When I talk to non-composer colleagues about what I and other composers do, the conversation tends to end up with them mentioning how hard it must be to come up with the idea for a new piece of music. (“I wouldn’t know where to begin” seems to be quite popular.) As I’ve been both working with student composers and interviewing professionals, I’m happy to report to my colleagues that coming up with the idea for the piece isn’t hard. The gaping chasm that separates the “idea” of the piece from the point where the composer has enough material that finishing the piece feels natural: that is the real challenge.
We’re at the point during the school year that my students have already exhausted that one great, intuitive idea they had over the course of the summer, gaining confidence as they careened through the creative process and sitting back with satisfaction as their works are performed for them by their friends. They know now that I expect them to be coming up with ideas for their next project while they’re still composing the first one—our concert deadlines remove the luxury of waiting until we’ve put the cherry on top of one work before we’re already knee-deep in the planning/construction phases of the next piece. Notebooks are brimming with creative musings on what that next piece will be, from programmatic visions and interpretations of scientific concepts to wild imaginings on complex musical structures—ideas are never in short supply.
The process up till now seems to be quite enjoyable; dreaming up something that does not yet exist is one of the main reasons why creative artists do what they do. Once the idea is in place, the next part seems simple enough—as I mentioned in an earlier column, most professionals begin by either planning out the structure of the piece or begin sketching out musical ideas, and I do my best to allow each student to discover which method works best for them. And it all seems to be going so very well…
Then, it happens. A postponed lesson, a few scraps of sketched material that may have fleeting references to the initial idea, sometimes an even-more-detailed plan of the piece. Weeks can easily slip by without any progress, but that’s alright, since creative composition is a tricky business—as much as we’d like, it’s not always as easy as drawing water from the tap—and allowing the composer to play around in their mental sandbox is usually a good thing to do. But it is at this point that the combination of reduced momentum, lack of tangible progress, inexperience with craft/technique, and the inevitable second-guessing that accompanies any creative endeavor has been slowly breaking down any enthusiasms the composer had when they were dreaming of ideas. Left unchecked, this can lead to frustration and the desire to give up on the piece altogether, giving into the alluring siren song of another idea (“even better!”) which may have insidiously worked its way into their thoughts.
Those of us who have been composing for a while inevitably find ourselves at this crossroads, and each finds their own way to push themselves over, under, around, or through that creative chasm where the possibilities are endless and the solutions are hiding in plain sight. There are as many strategies as there are composers to confront this challenge, but it is the knowledge that the challenge even exists that can be the best way to bring that idea to fruition.
How do you deal with this part of the creative process, if it does indeed pose a challenge to you?