Don’t:
Let other people i.e. performers, choreographers, institutions, programs, other more established composers, tell you what to write, whether it is instrumentation or subject matter or style. This may mean having to turn down a commission once in a while, but it is best for peace of mind and individuality. Any kind of interference with the composer’s creative process is wrong. Don’t even be afraid to write in C major. As Kyle Gann points out in his most recent blog, there is a ridiculous misconception that the key of C is unsophisticated. How about Terry Riley’s in C? Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier?

Write for any other reasons than musical or spiritual ones. If the work is geared towards a particular response or result, having to do with ego satisfaction or outward success, these extraneous factors will corrupt the process, somehow, however sneakily and subtly.

Work under pressure. Unless the creative flow is a quick and easy one, which may happen on occasion, writing too fast is a sure way to superficiality and irrelevance.

Compose too many pieces at once – there is a quantity versus quality equation. It is better to focus on a piece that is really meaningful and let it simmer slowly like stew.

Worry about dry spells. No one can be inspired all the time – then it wouldn’t be inspiration, would it! If it is not happening, don’t force it. It will come back in its own time. My dry spells have more to do with time and availability – if I have to spend a lot of time on survival activities, it’s like there is no room in my head for a new piece. The moment I have free time it springs up again. I like this story about a film composer who, upon receiving the commission, took a two-week vacation… that’s what he needed in order to start writing.

Try to enjoy your work all the time. What’s fun is the new idea. But it is short-lived. Whereas some parts of the process may be enjoyable, there is always some hard work involved especially if you use the computer. Enjoying it is for amateurs. Most non-artists have the impression that we just goof around and there it is, a new piece of work; they don’t understand that composing is like a scientific experiment that requires a lot of patience, time and dedication. It is actual work that makes you tired.

Do:

Unblock yourself. Do whatever it takes to free your consciousness from mental junk.

Explode music – actually I mean this literally as there a command in Finale that allows you to write a chord and ‘explode’ it automatically into parts, which is a great time saver.

Use different ways of creating music, with and without an instrument. I wrote some of the best parts of Waking in New York on the subway to work (not that I enjoyed it… but it was in my head). I don’t mean to recommend this method to anyone. But do try to compose in miscellaneous ways, on paper, with an instrument, on the computer, with midi, in an improv setting, with a matrix, with different tunings, with a tape recorder, with found sounds, or with anything exciting and unusual.

Connect with reality and beyond reality. Have a responsibility to the audience you are writing for.

Take the music out of the drawer and go out to present/produce it yourself. After all, it is meant to be heard.

Hang out… at least some of the time. We are not machines.

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