Pre-composition: Stage One of the Composing Process
Composing is a messy process. I wish it weren’t, but it is. And so, we have to be flexible in how we approach it.
With that being said, there are some key stages that I go through when I compose. The order I go in may not be the same between compositions, but most of the time they all occur.
This article is going to explore the first stage – pre-composition. We’ll look at what pre-composition is, and how we can take advantage of it.
P.S. I did a live webinar talking about this subject. Click here to watch it, or scroll to the bottom of the article.
The Stages of Composing:
- Pre-composition: Everything that happens before putting pencil to paper.
- Sketching: Writing, or recording “seemingly” disconnected ideas.
- Structuring: Putting together the ideas from sketching.
- Refinement: Adding critical details and addressing “compositional debt”.
- Orchestration: Fleshing out your structured and refined piece.
- Finalizing: Preparing scores for performance, recording, sharing, and archiving.
Over this next year, we are going to break apart, understand, and put back together all these stages. Because I am exploring these topics in a deeper way than I have in the past, the terminology will most likely change and improve as I go.
What is Pre-composition?
Pre-composition is everything that happens prior to putting pencil to paper.
It is more than just pre-compositional decisions about the music.
Pre-composition is About Input – Not Output
Pre-composition is about the inputs you receive. Musical, environmental, health, personal reflection, socializing – it’s about priming yourself for success.
Let’s look at the main inputs:
I view inspiration as a pre-composition input. But we don’t control when inspiration strikes. So why would I list it?
Because we control everything else. We may not be able to force inspiration, but when it happens we don’t want anything to get in the way. First, let’s learn a little more about what inspiration is.
What is Inspiration?
The definition of inspiration leaves me feeling… uninspired. I prefer this description of inspiration from David Brooks:
Well, moments of inspiration don’t quite make sense by normal logic. They feel transcendent, uncontrollable and irresistible. When one is inspired, time disappears or alters its pace. The senses are amplified. There may be goose bumps or shivers down the spine, or a sense of being overawed by some beauty.
Inspiration is always more active than mere appreciation. There’s a thrilling feeling of elevation, a burst of energy, an awareness of enlarged possibilities. The person in the grip of inspiration has received, as if by magic, some new perception, some holistic understanding, along with the feeling that she is capable of more than she thought. fn
Inspiration is a fickle thing that we have no control over. It never seems to come at the right time, but when it does come, it is an amazing feeling. It’s like getting a super star in Super Mario Brothers. You feel invincible. The problem is, you aren’t. Things can still go wrong.
Our task is then to get out of the way, and let the inspiration propel you.
To do this, let’s address the things that get in the way of inspiration.
This is the biggest inspiration killer for me. I grew up being somewhat of a procrastinator. My motto was always, “If you wait till the last minute, it only takes a minute.” That’s fine for homework, but it doesn’t help inspiration. All the impending deadlines, untested ideas, and missed opportunities take a mental toll.
Interruptions are a problem for me, as I now have three kids, and I work from home. You can’t explain to a 6 month old that daddy needs to work.
Don’t forget notifications, texts, emails, cat videos, Facebook feeds, candy crushes – basically everything invented since 2000. The best antidote is to turn off everything… or as much as you can. We’ll discuss this even more when we discuss sketching in a future article.
Another major inspiration killer is setting up your work area. It seems that every time I sit down to compose, I have to spend a few minutes looking for staff paper and a pencil. This is a symptom of having three young children, but it still zaps inspirational energy.
Have a place for your composing tools, safe from anything that will ruin your setup.
I like to think of it as a composing sanctuary.
If you prefer composing on the computer, the speed of your computer can have a major effect on your inspiration and creativity.
Long loading times can distract you enough to start checking your Facebook… and the rest is history.
I like to use a program called Focus, which blocks distracting sites for a specified amount of time. Other things you can do:
- Disconnect your wifi.
- Prepare before hand, and turn off all notifications on your computer and phone.
- Close distracting applications.
- Set a timer.
Keep it Clean… at the Right Time
Besides to having an environment setup for creative work, you should occasionally do a deep clean.
Cleaning should only happen at the right time though. Don’t clean while you are in the middle of some project – there is an uncontrolled order in the way mess accumulates during projects.
