how to be a composer 3): don’t wait for inspiration

As a high schooler who wrote songs for his ska band, I relied on inspiration to compose my songs. You all know the feeling… something inspires you to create and you are filled with a surplus of motivation and ideas. It feels good, it all sounds right, and then, as if someone snuffed out your flame, it ENDS in a fizzle.

When I was writing pop/punk/ska songs, I would get a verse and a chorus and then the inspiration-flame would burn out. Afterwards, I was stuck for weeks, sometimes months, with the second-verse cursethe inability to continue writing the song once you wrote the first verse and chorus.

So I waited for inspiration to come–like it was a random wind that blew my direction once in a blue moon to bestow upon me all of the good ideas I was looking for.

I was held hostage by my limited understanding of what “inspiration” actually was.

Understanding Inspiration

This is the first definition of inspiration:

“the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative”

Songwriters, composers, creators–we are first wooed by inspiration’s touch–as if it is a gift given to us that stimulates our creative juices. We understand it as something that happens to us.

Don’t wait for inspiration. It may be the generative gift that started your creative process, but it is misunderstood. Instead of something you have to wait for, inspiration is always out there, waiting for you to grab it and get to work.

Take a look at the second definition of “inspiration:”

“the drawing in of breath; inhalation.”

When you contemplate the physical act of breathing, by the definition above, you realize that “inspiration” is something you are in control of. YOU determine when it begins and when it ends.

By choosing to “draw in a breath” you are taking the fresh air and making something with it. You are actively reaching out and grabbing that inspiration for your creative use.

Sounds easy, right? Of course it’s not. So let’s talk technical.

Practicing Inspiration

As a composer of music, when musical ideas “come” to us, we have to be ready with the mindset and the tools. We have to write ideas down (words, music notation), record them, orchestrate them, understand the music theory behind them, etc. All of those activities require years and years of study and practice. When you build those skills, your ability to record, notate, and manipulate your inspired ideas becomes greater. Your capacity to document musical ideas increases but only because you practiced the skills necessary to do so.

If you are beginning your creative journey, it is important to start composing as a daily habit. Or at least an every-other-day routine.

I am a big proponent of the project-based life–so I often start composing with a specific goal in mind. Simply put: pick an ensemble and have a general vision of the scope of your project. If you are just beginning or need a palate cleanse, start with a solo instrument like piano, or any other unaccompanied solo instrument, or a simple duet.

Once your instrumentation is set, give yourself a simple task like one of the following:

  1. compose a melody with an antecedent and consequent phrase.
  2. construct a chord progression or harmonic rhythm
  3. build a series of textures that can be overlaid on a chord progression, separately or together
  4. write a two part free counterpoint
  5. etc.

Continuing the use of simple tasks (self prescribed assignments) can extend beyond the start of the piece into the construction and completion of complex music. I often look at it as a binary decision. Every time I am confronted with an option, I turn it into a “yes” or “no” question. I answer it, and then I move on. This forces you to not linger on decisions and to simply move forward. Once you get past the initial frustrations of starting and continuing, composing becomes easier.

Editing with Inspiration

Editing. No one likes it (usually) but this is where the magic happens. Here’s a funny thought: you don’t need to be inspired to edit your music.  The first thing you do need to do though, is avoid the playback button on your software at all costs. STOP listening to what you have done as a means of considering what will come next or what to change. Instead, audiate through what you have composed, or where you left off, and move forward with new material. Once you can break your habit of constant playback (what I refer to as “playback disease”), you can really get into the editing process.

Here’s what I suggest: Audiate through your piece and as you go, make a list of concerns, ideas, edits, suggestions, experiments to try, etc. Write these down somehow. Once you have made it through, simply go through your list and complete the tasks you assigned yourself. These may be things like:

  1. add dynamics to m. 25-37
  2. orchestrate a building crescendo by adding instrumental layers
  3. add two more measures between m. 101 and 102
  4. clarify the chord progression in m. 42
  5. etc.

or less specifically:

  1. why does the B section sound bad?
  2. does the last recap need more percussion?
  3. what would Philip Glass do instead?

