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The Black Dog: More thoughts on writers’ block

In response to a recent post by Zack Moir, I thought I might wade in with some related musings and give offer suggestions to banish the ‘black dog’ that is writer’s block.

In common with Zack, I struggle to balance my musical practice with the teaching and administrative demands of academia, and the general push and pull of simply living life. I recognise all of the worries that he outlines – and, I dare say, that they are probably universally experienced by those who compose music. The act of committing musical ideas to paper (or hard-disc), for posterity is a daunting prospect. Improvisation, albeit differently challenging, doesn’t run the same risk of sustained critique – when it’s over, it’s over and quickly becomes just a vague memory (good or bad). Composing, however, exposes you to the judgement of fellow musicians, listeners and critics. And, most frighteningly, they have the ability to review your work over and over again, giving you never ending fresh insights into what’s wrong with your it (or, on a brighter day, what’s right about it).

Personally, I find the following strategies provide some motivation. And motivation is generally the first stumbling block over which to jump:

I don’t like anyone else’s music quite enough:

Firstly, I should say that I try to keep an open and positive outlook when listening to anyone’s music – it’s a necessary outlook for remaining impartial in marking of student work, after all. That said, it’s very rare that a single piece of music fulfils all my expectations and desires. It may well go a long way towards satisfying my aesthetic needs but I can generally find some aspects that I feel might be improved. These shortcomings are, of course, usually entirely subjective, unless the music is simply just a bit rubbish, and the act of identifying them and thinking about ‘fixes’ often inspires me to have a go at a ‘better version’ – albeit in a different, and personalised, context. Other people’s ‘mistakes’ are, thereby, a good place to get started – if only to make new ‘mistakes’ of your own.

Cash:

Nothing focuses the creative mind as well as someone else’s belief in your output. If someone out there thinks it’s a good idea to give you money to write some music then, surely, you must be able to find the wherewithal to repay that faith in your abilities. That’s stage one of the process. The next one goes more like “They’ve made a terrible mistake. I haven’t a clue how to write music. I know I’ve written stuff before, but I can’t for the life of me remember how I went about it. Why did I encourage them to have faith in me? Is it too late to back out?”

But at least the mind is focused and you start the process of trying to rediscover your forgotten craft.

The deadline:

Whether it’s to satisfy a commission brief or finish work according to a self-imposed deadline, an endpoint can be your saviour. I generally find it most workable to start on lots of individual compositions at the same time (in my case I’m generally writing an album’s worth of tunes these days). Composition is, I’m sure most will agree, a self-absorbing exercise. It’s all too easy to get caught up in either a self-congratulatory loop of a single good idea (which you play over and over again just to remind yourself of how good it is and how clever you are) or a repetitive banging of your head on a table top because a single idea, one that should work, simply won’t. By spread betting on a number of different ideas, you can (with a little discipline) move from one to the other, avoiding both of the above pitfalls. It also pushes you to think holistically while considering variety – kind of what an album should be all about, in my opinion.

Arranging:

It’s too easy to accept a composition as an inferior example of your abilities (if indeed you can remember what those are). Arranging is often overlooked as an effective way of polishing the proverbial. Simply considering chord voicings, inversions, rhythmic placement of accompaniment, instrumentation etc. can breathe new life into a dead-horse-of-a-tune.

Write with performers in mind:

Easily the most satisfying approach to writing that I’ve found is in writing for specific musicians. You’ve heard them play in rehearsal, at gigs or on recordings, and you can conjure up a fairly good idea of what they’re good (and not so good) at, what they enjoy playing (and what they don’t) and how they relate to music and musicians. Knowing who’ll be playing what you write gives the creative imagination shape and purpose and takes composing from the theoretical realm to one that’s a lot more real. And, at the end of it all, what’s music if not a collaborative exercise – writing for others takes some of the pressure off you. Their inputs add another layer of shine on your output.

Notes cost nothing:

The final piece of advice is based on the fact that nothing is precious. If an idea is not working, maybe it’s because it’s no good (or at least of no real interest). Ditch it and start afresh. I suspect that it’s a commonly held hang-up amongst composers that an idea has to be worked and worked until it works – as if the time investment that has been put into it has to be honoured in some way. Much like Zack’s Moleskin notebook, I’ve spent a lifetime writing little ideas down – I recently threw out an entire cardboard box of them in a de-cluttering exercise. The intention is always to go back to them, rework them, expand them, but somehow you never quite get around to it. For me, at least, the only good idea is the one that you have in the moment. The idea of recycling something that was interesting to you in the past doesn’t inspire me one little bit. But discarded ideas are useful – they all add up to the composer that you’re trying to remember how to be. They’re your creative DNA – and they cost nothing but a little time and pencil-lead (and a few hundred erasers).

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Dr Haftor Medbøe is Jazz Musician in Residence and Lecturer in Composition at Edinburgh Napier University School of Music. Haftor was appointed full-time lecturer in 2009 following a 20 year freelance career that encompassed composition for theatre, film and television, performance, community work, industry mentoring and consultancy. Haftor has presented papers at conferences throughout Europe for, amongst others, International Musicological Society, Rhythm Changes, KISMIF and HEA. In addition to his teaching and research roles at the Edinburgh Napier, Haftor remains active on the local and national jazz scenes. His eponymous group has to date recorded five albums and performed UK-wide to critical and audience acclaim.

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