Monday, August 1, 2011

On the perception of progress

How do you measure progress when composing?  I sometimes set durational goals for myself, like thirty seconds of new music every day. The value of this approach is that it can provide an incentive to create some quantity of new music every day, even if it sometimes feels like you're "churning it out."

But wait!  Is "churning out" some quantity of new music every day a desirable goal?

Let's consider some arguments for and against this approach:

Pro
  1. Writing music every day (or at least most days), is, like practicing your instrument or singing daily, extremely helpful (probably essential) in becoming a skilled composer.  Giving yourself daily duration goals can help motivate you to achieve this.

  2.   Working on your current project daily also keeps it fresh in your mind.  You will likely find that your piece stays in your thoughts when you are not actively engaged in composing.  One value of this is that it allows your subconscious to be involved in your creative process; you may be reading, exercising, or falling asleep, and suddenly get a good idea for your composition because your subconscious is keeping your piece on the "back burner," as it were.  Having your music fresh in your thoughts every day when you sit down to compose also makes the process more efficient; if you are too long away from a project, you may find yourself struggling to remember where you were going with particular musical ideas, or wondering why you wrote what you did. Writing a composition sporadically is possible, but not much fun.

  3.   There is value in being able to compose quickly.  Surprisingly (to me, at least), it doesn't necessarily result in lower-quality writing.  I think we sometimes get too obsessive about small details in our compositions, at the expense of the big picture; this can be fixed by working at a steady (and fairly brisk!) pace. As a general rule, I think it is much more valuable to try to "churn out" music for a period, and then, perhaps when you get stuck, you can go back and work on some finer details such as links, general improvements, and score details. This isn't quite the same as saying, "don't sweat the small stuff," because details are very important in a composition.  Instead, I am suggesting that there is a time to concern yourself with details, and there is a time to concern yourself with the big picture; if you spend too much time on the former, the latter may suffer, and vice-versa.

  4.   If you make a habit of challenging yourself to write music every day, you will find it easier to do so; it can help ease the existential pain that sometimes accompanies composition (see my previous blog entry for more on this topic).  You are also likely to find that you are writing music with which you are satisfied, for the reasons given above.

  5.   If you go on to a career as a composer, there will almost certainly be times when you have to compose quickly in order to meet a deadline.  If you write music for film, television, or commercials, writing good music quickly is a basic requirement; an inability to deliver quality work on time will quickly close the door on future opportunities.  The only way to develop this proficiency this is to spend years challenging yourself to "churn it out" on a regular basis.
Con
  1.   A daily duration goal can be useful, but it can also be counterproductive if (a) you are meeting your goals but writing music with which you are not satisfied, or (b) you are satisfied with the quality of your music, but not meeting your daily durational goal. Both can be discouraging. The most important objective is to be satisfied with the quality of your music, irrespective of how much you compose every day.

  2.   A daily duration goal is not always practical; some sections of a composition require more work than others.  I often find the beginning of a work very slow-going, but once some progress has been made and I am happy with it, things often proceed somewhat more quickly, albeit with slower progress when new challenges arise (which is often).  A particularly thick or complex texture can also slow you down, as can contrapuntal textures, fast tempi, and avoidance of repetition in your music.

  3.   Other aspects of the composition process are as important as writing new sections.  At the top of the list, perhaps, is revision of earlier sections.  Each new day brings fresh perspective to one's music; what seemed like a brilliant idea the night before might seem pretty weak the next day, and if this is the case, revisions are necessary.  For what it's worth, my own approach is to generally start my composition sessions by revising earlier sections, followed by working on new material.  For me, everything is subject to revision until the piece is done, which means I might still be tweaking aspects of the first few pages as I work on the final pages.  

  4.   Likewise, an essential aspect of the composition process is editing your music, which includes adding dynamics, articulations, written instructions, slurs, bowings, etc., and this too takes time, if it is to be done intelligently. In general, I recommend editing your music as you go, more or less, but the way I actually do it is that I compose new music until I get stuck, or feel that a section is relatively complete, at which point I go back and edit/revise/improve earlier music.  I have discovered that sometimes the reason I feel stuck is that aspects of previously-composed music are not sitting well with me, and it can be hard to progress until I fix them.