For instance, the things you use and refer to the most will naturally be at the top of piles of things. Other things you need, but don’t refer to as often will be at the bottoms of piles of things. It’s like RAM on the computer, or a cache in your browser – the most frequently used items are within reach.
Clean up once your project is finished. This usually means once every couple of weeks. Anything more than that, is just procrastination.
I don’t want to say there is nothing you can do to cause inspiration. But the causal link is very loose. It’s not a one-to-one kind of relationship. Instead, you should nurture and support moments of inspiration. Like the inspiration killers, it’s about what you do before inspiration strikes.
Connecting with People that Inspire You
When I sat down to plan out this article, I wrote a bunch of ideas about what inspires me. I realized I am most inspired when I talk with good friends that support my aspirations. There is something about connecting with people that feels naturally inspirational.
It’s critical that they are supportive. This doesn’t mean they always agree with you. They should be comfortable enough to tell you an idea stinks. But most of the time, it’s not about “feedback”. It’s about spending time with them. Shooting the breeze. Talking about the direction of your life. It’s about being human.
Conversations with good friends are the seeds of inspiration.
Curiosity can be double edged sword. Cultivating a mindset of curiosity leads to inspiration and creativity.
But don’t let curiosity be a disguise for procrastination. This is a problem I have. I usually over research, leaving very little time for creating.
You can improve curiosity in your own life by taking time to ask questions. In this way, curiosity is no different from intelligent and deep reflection.
I can’t stress enough how important listening is. In the age of the internet, everyone is the star of their own show. Everyone has an opinion and wants to tell it. Very few people actually listen more than they speak. I see it as a skill, and it’s something I’m working on in my own life.
There is the old saying, “We have two ears and one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” It is truer than you think. You don’t always have to have an opinion on everything. Even if you do, no one needs to hear it.
The last critical element in pre-composition, is being as healthy as you can be. I am not going to harp too much on this, other than if you are able, you should be eating well, and working out. This could start as simple as cutting some sugar from your diet and taking a daily walk. I like to run, finding it somewhat like meditation.
Sleep is also critical. Trust me, when you have three young kids, sleep is C-R-I-T-I-C-A-L.
Don’t beat yourself up over it though. Pick something small and try to integrate it into your life. Here are some of my favorite resources on getting your body and mind healthy:
I am going to touch on this just a little. We’ll come back to it in future articles on sketching. But I want you to start thinking about compositional questions.
What is a compositional question? It is something that you want to explore with your music. It could be as simple as, “How do you portray happiness with music?” or something even more complex. They are like primers for your subconscious. I have my own compositional question that I am exploring right now, and will factor into many things I do this year.
How do you tell a story with music?
As a film composer and lover of romantic music, this is something I want to dig into. My previous fascination with musical form, is a part of this question.
This next year, I am committing to writing a symphony. It is something I’ve attempted in the past, and realized I was not ready for, but now I know I am at the level to write one.
For now, begin thinking of the big questions and how they relate to you composing.
Pre-Composition is Not About Planning Your Composition
I haven’t discussed planning pieces, which is often considered a pre-composition activity. I view this as an act of composition within the structuring phase. This phase may happen before sketching, but it is not pre-composition.
Challenge: Set Yourself Up for Composing Success
January is all about setting yourself up for success. We’ll be looking deep into sketching as well, but before we get there, I want you to begin the process of improving your pre-composition mindset and environment.
The facebook group will be the epicenter for the challenge.
Here is a checklist which you can action on in your own world:
Kill Inspiration Killers
- Complete unfinished work, or decide to abandon it.
- Improve your composing environment – have a safe place for the critical fast tools:
- Figure out how interruptions occur for you, and have a plan to avoid them. Here are some big ones:
- Basically, the internet.
- Kids and other family members.
Nurture Inspiration Supporters
- Connect with good friends or new people.
- Curiosity – ask more questions.
- Listen more.
Nurture Your Health
- Improve one aspect of your health at a time.
- Cut sugar.
- Go on daily walks.
- Go running.
Find Your Compositional Questions to Explore
What things do you want to explore this year in your own music?