one work on in order to become a more skilled composer? Below is a list of some of them; as always, feel free to disagree, agree, or add to the list!
  1. Write more music (or, the 10,000 hour rule) . Try to write every day, if you can, or try to devote at least a couple of hours a day, four to five days a week, to composition. In order to become better performers, all musicians understand that you need to practice on a regular basis — daily, preferably. Well, the same is true for improvement in any skill, such as writing, sports, surgery, acting, etc., and, of course, composition.

    You may have heard of the "10,000 hour rule," a concept mentioned numerous times in "Outliers: The Story of Success" by Malcolm Gladwell, who suggests that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Using this "rule," you would have to practice composition for four hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, for ten years in order to become an expert composer!

    Before you throw up your hands in despair (what? You don't have four hours a day for the next ten years to spend on composition???), I will suggest that a lot of the time you have already spent training to be a musician should count in the calculation of the number of hours required to become an expert composer. Your training on an instrument, in aural skills, in music theory, your time spent jamming with friends, your time spent listening actively to music — I would suggest that they all help make you a better composer, so you may be closer to that 10,000 hour goal than you think!

               • The basic principle here is practice makes perfect. Or, if not perfect (is there any such thing in art?), then at least better.

               • Finding the time on a daily basis for anything beyond what we are currently doing is a challenge.
               • Doing something on a daily basis can lead to ruts; it may be necessary to vary one's routine occasionally, and/or to take breaks from the routine.

  2. Find ways to gain perspective on your music. I wrote about this in my 2009-02-05 blog, "Running into a brick wall" (in which I quoted Richard Bach: "Perspective; use it or lose it"), but the basic idea is that we can easily get so wrapped up in our creations that we lose perspective on them, and the numerous ways to gain perspective include taking a break (and possibly engaging in something else for a while, including exercise), which allows us to return to our work with a refreshed mindset, and asking for honest feedback from others (including performers).

    I suspect most composers have had the experience of going to bed feeling quite pleased with the musical idea on which they had been working, only to awaken the next day to discover that they really don't like that idea very much at all! Clearly, when this happens to us, our perspective has changed, but which is right? Is it a great idea, a terrible idea, or somewhere in between? The only way to make a good judgement on the merits of a musical idea is to examine it from different perspectives, and ways of doing this are listed in my above-mentioned blog.

               • Getting different perspectives on your work during the composition process will make it more likely that you will be satisfied with the finished product, no matter what your perspective or frame of mind.
               • Inviting honest feedback from others can lead to improvements you might otherwise not have considered.
               • Feedback from performers can help you to write more idiomatically, and notate your musical ideas more clearly.

               • If one is in a highly-stressed or depressed frame of mind, finding ways to alter our perspective can be extremely challenging. Also, this frame of mind can cloud one's judgement to the point where one is unable to make good decisions about the merit of our musical ideas.
               • Soliciting honest feedback from others can result in suggestions that do not actually help your music in any way (and they may even make it worse); you have to be able to sort out the good suggestions from the less good ones.

  3. Develop good musical judgment (i.e., good musical instincts). This relates to the previous point, the basic idea being that while all composers probably experience times when their judgement about their own music is clouded, good composers find ways to work through these periods and end up making decisions that lead to good compositions. Or, put another way, even great composers can have terrible musical ideas (e.g., Late at night: This is GREAT! — Next day: Oof! What was I thinking???), but they somehow manage to sort out the bad ideas from the good ones, which helps lead to good music.

               • Good judgement leads to good music.

               • It's easy to say, "develop good judgement" (yeah, thanks Yoda!), but how do you do this? And what does this word, "good" mean in this context, anyway? Keep reading to find out...

  4. Analyze music. It would be good if at least some of this were in a formal sense, involving comprehensive structural analyses of compositions, but it could also occur in a less-structured way, involving active listening to music while taking note of anything at all that interests you, such as the structure, process, colours, orchestration, the way the composer writes for particular instruments, mood, and how it is achieved, etc. What aspects of the music would you like to try in your own compositions?

               • Analysis helps us to find out how music works, and the knowledge we have on that subject, the better able we are to create the kind of music we would like to hear.

