Finding Time

As I was beginning to write this column today, I remembered one of the reasons why interviewing composers was so interesting to me—composing is not a spectator sport. We can investigate the final product of a composer’s process, and if they’ve made sketches we can infer what might have happened throughout that process, but it’s pretty rare for anyone to observe a composer doing what they do on a regular basis. There are many reasons why a composer might want to keep what they do from prying eyes, of course, but there are also several reasons why it’s important to demystify what we do.

What brought this remembrance on was one of my interview questions: “When do you compose, and do you have certain times of the week and/or year that you find yourself composing?” We all have our own eccentricities as far as the trivial details of our creative activities go—certain pencils or paper, favorite beverages, preferred locations, etc.—but it is how we manage our own time that can provide a glimpse into how we create and subsequently who we are. Composers who keep a set schedule aren’t a surprise, and years ago I remember reading in Gil Goldstein’s book Jazz Composer’s Companion about how Carla Bley would feel the need to escape her studio as soon as she came up with a good idea. But when I was organizing the questions for the interviews, I wanted to make sure that I got a chance to see for myself what the variations would end up looking like.

Needless to say, I have not been disappointed. Responses so far have been quite varied, but some trends have shown up already. Early morning seems to be a favorite of many composers, both because their own creative juices flow best at that time and due the lack of distractions—e-mail and other communications are commonly forbidden in the morning because of this. Others prefer late into the night, but fewer took this tack—family, teaching, or performing usually makes the evening time less fruitful for composing. On a yearly basis, most of those I’ve interviewed so far write full time, but there have been a few who teach full time that have been forced to restrict their composing to the summer and winter breaks. This truncated schedule can have a large effect on the types of pieces these composers can take on and the number of works they can hope to complete in any given year.

An important issue that has been repeatedly acknowledged regards the amount of time at a stretch one has for writing; many composers find it very hard to get anything done without a chunk of four or more hours to dedicate to thinking about the piece, while others have had to evolve their habits around their busy schedules and pick up a project whenever they find an hour or two to spare. Allowing oneself the time to think about a work isn’t something that comes up very often when discussing composing, but it was one of the most consistent concepts that have emerged in these interviews.

What is your composing routine? The comments link is open for business…

5 thoughts on “Finding Time

  1. randy woolf

    1. wake up between 5 and 6
    2. do internet stuff
    3. walk for an hour
    4. meditate for 15-20 minutes
    5. unplug phone
    6. work until 4PM, maybe later
    monday through thursday. maybe a little on friday afternoon, too.

    Reply
  2. Colewthornton

    all through the day
    I have a day job, and when I’m working on a piece I’ll think about it all through the day while I’m doing other things and get a lot of particulars decided. The actual pen to paper stuff constitutes a small part of any day because the piece is taking shape away from my office. The evening is when I have to physically write most of the time (due to said day job), but on my days off I prefer late morning, early afternoon, right after lunch.

    Reply
  3. jeidson

    I try to structure my composing time like any standard job; start early in the morning, lunch break, back to work and then done around 4:30pm. Little to no work at all on the weekends, including answering any emails / website / score prep / etc. This doesn’t mean I get 8 hours of writing done every day, but that’s the schedule I try to stick to whenever possible.

    This is a far cry from grad school where I would have to get writing done between classes, papers, grading, and coworkers crying babies – true story!

    -Joseph Eidson

    Reply
  4. clwinston

    The Routine
    Usually, before I start actually composing, I spend a week thinking about the thematic material and the structure of the piece. After a week, I actually begin composing the work. It used to be that I would pretty much compose all day long in order to get all of my ideas out so that I might end up changing them when I start all over again. Now that I have a job to worry about, I have to adjust my composing time to composing early in the day and thinking of ideas while at work. I don’t really do much communicating while composing. Weekends are definitely the time of the week where I get the most composing done.

    Reply
  5. rskendrick

    45 minute increments
    With a young family and a full-time job, I only have the luxury of long composing sessions on days off from work, so I’ve learned to compose in 45-60 minute increments. An hour first thing in the morning, possibly another hour over lunch, and if it’s really going well, another hour at night. I get a lot of the large scale sketching done first, then I can use the smaller sessions to really hone in on some of the details… sometimes it’s as small as a 4 measure goal per session.

    Reply

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