composition prompts

Currently: November 2017

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I always like to take time during holiday breaks to slow down and reflect on what’s been going on lately. Here’s what I’m up to this week:

  • Relaxing for a few days with very little on the agenda beyond eating and having a game night with friends.

  • Enjoying two lovely Thanksgiving meals with family.

  • Feeling grateful for so many things.

  • Still walking daily. I’ve gotten so attached to my daily walk for its effect on my mental health and meditative power to affect my mindset that I’m committed to bundling up even when windchills here in Minnesota are reaching single digits (😬)

  • Drawing a lot with my new markers😍

  • Releasing expectations on my time (for once!)

  • Listening to: NPR Music Turns 10 yearly recap episodes of All Songs Considered, Chris Thile + Brad Mehldau (I LOVE their cover of Elliott Smith's Independence Day), Tulio Araujo, Eunbi Kim playing music of Fred Hersch, St. Vincent (Strange Mercy is still my favorite), Maria Rita, and Sharon Jones’ new posthumously released album (RIP!)

  • Pondering the question "What Makes A Great Album Last?" (also inspired by NPR Music). I love how Robin Hilton expresses it in this episode: “I think for a record to truly stand the test of time, it's got to find a way to weave itself into your DNA.” Those albums that I had strong emotions about, related to formative times in my life, are definitely imprinted, especially albums either from the late 90s/early 00s or that I discovered then: Ben Folds Five's Whatever and Ever Amen, Elliott Smith's XO and Figure 8, Radiohead's OK Computer, Joni Mitchell's Blue and Court and Spark, and basically all of Stevie Wonder's albums from the 70s, especially Innervisions. (This topic could be a whole post!)

  • Reading: Grit by Angela Duckworth, and just finished The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

  • Catching up on The Good Place Season 2.

  • Roasting all of the vegetables (squash, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower!)

  • Rehearsing for this concert of pieces for trombone by women composers with my friend Lauren Husting.

  • Experimenting with breathwork

  • Pondering my plans for 2018 - I'm 90% sure that my word for the year is going to be CONNECT.

  • Looking forward to getting out of town to someplace slightly warmer in a couple weeks - I’m going to North Carolina for a concert with James Newcomb.

  • Getting ready to finish up my set of composition prompts next week and brainstorming about what form they’ll evolve into next. To stay informed about this resource when I finish it, sign up below!

I’m wishing everyone a wonderful Thanksgiving (unless you’re not in the U.S., then happy Thursday!) - if you’re reading this, I’m grateful for you!

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How To Keep Up A Creative Habit When Life Gets in the Way

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Keeping up creative habits (or any habits) is not easy, but it can be done!

I’m almost always super busy, but I'm managing to do two 100 Day composing challenges this year (almost halfway through the second one now!)

How?

Mainly, I kept it to a manageable amount of writing (only required myself to write 8 measures a day), and chose a format to my challenge that included public accountability (more about that later).

Why?

Some of us have this idyllic, Pinterest-fueled idea of creative habits (sitting down to write in a picturesque place with a hot beverage and a smile), but really, daily life has lots of obstacles, there's resistance, distractions, the list goes on.

If you’re like me, on the positive side, your creative habit makes you feel more like yourself, connected to the universe, excited about life, curious, interested in things, etc. This is how I strive to feel (although I have no magical unicorns flying around)!

Despite all of these good feelings that come from creating, there’s the negative side, too - feelings of self-doubt, uncertainty, all of the feelings! (seriously, read The War of Art).

When it comes down to it, you have to know your why for your creative habit. For me, part of it is knowing that I want to amass a body of work that will make me proud when I get old. In the muck of the everyday, that’s not always easy to remember, but I don’t like to make Future Me mad at Past Me (that’s the worst).

How do we make this happen?

  • Make it easier to do the habit - remove barriers (distractions like social media, Internet, pick a time when you’re less tired, etc.)

  • Make sure you don’t just plain forget to do it (especially early in the habit-forming process).

  • Reminders of your why - visual reminders in your workspace, on your bathroom mirror, even paper that you’ll trip over on the way to door. There will always be obstacles, so a commitment to yourself and your habit is crucial.

  • Figure out a trigger for your habit (for example, you could always do it first thing in the morning or after another activity).

  • Make yourself feel successful, with realistic, or even ridiculously small goals (floss 1 tooth) - do it daily no matter the outcome.

  • Expect resistance - it won’t feel easy or inspiring every day, and this is totally normal.

  • Check in with yourself regularly to see how/if your habit is working, and tweak your commitment as needed - this is okay!

  • Get more comfortable with uncertainty - the blank page can bring up so many other uncertainties that we feel, especially when creating is our work (am I any good at this?, etc.) So, you have to know yourself and know your excuses. Leo Babauta addresses this really well in a recent Zen Habits post.