By doing this, you create a dialog with yourself that strengthens your inspiration and your ability to compose. These “edit lists” can even generate new ideas, new epiphanies, and foster growth in your ability to “draw-in” inspired ideas.

So don’t wait. Practice your inspiration and watch it cultivate and grow!

What is The BEST THING EVER?

Apparently, everything is #thebestthingever. One of the most ubiquitous hashtags out there, #thebestthingever is a celebration of well, everything, and nothing, all at once.

It is a burrito. A generation. A fleeting joy captured on Instagram a billion times. It is Josh Groban singing Donald Trump tweets.

It is also my next song cycle. Seriously, I know. Composed from the poetry of Laura Theobald’s same title book, THE BEST THING EVER is a post-minimalist pop-expressionist electronically-misted twenty-seven-and-a-half minute work exploring us and our phones. (Are you reading this on your phone?)

This poetry is unusual and groundbreaking because it was written using only the iPhone’s predictive text software–so it has Laura’s voice as expressed through her text message and status update patterns, filtered through her poetic abilities and Siri’s intelligible but slightly-off sentence construction. Our soprano, Jessica Louise Coe, will be singing to/in/with her iPhone throughout the cycle. If you come to the concert on March 30, you will also be welcome to be on your phone (just keep it silent for now, please). If you don’t live nearby you can watch the performance on your phone, streamed through some service yet to be determined.

There is also a preview & lecture event on March 29 from 11:00 to 11:50 am, EST at Kalamazoo College’s Light Fine Arts Building. This too, will be streamed to your devices via Facebook live (direct from my phone).

So make sure you “like” Adam Schumaker (that’s me) on the Facebook. You can do that by clicking my name right there. Yep. That’s it.

The song cycle is scored for a “Pierrot lunaire” ensemble, which will be performed by the new music ensemble What Is Noise–a decentralized group of renegade professors and artists who secretly convene upon a city to disseminate new music propaganda. Or in this case, some Stucky, McLoskey, and THE BEST THING EVER.

So come check it out:

The BEST THING EVER

March 30, 2017

7:30 pm

Dalton Theater at Kalamazoo College

 

dried tobacco & concert promotion

It’s been a while since I have blogged. Well, in a few days I have a concert to produce, and it’s not my own!

On January 11 at 7:30 pm, anyone in or near Kalamazoo can come hear the Michigan premier of the Dried Tobacco Project at the Kalamazoo College Arcus Center for Social Justice and Leadership. The space is not your traditional concert hall, and it will be beautiful. Just look at these pictures!


The Dried Tobacco Project is not to be missed. At 5 pm there is a workshop, “Queering the Canon: Turning Text into Music into Justice” by our artists, Cassandra and Ian. After that you can stay for the  6 pm Dinner, followed by the 7:30 pm concert. If you want to take part of dinner and all the offerings, it’s best to RSVP to acsjl@kzoo.edu.

The Dried Tobacco Project is a song cycle with a message. Composed and performed by Cassandra Kaczor with baritone Ian McGuffin, with poetry by author Will Brooks.The work is a message of hope and a way to understand “particularly oppressed persons who have experienced or are currently experiencing situations of bullying, abandonment, and depression.”

The songs-which masterfully shift between spoken word, whistling, and expressionistic vocals delivered by the emotive Ian McGuffin-teeter on the edge of a breakdown or soothe you like a warm cup of soup, or somewhere in between those ranges of emotion. The music is contemporary with hints of southern blues and gospel, and always evoking the sensations and imagery set up by the poets words.

The 7:30 program will last about 45 minutes and this is our stage:

To hear an interview with myself, Cassandra, and Ian, tune in to WMUK 102.1 FM at 10 am EST on Tuesday, January 10. The program will also include selections of the song cycle performed live in WMUK’s Takeda Studio.

Dr. Lisa Brock, academic director of the Arcus Center, will also appear with me on the Lori Moore Show this Monday, January 9, sometime around 4 pm EST.

We hope to see you there.