→ It is important to feel you are making regular progress on your compositions, and one way of doing this is to set achievable goals for yourself every day. These goals can be durational, but they can also relate to other aspects of the composition process as well, such as revisions and editing; you could aim to put in dynamics, phrasing slurs, articulations, bowings, etc., for x many pages or bars, for example.

→ Similarly, your daily or weekly goals can include other tasks that are important for a composer, such as applying for grants, copying (and editing) parts, inviting people to an upcoming concert where your music will be played (using social media and other methods, such as E-mail), making and distributing posters for that concert, and communicating with your performers to ensure that (a) they are prepared to perform your music, (b) they don't have any questions or concerns regarding what you have written thus far, and (c) they know that you welcome their input.

Goals are useful when they help motivate you to achieve something, but counterproductive when they make you feel you have failed if you did not achieve them.  Set modest, achievable goals, and then see how they work out. If they are easily achieved, then slightly increase the difficulty, and vice-versa if they are not. Be flexible; modify short-term goals if necessary in order to better reach a long-term goal. We are all capable of achieving wonderful things, and setting a series of smaller goals can help us get there.

31 comments:

Fcj said...

Great advice, thanks. I used to get disheartened following the "do some everyday" thing and felt like a failure more than anything else. So, thank you for the great post. I'm not a composer, but it seems probably applicable to projects beyond composing music.

Tom Hogan said...

Great post!

I've been concentrating on on making stock audio compositions of various styles lately, and as a result have been trying to limit how much time I spend on them. It's obviously easier said than done, but it does tend to yield good results!

Audio visual hire said...

I think we sometimes get too obsessive about small details in our compositions, at the expense of the big picture; this can be fixed by working at a steady (and fairly brisk!) pace. As a general rule, I think it is much more valuable to try to "churn out" music for a period, and then, perhaps when you get stuck, you can go back and work on some finer details such as links, general improvements, and score details.
Audio visual hire

Joe said...

I think we've talked about this idea before, but I am extremely keen to start "churning out" short pieces of music over the summer in order to improve my compositional chops. I definitely believe there is merit to the idea, and it's comforting that it also has real world value aside from being "a step towards being a good composer."

Elliott Butt said...

I feel as though the pros of "churning out" music every day outweigh the cons. The main point that makes me feel this way is the notion of deadlines. Like you said in the blog, inability to do quality work on time will result quite negatively on your career. It seems an invaluable skill to be able to do this, and the only way I can see to get better is to practice a lot now rather than later (even if what you write is sometimes sub-par)!

Tony Taylor said...

Thanks for the post, Dr. Ross. There are things in here similar to what you've said in class before. I agree for the most part, but with a schedule as busy as mine, I find it very hard to even think of setting a goal, when I can't be sure I will have time to get to composing. I think for me, weekly goals are more attainable, and open ended. That way I can work several days in a week for little bits, or one or two days in big bits and still feel the gratification of attaining goals.

Mitchell wxhao said...

I agree that composing for a certain about of time every day is important, because it's useful to be able to compose quickly. The problem I have is actually doing it. I kind of go at a day-by-day basis. If I need to present something in a couple days, I will sit down and put an hour into it, and often I can get about a minute of music down. It's so hard to do something if I don't actually have to.

Vanessa Carroll said...

I found with the last assignment I was more focused on amount of music I was writing than anything else. This is not to say that I was forgetting about quality, but I took the mind set that once I have something to work with I can go back and tweek and edit (which I would do anyway).
Basically, to me, the approach you take totally depends on what you're writing. Sometimes, a piece could take years... sometimes, you just have to meet a deadline.

Evan Smith said...

I really haven't done much composing in my lifetime. I'm done the scattered small composition for a theory class and what not, but that is always on a time frame. With everything else going on in the week that the assignment is do, things are often left to night-before kind-of projects. As you mentioned though, these timed or mandatory writing sessions have many pros. I have definitely liked some things I've written in this way, and I wonder if I had no time line, how different would what I had written be.

In high school I wrote a little for the piano and had this chord progression idea going for about a year. It was a decent length, and I played it almost once a week while I was just noodling on my piano. In my grade 12 year I was asked to compose a piece for my Grand March at the graduation. I used this progression and in the span of a couple of days, wrote a saxophone melody with a second sax harmony.

