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:

  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.
  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.