               • Finding time to engage in analysis can be a challenge, but beyond that, the only potential pitfall might be that a person enjoys analysis so much that they become less interested in composing music than they are in analyzing it. As pitfalls go, that's not such a bad one, however...

  5. Be curious. This is basically an extension or reinforcement of the previous point; when you play music, or hear it, or look at scores, ask yourself questions: What makes this work, or not work? How does it work? What makes audiences respond (positively or negatively) to this music? How do you respond to the music, and what is it about the music that elicits that response? How is a particular sonic colour created? How detailed is the score? What notation conventions are used, and are there any there that you could use, or even be inspired by?

               • Perhaps the most famous adage about curiosity, sadly, is that it "killed the cat," but nothing could be farther from the truth, at least for composers (and I'm pretty sure for cats too). The benefits are, I think, self-evident, so rather than pedantically listing them all, I thought I would provide a few quotes on the topic that you might find interesting:

               • It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. (Albert Einstein)
               • The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards. (Anatole France)
               • It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. (Aristotle)
               • The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. (Ellen Parr, also attributed to Dorothy Parker)
               • Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly. (Arnold Edinborough)
               • Seize the moment of excited curiosity on any subject to solve your doubts; for if you let it pass, the desire may never return, and you may remain in ignorance. (William Wirt)
               • Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul. (Mark Twain)

               • It's easy to fall into ruts where we don't question things very much, so the challenge is to avoid doing so.
               • I suppose that the reason the adage about curiosity and the cat came about is that there can be such a thing as too much curiosity (although perhaps it is more a case of too much foolishness), and this may lead a person or beloved house pet (for I am a cat lover) to do nutty things, such as, Hmm... What would happen if I put my finger in that electrical socket? or They say it is not wise to stroll in a leisurely fashion across eight lanes of the Trans-Canada Highway during rush hour close to a major urban center, but is it really true? I am going to find out for myself, thank you very much! But for the most part, curiosity, combined with a dash of common sense, is a good thing.

  6. Be open. This is related to curiosity, but being open isn't quite the same as being curious. Being willing to try new approaches to writing music, even when you're pretty sure you're not going to like them, is a bit like trying on new clothes that you're pretty sure you won't like; sometimes you will be surprised to discover that you do like them! Ditto for food, which is the basis for "Green Eggs and Ham," by Dr. Seuss, Sam-I-Am.

               • Some times, when we try something (food, clothes, a musical technique) that we do not expect to like, we surprise ourselves by discovering that we do like it! If we remain closed to these possibilities, we never make these new and often rewarding discoveries.

               • Again, as with the unfortunate cat who met his/her untimely demise, some judgement must be shown. There are many more things to try than there is time in one's lifetime to try them, so at a certain point you have to move forward with the task at hand, which in our case, is composing.

  7. Be decisive. Being curious and open are great attributes, but when it comes to actually composing your piece, you need to be able to make decisions. Is this idea/section too short, or too long? Does this idea need more development? Should I have an introduction? Should the music have a climax? Something about this is not working; what is it? etc. Clearly, some decisions are better than others, but just as clearly, the inability to make decisions will lead to an inability to complete the composition; sometimes, even a bad decision is better than no decision at all, if it helps complete the the work. Besides, you can always go back later and change it. It's not like being a surgeon or an air traffic controller, where bad decisions can lead to loss of life!

               • Being decisive helps the composition process go more smoothly.

               • Being decisive doesn't necessarily mean you make good decisions, but even here hard work helps; the more experienced you are as a composer, the more likely you are to make better decisions.

  8. Have the courage of your convictions. Again related to the previous point: Remember that nothing catastrophic can happen if you try something new as a composer and it proves to be unsuccessful. Schoenberg was reviled and ridiculed by many for coming up with his "Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which are Related Only with One Another," but if he had lost his confidence in the method and decided to scrap it before it was published, or decided against writing any music using this method, it seems unlikely that he would have achieved his position in history as arguably the most influential composer of the twentieth century.

               • Having the courage of your convictions can lead to greatness.

               • Having the courage of your convictions can also lead to being ostracized, if your convictions are radically out of step with prevailing norms.
               • Belief in one's own convictions may actually be a case of hubris, and I'm not sure hubris actually helps make you a better composer...

  9. Strive to improve. The opposite to a desire to improve is complacency, and complacency is never to be a good thing for an artist.

