Stuck? Writer's block? No ideas coming for your writing project? Wasting time staring at your bedroom wall with a permanent forehead imprint in it?
If you’re having trouble knowing where to start, the problem may be you haven't first thought about how to finish.
Without determining a desired result, how can you form a plan that leads toward it? They work together.
Knowing where you want to go is required in order to get there.
A deeper contemplation helps you better appreciate how staring at blank manuscript and waiting for an idea to pop up doesn’t achieve much of anything except frustration. The proverbial “block” is then your approach, or absence thereof. Your ideas aren’t lacking, your motivation is.
A successful and reliable creative approach begins with an intended end result, which then helps to reveal how to trace steps artistically toward that goal. The end, therefore, should determine the means.
Would a novelist start writing without having a big picture in mind? Would they just try writing sentences hoping it will eventually lead to a finished work? What is the storyline based on? Where is it going? What motifs build the narrative? Should not some things be predetermined to establish a foundation, such as character traits and quirks, relationships, locations, character histories, circumstances that surround each character, etc.? Ultimately, how does the book end, and how do we bring the reader to that point? In other words, before you put the blank paper in the typewriter, what’s the plan, Stan?
Can you picture a construction team out in a field aimlessly holding two-by-fours, saying, “Where should we get started?” They all stare at each other and at the open lot for a while, and then one of them says, “What about putting this stud over here?” There’s a pause, and another says, “No, I kind of like it over here, better.” Yet another offers a different suggestion. After a full day of this, what can we honestly expect the results to be? What exactly are they trying to build and what’s the plan? Do they even know? How much unbelievable time has been wasted in the process? Don’t we first need to visualize the finished building to analyze then how to create it? Based on that analysis, we can begin to formulate plans that detail how to frame it out, and ultimately bring it to completion.
Would you expect an architect just to sit there and hope a drawing plan comes to mind? Or, would they artistically imagine and visualize an intended outcome to formulate the building strategy? Typically a series of mandates and measurements would be imposed, much like a composer might receive when given a commission to write, and each must create within those boundaries and likely meet tight deadlines, as well. With so little time to waste, each professional learns to utilize an approach that produces dependable results and leaves little to chance.
It’s all common sense, right? Though, for some reason, we default instead to thinking of composing in mysterious terms, as if hunting or searching for an answer with no concept of where it may lead. If novelists do not just aimlessly write sentences, and contractors do not randomly put up beams without a plan, then why would composition be any different? All of them require some homework and planning. While pure inspirational “out of nowhere” moments may sometimes occur, it is not an accurate description of what composers do, or what they generally rely on.
Plan - purpose. Again, these go together. NOW we’re getting somewhere. Now we’ve gone from scratching our heads in hopeless stagnation to actually accomplishing something - thinking about what we want to create, what it might sound like, and how to start getting there. From no plan to a purposefully motivated strategy to achieve what we’re after. We must also add a necessary ingredient that is vital to any plan: momentum; energy in motion stays in motion. Hence, we’re now talking about a winning means-to-an-end strategy.
Those that fail to plan, plan to fail.
Just how can we break this down into steps that help us determine where we want to go, and how to get there? When you need to write, instead of crying in your coffee and watching the clock tick away with bloodshot eyes, try establishing and maintaining momentum with five steps:
Step away from your instrument, close your eyes and just listen. Think about your desired outcome. What are you after and what are you trying to say? Is there an overall sound or tonality that comes to mind? What is the emotional quality you’re hearing? What impact do you want to make on the listener? As much as possible, imagine the finished tune, or score, and be attentive to any naturally occurring melodies or theme ideas that spring up. Can you hear a particular instrument playing a theme or a vocalist singing it? If not a whole melody, even a rough fragment that serves as a seed motif will go a long way and spur on more ideas. Does anything sound similar to an existing composition or cliche? What harmonies are you imagining? While this takes time to perfect, it will by far produce more inspired, less contrived results than trying to plink out ideas on a piano by chance hoping you land on something. By stepping away from your instrument and visualizing, you help remove many crutches, free your mind, and allow full latitude to the muse to enlighten and guide you.
