100 Day Project

How I Became A Composer

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My path to becoming a composer has been roundabout, but I thought I’d share a bit about how I got to the work I’m doing today - and it’s not through a whole lot of training specifically in composition!

Much to my regret, I don’t remember many opportunities to be creative in my piano lessons as a child - improvisation and composition weren’t part of my experience. (That’s why I have all of my students do both, and even improvise at the very first lesson!) Looking back, I remember more of a perspective of right notes vs. wrong notes. I can’t remember my early piano education fully, but I know that I was a very shy kid, and could have used more encouragement to create my own music, instead of just playing others’ music (although, that is great, too).

My first experience was an elective music theory/composition class in high school, in which we were given very little guidance - the class was basically spent going through modules of music theory software (most of which I’d learned already in piano lessons), and working independently on our pieces. I don’t remember any criticism that I received on my writing, constructive or otherwise (and I would remember that, since I was such a perfectionist back then), so I assume that we just got a few comments on our final projects. I learned something from trying to write, but didn’t get to develop my skills like I would have if there were feedback throughout the whole semester.

My path to becoming a professional musician had some fits and starts, too - I actually quit piano lessons with my longtime teacher after 11th grade, with the idea that I was going to switch to a jazz piano teacher, but I never followed through on that, and when it came time to apply to colleges, I didn’t consider majoring in music because I didn’t believe that I could do it. Back then I had a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset (read Mindset by Carol Dweck!) - despite years of practice and learning on the piano, I didn’t have confidence in my abilities to grow. I eventually decided to audition to be a music minor at Ithaca College, started with the required theory, sightsinging, and lessons, while trying out other types of classes, too. Toward the end of my freshman year, my advisor had commented to me that she thought I had too many classes in my minor, which then solidified my feeling that music was indeed supposed to be my focus. I decided to audition to be a music major soon afterward, was officially admitted into the program, and still managed to graduate in 4 years! So, even though I didn’t initially choose music, it kind of chose me.

My lack of confidence about my playing abilities at that time also extended to my composing abilities. I didn’t do much more writing, if any, after that high school class because I still didn’t feel “qualified” - I hadn’t yet gotten comfortable with the idea that you have to do something more (and more!) to become better at it and gain confidence. During my last semester of college in 2005, I decided to sign up for another composition class, which was (unsurprisingly) much more helpful, since we wrote weekly assignments, and got useful feedback. (I was going to show an example here, but sadly, I think that those files are lost, and my office closet is too scary to dig through and maybe find a paper copy!) I do remember that my style back then was to overcomplicate things because I didn’t want it to be TOO EASY - I used some interesting rhythms and melodies, but things often got too clunky because I tried to cram too many ideas in - I was using my brain too much, and not trusting my ears enough.

I still didn’t continue the habit of composing after college, but every so often, I would write down a snippet of something. I was pretty intimidated by the thought of writing something for real, so this felt like a safe way to collect ideas.

Then, about 5 years ago, I applied to play at a faculty recital at one of the schools where I teach, with the proposal that I would write a couple solo piano arrangements of Brazilian choros. Before that, I’d written many arrangements for my students (mostly simplifications), but it was the biggest arranging project I’d taken on thus far, with a deadline to motivate me to finish (let’s be real)! Over the next few years, I wrote more arrangements of Brazilian songs for these recitals - this felt like a safe entry point because arranging gives you a sort of template - and began to take on other arranging projects. Each year I got more and more adventurous with my writing, while in the meantime, I would still write down original snippets of things occasionally, but rarely do anything more with them.

In October 2015, I was tired of not taking myself seriously enough, and decided to give myself a personal challenge to write a little bit every day in the month. Although I wasn’t brave enough to share my work at the time, one of these snippets eventually turned into my Brazilian choro Anelante!

That December, my trio played a composition by our cellist Aaron Kerr at the New Ruckus Composer Night, a monthly event for sharing original music (of any kind) here in St. Paul. I thought to myself, “Hmm, I don’t have anything written, but I should get in line anyway - a deadline will be motivating.” (Are you seeing a theme here?) I eventually got programmed on a July 2016 date, and had finished the first section of what is now Anelante to perform, as well as another contrapuntal mini-piece for piano. Performing my music was really scary at first, since I didn’t quite believe that I was officially a composer, but it was a great experience, and to my delight, I got lots of positive feedback.