               • Striving to improve generally leads to improvement (another statement of Yoda-like profundity, I know), and while we must reach a point of satisfaction with whatever piece we are working on in order to feel it is finished, in order for it to be good we must constantly seek ways to make it better.

               • Constantly striving to improve can become an unhealthy obsession. As mentioned above, you can only finish a composition if you reach a point of relative satisfaction with it, but no art is ever perfect, so you could theoretically spend your entire life trying to perfect a single composition because you know it could always be better. That's a pretty extreme example, but a more common example is one kind of writer's block, where a person recognizes (or at least believes) that their work needs to be better, but experiences creative paralysis when they cannot find a way to make it so.

  10. Develop your people/networking skills. Composers mostly depend on others to perform and programme their music. Some composers perform their own music, and some composers compose electronic music that is not dependent on performers for its realization, but even in both these cases, composers often depend on others to programme their works. Good people skills can help create performance opportunities for your music, and the more opportunities you have, the more you improve as a composer

               • You mean, besides untold wealth? The better your people/networking skills, the easier it is for people who can help your career (performers, music programmers) to think of you when they make decisions about the music they want to programme. I believe that all successful composers are good composers, but not all good composers are successful, where "success" is measured by the number and kinds of commissions, performances, and public exposure a composer has. I suspect that the main reason for this difference is the disparity in people/networking skills among good composers.

               • One of the things that attracted me to composition was that you could practice it in private, without anyone knowing what you are up to until you actually finish a piece and get it performed. If you are shy by nature, the privacy and solitary nature of composition may be comforting. It is a challenge for naturally shy people develop better social skills (and yes, I speak from my own experience). However, it is possible, with concerted effort.

    But even so, I still hate having to make a "cold call" (telephone someone I don't know); it makes me so profoundly uncomfortable that, for the most part, I avoid it altogether.

    E-mail is a bit safer, though. Every now and then I will E-mail someone about the possibility of performing my music, and, while I don't enjoy doing this at all, it pains me considerably less than making phone calls, and it actually leads to positive results at times. Sometimes it doesn't result in a performance, but the person is nice enough to respond with complementary comments about my music, and, since we composers often do not receive very much positive feedback about our music (but this is why having the courage of your convictions is important; you have to believe in what you do, and not rely on others to validate our music for us), occasional encouragement is a good thing.
What about talent? Where does that fit in the makeup of a good composer?

"Talent" is an interesting and difficult-to-pinpoint concept, and, since this is already very possibly my longest blog entry ever, I will answer that question at greater length in a separate blog entry.

But briefly, I never speculate as to the relative talent levels of my students; I think every student I have had has sufficient talent to become a good composer if they are willing to work at it, hence my emphasis on the value of the work ethic.

Finally, in their comments to the deliberately-provocative concluding statement from my Inspiration, Perspiration, and Perspicacity blog post, Kim and Kate both suggested that the subjectivity of the term "good" in connection to composition makes it problematic to label a composer as lazy.

I agree. There are many compositions that some people consider to be "good" and others don't, and given the inherent subjectivity in the evaluation of artistic quality, it is unfair and harsh to classify composers as "lazy" just because they write music you don't like.

But, that said, it strikes me that the best student composers I have taught — and by "best," I mean those that composed works that I thought best demonstrated the values I stress when I teach (cohesiveness, development, imagination, finding the right balance between the expected and unexpected, and many, many more!), AND whose work seemed most highly regarded by classmates (deduced from comments class members make when critiquing each other's work every week), tend, almost without exception, to be the students who are the least complacent about their compositions. Simply put, some students seem to be more easily satisfied with their music than others, but students who strive the most diligently to improve their music generally succeed in doing so.

So, while I agree that it is a unnecessarily harsh to classify anyone as lazy, I will say that complacency stands in the way of our development as artists (point 9 above).

Also — on the point of subjectivity when it comes to evaluating art — I don't believe the evaluation process for art is completely (or even mostly) subjective. The degree to which there is consensus on what constitutes "greatness" in works of art over many centuries would suggest that there is something objective about it too, although it is culture-specific as well (another interesting topic, but for a different day!).