From your visualization, look at what you now have before you. Begin to extract smaller building elements that make up the whole. What motivic fragments, such as theme and melody material, a hook idea, and other identifiable structural elements can be condensed down and reused? What potential harmony and chord changes have emerged? What are all the possibilities you can envision and make note of? Allow momentum to propel your imagination and spur on even more breakthroughs. Using ear training skills, write these fragments down on manuscript and do not prejudge anything. Nothing has to be refined or “perfect”, but allow rough sketches to serve as ‘seed' material for the time being. This is critical because by prejudging and getting overly picky at this venture point you reimplement the very blocks you’re trying to avoid. You’ll refine later.
What form is needed or might be appropriate for your rough ideas? Two verses and a chorus? AABA? Need a bridge? An interlude? How can your musical sketches fit into a form or scheme? Be resourceful - what can be reused or emphasized as a reoccurring sound or concept? How about instrumentation? Think about how to plot out a foundation to work off that organizes and pulls your ideas together. Do this by creating a vertical listing of your overall form with simple descriptions of what each section might contain. You could create this on ordinary lined paper that indexes the successive flow of ideas you’ve developed.
On music manuscript, block out the sections from your plot list and insert the musical elements you’ve developed from previous steps. Once in place, you can begin to refine these rough musical fragments and tie them together. How do different elements compliment one another and become more unified? What material can you borrow or reuse to create further cohesion? How can your melodic and harmonic ideas be further developed and refined? Sing them, play them. Allow them to take their natural shape. Remember, before you had nothing to work with and were hitting a block. Now, you’re working with what might seem an excess of material and having to choose what possibly should be cut. Where would you rather be?
Your final touches can come in many forms. However, if time allows, it’s recommended you leave your project at this stage and walk away for a bit. A day or two, a week, or whatever you can afford. Why? It can help you regain perspective and allow your sub-conscience, which never stops operating, to take over and refine your ideas even further. Work with your strengths, not against them. Again, this is only if time allows, and often we don’t have such luxuries as the job just has to get done - now. That’s ok. Step back, inspect what you’ve produced so far, and take in the big picture. Add that extra note to the ending phrase. Tighten the opening interval that’s currently too wide. That strong motif in the bridge might fuel a great idea for the intro you were struggling with. Break up a cliche chord change with a substitution idea. Cut, lengthen, condense, refine, and finish!
All of this naturally begs the next question: what if you can't think of an end result, first - then what? Well, let's just say for now that the ability to envision a final product seems to be a common trait we all possess innately. Most are better at it then they might realize, which is what makes it such a superb starting point. Likewise, no effort is being made here to oversimplify the compositional process. Writing is hard work and each project has its own challenges and characteristics. A point is being made, however, that you can decide to be productive instead of hoping you will be. Make it happen. Build momentum and take steps that help lead somewhere and you will make progress and learn to overcome blocks.
These tips can be equally effective for writing a tune, an arrangement, or any larger work. Seem like a lot of steps? Well, considering you were staring into space previously with nothing happening, you're now implementing an organized approach and composing music, instead. Before, there was no impetus, now you’re making the best of every moment and watching your project take shape. Let all this simply be food for thought as you personalize these concepts and make it work for you. It won’t be long until you fully realize being a blockhead is really a matter of choice.
Marc J Stasio is an east-coast based composer/arranger, pianist, educator, and author who actively lives out his calling producing scores for hire, serving as collegiate jazz faculty and performing abroad for nearly 40 years. His work is heard on recordings by today's top artists in jazz and contemporary music. As professor of jazz studies, he specializes in teaching composition and arranging based on “the Hidden Score,” with a dedicated blog by that title. Marc holds a B.M. in Arranging and a Masters degree in Jazz Studies. Visit http://marcstasio.com.
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