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2. the art of writing

Every writer has their own writing process. We each connect to the artistic part of ourselves in an individual and personal way. No one can teach you how to make this connection, though a good teacher can give the encouragement and guidance to explore this part of yourself. Often, we work on our craft by observing how our teachers work; we can see their relationship with their art. An effective teacher models how a writer cultivates and maintains their artistic side.

Writing about the creative aspect of writing music is difficult. I think that’s because the part of ourselves that is creative, where the ideas come from, is not – at least in my experience – the intellectual part of the mind we use to articulate things. Lao Tzu opened the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching with the line, “The Tao that can be named isn’t the real Tao,” meaning, as I understand it, that there’s a profound fundamental aspect of reality that can’t be expressed in words. He then went on to write 80 more chapters about the Tao, a fairly significant example of the paradox of writing about something inexpressible. While he was writing about the nature of reality, writing about creativity is similar.

Developing the art of writing is essentially a process of self-discovery. The ideas that follow provide concepts and thoughts to consider and compare to your own experience.

making the connection

Anyone involved in making music, either as a performer or a writer, has experienced that feeling of being somehow connected, in the moment, to music-making in a deep and meaningful way. There’s some magical switch that gets flipped and – suddenly – what was mere sound becomes music. As a performer, I’ve enjoyed this connection many times. The connection comes, at varying degrees of intensity, when I have a good practice session or when things are “right” on stage. It’s not unusual and I think it’s something all performing musicians experience. Writing is another way we connect directly, in the moment, with music.

I’ve spent most of my life immersed in improvisation and the connection that happens when the ideas are flowing during improvisation feels comparable to what happens when I’m writing. Certainly, not every improviser is a composer, and not every composer is an improviser, but there are a few commonalities and differences between the two processes.

One of the biggest differences is the speed at which the ideas flow. In improvisation, the ideas are fleeting – they arise, make their statement, and fall away. When writing, we capture the ideas as they occur, so the process can be a little slower (depending on how we capture our ideas – there are many different ways). In writing, we also have the opportunity to review and refine our ideas.

The most important similarity between the two processes is a feeling of being connected, inspired, and energized. Finding this connection, nurturing and strengthening it, is essential to our work as musicians, and I think we each must find our own path to that connection. Describing that connection and the path to it is difficult to write about, but like Lao Tzu, I’ll give it a shot.

Being prepared –  Much of this book is concerned with craft. Your craft supports you when you write, allowing you to capture the musical ideas as they arise as accurately as possible, without any distortion or obscuration. Whether you use a pencil and paper, write directly into Sibelius, sing into an audio recorder, play into a DAW, write code, program Ableton – whatever your process – you need to be ready when the ideas come. This is the highest function of our craft.   

Holding intent, gently… or not – When I start to write something, at the beginning of the process when I’m looking for the germinal idea from which the piece will grow, I often begin by holding the intent for writing to happen. I’ve discovered that a certain state of mind is needed: relaxed, yet completely aware and focused. There’s a balance between being, on the one hand, too relaxed and passive, and, on the other, holding the intention too strongly. Somehow, through practice and experience, I’ve found that I can usually slip into this frame of mind when I choose to.

However, musical ideas often come when I have no intention of writing, when I’m doing something else. I’ve written at length in Chapter 4 about how this happened with the opening theme for “From Here to There” and the outro section of “Retrato em Branco e Preto.” This is a beautiful thing when it happens. 

Opening the space – When I gently hold the intent to write, I find it useful to open an inner space to make room for the music to arise. This space is quiet, relaxed, and spacious. Many people, myself included, are sometimes distracted by the inner dialog that often fills our internal world. The Inner Critic – a particularly distracting internal voice that can poison our creativity and color our feelings about the music that is arising – can have the most damaging effect on our inner quiet, but the typical internal chatter about mundane things can also cloud this space. Quieting this inner noise is one of the goals of many meditation traditions, and meditation is one method that’s been proven to work. Filling that space with music in another.

Opening the space may seem like a metaphor, but it’s something you can actually learn how to do. I think it’s something that many creative artists do, though they may not call it by this name.

Finding the germinal idea – For me, writing begins with the initial seed idea, the genesis from which everything comes. There’s no predicting when this will occur and I can’t make it happen at will, but by holding the intent and opening the space, I can often create the conditions under which the idea might appear. The idea might be a melodic phrase, a chord progression, a textural gesture, a groove, or just an idea about how a piece might be structured. Whatever form this germinal idea takes, it acts like a key that unlocks a door, opening a space where musical ideas happen. I write more about this in the next chapter.

The best state of mind is often one of play: not taking things too seriously, not judging things, having a sense of fun and energy. There’s a state of mind I can enter into when improvising at the piano that fosters this sense of play. Then suddenly (if I’m lucky), the music is transformed from a kind of playful noodling into something filled with potential. The ideas suddenly have a kind of weight and magnetic energy. Without this connection, the ideas seem light and inconsequential. I often reach a similar state walking down the street on my way to my morning train. Without any forethought or intention, I start to hum something in time to my steps, or imagine a texture that’s like a soundtrack to the world I’m walking through, and suddenly I’m in that space where music flows.

silencing the inner critic

The cynical voice of the Inner Critic can be very damaging when you try to write. Nothing kills the creative impulse more effectively than the internal commentary that judges and finds lacking each idea as it appears.