There is indisputably some subjectivity involved in evaluating art; many knowledgeable people agree that Beethoven wrote numerous masterpieces, but some may feel otherwise. I consider the Beatles to be the greatest pop artists ever (and Rolling Stone agrees with me), but some people can't stand them. Greatness in art, like beauty, is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.

Some have even suggested that The Emperor's New Clothes effect — in which disreputable artistic "authorities" attempt to fleece the public into believing that crap is actually art —is in play. A Google search for "emperor's new clothes in art" generated 4.76 million hits for me.

I don't doubt that this effect exists, and I have had this reaction several times in my life while listening to music or looking at art.

However, it seems to me that the evaluation process for musical art is actually more objective than subjective, at least within cultures; this explains the degree to which there is agreement on the "greatness" of particular artworks. It also may explain why, when students perform their compositions-in-progress for one another in our classes, it is common for several people to pick up on the same thing in critiquing each other's work.


Aiden Hartery said...

This a very interesting subject, and the list of suggestions and ways would should go about training yourself to become a better composer is very help and curious.

The comment "In order to become a good composer, you need to work very hard at it for an extended period, and you have to constantly challenge yourself to find ways to improve" seems both helpful and wrong. Yes, it makes sense and like anything you do in life, working hard at anything will pay off with improvements and satisfaction. But it won't necessarily be the sole reason and promise you success. Apparently, composers like Mozart could produce a masterpiece like it was nothing, as if he could do it in his sleep. If this were true of most composers, then it wouldn't seem like composition would require very much work or effort at all. But if a good composer is judged on the amount of work or challenge that person produces, then Mozart was really a good composer after all. BLASPHEMY!!!

That's probably taking it too far, but that was the first thing that I thought of when I read the blog.

This list looks very helpful and applicable for composers who are new to the writing process. I know that there have been times when I had not sweet clue what I was doing, or how I should have been going about a composition: How I should view it, when to be critical, how to correctly judge my music and others, trying to stick to a creative or challenging idea or thought... there are so many things that I just didn't/don't know how to do.

It's all a very interesting learning experience, and it really is true, practice does make perfect. I have noticed my own skills as a composer, and also as a listener of other peoples compositions have exponentially grown in a very short time.

Lovareth said...

A very interesting subject, indeed..
i think the most important thing in how to become a more-skilled composer is creativity..

Elliott Butt said...

There are some really useful tips here. There are two points that I found the most helpful/agree with.

The first was finding ways to gain perspective on your music. This composition class has been my first ever opportunity to get constructive feedback on my work before it was actually completed. I find this extremely helpful to the compositional processes, as someone may spark an idea with a comment that I would otherwise have never thought of!

The other is the improvement of your people/networking skills. Reading you blog, I'm almost exactly the same way: extremely shy, dislike making phone calls to strangers, etc. This is something that a lot of people don't really consider when thinking about ways to become a better composer, but I must say I find it really important (as I can say from experience trying to find someone to play my piano pieces). Having to ask performers to play your work is an added stress that someone like myself has that someone who is confident and good with people may not.

Jenny Griffioen said...

So many good tips in here!
A few things that stuck out at me:
1. Time. At first, the thought of writing for at least a couple hours every day seems overwhelming - but really, that is comparable to the amount I practice... so I suppose it's not unreasonable. It's just a matter of balancing priorities. And obviously, if I want to improve, I need to put time into it.
But I find I need something specific to work on - a particular task or goal - otherwise I won't accomplish anything.
2. Analyzing/Curiousity. Listening in a different way, noticing how things fit together, paying attention to the details. I agree that thinking about why composers did things the way they did helps you make decisions in your own composition. And it's interesting!
3. People skills. This one surprised me, but of course it makes perfect sense. It's a hard one for me, too. I often would rather retreat into my practice room than talk to people... Did you ever write about how to work at this?

Aislinn Dicks said...

Very interesting post! I found the tips very useful. I think many points you raised are ones that I see value in, but wouldn't have necessarily thought to be strongly related to developing ones skills as a composer.

Something you mentioned that has helped me a great deal since beginning to compose is getting feedback from others and looking for suggestions. Often in class yourself or others will suggest something to me that I hadn't considered, or had overlooked. It's easy to miss things when you're so involved in the composing process, so the change in perspective can aid in bettering your piece a lot. I always look forward to presenting my pieces in class to hear what others suggest.