Showing up in public to share my work was the push I needed to write more - I began to actually feel like a composer, and decided to start calling myself one, which felt like a big deal. I also started to notice my self-critical brain’s grip loosening - less often asking “is this good?” than “do I like how this sounds?” (Still a work in progress, but I do believe in growth mindset - anything can improve if we give it our attention.) I had finished the B section of Anelante over the winter (Brazilian choros typically have 3 major sections), and signed up for another New Ruckus date in April 2017 to force myself to finish it.

The real turning point that increased my output and commitment to the creative process of composing was signing up for the 100 Day Project in 2017 (which I wrote about a lot here), a global art project in which people do a project of their choice for 100 days in a row, and post it to Instagram. I decided that I would write 8 measures of music each day, of any type - the main point was to show up every day and do it.

Showing my work daily was also scary at first, but I quickly became desensitized to it, so it became much more fun. After the 100 days ended in mid-July, I found that I actually missed this daily habit of writing music, so I did another 100 days at the end of 2018, too! (Thoughts on that here.) 

I’ve now shared a lot about how I became a composer, but not yet why - I’ve known for a while that it’s not enough for me just to interpret others’ music (which I also have great respect for). Also, as a recovering perfectionist, I was most often in a right vs. wrong mindset when playing classical music, which felt unhealthy for me. I remember moments of practicing for a concert or audition, playing a “wrong” note or chord, thinking, “Ooh, that sounded cool,” then shutting down that creative spark because I was supposed to be learning that piece, not making up my own stuff (which sounds super sad to me now!) All aspects of solving the creative puzzle that is writing a piece of music are engaging for my brain, and most importantly, it just feels like fulfilling a deep need (that maybe I can’t exactly explain - how do you explain anything that you fall in love with?)

Even though I did go to music school, a traditional path, my path to composing was not academically traditional at all - when I was in school, it didn’t even occur to me that majoring in composition was something that I could have done. Sometimes I wish that I had done it back then, but all I can do is accept where I am right now, and go from there, which is actually kind of liberating - just move forward, whatever that looks like.

It’s a little scary for me to admit that I don’t have a long history with being a composer, but I don’t really think that matters. What matters is that I like the work I’m producing (and hopefully others do too), and that I’m committed to continuing to work on it, and to the experience of the creative process. The way that we build skills is to keep composing, keep improving, look for feedback from trusted sources, and get people to play our music. Anyone can do this - you just have to decide that you will.

If you're a musician who has thought about writing but didn't know where to start, if you're looking for some idea generation, or camaraderie with other creative musicians, I have just the thing - if you're interested, sign up below and join us! Don't wait for years, like I did!

If you're a composer, musician, or creator of any kind, when did you feel like you could call yourself that title? How did it feel when you did? 

What I Learned From My 2nd 100 Day Project

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If you follow me on Instagram or my Facebook page, you couldn’t miss my 2nd 100 Day Project while it was happening, but I didn’t write about it on the blog as much as the first one. Although I finished it right at the end of 2017, I haven’t taken the time to reflect on it until now. My observations about the 1st 100 Day Project are here

Both projects had the same parameters: write 8 measures of music each day, of any kind, for any instrument. Some ended up continuing from day to day, some were picked back up later, and some never went anywhere (but were still equally important to do!) My favorite pieces that I finished during the 2nd 100 Days were: an as-of-yet untitled maxixe/samba; Centimonk, a 100th birthday tribute to Thelonious Monk; an autumn-inspired waltz, a funky ostinato about a crime-fighting manatee; a Bartok-esque piece for solo violin; and another piece about Rusty the Cat (his superhero identity).

HOW THE 2ND PROJECT WAS DIFFERENT FROM THE 1ST

  • 21 days of the 2nd project were spent doing a different piece every day, so that I could test out some composition prompts that I wrote (along with a small group). Many of these didn’t develop into anything more, but the manatee one and one designed to accompany this piece of art definitely will!
  • I stretched my comfort zone a bit with these prompts, by trying out some different styles, and also, by writing a piece for solo violin toward the end of the year.
  • Toward the end of the challenge, I started to get tired of having to post something every day, and I felt a little boxed in my 8-measure requirement (even though there was nothing stopping me from writing more.)

SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE 2 PROJECTS

  • Every day is not going to be profound (as in music, as in life), but accepting this fact makes it so much easier to show up and do the work every day
  • It was still hard to think about form (something I want to try focusing on more), especially without feeling like I was boxed in by groups of 8 measures.
  • I ended up with tons of ideas, and many finished pieces - lots of material to work with.
  • Editing pieces and finishing them is the hardest part of the process for me, probably because the perfectionist part of my brain wants a flawless finished project. I thought that easing the requirement of having to generate something every day would help with this, but I still need to create some structure around it, both through scheduled work time and having a list of pieces that I definitely want to finish, then dedicating my writing time to those.

