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[edited reprint of an earlier article]

Why Compose? I’m a performer. Why should I?

 They once asked a world famous ski jumper if there was a maximum age at which one start learning to ski jump. He answered, “Yes. Three.” There are many activities and skills where it is a definite advantage to start early, and composing is one of them. Current music education is not renowned for exposing anyone early to the creation of music, but unlike ski jumping, you can still begin later – even much later – and not risk death, even though it may feel a bit scary in making the transition from consumer to producer if it’s your first ‘jump’. What awaits you for the effort?


-Personal enrichment

-Extending your practical knowledge of music

-Knowing music ‘from the inside out’

-A new relationship to music and to your instrument

-The ability to compose for yourself, your family, your students – and not having wait for someone far away to come up with something just right for you

But I’m not Beethoven! Why bother?

Are you a Pulitzer or Nobel prize winner in literature? No? And yet you write emails, texts, letters, even school papers? If only the best of the best were allowed to do anything, no one would get to do any art, music, writing of any sort, cooking, sports, and on and on. We have all had creative lobotomies from a system of music education that has kept us away from creating from the beginning – no training, no encouragement – because creativity is messy, hard to grade, tricky to teach. But we should do it anyway, because it’s so much fun and personally beneficial in so many ways. There are great works of literature out there. But we still write our own emails (for instance) about things that have meaning to us. We write them in our own way. They are immediate, personal, and useful. We don’t paste in text from Great Literature in our emails to tell our best friend about how things are going with the new baby or boy/girl friend or puppy or job or recipe. We have a voice, and we use it. We have a voice in music – most of us just don’t know it yet. But it’s not a reason to remain mute.

OK, I’ll bite. How Do I Get Started?

One quick and easy way to begin is to bypass paper and create music in the air with no ink to hold you back. As performers we a great deal of time learning to re-create, to decrypt printed symbols that we sometimes mistake for music itself. Improvisation is where you learn to create, quickly, cheaply, easily. Improvising simply means you get to choose the notes. If performing is reciting from a book, then improvisation is having a conversation with someone and composition is transcribing that conversation and polishing the grammar and syntax. Composing is not a big stretch to those who are familiar with generating material by improvising. Improvisation is where music is born (and was the only way music exists for untold thousands of years), and it is the prelude to composition the way learning to speak is the prelude to learning to read. Improvisation is inherently social – you should improvise with other people as often as possible. The inspiration and energy that arise in partner improvisation cannot be overestimated. Or: play along with a recording (of almost anything). A good way to get started is rhythms-only, either play just one note on the horn, or use simple percussion instruments (you can make a great ersatz drum set out of cardboard boxes of various sizes) until you’re comfortable making up catchy rhythms. Improvise with your voice. Snap your fingers, slap your lap. Do a Daily Arkady (see previous posts). Invite passersby in for impromptu jam sessions. It’s a good idea to record as many of your improvisations as possible. Then transcribe your most interesting efforts and then polish and rearrange your inspirations into durable compositions.

I’m afraid! What If My Composition Is… Not Very Good?

Dare to be bad – in the initial stages of composition. Perfectionism is the assassin of creativity. If you set out to write an immortal masterpiece for the ages, you won’t get past the first bar, or it will stink if you do. First drafts are for getting lassos around the neck of the wild mustang of passion and imagination; they are not like meticulous doily tatting. Not caring or comparing during the first draft is immensely liberating. You can always edit – or throw out the whole thing and try something else – later. Trying to be impressive, brilliant, erudite, perfect, etc. severely inhibits the creative process and turns it into an ordeal instead of jolly good fun. Don’t try to impress anyone – write what you like to hear and would like to play. Don’t edit or judge at first, just record your idea any way that you can. Don’t hesitate to use what lyric writers call the ‘dummy lyric’ – you want or need something to fill in a section but don’t have it yet – write anything for now, replace it later.

What About Arranging or Transcribing?

Transcribing is a great way to get your feet wet in the process. There are many pieces written for other instruments or voice out that that have yet to be transcribed for horn. You will become acquainted with instrument ranges, characteristic idioms, harmony, and so on. Arranging is a step further and will give you experience in motive development, orchestration, timbre, and more. Go for it.

For Whom or What Should I Write?

 Write music for specific occasions: recitals, recordings, weddings, funerals, supermarket openings, etc. The best way to write a piece that has universal appeal is to write for a very specific time, place, and person. Write for yourself, an etude, a piece for unaccompanied horn, a duet for you and a student, a lyrical piece for your girlfriend for Valentine’s Day,. Write music for people you know. Write it for their specific needs and abilities. Write music for children. They are the best – and toughest – audience. If you communicate and engage their fancy, you will have no more enthusiastic audience.

Where Do I Get Ideas?

Everywhere. Once you start thinking like a composer/improviser, you will find that you listen to music completely differently. You are now learning from every source – you can find useful ideas and techniques in every kind of music, every sound that you hear. Keep a notebook where you record all the little tidbits that you are constantly picking up: a snippet of melody here, a chord progression there, perhaps a timbre, a mood, an orchestration. It’s all grist for your mill. You soon find riches from the living music of every kind around you: classical, country western, zydeco, the Beatles, ragtime, field hollers, gospel, reggae, samba bands, African choral music, jazz, garage bands, Motown, on and on. You can even find inspiration in text and conversation: sometimes great titles come out of the blue (“8 Days A Week” – Beatles), and sometimes a piece writes itself from a catchy title. . Such a title can also generate interest among audiences or performers who haven’t heard your piece, and will keep it in their minds after they have heard it. Make long lists of possible titles about things that mean something to you. It’s perfectly fine to write a piece about “My Dog Shep”; you can change it to Etude #8 when it’s finished.

Originality is overrated. Steal from everywhere (I give you permission to say “learn” instead of “steal”). Listen to every kind of music (even music you don’t like) – bring back something from it. Your favorite music can teach much: use it as a model and copy big parts of it: form, chord progression, style, rhythms, length, instrumentation, tempo, meter, and so on. Then change a few things to suit your ear. There are, for example, many jazz tunes which use the exact chord progression of other tunes – but with a new melody.

How Often Should I Write?

Aim to write every day, but set the bar low: a couple of bars is fine. The Platinum Rule for Doing Cool and Useful Stuff is: Just Show Up. Showing up is 90% of it. Show up, then go for quantity. Quality will come with the combination of paying attention and a lot of quantity. The minimum you need for a piece is a tempo, a meter, and an instrumentation. That’s not much, but with it you could start ten pieces in a couple minutes. Write short pieces of all styles and genres. You learning will be quicker. Write for people you know so that you can hear the results of your efforts – your learning is not complete until you get to hear what you wrote.

How Do I Know If My Piece Is Any Good?

In the end, there are just three rules to tell if a piece is good: 1. Does it sound good? 2. Does it sound good? 3. Does it sound good? Don’t worry if your theory teacher would approve. As Charles Young says, rules are for people who don’t know what they are doing. Write something that you like.

Write something that you like to play and like to hear… What a concept! Just imagine – if the world were enriched by all of us writing music like this for ourselves and each other, all the time.

Just imagine… and start today.