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1. art and craft

Writing music requires both art and craft, creativity and skill, imagination and technique. Our craft allows the fullest expression of our artistic impulse. Without craft, we cannot express our ideas fully and faithfully. Without creativity, our musical ideas – however well-crafted – will be empty of depth and magic. Creative energy gives rise to the musical seed from which the music grows, and powers the process that ends in the finished piece of music. Our craft, throughout the entire writing process, allows for the fullest flowering of our musical ideas.

Learning to write music then involves developing both these aspects of ourselves – our creativity and our skill. As we begin the process of learning to write, our creativity often exceeds our skill and we struggle to express what we’re hearing inside. As we get better at bringing the ideas out from that inner space, our art and craft become more seamless, allowing us to better capture the ideas as they come to us. Art and craft eventually become one thing.

The development of craft can be approached directly. There are many, many sources of instruction about every technical aspect of writing music. You can study writing in school or university; take lessons from a teacher; find websites and YouTubes; study books, scores, and recordings; and talk about craft with your fellow writers. (A later chapter in this book provides a short list of resources currently available.) The development of skill can be observed and measured. With time and experience, you will see your technique grow as the range and depth of your experience writing in your chosen style and medium increase.

The development of creativity has to be approached differently, more indirectly. After years of teaching and writing, I believe that creativity cannot be learned directly from a teacher or a book, but has to be approached somewhat obliquely, discovered and developed by each person in an individual way. Rather than teaching me about creativity, my teachers modeled for me what a creative person did and how they worked. They inspired me to work and create. The music I listened to acted on me in the same way. Additionally, for all of us, the richness and depth of our individual artistic lineage also inspire and instruct.

Rather than learning how to be creative, we often need to unlearn the things that keep us from being creative. A particularly strong obstacle to creativity is the Inner Critic, examined later in this book. We need to know our internal musical world deeply so that we can understand how and when we are at our most creative. That understanding then enables us to create the conditions that remove any inner obstacles and allow the music to come to us.

the writer as practicing musician

The work a musician does on the way to becoming a writer is in many ways like the work of any other kind of musician – a performer, conductor, or educator. All musical skills require practice, study, and discipline. In the process of learning to write, there is no substitute for the act of writing. It may seem obvious or absurd to point this out, but a writer needs to practice – by writing music regularly – to learn to write. Aspiring writers should write as much as they can, every day if possible, seeking out opportunities to hear their music performed. They should also extend themselves as much as possible, writing in different styles, for a wide variety of ensembles, using various compositional techniques and schemes, experimenting and refining their work as they go. Writers should never remain too long within their “comfort zone” – those contexts that are familiar and safe.

A writer is also a student. Whether through formal study with a teacher or through self-directed work, there’s a lot to learn about writing. The writer’s teacher, like an instrumental teacher, can save the writing student a lot of time by directing their growth. A teacher can see more objectively those areas the student needs to consider and direct the student to scores, recordings, and other materials to study. A good teacher will understand how to help the student to improve their craft and nurture their access to the inner art of writing. A good teacher helps students find their voice.

Discipline, the practice of commitment towards a goal over time (to paraphrase Robert Fripp), is essential to the writer. Writing requires constant attention, consistent work, and regular practice. For many writers, the magic of writing itself provides sufficient motivation for continued effort. Writers shouldn’t let themselves get stopped, or “blocked” in the common parlance. The only way to deal with a block is to write. More on this in later chapters. Discipline, however, is an aspect of the craft that can be learned and practiced.

Writing also requires inspiration, energy, and optimism. These qualities are more an expression of the art than of the craft. Inspiration is really the energy that comes from the creative impulse, from the magical realm of the music. The energy to write, in a more general sense, comes from the writer’s inner strength, their inner world, and as such is how a person’s whole being supports their writing. Like a writer’s optimism, this is something that cannot be taught, but must be cultivated. A writer needs optimism: the sense that the next piece will be worth writing, that it will be a good piece, that it will represent a step forward in their work. A teacher can help with these things, and a writer can look for sources outside the world of music for support (a spiritual practice, work with a group of like-minded artists, a close relationship with another person, a rich inner world, etc.), but ultimately it’s the writer’s whole person that provides these qualities.

writing is hard work

There is a common misconception that if you’re good at something it should be easy to do. We’re bombarded with heroic figures in films and tv shows who acquire great skills with little or no practice. We may see a quick montage of the hero in a training or practice sequence and then we see them exercising amazing martial ability in a fight scene, but we’re given no real sense of the amount of time and energy that goes into achieving and maintaining a high level of skill in any domain.