I feel like this kind of embodies both sides of the coin as you referred to in your blog post. The progression was going on for quite some time and I took a while to tweak it, but with the saxophones, I was under the time line of a couple of days to finish it and I was no less pleased with that, than the progression that had taken considerably longer.

I think you summed it up quite well, in that a balance of both is often needed.

Aislinn Dicks said...

I think that this blog post is applicable to many areas besides just composing. As you mentioned early on, composing every day is like practicing your instrument every day. If you want to develop skills in an area, then it's necessary to dedicate time to that area in order to practice and better your ability. You can't expect to improve if you don't put the time and work into it. I certainly side with the pros of this method. I think it's extremely valuable to work in such a way. It's necessary if you wish to develop the ability to compose a high quality product on a short timeline.

That being said, I can see how many people would struggle with the idea of forcing yourself to compose a certain amount each day. If I weren't currently composing on a timeline for Intro to Composition, I would probably assume that I wouldn't be able to compose a set amount each day. I would say that if I don't have inspiration to compose, how am I just supposed to do it? I think that the approach of each individual will vary based on their personality and work ethic. I'm sure that this method wouldn't work for everyone, though I think it's a good one.

Timothy Brennan said...

I think that you put forth great advice here Dr. Ross! I completely agree that it's important to work on a composition steadily and everyday, and that setting regular goals will help in the completion process. I try to do this with my own composing, but sometimes when I'm struggling with a particular section I feel that the best thing to do is to leave it and come back later with a fresh perspective. Even just attempting to make progress could be a particular daily goal, if necessary.

I also liked when you said that sometimes we forget the "bigger picture" when composing and tend to focus too much on details. In a classroom/course setting, I feel that this is true as we are being evaluated on the inner workings of our pieces. However, I think that it's important to remember that music is meant to be heard and enjoyed for its sound, so making it sound appealing to the listener should be a priority.

Jennifer Hatcher said...

I am not entirely sure that composing something (even if something short) daily is the best approach for me to take. I have found that reaching the deadlines that are generally between a week or two after being presented with the project are a good goal; I don't look at it everyday, but a few times a week is plenty. I find I'm not always feeling creative enough to compose music, and I often sit down to attempt to write some more of a piece I'm working on but my mind is blank. Furthermore, leading a busy lifestyle doesn't help things; composing over summer holidays may seem much easier and perhaps making it a daily routine would more attainable. Also, I have honestly never composed for pleasure, but it has always been a part of an assignment for school. Perhaps composing what I want, with my own guidelines, without a deadline that has to be reached, would make me more inclined to do it daily (or at least every second day). This is something I could easily experiment with once school life slows down after the semester ends.
The pros that are listed clearly outweigh the cons in my eyes, but trying to find the time to experiment with the suggestions that are made is the problem. With that being said, I think it may be a beneficial experiment to do during the summer holidays - who knows what I could possibly come up with!

Chris Morrison said...

Excellent advice. There is a sense of accomplishment which accompanies furthering a composition frequently and can keep spirits high, even if this material needs revision. I had never considered composing until progress was halted then returning to earlier material for reworking and to give the hindering section a rest. I am a firm believer in the brain solving musical dilemmas subconsciously and this is no doubt an excellent way to return with new ideas. My biggest concern with daily composing would be composition is not too much "coasting." Being weary of this could determine how long to spend on a composition each day.

Robert Godin said...

I could definitely use more daily practice with composing. I especially need to improvise more often. It's something I've rarely done and not particularly skilled at. Which is unfortunate because trying to write something at the piano is a lot slower because of it.

Luke said...

I think this is great advice! Writing music is a difficult task most of the time, it takes effort and time. Fitting composition into our very busy schedules can sometimes be a challenge, thus sometimes I find myself in the wee hours of the morning writing down ideas, only to wake up and discard them, but on rare occasions, I find an idea that I love, and aim to incorporate it into on of my pieces. I think everyday is pushing it for me to compose, I get most of my work done on the weekends, with only small snippets done during the week, or try and iron out some details of a piece I'm working on. Still I think it is important to practice composing, in the same way we practice our instruments, and it is the most effective way to become a better composer.

