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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.