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Composing is Like Alligator Wrestling

I’ve been composing during this slow month of December.

Does that sound glamorous? Maybe so, and I don’t want to minimize the ecstasy that happens when a piece is started or when a piece is finished. But ohhhhh that middle part. That part that takes up most of the composing time. That’s the extremely unglamorous and messy part. I wrote a little about the messiness of composing even elementary music here.

But this month’s messiness was a little more extreme and discouraging at first. Why?

What is composing?

I don’t believe in sitting down at the piano and improvising and then notating what I’ve improvised. That has a definite purpose and should certainly be done in some cases, but that’s not composing to me. I’m sure some might disagree.

I’ve been trained that composing is a craft. And with all crafts, it takes brainstorming (the fun part), planning, practice, failing, and honesty about the “meh” ideas that have to be discarded.

Last week, I discarded pretty much most of what I composed. It was either too predictable, or too avant garde. It was either too much like what I’ve heard before or not enough of what people like to hook them. It was a week where lots of ideas seemed great at first but then revealed that they didn’t have room to grow.

I’m not telling you this to get sympathy. I’m telling you this because last week, I needed to be reminded of how hard composing is sometimes. And since I needed to be reminded, I imagine there are others that need to be reminded too.

The truth is that sometimes we have to throw away a lot of material in order to get something unique or even useful.

Alligator wrestling and grace

Composing is like wrestling an alligatorI was particularly encouraged this week when I read a little of what Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life – A Writer in the Word.* She summarizes exactly what I need to hear on occasion. I hope it’s helpful to you too:

…it feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence. This is your life. You are a Seminole alligator wrestler. Half-naked, with your two bare hands, you hold and fight a sentence’s head while its tail tries to knock you over.

Of course, you can easily substitute the word “sentence” with “melody” or “harmony” or “motive.” But I love what she goes on to say, which very much applies to composing:

At its best, the sensation of writing [composing] is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then–and only then–it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye, you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way, on two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you’d hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.

The importance of study as a composer

In the same essay, Annie talks about the great writers and the writers they studied. So it’s good to be reminded to actually study the compositions of the great composers. And it’s important to study them at both the macro and micro level. It’s easy to think that becoming a good composer means that you just need to practice the craft every day. But, I have found that the best compositions come only after I’ve spent time looking at how other composers have crafted their own melodies, form, and more. Even if I don’t use any of the material, there is something that lifts the quality of a composition when you begin to assimilate these ideas.

The reality of composing

The reality is that composing good music is hard work, but even the messy process is valuable though no one will see most of what a composer writes. I love what Annie says most here after she has been talking about alligator wrestling and then writing as any unmerited grace. She says:

One line of a sonnet, the poet said–only one line of fourteen, but thank God for that one line–drops from the ceiling.

For my composing friends, may you have a line or two drop from the heavens this week!

Read more:

*I don’t currently own The Writing Life. I asked for it for Christmas. But portions of this book are in a book I do have called The Abundance, which is a collection of excerpts from Annie’s many books. And I’m quoting from this book in this post. Both of these are affiliate links which just means I get a very small percentage of the price of the book if you buy it (but it’s the same price to you no matter what). But I don’t care if you use the affiliate link or not. I just want you to be encouraged about composing.

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9 Comments

  1. Renee H. McKee December 12, 2017 at 7:59 am

    Thank you Wendy. I love your heart. I’ve ordered The Writing Life through your link to give as a gift to my grown son, a composer/song-writer/poet. The mystery of how hard work and grace co-exists in a writer’s life intrigues me. The grace/work conundrum is a life-searching question in any context, actually. I look forward to conversations with my son after he reads (and lends me!) this book.

  2. Barbara December 12, 2017 at 9:37 am

    Ahh, the honesty and vulnerability of the composer! Thanks for showing, and sharing those qualities, Wendy. It’s easy to look at the many pieces you’ve composed and think it was a cinch for you to create these, so it’s good for all of us to remember that almost everything takes LOTS of WORK!! And that that’s ok!!

    I’m going to share your (and Annie’s) wise words with my students, especially the ones who say “It’s haaarrrddd!” I’m sure everyone knows THAT whine;) But mostly I’m going to keep these words close to my own heart so when I’m “working” on something I won’t be discouraged by the alligator.

    Merry Christmas and Happy 2018. Hope it’s filled with lots of great composing ideas that seem more like a basket of cute puppies, instead of alligators. Challenging, but make you smile:))

  3. Isabel December 12, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    Wonderful reminders of the composition process! As a fan of your compositions, I thank you for sharing your process. Discarding ideas isn’t a bad thing, indeed. Personally, I have found that “hoarding ideas” can be like hoarding possessions and can get in the way of the ideas that matter most. The filtering out of ideas is purifying and vital in the creative process.

  4. Wendy Stevens December 12, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    Thank you so much, Barbara! Your words mean a lot to me. And I so appreciate your support!

    Hmmm….ideas like a basket of cute puppies. That’s a wonderful word picture! 🙂

  5. Wendy Stevens December 12, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    Oh good, I’m glad it resonated with you, Renee! And I hope the book is helpful to your son as well.

  6. Wendy Stevens December 12, 2017 at 1:21 pm

    Yes, you are so right, Isabel. As a matter of fact, something else that Annie Dillard said is just like what you said,

    “Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

    Isn’t that beautifully true?

  7. Kathleen Isberg December 12, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    Thank you, Wendy! These are truly words of wisdom. As a person who writes as well as plays music, I appreciate this reminder about the struggle and the hard work involved in the creative process. It certainly does not all drop from the heavens…but there are those gems. I admire your hard work, dedication, and the music you have produced to share with the world.
    I will think seriously about ordering this book ( likely for my husband, also a writer as well as a painter), and then I’d get to read it too. 🙂

  8. Cheron December 12, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    Just wanted to say a big thank you Wendy for your lovely arrangement of Deck the Halls played by one of my pupils to start my Christmas Concert. Initially he struggled with the coordination but one month later he performed it with such enthusiasm and confidence!

  9. Wendy Stevens December 12, 2017 at 8:29 pm

    That’s great to hear, Cheron! Thank you for telling me that. I’m so glad to know that he played it with enthusiasm and confidence! I hope it motivates him for months to come!

    Thanks for using my music, Cheron!

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