Your Administrative Muse: Task-Management Strategies for Composers

Your Administrative Muse: Task-Management Strategies for Composers

Lisa Bielawa
Photo by Azzurra Primavera

Let’s face it—no one ever said that musically inclined people are all mysteriously endowed with the concomitant administrative and organizational skills required to make musical ideas a reality in these complex times. Email and the internet have arguably increased our productivity, but no one ever explains how the human organism itself can adapt to such new heights of efficiency. Yes, the machines can do more, but can we?

Maybe you write music with no angst, but when you start thinking about the hoops you need to jump through to get a score or a letter of inquiry out the door you get hives (or you open a beer and that next Netflix envelope). Or maybe you feel like all you ever do is drop scores and letters of inquiry in the mail and then find that when you sit down at the piano or your work desk, all you can think about is that other package you have yet to send. Unless you are comfortable with a) never catching much-needed opportunities for your work to be heard or b) writing an opera about sending packages, you have a brain-cell management issue. Welcome to the club.

I don’t have The Answer. But I have had many of the problems, and I am discovering ways—through experimentation and desperation—to navigate through many of these challenges more effectively. Here are some strategies that have helped me the most.

Know your own cycle. Do you write best between 6 and 9 a.m.? Do you prefer to have one whole day to devote to it? Analyze the demands of the rest of your life, both external (paying bills, doing your money gig, calling your sister) and internal or self-generated (sending that string quartet score to the nice violinist who asked to hear your stuff, asking for that letter of recommendation, researching grant programs that might help you get to that performance of your saxophone and marimba piece in Toronto). Experiment with your schedule, to the degree that this is possible, to find out when and how these other things can be accomplished without giving up your golden hours. Analyze how alert you need to be to do a task. The less sophisticated the task, the better candidate it is for your worst time of day. If I’m not sleepy when I get home from the fun party, I might be caught spiral-binding. What else is my mind suited for at a time like that? But I’m a morning person. You may get home from that same party inspired and full of energy, so you should sit down at the piano. Your spiral binding will take place tomorrow morning while you are making coffee, and while I (across town, split screen) am already at work at the piano.

Readiness is all. For the self-published composer, the wave of the present is to work with a music printing service like for score duplication. If you go this route, they keep .pdf files of your pieces on file and will prepare scores on-demand for not much more than it costs to produce the average do-it-yourself-at-Kinko’s score. I, however, am still more of a 20th-century composer and do my own photocopying. Every time I send out materials, I check my pile to see if I have everything I might need for a while. If I don’t, then before I go to the copy place for one task, I go through and see which pieces I’m running low on and make three or four copies of each.

Join forces. One popular way of handling the perennial self-motivation quandary of exercising is to get a personal trainer or go running with a friend. This method makes us accountable to someone besides ourselves for our workout, even though the overarching motivation is its private benefit. Some administrative and organizational tasks can be handled this way too. Make a grant-research or envelope-stuffing date with a colleague. Maybe your friend is lousy at printing out nice-looking materials but great at making phone calls and asking difficult questions. Your hands may get clammy on the phone, but perhaps you design a mean spreadsheet. Even if you are both good at the same things, making a date to do them at the same time will ensure that you will actually spend that time doing them, which frees up your brain both before and after.

Make your lists. Whether you use paper or software to make your to-do list, make sure you can break it down into easily conceptualized categories—by project or by kind (financial, new opportunities, filing, household)—so that it’s less overwhelming. Even separating it into an A list and a B list can be helpful, especially as you start organizing projects.

E-Triage. Email management is one of the most talked about stresses of modern life. Everyone I know is bemoaning the amount of time they spend dealing with email. Here is my method, which seems to be working so far: If something in the inbox can be handled right away, I just do it. After answering it, I file it in an email sub-folder to get it out of my inbox and help keep my messages manageably organized. If it’s something that needs to be answered with more attention and care than I can muster without some thought, or that needs attention beyond a mere response (a phone call, a package, a document), I leave it in the inbox until I can answer it. (After which I file it and get it out of my inbox). If something in the inbox needs special attention and is very time-sensitive, I flag it and also incorporate it into my A-list of things to do so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. This method ensures that everything in my inbox is waiting for my attention, and everything that no longer needs requires action is no longer visible.

When overwhelmed, always weigh your priorities. “Eek! There are six different grant programs with deadlines of January 15, and I need letters and recordings and scores for all of them! And it’s January 13!” Are some of these quarterly? Read the fine print on all of them before starting any of them. Are you and your project really eligible for all of them? In a pinch, three strong applications are more likely to yield interest in your work than six shoddy ones. Start keeping a calendar with future grant deadlines identified much further in advance. Then cut yourself some slack and get to work on those three, starting with either the gnarliest or the most important or the one most likely to yield results. Just because something made it onto your list this week doesn’t mean that, on further reflection, it needs to stay there. We’d like to think that everything on the list is just as important as every other thing, but when this assumption gets oppressive, it’s time to reassess.

Multi-task selectively. Not everyone is cut out to do all varieties of tasks on top of one another. Sometimes multi-tasking can become a whole mode of experience, and I find that I become less effective when I work this way for too long. Promise yourself some non-multi-tasking time every day. This can be either work time or down time, as long as it is one-thing-at-a-time time (remember, sometimes we even multi-task our leisure activities!). Some tasks fare just as well in combination with others: eating, printing stuff, preparing materials and packages, walking/talking, laundry, sorting, some phone calls. Other tasks are best focused on one at a time: eating (people are generally of two minds about this), much email correspondence, writing proposals and application materials, important phone calls, making your lists of things to do. Effective multi-tasking can show up in strange places: I’ve found that I work out compositional ideas while running, for example.

Space—the final frontier. We’ve all been told that if we live and work in the same space, living space and workspace should be separate. Many of us who live in big cities have to manage tiny apartments, so this advice can be hard to follow. I have found that if your life is, by necessity, a rather integrated flow of different demands and kinds of attention, it is best to let your space reflect that. Books I read for pleasure in the morning while making coffee live in the kitchen. Study scores and books for inspiration live near the piano. Books for which I need to get text permissions live by the office desk. Depending on what I’m using my laptop for, I will carry it to different rooms. Paying bills? Office area. Blogging about my current project? At the piano. Writing a grant application? On the sofa with a cup of tea. I do a certain kind of thinking well in each of these parts of my apartment, and the advent of the laptop makes it possible for me to range freely among them for optimum productivity and mental comfort.

Be a human being. One of the great myths among freelance creative people is that more structure (in time and space management, and perhaps in composition as well) is always good. We are not machines. The value of unstructured time and space is a relatively new discovery for me, and I find that not only is it making me feel better equipped for the logistical challenges of such an existence, it is actually making me happier all around (which, in turn, makes me more productive and more clear-headed in all of my endeavors). Unstructured time is a way of courting serendipity, and serendipity is the friend of creativity. Creativity in task management needs serendipity too, even if it is less glamorous than musical creativity. Let your administrative muse emerge!


Lisa Bielawa is “Music Alive” composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Artistic Director of the MATA Festival. She is currently at work on Chance Encounter, for soprano Susan Narucki and 12 instruments in transient public spaces, under the auspices of a grant from the Creative Capital Foundation. In 2007 the Tzadik label will release a CD of her music on the Composers Series.

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