Writing is no different. While a writer may acquire greater skill and confidence as time goes by, the act of writing always requires effort. In fact, many of the world’s greatest composers  – Beethoven, for example – agonized over their writing and changed and reworked their ideas constantly. Yes, there are also a handful of gifted genius composers, like Mozart and Bach, whom – according to lore – wrote quickly and easily. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

To write, you simply have to sit down and exert the effort; unless you’re one of a small minority, it is not something that happens without strong intention and effort, while you are relaxing by the pool or watching television.

If you spend a great deal of time and effort writing a piece of music, it doesn’t mean that you are not a good writer. A piece that develops through a long and effort-filled process is not necessarily a bad piece. Of course, it’s possible that you might spend a lot of time and energy and still not write a great piece of music.

Every writer is different. For some, the writing process becomes easier over time. For others, it remains difficult throughout their lives. I’ve found that, most often, for many writers it is sometimes easy and sometimes hard. The writer’s inspiration, energy, and optimism supply the necessary fuel for the writing process.

the writer’s craft

Just like a performer, a writer needs “chops” – technical expertise, what I’m calling craft in this book. For performers, having chops means (at the most basic level) having the ability to perform technically difficult music. For writers, craft means having the ability to:

  • write quickly and accurately, without wasting time or energy
  • deal with both simple or complex ideas
  • write what they “hear inside their head”
  • write in a variety of styles and for a variety of ensembles

And just like a performer, the writer acquires expertise in their craft through the same thing that is required of performers in acquiring their instrumental or vocal techniques: hours of study and practice, every day, over a period of at least several years. The same investment is required of the writer.

For the writer, practice consists of more than just writing itself, but also includes:

  • studying scores
  • listening and analysis
  • transcription
  • reading about the lives and ideas of other writers
  • reading books about writing
  • studying with a teacher, either privately or in a class
  • researching styles and musical ideas
  • knowing your musical lineage and the great musical streams that feed it

the writer’s artistry

More than just a technician, though, the writer is an artist. Craft without art is empty. Art animates the writing process, brings it to life, and this animation creates music. Perhaps the scientist or businessman would deny the presence of art in the world (since the experience of art is subjective and impossible to quantify), but no performing musician would deny how something mysterious and can magical bring a musical performance to life, elevating it from mere technical execution to musical experience. As writers, we look for that same ineffable quality to bring our music to life. It is a measure of our artistry when we are capable of doing so.

The artistry of the writer includes the ability to:

  • write with a uniquely personal and individual voice
  • write something surprising and interesting (not just for the audience, but for the writer, too)
  • write something the writer has never heard before, except perhaps inside her own head
  • give voice to the spirit of the artistic impulse and expand the vocabulary and repertoire of the musical world – more simply put: make the world a more beautiful-sounding place

These statements may sound lofty and grandiose. Perhaps they are. But as writers, we work in two worlds: the practical, down-to-earth world in which we work at our craft, day after day, year after year; and the heady, liminal world in which we work to bring forth the transforming musical ideas that define and illuminate our inner worlds. Put more simply, we live in both the world of craft and the world of art.


I end this chapter with an extended passage from Peter Heller’s The Painter. While this novel is about painting, Heller writes a moving and poetic description of the role of craft and artistry and the balance between them in the creative process.

Nobody, not even artists, understood art. What speed has to do with it. How much work it takes, year after year, building the skills, the trust in the process, more work probably than any Olympic athlete ever puts in because it is twenty-four hours a day, even in dreams, and that when the skills and the trust are in place, the best work usually takes the least effort. Usually. It comes fast, it comes without thought, it comes like a horse running you over at night. But. Even if people understand this, they don’t understand that sometimes it is not like that at all. Because the process has always been: craft, years and years; then faith; then letting go. But now, sometimes the best work is agony. Pieces put together, torn apart, rebuilt. Doubt in everything that has been learned, terrible crisis of faith, the faith that allowed it all to work. Oh God. And even then, through this, if you survive the halting pace and the fever, sometimes you make the best work you have ever made. That is the part that none of us understand.

The reason peoples are so moved by art and why artists tend to take it all so seriously is that if they are real and true they come to the painting with everything the know and feel and love, and all the things they don’t know, and some of the things they hope, and they are honest about them all and put them on the canvas. What can be more serious? What more really can be at stake except life itself, which is why maybe artists are always equating the two and driving everybody crazy by insisting that art is life. Well. Cut us some slack. It’s harder work than one might imagine, and riskier, and takes a very special and dear kind of mad person.

—Peter Heller, The Painter (2014) Used with the kind permission of the author.

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