OTHER INTERESTING OBSERVATIONS

  • Even though finishing pieces is still the hardest part for me, I am now really comfortable with generating ideas and starting things, from doing it so many times over the course of these projects. Oddly, I don’t worry about running out of ideas (which definitely surprised me) - I proved that I could show up on 200+ days last year and come up with something. Running out of good ideas, on the other hand, might be another story, but I’ve developed a lot of trust in the process.
  • Even though I did need a little break by the end of the project, my daily habit has lapsed since then. Although for good reason - I have other projects I’m trying to launch, on top of my normal teaching and rehearsal schedule, I don’t like that. I want to have a mostly-daily habit (I am always pro-days off when needed) without the hassle of posting something every day. But, committing to a daily habit is part of the motivation for me, and public accountability certainly helped, too. I’m still figuring out how to re-structure my practice habit this year, and writing should be easy to roll in with that.
  • Looking back now, choosing to do the first 100 Day Project was an amazing decision because it has totally shaped the direction of my work and my decision to focus on composition and sharing composition resources with other musicians, which has been SO FUN! 

You can also listen to all of the pieces from my 1st 100 Day Project here, and many from the 2nd project here - other projects like launching my 5-day composition prompt course (which you can sign up for below), and my sheet music store (coming soon!) have eclipsed it lately, but I will finish soon!

Have you ever embarked on a daily creative project or challenge (of any length)? If so, I want to hear about it - the good stuff, the bad stuff, anything!

 

100 More Days of Writing Music: What I'm Noticing So Far

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I recently completed Day 25 of my 2nd 100 Day composing project this year: 100 More Days of Writing Music. I’m writing 8 measures of music a day, and posting it on Instagram under the same hashtag as the first time around: #100daysofwritingmusic. You can read about my experience with the 100 Day Project earlier this year here: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4, and listen to recordings of my compositions on SoundCloud below! 

How is this time the same/different from the first 100 days?

  • I’m finding the same level of difficulty in showing up to write - it’s a daily obligation, but one that I enjoy, and the length (8 measures) is very doable. Consistency is queen!

  • I tend to be either continuing the same piece day after day until it’s finished, or the total opposite, often bouncing over to something new after writing one day’s snippet. I’m generally deciding to work on whatever feels right that day, a sense that I developed during the first 100 Days, and continue to evolve into now.

  • Sometimes working in groups of 8 measures is limiting - it tends to make me group phrases this way (which is common), but not always. There’s nothing stopping me from writing more each day, but I often don’t have much extra time and stop at 8.

  • This approach can make it hard to do big picture planning. I usually feel the need to write continuously, so that I have 8 measures to show, but otherwise I might not write a piece exactly in order, or might lay out repeated sections roughly where they will eventually go. This feels like cheating in terms of the daily challenge because, well, I already wrote those same 8 measures, but that is actually what’s going into the piece. Thinking about this project as idea generation is more helpful, then I can edit later on, which is always easier once you get some distance from the time of creation.

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What else have I learned/noticed so far?

  • It’s more fun when I make and share videos, (either on Instagram Stories, regular Instagram posts, or on YouTube), for me, and probably for everyone else. I haven’t been doing that as much because my piano is horrifically out of tune and I’m waiting for the weather to change more drastically before tuning it, but I should just do some IG Stories anyway (you can follow me here).

  • I’m really excited to be keeping up this habit, sharing what I’m writing, and strengthening my skills and identity as a composer, but doing it only online is starting to feel kind of insular, as is constantly writing only for piano. I’m ready to start writing for other instruments and having other people play my music (a little bit daunting, but I feel excited about it!) I’m also wanting to work on finding ways to expose my music to a wider audience, since most people who have been following along with my 100 Day projects have been people that I already know.

I’m working on coming up with a set of composing prompts for myself, to stretch out a little, and you can join me, too! (More about that soon.)

  • Ideas beget ideas and inspiration begets inspiration - this is the reason to show up every day to write, but also to seek out new music by other composers. I played a concert of local (MN) composer Chris Granias’ music on October 8, and was very inspired by the amount that he’s written, and how themes interweave through different works, etc. It made me want to come home and write all night (sadly I did not, I was too tired - #reallife).

