Hi so I was looking for a place like this and am really excited to have found one! I look forward to communicating with all of you.
I am a recent choral music education grad who enjoys composition at a deeply personal level but maybe not trying so hard to be professional. Which brings me to what I want to ask. I would like to talk about how you compose as an artist.
Things I'm curious about:
What are some of the tools or methods you use to bring it all together? What is the process by which you compose? What separates sitting down to finish a product from just playing around on the piano? How do you make decisions along the way to a finished product? Do you/Have you ever felt truly done with a piece?
I've had a real problem with feeling like my compositions are either too inspired and passionate that I can't seem to finish them, or they are too routine and uninspired that I finish and feel as if I could care less about it.
I am striving more now toward trying to find a process that will limit my journey just enough to keep the passion and vision but not limit it so much that I feel like the expression is cheapened. (imitative, rote, unoriginal... I am very self critical sometimes)
I hope this makes sense. I would like to hear any thoughts!
Hello Alex - you've asked all the same questions I've asked over the years. My answer to your questions - composition for me is haphazard - I never know what will cause me to begin to compose, it sometimes comes from listening to some inspiring piece of music (example: the ambient background music playing in an underground tramway in the Chicago O'Hare airport), sometimes from a project I have been asked to work on (example: a children's suite with another composer), sometimes a project I take on myself (compose a fanfare for the opening ceremony for some new student housing at a college I used to work for), and occasionally I will be noodling around on the piano and some random notes will suddenly turn into a piece (I wrote a ragtime piece this way). I would say of all the music I start, I finish less than half. Sometimes things just peter out, sometimes I write the piece all the way through in a short period of time, sometimes I complete it after great struggle and lots of time. I make decisions along the way based on gut feeling, but a little more than just instinct: I strive for valleys and peaks - that is to say, I strive to balance out moments of great activity with moments of relative quietude. I think that's what keeps a piece interesting. As far as ever feeling like I am done with a piece? - mostly yes, when I finish a piece I don't come back to it to tweak it. This is not hard and fast, sometimes I do come back. As far as passionate but not finishing vs. finishing but not passionate - if I am not passionate about a piece I never finish it.
I think I may have been too vague. To put it better, I think I just have a grandiose vision for what the piece should be. I get really attached to the idea of it and then when I step back, look at it as a whole, it crumbles under my expectations. I've been working on one set of pieces for almost two years now and the one that I started out with that inspired me to make it into a set, is honestly the worst one. The rest I like a lot but the one that was supposed to be the big fanfare is just honestly... terrible. Anyway, I was hoping someone might have had some insight into what kind of tools, tricks, games they use to help them compose.
I heard from one person that they like to take an old song (a folk melody or something), change the melody and then change the words. Then they have a brand new tune with new words to get started with and it didn't have to come exclusively from them.
Your best tools are whatever you use and will change over time. You mentioned having a grandiose vision for a piece and that you get stopped when it "crumbles under my expectations." This is totally normal even for pros. There's nothing wrong with feeling that way about an idea you're attached to. At that point all there is is to really look at who you'll have to be to finish the piece and that when you do it will either work or not. If it doesn't work or live up to your expectations then you can change it. You will never find any way to finish pieces than to work past your stopping point and stop worrying about how it will turn out. Let how much you like the idea will determine how far you will go to finish it.
Anytime you're up to writing a piece that exceeds what you know yourself to be capable of you will hit a point where there is no good reason to risk continuing. What if you do and it is terrible? So what?
Another way to access all of this is to ask yourself, "what is the piece about musically?" Forget about what it means about you if you finish it or not and whether anyone will like it. What do you say it is about musically? Maybe it's about a specific idea or a line of lyric that really inspires you when sung a certain way. Whatever it is, be ruthless about getting that across in the piece.
Write pieces your passionate about and finish them. You will only learn what it takes to finish them by finishing them. Show them to people. Get them performed. Ask for help from people who have written music you respect or admire.