I'm familiar with the concept of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. I certainly think this applies to composition. Even since the start of this semester, I feel I've learned a lot about composing and that I've come a long way in terms of my eye and ear for composition due to the amount of work and time I've spent working in this area. No matter how much creativity, or talent you have in an area, it's impossible to become an expert unless you're willing to put the time and effort into it.

That being said, I don't think people who are lesser composers are necessarily "lazier". I think certain people start off with a higher ability to compose successfully than others, so two people beginning at the same time may appear to have different work ethics. One must also consider the fact that people learn at different speeds, so the rate of improvement is bound to vary from person to person. Though the same two people may both put in a significant amount of work, the one who began at with less skill can certainly surpass the other if they work harder. I think it's important to have a good work ethic in any area you wish to improve in.

Luke said...

Going through these 10 simple steps to becoming a composer, I thought that the most significant points were the "challenges" that were highlighted. Oftentimes, we are asked what our strengths are, and it seems the only time our "weaknesses" come up is in a job interview or some similar situation. I think it is very important to consider our weaknesses in life, as individuals, but also as musicians, and composers! Achieving things is never easy, and in life we are constantly faced with challenges, and 10,00 hours seems like a lot of time to devote to any task. But through perseverance most of us can achieve the ranks of "skilled composers". Each of these "skills" or "tips" have a benefit and challenge, and while we tend to focus solely on the challenges we are faced with, we often forget to look back on what we gained from the experience. Becoming a more skilled composer won't be an easy task, and our journey's are only beginning, but with time, guidance, and practice it will come soon enough.

Clark Ross said...

Just a very belated (!) response to Aiden's comment, in which he wrote: "Working hard at anything will pay off with improvements and satisfaction. But it won't necessarily be the sole reason and promise you success. Apparently, composers like Mozart could produce a masterpiece like it was nothing, as if he could do it in his sleep."

1. I agree that working hard at something is not the sole reason for, nor guarantee of, success in any endeavour. I don't believe I claimed otherwise, though...

2. The mythology surrounding Mozart's creative process has led many to believe that it was effortless, but (a) it wasn't always — many of his letters speak of his struggles with composing; and (b) the point I make relates to the time commitment required to become a good composer (notice I do not say "great" composer), not the amount of effort involved in composing something.

Mozart is actually considered by some (notably Harold Schonberg, long-time music critic for the New York Times, but also Malcolm Gladwell, whose book I cited in my post) to be a late bloomer, by virtue of having invested FAR more than 10,000 hours in composing before writing his first, widely-acknowledged "masterpiece," the Eb piano concerto (#9), when he was 21. This after composing for approximately 15 years… Schubert and Mendelssohn, on the other hand, were definite early-bloomers, composing fantastic works in their teens!

FesliyanStudios said...

This is just an honest comment, not intended to be rude. In the nicest way possible, I just wanted to say, this website hurts my eyes! I want to read more, but can't.. Can you make it different color? thanks

amy k said...

I need to work on a better balance of tips 5-7... Do you think these tips contradict themselves? Sometimes I am so indecisive in my writing that I give up and "settle" with a phrase, note, or voicing. I feel like I need encouragement from either classmates or my instructor before I am truly satisfied with a composition.

I found inspiration in the quotes on curiosity in tip number 5... I think a little more curiosity will help build my confidence in composing. If a newfound confidence leads to more experience, will the experience lead to skill? Hmm!

Clark Ross said...

Thanks to Fesliyan Studios for letting me know that the colours of this post hurt your eyes! I have come to realize that I probably overdo it when it comes to using coloured text… My thinking is that it helps make headings and other important bits pop out, but clearly, if the colours are hurting some people's eyes, they are not a good idea! I just went back and changed the colours in this post… I'd be curious to know if anyone still finds them hard on the eyes? Please let me know if you do, and thanks again for this comment!

Kelly Perchard said...

Before this course, I did not think I was a good composer because I always assumed is was a natural "talent" people were born with. Now I know that it takes some talent, but a lot of hard work. I was worried that it was going to take me a lot longer than most because I had never truly composed before, but working at a composition every day proved to enhance my compositional skills as a whole. I think the biggest thing in my mind was that composing was something that couldn't be taught, but this is untrue. In a way you end up teaching yourself, with the advice and help of others. The 10 000 hour rule seems like a good theory to stick with when it comes to composing as well.

