Tagged: writing

Writing music is like a muscle- you have to work at…

When we start out it is very difficult to figure out how to begin work on a piece. If you are lucky there will be a burst of inspiration. Quite often that is followed by a blank stare. What do I do next? Where do I go? How will I ever finish? It is common and very easy to slip into a depression at this point to where you stop work and never finish.. We all go through this…everyone.

How does one combat this? The key is learning how to approach the process and to learn how you behave in the midst of this process. The better you understand yourself and your process, the better chance you have of being effective.

Once you decide on the original idea….commit to it. This is crucial. Defining your goals in real terms, language etc gives the structure needed to get to the end. I’m reminded of an Igor Stravinsky quote: “the more restrictions I place on myself, the freer I become”. At first glance this may seem counter-intuitive. In fact, it is just the opposite. Without definition it is impossible for your listener to understand what you are doing. If you look at a great painting, the intent of the artist will be clear. The mystery will come from your interpretation….what you think of the work. Great art provokes a response. Music is no different. Limiting the scope of what you are attempting will train your mind to focus. And, the creative mind will look for ways to take these few symbols or characters and make something new.

Now it is time to go to work. Sitting at the desk is mental exercise…not unlike going to the gym and working out. Instead of lifting weights you will be in a constant problem solving state.

As you work on a piece you will get distracted, stop and start, come back to it another day. You will find no limit to number of distractions you will potentially face. Take a minute and jot your goal down on a piece of paper or index card. Defining your goals, committing to an idea will give you an object to refer to as time passes…reminding you of where you are going.

I’m also a HUGE fan of the idea of getting to the end.  It is impossible to evaluate a work without having something complete to judge. One of the huge advantages of midi is that enables you to switch gears and become an audience instead of a participant. Listening to what you’ve done with a critical ear…judging your work not from your ego (aren’t I cool?) but from an objective and analytical point of view (how does this help me achieve my goal?) is the key to growth.

Steps to take:

Commit to an idea

Limit your possibilities

Define your goals

Putting in the time

Judging your work objectively

Understanding your process and training yourself to think in these terms will move you forward as an artist…if you do the work. That much I can guarantee.

Like any muscle, the more you exercise it, the easier it becomes.


one of my earliest orchestration tips

When I was in junior college I was quite the precious kid…only 17 at the time and already writing arrangements for the “stage band”. One of the professors was a guy named Claire Johnson.

Turns out Claire was a giant in the world of concert band arrangers. I never knew it because I was a piano player. He had gone to USC and had many offers to work in Hollywood but chose a small town life for himself instead. In retrospect I think he may have made a good choice…Hollywood is a tough town. His focus(and expertise) was to write for specific “grade” levels of ability. As a result he had a very successful career becoming the most prolific junior and senior high arranger in the country.

He said something to me in passing that stuck with me to this day. “Know how every note you write will be performed”. This little tidbit of information has proved immensely valuable through the years. What he was referring to is this: If you know how something is fingered (on a wind instrument) or bowed or struck you could determine how difficult it was to play.

Why is this important?

As a writer you live and die based upon how well a piece is performed. If you write something that may be great but nobody can play then you are toast…you won’t work again…nor, as importantly, the musicians will lose respect for you and will not go the extra mile to try to make your music sound good. It’s that human factor that makes all the difference whether or not you are a singer or an instrumentalist.

So, I took a class designed for music education that required me to learn an instrument from each musical family each quarter. I had a ball…it was a lot of fun. Everybody else thought I was nuts.

By the time I reached Hollywood I could tell you how most instruments were played, what to avoid, and what was easy. This had an enormous impact on my career. Because I had put in the time the musicians gave me a lot of support right off the bat. As a result even if what I had written was less than great…they did the best they could to make it sound great…give it that extra little something…the human touch.

Taking that idea a step further, when I began working with Billy we mostly dealt with woodwind doublers…guys who could play all the woodwind instruments. Billy ALWAYS wanted to know who the players were. He would never give a difficult part to a guy who he knew wasn’t up to the task. There is no value in embarrassing anyone…and the performances always sound better.

Why is this relevant in today’s world?

Well, maybe not so much but there are a couple things to take away here.

1-the orchestra is NOT an extension of a great sample.

2-if you approach using a sequencer/samples/synths from the point of view of “how would a live player play this” your choice of notes, articulations, the way sounds relate to one another will change. Not only will it have a different feel it most likely will sound more natural.

3- if you are lucky enough to get your music played by live musicians you will be amazed at the experience. Making the player’s life easier brings great rewards both for the music you write and the reception you receive from the band or orchestra.