When to Walk Away

Over the next two weeks I’ll be trying to finish up one of the longer pieces I’ve set out to write. As my pace begins to pick up for this final stretch I’m finding that the increased focus and time spent working is naturally leading to my becoming a little bored with the sections I’m concentrating on most intently. Fortunately, the piece is made up of several more or less self-contained sections and I’m able to switch to a less worked-over area when I need to change things up.

I’ve worked out of sequence many times in the past, but these occasions were mostly motivated by purely compositional desires—defining a later section to get a better idea of what an earlier section might be building to or foreshadowing. This is probably the first time I’ve been doing so primarily for my own comfort or well-being, but any initial knee-jerk pangs of guilt are quickly assuaged by the understanding that by keeping my relationship with the material as fresh as possible I’ll undoubtedly be making better compositional decisions, too.

To be sure, there have been times when I didn’t know how to proceed because I hadn’t spent enough time with the material, and where it was beneficial to keep pushing until some kind of minor breakthrough occurred. For me at least, every time I switch gears there’s a period where I’m spending very little time writing and lots of time taking walks, staring out the window, or lying face down on the couch thinking. So I can’t be making a habit of jumping around or the effect would probably be to delay the piece‚Äôs completion rather than hasten it!

Still, there really are times when just walking away (for a while, at least) can be one of the composer’s best options. Especially for composers and other creative artists, the notion that there are occasions in which we are only going to make things worse by acting can be distasteful to our famously fragile egos. But sometimes, after even a day away from a particularly difficult musical problem I return to it to find that my relationship with the material has advanced, almost as if by magic and through no conscious efforts of my own. Call this the subconscious or just the benefit of a fresh perspective, but it sure trumps the hours of unproductive grasping my conscious mind would have surely inflicted in its stead.

4 thoughts on “When to Walk Away

  1. pgblu

    Not sure if this is on topic, but I often create material for a piece and after a long period of wrangling come to realize that the material doesn’t suit the general character of the piece at all. Then I take that stuff and file it away for later pieces.

    Knowing that this last step is possible has changed my working habits quite a bit. Now I just create material as it pops into my head; if it works for the piece I’m currently on, then that’s good, otherwise it can move into the ever growing file of unused things. When I go temporarily dry, I go to that file and pull something out to see if it gets the juices flowing again. This is kind of the equivalent of taking a walk, only you don’t get any actual exercise.

    During work on a given piece, I’d say I produce about 15% for the piece and 85% for the circular file. I’ve simply learned to be cool with that.

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  2. Troy Ramos

    Yeah, I sort of do the same thing as well. In fact, I often will more or less finish a piece (mostly finish, anyway) and then put it away for awhile; sometimes for even six months or a year, depending on how busy I am.

    The downside is that it’s annoying to get back into the piece, because sometimes it can take some real work to remember what I was doing. But the good thing about doing this is that when I come back to it I get to hear it as if I’m a listener and not the composer. That is, I get a different and, I think, rather helpful perspective on it.

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  3. rskendrick

    me too, me too!
    Great post Dan! I do the exact same thing. I get to the point where I’m either overtaxed and it’s not productive to continue, or I feel as though I’m out of ideas. I then do something completely different, usually of a physical nature (like walking or fixing something on the house). After a half hour of the new activity my mind returns to the problem at hand, and usually the new environment leads to a simple resolution of a problem I couldn’t solve in the studio.

    There are so many similarities here it is frightening. I also lay on the ground and sort of daydream about the piece at the initial phases. Further, I work on different sections to keep things fresh and move the work forward.

    Ralph Kendrick, Iowa Composers Forum

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  4. danvisconti

    pgblu, that’s really interesting…it’s a good thing you are enough in touch with yourself to have figured out how things really work. It seems like it’s very important to cultivate these kinds of idiosyncracies in the face of “how we’re supposed to work.”

    A long time ago I learned that I have to write about three times as much music as the intended product and then “reduce” it down with tough editing. Among other things, it means I am roughly three times as slow as I ought to be! But as you said, it works.

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