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Better Composing through…paperwork?

As I’ve been teaching composition and refining my own creative process, I’ve found that I think of composition gigs as projects: Write a tape piece, compose a tuba sonata, record an album, plan a recital, and so on.

This works pretty well for my own process, but some of my other students don’t have such a process. Instead, they have multiple works going on at the same time, and while there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, it’s often paired with a lack of focus. To make matters worse, the works don’t often get played. Their composing is for the sake of composing.

This is related to three other issues with composition and with how we teach music in general. The first issue deals with delusions of grandeur and transformative change: The idea that “this is the best piece ever and it will make me famous”. Honestly, being delusional is an important part of my creative process, it goes along with the maniacal laughter part of my process. But the idea that one piece will change everything is a bit of a pipe dream.

Unfortunately, starting out as composers, our plan to become famous is by hope: The hope that someone will notice how brilliant we are.

The second point this touches on is project-based music making, which is something our music major curriculum doesn’t always address. I think composers have it better off than most musicians, since compositions are more project-formatted than education or performing, but we don’t really frame our curriculum around projects. There’s a lot more to say on that subject and how it interfaces with entrepreneurship at a later time.

Finally, there’s the idea of compositional intent. Intent is another big topic that will receive attention soon. For now, we’ll leave the discussion as “we need to know where we’re going if we’re going to get there.”

How do we do this with composition? And also, how do I get my students to do it?

In my process, I’ve introduced a form. a Music Creative Brief.

The Music Creative Brief forces me to address some of the big questions that come up at the beginning of a new music project. First and foremost, the deadline. It asks for which performance forces, what the piece should be about, how long it should be, what it can or can’t do, other similar pieces, and what inspires it. There’s also a section for marketing, which addresses the competition, how to sell it, and who might be interested.

Music Creative Brief Page 1
Music Creative Brief page 2

For example, for my next piece, a clarinet choir piece, I have a physical copy of the form that lists what the scoring is, the other pieces on the program (so I know what to do/what not to do), who some of the major clarinet choir groups are, and so on. It’s been incredibly helpful since I started using it about a year and a half ago, and my plan is to start having my students do the same this spring.

A PDF copy of the form is available at https://ip.vanderburg.io/files/document/2BFBCD4D-5B3C-4BC6-AB6C-45F17A69D17E/