Updated: May 16, 2022
Today, I was working with a student who is making his first steps towards serious composition and wanted help figuring out structure. It brought me back to the early years of my own creative explorations. It was an exciting time, but also a scary one. I had a deep desire to create, but very little control over what was coming out of me. It took me a long time and some professional deadlines to start to figure out what it really means to be a composer. As a teacher, I think part of my role now is to help people get a handle on their creative process.
One of the most common ways to start a composition is by improvising at an instrument. When we improvise, we channel energy from outside ourselves. Some people call this the muse. Some people call it inspiration. Whatever it is, it can be a source of great power. But, it is also unreliable, and can rarely produce a complete piece all on its own. If we use it at all, it is usually just a jumping off point, a catalyst for what will hopefully become a larger and more intentional expression of our ideas. So how do we bridge that gap?
This is where our creative process comes in. A beginner may noodle around on an instrument, get stuck, and give up; or they may wander aimlessly, unable to focus their material into something concrete. A professional, on the other hand, probably has some idea of what they want to accomplish before they begin. Even if they don't, as they play they hunt for viable ideas they can plug into a routine that will then happen away from the instrument. What kind of a routine? Well, here are some techniques I use:
Deciding the purpose of the piece - What do I want to communicate? What kind of function will this piece serve? Who is the audience?
Choosing musical materials - It helps to limit yourself. What kind of harmonic language will I use? What about style, genre, and instrumentation?
Making a "word bank" - I list as many adjectives or otherwise evocative words I can think of that help describe the feeling of the piece. Being personally very inspired by language, this really helps me to bring music out of a more abstract realm into something more tangible.
Making a broad structural map of the piece's progression - How does it start and end? Where is the climax? Where are important landmarks along the way?
Making a list of influences - Everything comes from somewhere. What are some works of art that are important to you that feel like they could be related to this piece? Be specific. They might not even be music!
Writing a scene - Does this piece have a story? Writing a one-paragraph description of what happens can really help with figuring out the structure.
By the time I've gone through all these steps I have a much clearer idea of what it is I'm trying to do, and any creative anxiety is greatly diminished. There is a clear path ahead of me, and although I may still be in the dark about many aspects of the piece, at this point I probably have a to do list long enough to start getting some real work done. And, if I get stuck, I can always go back to this process and try to further narrow things down.
The creative process will differ from person to person and even from piece to piece, but the more concrete steps it has, the more control you will have over the outcome. Your process will likely evolve as you gain experience and figure out what works for you. Sometimes things that worked in the past no longer do, and you will have to find a new way forward. Inspiration can help at times like this. But ultimately, you will want to feel as if you are the one making decisions, as opposed to taking dictation from on high. The more you feel that the composition is something you create directly, and the inspiration is just some "special spice," the more confidence you will gain as you continue on your artistic journey.