  • The first 100 Days made me feel less precious about the creative process, since I was writing something new every single day, but I’m starting to take that attitude further through the process to performing, as well. It was super helpful to test-drive a new tune during my solo gig at Shipwrecked Studio over the weekend, although I’m not sure it’s 100% finished. It was easier for me to view it as “I’m trying this out”, rather than “This must be a finished work that is GREAT.”

Now that I’ve accumulated so much work, it’s time to do something with it!

I plan on starting to record the pieces from 100 More Days in the next couple weeks (which you can find in the same playlist on SoundCloud as posted above. I am also working on notating and publishing some of my works - look for that on my website soon!

100 Days of Writing Music: Finished!

Hello again! I accidentally took a month off from blogging, and how is it already past the midpoint of summer? I'm trying really hard not to fall into the August "it's all over" panic already, because summer goes so fast. In a month I'll leave for San Francisco to visit family and attend California Brazil Camp once again, and when I come back it'll be September - ahhhh! Let's not think about that yet.  

Last Sunday I finished my 100 Day Project, 100 Days of Writing Music (only 4 days later than everyone else)! During the period of time between April 4 and July 16 (except for those 4 days), I wrote 8 measures of music daily and posted it on Instagram here.

I ended up with 23 pieces or fragments of varying lengths, several of which turned into finished pieces, and the others will be waiting for me if/when I want to continue them. I am actually a bit sad that it’s over, which I didn’t expect to happen - I had expected relief and triumphant feelings at the end. I miss the ritual and the accountability of writing and posting something every day. This clearly means that I’m doing the right type of work! I still agree with my reasoning from Day 23 on why it was easy and enjoyable to keep up with this project:

  1. It’s work I really enjoy doing.

  2. Public accountability - it’s easier to skip a day if no one’s watching.

  3. Manageable length - 8 measures is an easy length to accomplish.

Some other reflections on the process:

Public accountability really works well for me

At first I felt funny about sharing my unfinished, unedited work, but it really didn’t take long before I shifted my expectations and didn’t mind it anymore.

Consistency (AKA showing up) is the most important thing, because not every day felt inspired

Even though it's hard to be consistent, in some ways consistency makes it easier to keep a habit, because the decision whether to do the task has already been made for you. Full disclosure: there were times when I selected 2/4 as a tempo in order to make my job easier, but this actually did yield some cool pieces, such as Rusty’s Dream. So, that's okay, and you know what Chuck Close has to say about this: 

Yep, still true.

Yep, still true.

Lots of things got finished, somewhat effortlessly

Working in small bits sometimes made me surprised at how easy it felt to finish a piece (like, shouldn't it feel hard?) Toward the end of the challenge, I tended to do more continuing of existing pieces on consecutive days. This was cool because I got to finish more things, but sometimes I felt obligated to continue on with something when maybe it would have been better just to start something new. There are definitely merits to both, so I don’t regret it either.

It was hard to think about form

The nature of this challenge (writing a little bit every day) made it so that I almost always wanted to come up with something new each day, rather than repeating material from earlier in the piece. I think that this affected the form and structure of the pieces, making most of them through-composed (continuous, non-sectional, non-repetitive). Or, if I did repeat material, it would usually come back at the end. This isn’t a bad thing, but I feel like I didn’t really stretch my skills in creating the form of a piece. Maybe this is something that I think about more in the editing phase, once I can step back to look at the big picture. So...

Time for an editing challenge?

I think that I am better at starting things than finishing them, because once I get to the editing stage, it can start to feel Very Serious and my perfectionist/procrastinator tendencies start to kick in. If I can make myself listen to that particular part of my brain that can make decisions magnanimously, rather than the fearful part, it’s much easier. I think that it’s great to have notebooks full of ideas, but I may end up needing to create some structure around going back to them so that I can actually use the ideas for something.

See my earlier updates for more thoughts on the process: Day 23 | Day 58 | Day 79

LISTEN ON SOUNDCLOUD!

I've now recorded most of the pieces and you can listen to them on my SoundCloud page here. I plan to upload the last few next week. 

I'm taking a break for a couple weeks, but in August I plan to start another daily challenge so that I can keep this momentum going, both in terms of keeping the creative habit going, and showing my work. I may narrow down and create more parameters on what type of music or approach I’ll take - I haven’t decided yet!

Thanks for following along with me over the last 3+ months! I will likely post everything to Instagram again, so follow me there to keep up, and I’ll certainly post thoughts here, too. 

I won’t do a regular post this week, as I’ll be in the Chicago area for NCKP (National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy), but I intend to get back into a regular posting rhythm after that!

If you did a 100 Day Project this year, or have ever done something similar, share some of your takeaways in the comments - I'd love to hear them!