Performers practice.  They practice scales and arpeggios, they practice etudes, they practice improvising, they rehearse how they are going to begin a piece, how they are going to end it.  The sheer repetition of various elements of their craft helps to ensure that they will always have experience to draw on, no matter what performance situation they are thrust into.  If bar 83 goes haywire in the concert, they can pull it back together in bar 84 – because they’ve been there before.

Practicing is less familiar to composers, and for good reason.  We don’t have to display our craft in the moment the way performers do.  We can worry over a passage for days, weeks, months, years.  And we kind of enjoy dealing with unfamiliar situations.

But young composers would do well to practice certain elements of their craft.  There are certain situations we are faced with on a regular basis in the process of composing that we can get better at with familiarity.  Here are two suggestions:

  • Take two ideas from pieces you have written — even two ideas from two different pieces — and write four transitions to get from one idea to the other.  Make one transition as brief as possible; make another transition relatively substantial.
  • Take an idea from a piece you have written and write four compositional endings using that idea.  Write one that trails away into nothing.  Write one that ends abruptly, inconclusively.  Write one that ends emphatically.

Notice that these two compositional exercises use material that you have already devised.  That divorces the exercises from questions of style, language, etc. and also gives you practice tapping the potential of your own ideas.

With practice, these points in the compositional process become avenues, rather than stumbling blocks.

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