Siobhan said...

I wish I had come across this post in the beginning of the semester!

I enjoyed your thoughts on the pros and cons of composing daily. The thought that I found particularly resonant was that it is comparable to practicing an instrument. Perhaps in this regard, it might take '10 000 hours' to truly achieve mastery.

This semester, I found that doing the bulk of a composition in a few big chunks was beneficial. It was also great to leave it for a few days and come back to it with a refreshed mind. I found that that helps with getting more of an 'initial reaction' and help me hear the composition with fresh ears - much like how a potential audience would hear it. Often, after hearing a part of my own composition repeatedly for hours, it's hard to gauge how to improve it. Leaving it and coming back definitely helps with this problem.

To help work on my composition skills, I think it would be useful to set weekly goals (perhaps themed) as it's too easy to just forget about steadily improving on writing music.

Shawn Bennett said...

An interesting take on compositional technique! Some valuable insights from a professional nonetheless. I should probably take your word for it... but being me, I take from this something a little different. To me, this seems to say "to each his own!"

There are pros and cons to any compositional technique. This is not a factory job. It is an art. And the very nature of art is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. And also, I believe making mistakes and doing something inefficiently is often how genuine inspiration is achieved. Many of the world's greatest inventions are made by mistake!

I know that it might not apply to society today, but it must be mentioned that Beethoven composed at a snail's pace. In direct contrast to Haydn, who wrote new music every day. History does not lie, and it seems to support my theory. I believe the key is to find whatever works best for you. No one knows you, better than you!

Mitchell wxhao said...

I know that I have already commented on this post - but I've reached some other conclusions this time around. I found that in the times this semester when I had an approaching deadline and had to compose quickly, I got into a groove more quickly. This could be because I've learned to get down to it better when the pressure is on, or I also think it could be that my technique has developed more and I can just DO better things now.

Josh Penney said...

I think this posts covers all the bases on this topic.

One thing I haven't really strictly tried is composing every day, and doing a little work. Often I have found that life tends to happen, and composing gets put on the bottom of the list until sometimes a little late.

Although this has been working for me, I feel like the next step in my composing is to make a more regimented schedule so that my ideas can develop like skills on an instrument. I definitely see the pros out-weighing the cons, and I feel like if I worked on better revision skills, it could contribute in making my writing more efficiently for when I do have to write in a short period of time.

Andrew Gale said...

I find that I often run into the problem of disliking music that I have created on a previous day. It most definitely seems true that your mind is constantly coming up with new creative ideas.
I agree with the idea of "churning out" music on a regular basis. In my assignments this semester, I have noticed that if at any point I were to take a break from working on my assignment for a significant amount of time, the harder it was for me to agree with my ideas and continue working from them. "Churning out" music on a regular basis seems to be a very effective way to stay in sync with what you write as a composer.

Flutiano said...

I find the comparison between learning to compose and learning an instrument interesting. It isn’t intuitive for me, because composing is cerebral and playing an instrument has a large physical component. However, when I think about the comparison, I think I can see where you are coming from.

I like the idea of composing every day. For me, for the time being, that probably won’t be a certain amount, but merely building the habit of consciously working on writing something every day. Someday I may decide to set a specific amount daily, maybe when I have more time or maybe when it seems to me that that additional push would be beneficial.

Going between the three pieces that make up the first two projects in our Intro to Composition course lately, without deliberately trying to follow this advice, I have been doing a bit of composing every day, and I can definitely see the value in it. I feel like I’m living with my compositions in a way I never have before; I’ll think of ideas for them while walking between classes, or eating supper. For what it’s worth, I’m also finding that I’m liking my pieces better than that which I have written before.

However, I think it can be useful to have some space with a composition; some time away from it. I wasn’t sure about how I was doing with my second composition for the first project, so I took a break from it for a couple of days and started working on the second project. When I came back to it, I was able to see it more as a whole, which helped me to edit things that I then thought made it less cohesive.