  • Public accountability (if that motivates you) - I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s book The Four Tendencies, which sorts people into 4 types based on how they respond to inner and outer expectations. I’m an Obliger (tends to meet outer expectations, and resist inner expectations) with a lean towards Upholder (tends to meet both inner and outer expectations). This book is more fascinating to me than most other “personality type” books because it really addresses different ways that people are suited to forming habits (super useful to me as a teacher).

  • DON’T GIVE UP! The process of forming habits is also a learning process. So, give yourself some grace. If you miss a day, this is not a failure - just start back up the next day. People who miss two days in a row of a habit are way more likely to give up entirely.

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You can do this, too!

If you’re a musician who wants to compose more, and is also motivated by external accountability, you can join the Creative Musician Club to form some community around your habit! I’m taking a small group of people this fall to test out some prompts, starting Monday, November 6.

You’ll get 21 daily emails, each with a prompt to get you started writing a piece of music. These prompts aren't intended to make you finish each piece, but just to plant a seed, so, if you participate for a week, you'll already have 7 new ideas! You’ll also get an invite to join a Facebook group where we’ll share successes and struggles - a great place for encouragement and accountability. I'm going to be doing the prompts right alongside you, too, as part of my 100 More Days of Writing Music challenge - you can follow along on Instagram here.

EDIT: This 21-day challenge is over, but I'm formulating a free course that includes daily prompts and access to the Facebook group - to be notified when it opens, sign up below!

And, if you need more help deciding on and keeping healthy habits to support your creativity, I have just the thing: 

What are your struggles with keeping habits, creative or otherwise? Let me know in the comments!

100 More Days of Writing Music: What I'm Noticing So Far

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I recently completed Day 25 of my 2nd 100 Day composing project this year: 100 More Days of Writing Music. I’m writing 8 measures of music a day, and posting it on Instagram under the same hashtag as the first time around: #100daysofwritingmusic. You can read about my experience with the 100 Day Project earlier this year here: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4, and listen to recordings of my compositions on SoundCloud below! 

How is this time the same/different from the first 100 days?

  • I’m finding the same level of difficulty in showing up to write - it’s a daily obligation, but one that I enjoy, and the length (8 measures) is very doable. Consistency is queen!

  • I tend to be either continuing the same piece day after day until it’s finished, or the total opposite, often bouncing over to something new after writing one day’s snippet. I’m generally deciding to work on whatever feels right that day, a sense that I developed during the first 100 Days, and continue to evolve into now.

  • Sometimes working in groups of 8 measures is limiting - it tends to make me group phrases this way (which is common), but not always. There’s nothing stopping me from writing more each day, but I often don’t have much extra time and stop at 8.

  • This approach can make it hard to do big picture planning. I usually feel the need to write continuously, so that I have 8 measures to show, but otherwise I might not write a piece exactly in order, or might lay out repeated sections roughly where they will eventually go. This feels like cheating in terms of the daily challenge because, well, I already wrote those same 8 measures, but that is actually what’s going into the piece. Thinking about this project as idea generation is more helpful, then I can edit later on, which is always easier once you get some distance from the time of creation.

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What else have I learned/noticed so far?

  • It’s more fun when I make and share videos, (either on Instagram Stories, regular Instagram posts, or on YouTube), for me, and probably for everyone else. I haven’t been doing that as much because my piano is horrifically out of tune and I’m waiting for the weather to change more drastically before tuning it, but I should just do some IG Stories anyway (you can follow me here).

  • I’m really excited to be keeping up this habit, sharing what I’m writing, and strengthening my skills and identity as a composer, but doing it only online is starting to feel kind of insular, as is constantly writing only for piano. I’m ready to start writing for other instruments and having other people play my music (a little bit daunting, but I feel excited about it!) I’m also wanting to work on finding ways to expose my music to a wider audience, since most people who have been following along with my 100 Day projects have been people that I already know.

I’m working on coming up with a set of composing prompts for myself, to stretch out a little, and you can join me, too! (More about that soon.)

  • Ideas beget ideas and inspiration begets inspiration - this is the reason to show up every day to write, but also to seek out new music by other composers. I played a concert of local (MN) composer Chris Granias’ music on October 8, and was very inspired by the amount that he’s written, and how themes interweave through different works, etc. It made me want to come home and write all night (sadly I did not, I was too tired - #reallife).

  • The first 100 Days made me feel less precious about the creative process, since I was writing something new every single day, but I’m starting to take that attitude further through the process to performing, as well. It was super helpful to test-drive a new tune during my solo gig at Shipwrecked Studio over the weekend, although I’m not sure it’s 100% finished. It was easier for me to view it as “I’m trying this out”, rather than “This must be a finished work that is GREAT.”

Now that I’ve accumulated so much work, it’s time to do something with it!

I plan on starting to record the pieces from 100 More Days in the next couple weeks (which you can find in the same playlist on SoundCloud as posted above. I am also working on notating and publishing some of my works - look for that on my website soon!