Another interesting point made was the Emperor's New Clothes story. I had never heard this story before, but it was a great analogy that I had been looking to use on so many occasions. I'm glad it was included in this post.

Duane Andrews said...

Lots of rich ideas in this post. Hard work and the 10,000 hour concept are important when considering skill development but I've found the idea of deliberate practice quite intriguing and i'm surprised it doesn't get more attention.

Most of my understanding of deliberate practice comes through Geoff Colvin's book 'Talent is Overrated' where he somewhat sums up contemporary research on performance excellence across a variety of disciplines. Along with the 10,000 hour idea he highlights other common qualities shared by people who have achieved great levels of skill development and boils them down to a set of of criteria which sets deliberate practice apart from normal practice of a skill.

Along with athletes, chess players and business executives he uses musicians as case studies however only from the performance perspective. This post has sparked the idea of a blog post of my own exploring composers who have achieved excellence to see how their cases relate to deliberate practice.

anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this blog post. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was greatly encouraged. As a self taught composer I know I need all the help I can get, and it's lovely to get help online and hear some of my views echoed in your post (hard work!)

Josh Penney said...

I think a lot of these are greta points that I could use. I think the best for me would be strive for more and be more decisive. Striving for more being that I still really don't know what I can do as a composer. Typically what ends up happening is I write and I just find out what I can do as I go on. I think more writing will show me more of what I can do, but building a bigger skill set could come from analysis of other works. I always find when listening to music, that I listen with an ear that says "oh that's cool, I should use that in my writing". The only problem is that I when I get back to my composing I never remember what I wanted to do, or I have too many things in my head and I don't know which to use. I think in being more decisive on exactly the composition that I want could help with this. Again i find in my composing I just write and what happens happens. I hardly find myself planning out formal things, or having a huge concepts planned out. I think that can be the next step in my writing. I'm hoping for the next piece I write, that I will be able to pick a sort of topic to write a piece around, and then make a logical outline to capture that idea. I think this would be a good way of incorporating the things listed above into developing some good compositional skills.

Robert Humber said...

This couldn't be more true. I still definitely haven't composed for close to 10,000 hours but have already seen my ability improve, albeit slowly. I have trouble sticking with one idea and letting it run its course. I get impatient and worry that the idea has become stale. The way I've tried to combat that is by writing a set of short bagatelles for wind quintet. By sticking to one character for each bagatelle, I am hoping I will be able to feel more comfortable sticking to ideas in longer works and become more disciplined.

I strongly agree with listening to a lot of music with the mindset of picking up aspects of different pieces, especially as a young composer trying to find my own voice. We luckily live in an age where we have access to just about every masterpiece ever recorded, so as music lovers how can we pass up on such an incredible opportunity to educate ourselves and enjoy an amazing art form? I can guarantee my music would sound a lot different if I didn't listen to the variety of music that I do.

I definitely do not compose every single day, but it is becoming more and more of a natural part of my life since Intro to Comp last year. I know that continuing to dedicate more and more time to composing will be extremely valuable and rewarding.

Flutiano said...

Instructions to improve at anything generally begin with “work hard” (or, “work harder”). Sometimes the instructions stop there, but that isn’t always enough. More guidance is often required. I like how this blog post elaborates the type of work that it is beneficial to do in order to develop as a composer, without getting into specific details (ex. write 12 duets using classical serialism and a single 12-tone row, then 5 pieces in which you explicitly avoid writing melody, then a set of variations on a chorale by Bach, then . . .). The content of this blog is both practical and flexible.

“Find ways to gain perspective on your music” is not something I would likely have come up with myself, but I think it is an interesting idea – I am going to have to go read the “Running into a brick wall” post to see your ideas there. Finding ways to alter perception can be very challenging, but even the act of trying to look at one’s musical ideas and compositions is likely beneficial.

Regarding no. 5, curiosity, I once had a friend point out to me that there is a second half to the famous saying, which I had never heard before (and it seems most people haven’t): “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” I like this version a lot better (maybe because I value curiosity).