With reference to the first question posed in this blog post (“How do you measure progress when composing?”), I would still like to know the answer. Is it through the number of minutes composed? When I think about my perception of progress, I think that I am making progress at becoming a better composer (or a composer at all); then I have to challenge myself to identify how I’m coming up with the answer. Part of it is the amount I have composed in the past month, but part of it is also that I’m starting to like what I write more.

Peyton Morrissey said...

This post brought forth a lot of points I had never considered about composing a specific duration every day. The approach I take personally is to set aside a certain amount of time in the day, rather than writing a specific amount of time (i.e. 30 seconds of music a day). My fear with the latter approach is that I would become frustrated when not meeting the goals and end up writing for the sake of getting 30 seconds written, and rather than altering what I had written the day before, I would be more concerned with getting the 30 seconds done, ultimately leaving me with a piece I am not particularly pleased with.

Another point to add is that some days I am feeling less creative than others. Often times I will have a day when I am composing and feel very unattached to what I am writing, so rather than writing something I don't like, it's more effective to use that day as an "editing day", where I go back and add more specifics to my score, or play around with what I have already written. I think this is helpful in avoiding excessive amounts of frustration as well. Also, I think I would be more pleased with having something written that I am satisfied with rather than having enough written.

Overall, I think there are definitely pros to writing a specific duration each day, but it is important for all composers to find the approach that works best for them!

Mitchel Fleming said...

Thanks Dr. Ross for these insights into your compositional process. When I compose, I find myself getting caught up in the grand scope of my piece from day one. I will have an idea, generally on a grand scale (I may have an entire sonata in my head), begin to run with it, then worry that if I cannot get it all down on paper before I forget, I will lose it forever. I find that this can discourage from tackling larger pieces for fear of losing my ideas to the ether. This causes me to be unhappy with my compositional output because I am not taking on pieces that I wish to.
Keeping your suggestions in mind of taking the music piece by piece and using "creative roadblocks" to revisit earlier material and revise them will help me fell more satisfied with a hard days composing.
Cheers, and thanks for the insights

Adrian Irvine said...

I like the idea of aiming to create incessantly without regard for progress or goals. It is similar to "churning out" works, but a lot more open ended in what exactly it is you are producing. Yes composing every day is the best way to refine your craft, but even when this isn't possible (as seems to be the case for myself as well as many of the above commenters), I still try and find a couple of moments to improvise on my violin or noodle on the piano. Often times if I've worked on a piece within one or two days prior I'll daydream about it as I'm going about my daily activities, which often times gives me ideas on where to take it the next time I sit down to write. This is a great way to remain in the compositional mindset without feeling the pressures of a daily time goal. Casually making progress in your planning and ideas independently of your designated working time can give you a huge jump start the next time you sit down to write and have an exponentially positive impact on your progress.

We're also fortunate to live in an era where almost everyone has quick and easy access to recording capabilities via their cellphones/ipods, so if you have an aha moment but you don't have time to sit down and work with it, you can record a reminder for yourself for later. My iphone recordings are always full of random motives, sounds I hear on the street, and a few embarrassing monologues describing concepts that I couldn't record in any other way. Sure I probably look like a total wacko holding my phone up to a music stand and spinning it in circles, but who knows if I'll ever hear that sound again, and who knows if I may want to use it someday!

Jessica said...

I like the idea of forcing oneself to compose for a set amount of time every day, comparing learning to compose to learning an instrument. Really, any skill can be learned this way. I can relate to the idea of a piece being composed this way staying fresh in your mind. I definitely find that if I leave a piece unfinished for an extended period of time, upon returning to it, I question every decision I ever made. Conversely, if I work on a piece every day for multiple days, I am constantly thinking about it and sometimes a new idea for it will just come to me out of nowhere. If the "creative juices" are constantly flowing, composition becomes a much more enjoyable activity. However, I am also able to relate to being discouraged when I do not achieve my daily goals. When the day is almost over and I have to accept that I won't get everything on my list done, the things that do not have an immediate deadline get pushed aside. More often than not, whatever composition I am trying to work on takes lower priority. This could probably be remedied by the setting of more attainable goals, something that I am still working on! At any rate, this often makes it difficult to keep a composition fresh in my mind. I become even more discouraged when I do get time to work on the piece and can't remember why I thought any of what I had composed was a good idea in the first place. In conclusion, I agree that working on composing every day, or at least somewhat consistently, produces the best results!

