Composing shouldn’t just be something you do, it should be a habit. What do I mean by habit? Habits don’t have to be just bad, they can and are good things. You just need to know what makes them work, and how you can affect them.
What is a Habit?
In my last post, I said that two books were really making an impact on me right now. The first, which I talked about in the last post, was The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. This book is all about becoming a professional. The other book was The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The premise of this book is that we all have habits that ingrained into us. These can be as simple as getting up to brush our teeth, or as complicated as driving home in traffic at the end of the workday (which when you think about it, has about a million things going on at the same time, but you do it without thinking). The point is, if you know how habits work and what triggers them, you will effectively know how to create or change your existing habits.
Habits are at the root of how we behave as much as logic and reason
The Habit Loop
The book covers what is called “The Habit Loop.”
This is a three stage process:
For every habit, there is a cue that sets it off. For instance, every McDonalds looks pretty much the same, and is generally located in a similar position to every other McDonald’s. When you are driving home at the end of a long day, and you don’t feel like cooking… lo and behold… (aaahhh.. music from above) there is a McDonald’s. So begins your habit loop.
You habit cues are powerful things that start off your habit loop, and once they do, there is not much you can do to stop them. That is the point of a habit. Your body has the ability to internalize a routine (which I will talk about in a moment) so that you don’t have to think about it.
There is one thing about cues that is very important. Cues are delicate. One change, and the cue doesn’t quite work.
Routine is basically like a computer program. The way programs work, is you code in certain objects, then you call on those objects. That way you don’t have to code in that sequence of events over and over manually. Once its coded, you just use a simple phrase to call it back. A routine works the same way. Once you learn it, all that is required to call it back is the cue. Think about it. Learning to drive, you had to think about every little aspect. But after a while, driving became automatic. You probably don’t have to think about adjusting your seat, mirrors, checking behind you, starting the car, backing up, putting it into drive, scanning… there is quite a bit that goes into it, without active thought.
Why do we have routines? To save mental energy. This allows us to focus on more important things.
The reward is basically the feedback that you get, to say, “this habit is working for me.” It doesn’t necessarily mean, you give yourself some ice cream. It may be, in the example of driving, that you end up at home or work. It is just immediate feedback, that your habit is actually accomplishing what you want it to accomplish.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change
If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit.
The Composing Habit
So lets get to the point. You are a composer, or you want to be a composer. So you need to have a composing habit. Here are the steps you should take:
- Identify the habits that get in the way of composing. Regardless of the time you’ve chosen to compose, identify what gets in the way. For instance, email notifications or cell phones. Both of these things can easily change your trajectory. You may have been deep into your new piece, and then all of the sudden a little notice popped up “80% Off All Orchestral Samples, Now! YourFavoriteSampleSite.com” and you think, “Man, I really need that new Brass Sample Set I have been dreaming about.” Stop! This is a cue, and you need to cut it off before it begins.
- Remove the cues for the habits that get in the way of composing. Turn off your cell phone. Close your email client. Disconnect the internet. Whatever you have to do. Identify the process that you have for composing. Do you have a composing ritual. Do you get up, make your coffee, sit down at the piano with a pen and paper? Do you start up your favorite DAW or notation program? Whatever it is, you need to identify all aspects, including the cue, the routine, and the reward. I am experimenting with something called QuicKeys for mac (an alternative for windows is AutoHotKey). This is a macro recorder that allows you to automate tasks on the computer. One great way to use it, is to find out all the things on your computer that get in the way of composing, and then assign a hotkey to close those programs. That way you don’t have to worry about them getting in the way, and it isn’t tedious closing them all. I will let you know in the future how it works out.
- Experiment with different rewards for composing. The reward that you think you enjoy, maybe listening to your piece at the end, may not actually be the reward that is driving the routine. After you are finished, sit down and write whatever pops into your brain for a few minutes. Accomplishment from having a completed score, or two minutes of music, or tired from expelling your creativity. Whatever it is, its personal. For me, it is the fact that I have actually written down, several minutes of music, that had been somewhere inside my soul, just laying dormant until I wrestled it out.
- Isolate the Composing Cue. Your cue will fit into five categories. Location, time, emotional state, other people, immediate preceding action. Find out what makes your composing cue tick, and then set yourself up to replicate that cue at your chosen time. Your cue may not actually be what you think. It may be coincidental that it is the morning, and your cue may be that you make a cup of coffee. This means that you can make that cup of coffee at night, and you’ll get down to business. If you isolate the cue, you have some control over when and where it happens.
- Have a composing plan. As a general rule, wherever your workspace is, it should be clean, decluttered and ready for action. As a professional, and yes, anyone can be a professional, you need to be ready to work at a moments notice. But for your composing habit, your plan is basically a road map of the entire habit. Write down your cue, your routine and your reward. That way you understand it and can manipulate it or change it over time.
Creating a Habit Takes Time
Don’t worry about doing this overnight. Just begin the process, and undertand it takes time. Ultimately, it is a huge step towards achieving your composing goals.
Tell about your composing habits. What gets you going, what are your rewards? What gets in the way? Knowing what others go through can help yourself.