Overcoming composer’s block

I have the greatest sympathy and respect for those who cultivate music in their free time; their passion and dedication are essential for the survival of our profession. For an amateur musician, playing an instrument, singing in a choir or even writing music can be the highlight of the week. Being a professional musician, however, often involves practicing even when we have no desire to do so or writing music when we are completely out of ideas. I have no doubts that those who choose composing as a profession do it out of love (especially because it usually implies a rocky path toward financial stability) but surviving in the professional circuits can be extremely taxing, particularly when confronted with deadlines that add pressure to an already demanding activity.

Let’s face it: inspiration, world premieres and travels don’t account for even a fourth of our time. When music making is our main source of income, the act of composing is a little less glamorous. For the most part we find ourselves in solitary seclusion, battling against time while seeking perfection and artistic realization. Sometime we are full of ideas and we suddenly feel that everything flows naturally. But what to do when the blank staff paper in front of us remains blank for hours or days and no ideas worth noting down come to our aid?

With time, each composer develops his/her own strategies to overcome a composer’s block, but there’s not a lot of advice out there on this topic. In this article I don’t pretend to lay out a guide out of the maze, but at least I can share my own experience.

I suggest we start by setting a deadline. This deadline should be reasonable and should contemplate enough time for preparation/research, composition and edition. If we have a publisher, we also have to take into account the time required to produce the parts. Setting a reasonable deadline is the very first step. It is not healthy to take commissions that we simply cannot fulfill on time or where trying to fulfill them would inevitably lead to sleepless nights and lots of stress. Sometimes no matter how many precautions we take, these can’t be avoided, but we can improve our chances of having a smooth working period if we know and accept our limitations and estimate the delivery times accordingly.

Rest should be included in our self-imposed schedule. When nobody is regulating us and we are masters and commanders of our own time, achieving a high degree of discipline can be a difficult task. This is not a job where our progress is being monitored, so our schedule must contemplate rest in order to ensure the quality of our work. The way I do this is by staying away from composing at least one day of the week. It helps dissipate my mind and start the week with renewed energy. If you go to the working desk drained and exhausted, I can guarantee you: ideas won’t be flowing out of you.

Know when to stop. It’s important to set a time of the day to start working but it is equally important to know when to give up, at least temporarily. Trying to force ideas out of our heads might lead to frustration. And even if you manage to write a few more bars, you might regret those bars the next morning. I prefer to compose only when I am completely sharp and all my faculties are at their best. Since we supervise ourselves, we must be critical but not to the point where we simply can’t go on because we end up being unsatisfied with everything we write down.

However, if days go by and absolutely nothing comes out, we might need to change strategies. In this case I would suggest sitting down and writing something. There is a time for criticism, but when we are trying to overcome composer’s block, we need to write down whatever comes to mind (no quality control at this point) so that ideas start flowing. It might be a good idea to sit at the piano or our instrument of choice and improvise for an hour or so until some musical gestures catch our attention. Next, we can take those ideas and start developing them.

Don’t try to write chronologically. Ideas don’t always come in a chronological order and trying to arrange them this way may hinder their potential. Let’s suppose we start with a motif and develop it for a while. One day we suddenly come up with a gesture that is not directly connected to it. At this point we can choose to continue with the previous idea, develop the new gesture or try to connect them both. If both gestures are incompatible but we nevertheless force a connection, we might be doing double damage: the first idea will not develop to its full potential and the second idea won’t be able to shine, even if it had the potential to spark a whole new composition by itself. The best course of action is simply to explore the second idea and develop it. Who knows, it might become another movement or we can save it for another occasion and use it in a later piece.

One of the first times I faced composer’s block was about ten years ago, when writing “Vortex”, a short piece for piano. A friend of mine, Sampo, was going through a similar experience so he suggested meeting everyday and showing each other our progress. We did so for the first week and although we didn’t continue, the strategy worked and generated enough motivation within us to continue on our own. The reason why I was facing a block at that moment was because I was exhausted. I had had no rest for many months and yet I had to write this piece. Today I would probably refuse, but back in the day I hadn’t yet learned to say no. In any case, I decided to devote exactly one hour each day to writing the piece. This worked marvelously because this constraint meant that during that one hour I was extremely concentrated. Eventually, ideas kept coming to my head throughout the day to the point which, when the moment came to write them down, I was in a race against the clock to write everything down rather than forcing myself to writing something.

There is no question that maintaining a daily routine can help. After all, composing can also be thought as mental gymnastics. The moment of inspiration is usually so brief that when it is gone, all we are left with is blank paper and hard work. Developing a routine helps keep ideas flowing at all times. Many of us might have noticed that although we are not in front of the piano or the working desk, our brains keep working on solving problems that were posed before. Sometimes we find solutions while working on them, but this can also happen while taking a walk, working out or even during our sleep.

Sometimes it can also help to work on two pieces simultaneously, so if we meet a dead end on one piece, we can switch to the other one. In 2004 I worked simultaneously on my ballet “Los Magos del Silencio” and “Varem”, my concerto for koto and orchestra. Transitioning from one piece to the other was hard at first, but as I did it more often I realized it was becoming easier. Both pieces were very different from each other. Varem had a very well-thought-of harmonic, rhythmic and formal plan. In fact, I composed the six movements in reverse order. The ballet on the other hand, was freer and although the order of all dance numbers had been decided beforehand, everything else had to be started from scratch. I liked the contrast between these pieces because it was precisely their difference that made it easier for me to compartmentalize them within my brain and work on them simultaneously without letting them influence each other.

It might be somewhat comforting to know that even great composers have gone through difficult times trying to overcome composer’s block. During the last 30 years of his life Jean Sibelius composed very little, while Rossini mysteriously retired at 37. On the other end of the spectrum we have Händel who famously composed his entire Messiah oratorio in 24 days. It might also help to take ourselves more lightly: “Composer’s combine notes, that’s all” Stravinsky would tell Robert Craft in his dialogues. In moments of hardship it is essential to ask ourselves “what brought us to music in the first place?” It is the answer to the question that will invariably lead us to the fertile grounds of our own creativity.  As Debussy would say: “It is necessary to abandon yourself completely, and let the music do as it will with you. All people come to music to seek oblivion” [1].

[1] The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (2003) by Simon Trezise.

About Jimmy López Bellido

My name is Jimmy López Bellido and I am a composer. I was born in Lima, Peru 40 years ago and I have lived in several places including Miami, Helsinki, Paris, and now Berkeley, California. The decision to open a blog stems out of a personal need to voice my views on the situation of the contemporary composer in our world today. Through my words, I hope to spark constructive discussion on issues relevant to the aforementioned topic. I invite you to participate by expressing your thoughts and opinions and to visit my website, at www.jimmylopez.com Welcome!
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