-Adam Schumaker

money transparency

On October 9, 9pm EST, I am hosting a #musochat titled “Money Transparency.” First, a #musochat is a real-time chat on Twitter and it’s loads of fun. @Musochat has a great following of creative musicians from all over with fantastic thoughts. But what is money transparency?

“Money transparency” is the idea that our conversations about money, no matter how large or how small, should be more transparent. We should un-apologetically lay the real numbers on the table and stop tip-toeing around financial discussions. 

Especially with employers/employees. Especially with our peers. Especially in gig-based economies like music and art.

This idea of “money transparency” also contains the notions that we should 1.) stop feeling bad for wanting to make money with our art 2.) be willing to describe what we want, and negotiate as necessary 3.) be willing to advocate for our peers and colleagues, and 4.) honestly approach deficits, debts, or losses.

So let’s chat about money, within the context of a professional musical life, this Sunday night (October 9) 9 pm EST for #musochat.

Follow me on Twitter @SchumakerA

Follow @Musochat

search the live tab for “#musochat”

 

 

put yourself out there

As a professor of music composition and arts entrepreneurship, I relentlessly push my students to “get themselves out there” and submit to competitions, network within their disciplines. During a lesson, I don’t just talk music-I ask who will hear the piece, what my student will do with it, and how they are pushing themselves to gain experience through networking and gigs.

This summer, I decided to take more of my own medicine and push myself to do the same. Here are the results:

Losses: 6

Wins: 3

Here is the list of things I submitted to: 1.) I wrote a large grant for the New Music USA project grants but didn’t get it, 2.) I was deep in the interview process to be hired to score a feature film and made it to the top 10 but didn’t get hired, 3.) I submitted my samples for two other film scoring opportunities and didn’t get hired, 4.) I scored one scene for a short film called The Stock Boy, for experience, exposure, and networking, 5.) I wrote a grant for the Kalamazoo Artistic Development Initiative and received full funding, but that was paired with the grant from New Music USA for which I received NO funding, 6.) I got a last minute rush gig composing some incidental music for an off-broadway play in NYNY. 7.) I submitted a proposal for a commission opportunity from Experiments in Opera, but unfortunately only made it to the top ten, 8.) I submitted a proposal for a commission from Listenpony in the UK and of the 200 applicants, I alas, did not make the cut.

All of this activity occurred between March 2016 and August 2016. It took an enormous amount of time and I did it alongside of composing and working on the few deadlines I have. For the grant I was awarded, I still have about 30-40 minutes of music that needs to be composed (it is only in rough-sketch form at the moment, but at least I have a wonderful text by Laura Theobald, and a great collaborator-the new music ensemble What is Noise).

When I look at the numbers, it’s really not bad. If I were only submitting to composition competitions, it may be more depressing. Eric Whitacre wrote a really nice article about competitions. My favorite quote is this:

It will steel your will and prepare you for a career filled with rejection. Did I mention that you won’t win?”

Yeah, you probably will not win. But that’s not the point.

The point is to practice. To put yourself out there. To constantly hush the voices of self doubt and relentlessly try, unapologetically.

This may result in a few commissions. Hell, maybe you will win one of those godforsaken competitions. Even the worst possible scenario is kinda awesome: you will have a pile of finished pieces and demos and examples of your music and artistry. And if you persist, the universe will send opportunities back to you. People will know you write music. Your name may come up in a conversation somewhere and a friend of a friend of a friend may pass your name off to the right person.

You will get the gig. And yes, it will feel good. But you have to infinitely try, without concern.

As I finish this blog post, I am also working on my tenth opportunity of the summer. Will I win? or will I lose the gig? regardless, I’ll have made a good impression AND I’ll have another track to add to my demo reel.

So go PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE.

how to be a composer 2): lighting & mood

Now that you have the best pencil ever and the staff paper of your choosing [see my blog about this: how to be a composer 1): pencils & paper], you have to set the mood. And the lighting. Sometimes they are the same thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have learned to compose everywhere and anywhere. I keep my laptop close and my staff paper closer. Just in case. Gotta be prepared. However, having a “home base”–a studio space that is set up for working, is really helpful. Continue reading