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In early March, I decided to undertake a project where I would challenge myself to write a short piece of music every day for a month. Coincidentally, this project came in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, but its conception was born out of a creative rut I found myself in some time earlier. In theory, the concept was quite simple; sit down with the instrument every day and write a piece of music. However, in practice, this challenge taught me much more than how to write out melodies I came across daily. Hopefully, by the end of this post, I will have opened some doors for musicians and composers to consider the benefits of treating composition as an everyday discipline.
Where did the inspiration for this challenge originate?
As I have mentioned previously, before this challenge, I was in a creative rut. It seemed like all my new ideas were rehashings of old concepts that I couldn't seem to develop any further. At this point, I decided that the best way to get out of my comfort zone was to change up my Spotify playlist and start booking lessons with local players that I had become inspired by recently. I've always found that observing other musician's methodologies surrounding writing or playing has inspired moments of revelation for me whenever I return to the instrument.
After one lesson, in particular, I remember asking how this musician would work on composition and his answer completely rearranged my understanding of compositional writing as an art form. Although I am paraphrasing, he said something along the lines of: "you gotta shed composition man! It's like playing or transcribing. It requires the daily discipline of sitting at the piano and working on seeing the bigger picture with your music." As someone who had taken a couple of composition modules in University, I assumed that if all my other musical faculties such as technique, ear training and repertoire learning were in order, that my compositional development would improve too. It hadn't occurred to me that my compositional voice was stagnating because I wasn't practising it.
Essentially, this is when I decided to plan out a way to challenge my thinking around compositional writing. Initially, I had been exploring how novel writers are encouraged to explore their idea development by writing 500 words minimum every day. I enjoyed reading about budding writers applying this concept and detailing the various difficulties and pitfalls they had come across while undertaking the challenge. However, I was already aware of several musicians who had created material based on daily explorations.
One, in particular, is a fantastic composer, pianist and organist called Kit Downes from the UK who after a severe left-hand injury in 2017, wrote 52 pieces for right-hand leading up to his recovery. Kit's 52 pieces are an incredible compilation of works and certainly worth checking out for inspiration and enjoyment. Eventually, this led me to take up the 30 Etudes challenge.
What was the intention behind each piece?
From the very first day, there was no set challenge to compose music to a certain standard or style. I thought it interesting that writers have this concept called 'stream of consciousness', which was a term coined in the early 20th century. The idea was that writers could use this narrative device to portray the characters' inner monologues to reflect emotional states or thought processes that may be reactions to the story's environment or other characters. However, 'Stream of Consciousness' writing was not always dependent on context.
The reason I mention this interesting literature device is that it allowed me to apply freedom in creating music that didn't have to abide by pre-constructed boundaries, genres or criteria, yet still related to the challenge of composing daily. The only requirement was that the music had to be a product of what I created that day. Therefore, the pieces themselves being the product of Stream of Consciousness writing.
When talking about intention in compositional writing, I refrain from throwing out the baby with the bathwater by stating that there was no purpose behind all of the pieces. They were aptly named etudes, based on the technical or logistical challenge most of them presented. Despite this, it was the music that I was listening to that was often the motivation I needed to start writing a piece. I'll disclose a link below this post for a YouTube playlist I've built including all the music I was listening to during this challenge.
What did you learn about yourself during this challenge?
During this time, I kept a journal and listed any thoughts or experiences that I felt were interesting. Unfortunately, there are so many items on that list, that it would be difficult to expand on all of them. Instead, I'll prepare a selection of findings below and expand on a couple of them:
It's okay to compose beyond your current skill level:
I often found that my most interesting pieces came from ideas that I heard in my head before my fingers hit the fretboard, or the pencil hit the paper. I am convinced that your technical ability is influenced by what your ears can hear. With this in mind, I grew less shy about writing music that I perceived to be outside my current playing ability and in turn, this has most certainly led to an improvement in my technique.
Not everything that you compose will be the Mona Lisa:
Here's the reality of writing a piece of music every day, you're going to write some music that you'll never want to see or hear again. The truth is that I'm not particularly pleased with the majority of these pieces. I had to learn this lesson quite quickly as it was pivotal to creating music I liked.
Understanding why you dislike something that you've written is a useful instrument for sharpening your critical analysis and avoiding pitfalls in the future.
Sticking with a melody and seeing it through can be your only path to remaining productive.
Not all creativity stems from a cathartic experience. Though this might sound controversial, sometimes you have to force creativity to make headway and push for the unknown. Sometimes creativity requires you to be more proactive than you care to be to maintain productivity. There are several pieces in this collection that I had to dig deep for and vividly remember being a challenge to complete.
Two words that don't exist when you sit down to write: Perfect and Finished.
The notions of completion and perfection are problematic standards to set when you're writing music. For example, the enjoyable aspect of playing Jazz is that the compositions allow the musicians to interpret the material and improvise new parts. I often hear the phrase 'seasoning the material' or a variant of that, which musicians use to describe taking recorded material out on the road. It's an indication that the composer expects the music to evolve night after night when the musicians become comfortable with the performance of it. With this in mind, I think it can be useful to intentionally create mystery in your writing to allow spontaneity to appear.
Listening is your nutrition. Eat well!
I cannot stress the importance of expanding your listening enough. Throughout this time, I was discovering artists that I had never properly explored and gained inspiration during periods of low motivation. In particular, I had been digging into Kenny Wheeler's work with John Taylor and Silvius Leopold Weiss' lute suites. While later on, I found myself digging deep into the Late John Coltrane repertoire from the mid-'60s.
Without the challenge of listening to new music, I do believe it would've been more difficult to pick up the instrument every day. It must be mentioned that active listening is a hugely valuable source of information for budding composers.
Practice makes progress:
I distinctly remember on the 26th of March, after 3 weeks of consistent, daily writing, that I came to realise writing good melodies is dependent on writing a lot of them. Writing convincing melodies is a discipline and the challenge of developing an entire story from 2 or 3 bars, requires a high degree of concentration, dedication and patience.
5 pieces of advice for anyone looking to take up the challenge:
Pace yourself. Don't use up all your good ideas in one sitting.
Be content with composing music that you don't like, but try to maintain consistent quality.
Take risks. Whether they are technical or compositional ones, risks are a key part of stepping into new territory.
Observe what works for you. Time of day, post-gym, pencil and paper. You might work better once you understand what 'comfortable' looks like leading up to your creative process.
Feedback is important. Get people's opinion on your work, ask them what they gravitate towards and what could use some reshaping. It's important not to rest on positive affirmation too much!
Below, are some questions that I received from a recent Instagram Q&A gathering. Thanks to everyone who submitted a question. I hope that my answers shed some light on this interesting challenge!
Q: What were your favourite pieces that you composed?
A: Looking back, my personal favourite will remain Etude 20. But some honourable mentions that were great fun to compose too were: Etudes 6, 10, 14, 19 and 27.