Putting “Position” Back in Composition

Have you ever noticed that the word “composition” has “position” in it?  It may be a coincidence, but recently, I found out that position is more than a part of the word—it’s a part of the process that can make all the difference.

Over the last few months, I’ve been having a dry spell in my composing.  Even though I probably composed my usual amount of music last semester, I was beginning to get to a point where composing was just another thing on my homework to-do list.  There was no enjoyment—just dread.  It all came to a head last week, when I realized how miserable I was when I composed, and I started to wonder if I had lost the abilities and passion I’d had for composition before my album release.

This semester, my composition professor has been allowing me to focus purely on piano composition.  What more could I ask for?  But even so, whenever I’d been practicing piano, I had repeatedly rationalized why I “didn’t have time to compose” right then.  Last week, not surprisingly, I had managed to put off composing until the day before my lesson.

That afternoon, as is my habit, I headed to the music building to practice piano.  Unfortunately, I discovered that every single room was taken; there was no piano to play anywhere, but I was determined to practice.

Sometimes, it's better to have a mediocre piano and a wonderful place to play...
Sometimes, it’s better to have a mediocre piano and a wonderful place to play…

I searched all over campus before I found an unoccupied piano tucked in an obscure room in the business building—a beat-up old upright.  I didn’t expect much, but when I played the first few notes, I was shocked.  It wasn’t the piano—it was the room.  The acoustics were amazing; I heard the reverb that I always try to imperfectly replicate in the studio.

That night, I snuck back into that room and made myself compose.  Although the first few minutes went by slowly, something began to change—I became free again.  Shockingly, I found myself enjoying the composing process.

You see, whenever I composed in the designated “piano practice rooms,” I never felt safe or free.  Even though I knew otherwise, I was always sure someone was standing outside the door listening and judging what I was writing.  And then there were the blaring trumpets and screeching flutes emanating from nearby practice rooms.  But when I moved to a different place—a part of campus where other musicians don’t go—all of this changed.

I’ve realized how important space is in composing.  There has to be room for the music to breathe—to let the listener contemplate the music and take it in.  Not only this, but as the composer, I need to have quiet around me to be able to “hear” this silence.

I don’t think there’s one “right way” to compose; everyone has different methods.  But next time you’re stuck on a piece, just remember—there’s “position” in composition.

2 thoughts on “Putting “Position” Back in Composition

  1. Shelby, you gave me food for thought! We get stuck doing what we have to do where we think we have to do it. Sometimes it does suck the joy out of what used to be joyful. You reminded me to “breathe” & change it up! Thank you little cousin! Your NJ Family loves you & is so veryproud of you. XO

  2. Nice one, Shelby.

    I took my first uncertain steps in 1958, so I hope you won’t mind if I pass on the lessons I’ve learned from all my mistakes – and there have been plenty of those.

    Those of us who follow you will know how desperately you try to succeed, so you might be trying too hard. Never set out to create a masterpiece. Life doesn’t work like that.

    I remember thinking to myself, many years ago, that I’d never make a composer as long as I lived (I didn’t really believe it) and went on to write one of my best works. Also, you might be relying too much on ‘inspiration’, whatever that means. My advice is to write something and then fuss around with every detail – harmony, melody, rhythm – and play around with the musical materials you have found. Use all the ‘tricks’ you will have been studying – reversion, inversion, retrograde inversions etc. which will immediately spur you on to fresh ideas. You may (and probably will) reject much of it – no one should suggest you ‘paint by numbers’. Having said that, some of my music started out as being more contrived than created but it eventually showed a freshness and originality that would never have come about in the blind belief in my own omnipotence.

    Lengthy works can be built from the humblest beginnings. This is true in physics, also. Fitness for purpose is always characterised by physical efficiency where the simplest solutions are often the best.

    I can promise you that, if you wait around for inspiration you will rarely produce anything of value. In the commercial world – and don’t forget that the great composers all had to earn a living, often by meeting deadlines – you won’t be able to say to your customer ‘I’m sorry to let you down but I just couldn’t get inspired this week’.

    Hope this makes sense!

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