The scariest item on the list, for me, is number 10. Develop networking skills? Yikes! This is likely always going to be the hardest part of being a composer, at least for me. However, it is nice to see it here, because it’s a challenge I am already facing, and to see it in a list of things to work on to become a more-skilled composer is a good reminder that social skills can be improved, and that networking is a challenge that many (if not all) composers face.

The last comment in the blog is “it is common for several people to pick up on the same thing in critiquing each other’s work.” Does that mean that the quality of music is more objective than subjective? I wonder if the reason that we react in similar ways to compositions that we hear is because of the similarity of our training, and our experiences to date. By the time we are in our 2nd (or later) year of post-secondary music training, we have learned a lot about what is ‘good’ in the music of our culture. Even before the years of specific training in theory, harmony, counterpoint, analysis, and the masterworks written for our instrument(s), we are exposed to the music of our culture in malls, movies, on the radio, in concerts . . . or just about anywhere. I wonder if what we call ‘good’ is really that which gives us something new and interesting within our comfort zone; something that fits with the music we have grown up listening to.

The curiosity quote from Albert Einstein in this blog – “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education” – is, I think, applicable to this point. We learn so much about how things are supposed to be, I think we lose some of the desire to find other ways in which music (and anything else in life) can be good. We fear failure, and we would rather create something close to what we are used to, something in our comfort zone and the comfort zone of at least most of our listeners (or potential listeners), than risk writing a flop which maybe nobody will ever want to listen to, and might make audiences write us off as a composer they ever want to listen to again.

Flutiano said...

It is interesting to see what other people comment, and I forgot to check the "email follow up comments . . ." box on my previous comment, so I'm commenting again so that I can check that box. (I have also made myself a link to this blog so that I can revisit it easily when I'm needing encouragement/reminders about what to work on to improve my composition!)

endy smith said...

It is a good question actually. Thank you for asking. Well, to begin with I would want to say that I do not think it is possible to become a better composer. I think it is there or not. It is like a gift from God (for those who believe in God of course). One way or another, practice does no harm. here is some more information for you. Reading does no harm either. Be wise and use your time thoughtfully.

Kivanc Kilicer said...

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Hannah Wadman-Scanlan said...

I really enjoyed this blog post! Lots of helpful tips to keep in mind.

In particular, I liked the relation you made with composing and practicing an instrument, a sport, or even something like surgery. Both require a substantial amount of hours put in in order to improve ones skills. The idea of spending “at least of couple of hours” composing a day caught me by surprise, but it actually makes perfect sense. Much like improving your technique on an instrument requires practice, trail and error, and persistence, it only makes sense that in order to improve your compositional skills a similar amount of devotion would be required.

I also really liked the idea of analyzing other compositions to “develop good judgement”. You mentioned how we can sometimes feel like we’ve hit a “brick wall”, and I think taking a break from your own compositions and analyzing someone else’s can be a great way to overcome that. Not only can you gain new ideas or concepts for your own work, but it can also show you things that maybe you don’t like so much, which will in turn help you fix some problematic ideas in your own work. I definitely agree that its important to sometimes step back and explore other compositional ideas, as this also lends itself to the idea of gaining perspective. I know I’ve definitely experienced moments of frustration when I’ve spent hours working on a piece without really taking a step back. Although our natural tendency may be to want to keeping plugging away at it to try to “fix” what we don’t like, often times what we really need to do is take a break. As you mentioned, your perspective can change in as little as a few hours so I think it’s important to recognize when you’re “hitting a brick wall”, and in that moment walk away from it for a little bit before your frustration increases and you begin doing more harm than good.

Naomi Pinno said...

I really enjoyed this article! I found it both encouraging and helpful.

First, I was surprised that something as abstract as composition has 10 straightforward steps to improvement. This emphasis on practice, and the reference to 10,000 hour of practice to become a master of something, reminded me of the singer songwriter Leonard Cohen and his song “Hallelujah”. Cohen spent years writing the song and in the end he had written more versus than could be sung during one song. However his work and commitment to the song paid off and is now one of his most well know works. If Leonard Cohen had to spend countless hours on one song, why would I not?

I also appreciated the balance you laid out between creativity, openness, and analysis combined with decrement. Each concept by itself is vital but how to work with all four together is something I would like to improve at. Music with these concepts in balance often appears inspired and genius.