While a critical ear is essential to the writer, you have to know when to use it. As you play with the ideas that come to you, in whatever way you use to bring them forth, try to silence that Inner Critic. There will be plenty of time later to bring the weight and power of your intellect to bear as you work through the piece, but musical creativity is an art – not a craft. We need to set aside our critical thinking so that the creative impulse has full reign in our interior world. Creativity requires a different mindset, a different interior world. Chapter 5 presents some ideas of how and when to use the critical faculties of mind in the writing process.

As I mention above, the goal of many meditation traditions is to learn to silence the inner dialog, that constant chatter of what the Chinese call the monkey mind – a mind that jumps incessantly from thing to thing, never stopping, never resting. No matter what you believe about the nature of the mind, the benefits of a focused attention are obvious. Many musicians find focus when they’re completely wrapped up in the creative process. Rather than being forced to focus, the mind is so engaged and interested in the activity at hand that one-pointed concentration is effortless and fun. Like creating the setting in which the germinal idea can come forth, many writers learn to bring about this state of mind at will.

In a way, this is one of the writer’s disciplines: the ability to bring about a change in consciousness that allows the artistic process to roll forth. For me, this takes a certain amount of energy, optimism, and simple playfulness, a kind of detached humor. What is it for you?

finding balance

This book draws distinctions between artistry and craft. Most of the steps in the writing process involve some blend of the two. Balance is an important quality that expresses and embodies both. Musical balance emerges in a piece of music as it unfolds in time. It is the sense of harmony and proportion that results from the way in which each part of the piece simultaneously relates to every other part and to the whole. There is no such thing as perfect balance in a piece – balance is a quality, not a result.

My students often ask, “How do I voice this chord?” or “What groove should I use here?” These questions are, on one level, easy to answer. Our craft should supply a number of possible solutions to the problems we encounter as we write. Of the many possible solutions, perhaps four or five will work well. The best choice in a particular situation should be guided by the goal of creating the best overall balance. Obviously, this highly subjective decision involves both the writer’s craft (knowing the technical possibilities and how to express them) and art (having the inspiration that presents a number of interesting possibilities and making the creative choice about the technique that will work best). A piece of music is the result of the writer’s series of decisions about how to present and juxtapose the various elements and ideas as the piece unfolds in time – another definition of balance.

As you work with a piece, balance is an essential quality to strive for. However, there is no right or wrong way to create balance in a piece, and balance has nothing to do with the music’s level of consonance or dissonance, its style, or any of its external qualities. In working toward balance, your craft fuses with your creativity to guide your choices. Some writers are so gifted that their music has balance right from the beginning of the process, while for other writers balance emerges as they revise, edit, and develop their work. To find balance, understand the nature of your musical ideas and be able to justify every element’s inclusion and place in the piece. To carefully examine and consider every element in your music is part of your craft. It is through the simultaneous expression of craft and artistry that the music’s elements work together to create the magical sense of balance that transforms the music from an acceptable piece of competent writing into a piece of art.

finding your voice

Your own voice should emerge from your writing – a quality that is unique and distinctly your own. While you may have many musical in influences (it would be difficult, if not impossible, not to have any musical influences) and you may write within various established musical styles, your music should still be a unique and personal expression of your own artistic vision. Through my own work and through working with many students over the years, I have found several ideas that often help a writer find their voice.

First, and perhaps most important, there are the nature and characteristics of the musical ideas themselves. The creative process is somewhat mysterious, diffcult to quantify. However, as a writer’s craft improves and barriers between conception and expression are eliminated, the ideas that come to a writer tend to have a personal quality that infuses the work with a unique and individual sound. (Similarly, consider how we often recognize a pianist’s touch or a singer’s voice within the first few bars of a piece.) For some, this is an inherent gift: others can only hope that their work and discipline will transform them into effective vehicles for musical expression. To put it another way, as we become more proficient in our craft, we hope to give better voice to the music that moves through us.

In addition, the particular balance that infuses our writing also gives a unique quality to our work. The sum total of the many choices made as we write – those choices that create balance in our work – enhances the emergence of an individual voice.

It is also useful to study, in a deep and profound way, the writers whose work most deeply affects you. While there may be a number of elements in their music that attract you, it is likely – particularly if you find their music compelling in a deep way – that they have a unique artistic voice that speaks to you. Can you identify exactly what gives their music that unique quality that you find so rich and interesting? Is it: something about their melodies; an idiomatic harmonic language; something profound and mysterious in their production; a particular viewpoint in their lyrics? If you can somehow get closer to whatever “it” is, you’ll gain insight that will present possibilities for your own development.

Finally, an individual voice emerges as a writer strives for excellence. Many students are competent writers, able to write in a variety of styles for a variety of ensembles. They can write music to specific requirements relatively quickly and easily. They can create cool tracks or tunes that have all the qualities of the most well-known pop music of the time. However, while the music may acceptably fill the “requirements,” it often lacks originality and flair. It is tempting to accept ideas that work at a basic level and result in a piece of music that does what it needs to – but no more. You can rely on your craft to do this. While writing at this level may work, it often lacks spark and that mysterious quality that brings the music to life.

It is a struggle to improve a piece of music beyond the level of basic acceptability: it requires hard work and emotional energy. But it is through this struggle that the writer’s individual and unique voice can emerge. When writers strive to elevate their work, the resulting ideas are often out of the ordinary, unusual, and interesting. Sometimes, your final refinements will take longer than all the other steps in the process – combined – and the piece may change very little as a result. But those small changes can make the difference between a good piece of music and a great one. They can also mean the difference between a relatively bland and generic piece and one that speaks with an individual voice.

Don’t settle for the easy solution: find the right one, no matter how long it takes or how hard it is to find.

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