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Category: music

Composer’s Block and My Writing Process

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I’m sitting at my home studio, staring into my equivalent of a writer’s blank page, and nothing is coming. I’ve been through this cycle a hundred times before, but it never gets easier. My fingers trace over the same tired chord progressions – the problem isn’t in the chords, it’s in how I heard them, of course – and nothing comes. And then the Vampires start to creep in: “I’m not good enough. What am I even doing?” From Elizabeth Gilbert’s brilliant TED Talk:

I fell into one of those, sort of pits of despair that we all fall into when we’re working on something and it’s not coming and you start to think this is going to be a disaster.

Not just bad, but the worst book ever written.

I’ve never actually believed in Composer’s Block, unless it’s a perpetual, ongoing thing. Free-flowing melodies – call it “inspiration” – come so rarely, that they are almost miracles. Struggle is the norm in my art. My best work comes from fighting myself to write – fighting for hours, day after day, until I pick up crumbles of music off the floor. So, staring into my blank Logic screen, I am disheartened (as usual,) but not surprised. I know that what separates me from a good piece isn’t divine approval, it’s the willingness not to give up.

The process is nearly identical every time, and I’ve often shared it with friends. Some of the Days below actually take a day – others can take several, or even a week.

  • Day 1: I struggle with messy ideas, bouts of self-doubt, and miserable feelings of worthlessness. I write down a dozen variations, and delete eleven of them, because they’re not even worth a second look. I think: “who am I to even try to be a composer? I’ve never written anything good, and if I have, it was by chance. This work is going to be a disaster, if anything comes of it.” At the end of the day, I either dump the project altogether in a rotten mood, or leave a few variations on screen.
  • Day 2: The ideas have had some time to percolate, and sometimes, I’ll sit down with new variations in mind. Often, especially, if my head has been in the music for weeks, Day 2 is a repeat of Day 1, and nothing comes. Sometimes, I’ll listen to a variation from before and see potential – and start drafting something more concrete. At best, at the end of Day 2, I’ll have a messy sketch of an idea.
  • Day 3: “Hey, this has potential!” Inspired by having something to work with, I get into the arrangement and orchestration, finding the best instruments and sounds for the music. This, at best, is where new ideas start coming. I feel empowered and inspired to create, and enter the state psychologists call “flow.” Opposite of Day 1, I begin to feel almost arrogant (which is really dangerous!) – like I’m doing important, crucial work, and the music I’m writing is really great and special.
  • Day 4: With a part done, it’s often time to add new musical ideas: another part (a bass line?) or another chorus, or another movement. I freeze up in paralysis – “I finally had sometime worthwhile, and now I’m going to ruin it.” Here, I have a tendency to think of my  past work as inspiration- or luck- driven, and once again go back to Day 1. Oftentimes, especially if I’ve reached a crucial moment in the music, I can be stuck here for days. Once, I spent 2+ weeks in one of my worst struggles ever. It resulted in some of my most successful musical writing, but I wanted to beat my head against the wall in the meanwhile.
  • Day 5: Write, write, write. Hopefully, at this point, I’ve already figured out what I want to see, and I have the melodies down. At this point, I need to arrange, orchestrate, mix, edit, record – all tasks a bit more technical than free melodic writing. This is the part I’m both good at and enjoy thoroughly.
  • Day 6: The final push – the ending.  With the majority of the piece done, I’m back to Day 4 with the ending. “What if I ruin it?” It’ll usually take me a few days to wrap up, and even then, my endings are often weaker compared to the pieces themselves. I’ve given everything I had, and I just want to stop.

Often, weeks will pass before I’m able to listen to and evaluate my music with reasonable effectiveness. Sometimes I’ll be very pleasantly surprised – 80% of the time, I’d say, if I really gave it my best work. Sometimes, I think there’s a lot to be added.

Either way, the process, however predictable, is something that I go through every time. Right now I’m in Day 1, and it’s not pretty, folks.

How do you deal with artistic block? Whether you’re a writer, a painter, a composer, or a sculptor, how do you approach your creative process?

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A Month Off Facebook

Today, I needed to briefly log onto Facebook to check in with a connection. There was no way around it, so I interrupted my month-long hiatus to step back in. It depressed me. I know this has everything do with me and not the website, but I realized that for now, I feel better away from FB. The people that need to find me will find me. At first, I was trying to log on all the time, but these days my mind has almost let go. By nurture, I’ll sometimes type in the domain name once every few days, but the trusty “No Procrastination” extension keeps me grounded. It’s not time yet.

I did what I needed to do and deactivated. I’m sure I’ll come back to it at some point in the future, but it’s definitely not that time yet.

In other news, this may be the current soundtrack to my summer, and the best album I’ve found in months.

Mendelssohn Quartet

One of my favorite musical experiences ever was playing with the brilliant musicians in the New York Youth Symphony chamber program. We played the first movement of the Mendelssohn Op. 13 quartet. It’s performed here brilliantly by the Juilliard quartet – it was the recording we were using to work from at the time. We spent a year on this piece, and I still listen to it with great appreciation and tenderness in my heart. The experience taught me how good a piece can get after practicing it for a year. We spent the entire second four months just working on the musicality – the technique was nearly polished. I also forever learned how to spell “Mendelssohn.”

Hello, June.

Tomorrow, I start work at the Maimonides Hospital. I’m working 8 – 6 PM, possibly to seven on Thursday, and I’m going to be moving about clinics throughout the coming weeks. Tomorrow, just for a day, I’m in pediatric oncology. Damn. For someone not accustomed or drawn to hospitals (is anyone?) this is a rough start. But, I just hope I can do my job. I really need the money, and this is a fantastic gig to have in the meanwhile, although it doesn’t do much to advance my career in the traditional sense. The idea is to save up some money to be able to work on my electronics bags business, release my album (my best friend Manar is pushing me, fortunately,) which is halfway done, and just be able to take a girl out once in a while. Moreover – and I know I’ll be hating myself in two weeks for saying this – but I need the routine. I’ve been roaming free for months, and it’s killing my productivity. Counterintuitive as it might be, exchanging a large portion of my day for money is going to force me to the kind of focus I desperately need.

Note to self: order new business cards for networking, not my music website (www.maxscoring.com)

I deactivated and blocked Facebook about four or five days ago. I keep coming back by nature, and everytime a huge “You should be working!” screen pops up, courtesy of the “No Procrastination” Chrome extension. I have no particular reason to stay off, aside from it being a giant time waster at the moment, and the fact that I get nothing positive from it. More than that, however, the fact that I keep coming back makes me want to see just how long I can keep away. I didn’t have a timeline in mind when I started, but now I’m eager to break the subtle addiction we all develop. Let’s see how long I can keep that going. The one major downside is my inability to keep up my music page; that’s frustrating. In lieu, I’ll gladly share a piece I just wrote with you guys right here:

Another note to self: I’m going to try and make it out to the beach a lot more this summer.