Composition Training Regime
To get good at composition, you have to practice. Today I'll share with you my composing regime. It's designed to promote growth while at the same time moving your career along.
The regime can be taken as is if you're a music student or have the luxury of structuring your days as you like. If you have less freedom or don't compose full time, you might need to only take bits and pieces to incorporate or maybe scale the schedule down by some factor.
30 minutes - Doodling. This is about 1) building speed, 2) producing ideas and 3) warming up your creativity. Be playful to get the juices flowing. When the 30 mins are up, you're free to never touch this material again.
1 hour - Passive skills. Score-reading, transcription, music theory studies, ear training etc.
1 hours 30 minutes - Write a small piece that should be completely finished when the time is up. This is to build the skill of composing a finished work with everything that entails.
5 hours - A bigger, on-going composing project. If you're a working composer, work; if you're a music student, do composing schoolwork etc.
30 minutes - exploration, experimentation and free play, only pleasure. Find new textures, try new ideas, maybe something that didn't fit in your on-going projects. Artistic research is important to develop your individuality and style.
Total: 8 hours and 30 minutes (a normal work day).
Notice how little time I've set aside for music theory studies. The importance of music theory for composing is currently overrated. Composing and music theory are two different skills, and while music theory has a lot of healthy effects, it should not be an aspiring composer's focus.
To get good at composing, what you have to practice is composing. Spending too much time on music theory at the cost of other important skills will only delay your competence.
You can compose at any music theory level, and good composition is in most ways independent of music theory.
The 1 hour and 30 minutes timespan is based on John Cleese's suggestion that it's a good amount of time for a creative session. Enough time to get properly immersed and short enough to grab a sandwich and take a break before fatigue sets in.
The 1 hour passive skill is based on Thomas Goss of Orchestration Online's recommendation to read and analyze scores 1 hour in the morning every day.
Make sure you won't be hungry.
Turn off the internet, go fullscreen, hide tabs, close irrelevant sites.
Turn down screen brightness to focus on the sound and not be distracted by fancy lights and graphics.
Remember to always use an alarm clock and when it beeps YOU ARE DONE. Respect your time.
Have sketching paper ready as ideas and memos are quickest to write or draw on paper.
Use a note to write down irrelevant things you come up with (something you need to tell someone, something to look up, something to tweet).
List any specific requirements and hang them a place where you can see them.
I don't actually believe in structuring each session that much. Personally, I tend to get so absorbed in what I'm doing that it's not necessary. Things tend to work out. Still, it might be useful to explore some of the dynamics at play when working.
In work sessions there will be waves of energy and fatigue. There will be times when you lose yourself in the flow of the process and there will be times where you just stare dumb at the paper in front of you, not knowing what to do next. This is the natural flow of the creative process.
You may think of painters who alternate between painting and taking a step back to evaluate what they're doing. You should work the same way. Alternate between doing - the part of composing where your "hands" are acting with a mind of their own, intuitively and spontaneously - and thinking - the part where your conscious mind returns and you can logically analyze what you've done.
The length of these phases may vary. Sometimes you move in extremely short burts, acting for 2 minutes and thinking for 20 seconds. Other times the phases can be 20 minutes long, an hour or even longer.
The ratio will also vary. Sometimes you'll feel "blocked" and unable to do anything. In these situations it's tempting to think a lot, but I generally recommend to just do something, no matter what. It's important to win back the lost momentum. What you end up doing might feel stupid, but don't worry about it. As long as you're moving, you're making progress.
Whenever you're feeling blocked, take the advice of one of my composing teachers, Ellen Lindquist, that it's better to focus on a small and concrete task so you won't be overwhelmed by the task of completing a whole composition. That means to focus on problems like "what happens if I harmonize this melody in thirds?" instead of "I need to compose a piece that expresses the joy of running through the fields", which is abstract, big, has much to live up to and no clear solution.
If you're having trouble simply doing anything, you can use the checklists I've made to reveal a weak point in your work. This weak point is easy to fix and you'll get on your feet again. Attacking the weak points lowers the present "challenge level" of your process, and can bring you back into flow.
Spend just a little time noting down in a log how you worked and what you accomplished. This will give you insight into your process so you can make it better. When did you lose momentum? Where did you get stuck? What made you unstuck? What revelations did you have?
One of the most effective ways of getting better at something is focused practice. That means it's not only the time you put into the activity that determines your growth, but how you use that time. Spending your time aimlessly or only using the skills you're already good at won't get you anywhere, so make sure to note down a couple of skills that you need to work on next session. Since we're talking about a day to day perspective here, one skill should be enough.
Writing a composing log is also a great way to untangle and digest the unconscious chaos that is the creative process. By reflecting on what you've done, you can make this chaos conscious. You will remember it much better.
2017.12.03 Made a simple saturated sine wave bass, but I also layered it with an arpeggio synth and a synth with stereo width. These all moved in parallel. This was really successful. Great sense of depth. I think this kind of layering is a key for interesting, powerful-sounding electronic music. Worth exploring further.
Have fun composing!