Anaïs Siosse said...

I am the kind of person who tend to plan everything on paper and postpone 50% of this plan progressively … If I do not plan, I do not know what I have to do and I do nothing, so I plan. It is funny that how I know that I will never be able to produce such amount of work in a week, but I still believe it unconsciously. I think it is very important to have goals in life because this is what help us to get up in the morning. I just accept that there are no many things to do in our lives but that we should all try to do the maximum. There is a saying in french that says "On dormira quand on sera mort" = we will sleep when we'll be died. When you know that each minute of your life is important then I feel it is easier to do more. I know everyone one is different… and some people are more lucky then others. The support of our friends and families are so important to achieve our goals. But only one can realize our goals, and this is us.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I think daily goal setting is important. It helps a composer to get into the creative habit rather than waiting for inspiration, which is a critical skill if he or she wants to produce music on a regular or professional basis. Furthermore, no skill improves without practice, and this includes composition. However, since the demands of the music can vary considerably, due to ensemble size, texture, editing requirements, or point in the composition process, duration may not be a good representation of progress on a given day. For this reason, I prefer not to use a durational goal. Instead, I like to set a goal for the amount of time I spend composing in a day. That way, I force myself to exercise my compositional muscles, but I can focus on the process rather than the results, avoiding the discouragement and guilt that can come from results-based goal setting.

Alison Petten said...

I struggle with this because often I get consumed with other projects and deadlines that may be approaching faster than the ones set for my compositions, and often the music I write daily seems mediocre when i listen to it the next day or a few days later (at least to me). I also struggle with knowing what is good and what isn't so good in terms of my own composition. It is very hard to be subjective when you have put so much effort and detail into a certain project. I find that I am getting better and faster at composting music that I'm proud of, which I guess is a result of "practicing" composing every day. However, there are some days that no matter what I do I feel like i can't manage to write even a bar of music worth listening to. On these days I tend to think more about the things that inspire me rather than the actual piece I'm writing. I also keep a list of things that have inspired me while I'm not composing me for those days when I can't seem to think of anything to write.

Stephen Eckert said...

Well said! I personally can have a very self-deprecating outlook on my compositions, so this resonates with me. I do believe however that like anything, such as your applied instrument, theory, or history, your compositional abilities can only develop through practice. Not everything you play when you practice sounds absolutely beautiful, but you practice anyway. This should parallel your composing. Not everything you write will be ground-breaking, you may hate it, but it teaches you what sounds you like and dislike which in turns makes you a more decisive and considerate composer. Progression in Composing skill is often more difficult to track than your applied instrument practice but this may simply be our being accustomed to our progress in practice.

Erika Penney said...

This is one of my weakest points in my composing. I often struggle when i have set a goal and was unable to reach it, which results in believing i have failed myself. I found if on a daily basis i kept up with my compositions and kept the idea fresh in my mind it was a lot easier to create the sound i was trying to find. All my compositions were based on life experiences and the music created was based on the sounds revolving around those experiences. When i could not create what i wanted, i would find myself struggling to finish the piece which is when i found my goals had failed. It is very difficult writing music that you are unsatisfied with. I found one of my compositions i just could not find any inspiration and became very frustrated, which concluded in myself hating the music i wrote. Not everything i write will be the best i can do, but when i do write something i am happy with, there is no better feeling when passing that in. I agree with challenging yourself to write everyday and working daily to achieve progress.

Peter Cho said...

I think especially when one is starting to compose that "churning out" compositions is helpful. Up until very recently I have had a great fear of composing. The first time I ever composed anything was a year ago for orchestration class out of necessity. However, the intro to comp class required for me to write a piece within two or three weeks which forced me to get things down on paper. Some of the things I composed I rather liked and others not so much, but for every new composition I felt more confident and more skillful than I had at the beginning of the previous composition. One of the biggest reasons for my fear of composing was because I did not want to write a bad piece. Being forced to write pieces relatively quickly made me be less nit-picky, in a healthy way. I had to be pragmatic with my time composing and couldn't pore over the details of a composition for hours until I (probably) do away with hours of work because I deem it unworthy.