Closeup of Jim Stephenson sitting in front of his piano, struggling in front of a piece of score paper that is marked up with various things crossed out and a section labelled "Bad"
Define Inspiration

Define Inspiration

Jim Stephenson sitting in front of his piano, struggling in front of a piece of score paper that is marked up with various things crossed out and a section labelled

I’m winging this article, starting now.

I confess that I came up with the title last night and, because I like wordplay (you know, divine inspiration” with a slightly German accent), I knew I would go with it. But beyond that, I merely had a lot of ideas that would need organization.

There are several things I knew going in, regarding the writing of this article:

  • It needs a catchy opening. (Hopefully the title and first sentence accomplished that.)
  • Every single word and sentence should carry the same DNA reflecting the tenor of the article.
  • It needs momentum that carries it forward from one salient idea to the next, all leading to a high point, which brings it all home. (I’m already painfully aware that too many parenthetical remarks will bog that process down—this being a case in point.)
  • It needs an ending that confirms the theme of the entire article, and leaves the audience with the feeling that the whole experience was worth their time.

(You don’t even want to know how many times I edited that list. But because “you don’t even want to know,” I’ll spare you these behind-the-scenes comments in the future. Just know that they’re there, lurking behind every sentence.)

But I better get on with the theme, or I will lose you. I’m already developing too much.

So, here it is…

Every time I give a presentation about my work, I am always asked the following question:

“Where do you get your inspiration?”

And herein lies the paradox that I’m not sure I can answer yet.

My usual answer is this: “I just get to work.”

But let’s consider the case of this article, for example. The title occurred to me in an instant, and within that instant, I knew I had enough ideas to fill an article. Up until that point, I honestly had absolutely no idea what I was going to write about. I am not claiming that it is a “divinely inspired” title, as that would be a little presumptuous. But the fact remains, it came to me when I needed it, so that I could meet my deadline.

Ah yes, there it is. I mentioned it. Deadlines. But more on that later. I just wanted to mention that word, so that I could pick up on that idea again later.

(Important behind-the-scenes note: Right now I am writing via stream of consciousness. If this all structurally makes sense, it is because I have edited it over and over. At the moment, I am merely trying to get ideas out, while they are in my head, not worrying until LATER about their place within the article). Alas, there I go with the parenthetical remarks again!

O.K., back to inspiration: “I just get to work” vs. “divine inspiration.”

(By the way, I can sense that the article is starting to take shape. The ending is already making itself known to me.)

I discovered early on in my composing career that if I were to wait for that “perfect melody” or that “perfect chord,” I would never write a single note. Perhaps I’m too practical, or perhaps I’m too humble, but because music is so subjective, and because there are so many composers who have come before me, and who will come after, WHO AM I to even think that what I’ve just written could ever be considered “perfect”?

Therefore, accordingly, I just start writing, knowing quite well that what I am writing at the moment could very well be bad music. I take inspiration from wherever I can get it, relishing the fact that I am in control of the process and can edit all I want before it ever hits the public ear. In other words, just because one has put notes on paper in private doesn’t mean they are the finished product. We can erase or manipulate them however we want: that is called COMPOSING.

Let’s consider a couple of examples from my own career:

In my first trumpet concerto, two ideas came to me that eventually formed the backbone of the entire piece.

1. The piece was written for Jeffrey Work, who is now the principal trumpet of the Oregon Symphony. He had told me that he wanted something a bit more “mystical” from me. This was an intriguing idea. Now I needed to come up with notes. So, I thought of his name: Jeffrey Work. Solfège, being a mutual interest of ours, led me to “F-Re” which, with a bit of artistic license, sounds like “Jeffrey” (Just trust me.) To add mysticism, I threw an open fifth Db-Ab (rather than Bb-F, for example) below my first two notes of F-D (F-Re), and voilà, mysticism! This would inform the entire piece.

2. I wrote this piece back when I was still playing trumpet professionally. During a concert intermission, I walked into the bathroom (yes, bathroom!) with trumpet in hand and played the 11 notes right at 4:00 in the above link. I don’t know where that lick came from; I just played it. And right away, it occurred to me that I had something. It’s essentially in Eb major, with a raised 4th (A-natural). In that instant I knew I had a duality I could work with: Eb major vs. A Major. The two keys share a tritone relationship. (They both have the same 3rd and 7th inverted.) Again, I played with this duality throughout the entire piece, working it and working it, allowing for it to take me places I never would have known I could even consider. That little two-second motif, combined with the F-Re figure, eventually filled 22 minutes of music. Spoiler alert: A Major wins in the end!

That was back in 2003, when I was merely getting my feet wet as a composer.

Let’s consider something a bit more recent: for example, just two days ago.

I am currently writing a piece for middle school band, as part of the distinguished BandQuest series sponsored by the American Composers Forum.

Have a look at the list of those who have composed as part of this series (link: https://composersforum.org/program/bandquest), and you’ll quickly see how one could feel pressure to compose something earth-shatteringly “perfect” in an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Pulitzer Prize winners and other rather famous composers who have participated in the series.

But two days ago, I might have been in what could be called writer’s block. In an effort to get over it, I forced myself—as I often do—to practice what I myself preach and just got to work. The result was terrible. If I had any courage, I’d share with you the notes I wrote, which are horrifyingly bad. But I knew they were bad, which is half the process. It was time to rethink and to edit. My brain was now going from creator mode to editor mode, which took all of the pressure off, and allowed new ideas to seep in. I remembered a suggested title—from ACF’s own Laura Krider—“Deep Dish” (because of my Chicago connection), and I decided to look for a video describing the process of making this famous type of ‘za, for which Chicago is well-known.

Because of the comments I saw posted on the first video I discovered (“this guy’s voice is soooo annoying”), I didn’t even watch it. But then I happened upon this one

Within the first 25 seconds, in describing the process of making the pizza, he says that you have to “center the dough.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This is a composer’s dream, a musical pun giving me the first hints as to what I might compose. (Remember, I like puns, and dough = Do, of course). And when dealing with middle school kids, centering the “Do” can’t be such a bad idea. The video goes on to describe the process in five steps:

  • Center the dough
  • Layer the cheese
  • Add toppings
  • Give it some sauce
  • Now cook! (rotate halfway through)

Every single one of these steps speaks to me musically. I could already hear the piece while he was talking. Furthermore, kids love pizza, kids love stories, and this could be a learning tool as I would be able to describe to them quite tangibly my process of composing—layering some cheesy riffs, adding “sauce,” and cooking (tempo)—in a language they would understand. Add to that some other tricks I had up my sleeve for the percussion and I was all set to go.

Is getting an idea for a composition by watching a video of cooking pizza “divine inspiration”? My humble answer is no, it is not. It is merely allowing one’s ears to open up and to take the pressure off by just getting to work. I’m pretty sure we’re all aware of the 1% – 99% inspiration to perspiration quote. I’m a firm believer.

This is most important when deadlines approach. (I told you I would bring that word back.)

Deadlines are a constant weight on the shoulders of composers.

It is so oppressing to consider that twenty minutes of large ensemble music might have to arrive on someone’s desk within a few months—or perhaps even in a few weeks. As a full-time composer, I can tell you that this is my constant life. But forgive me if I admit something else to you: many times, when the deadline is absolutely crazy (yes, I’ve written twenty-minute pieces in two weeks), I actually finish early. This is the case when I follow my own advice most sternly, and just get to work. That means putting down the phone, turning off the TV, and just writing. Writing bad music, or silly music, or wrong music for the occasion—whatever. Just get it down on paper (or in the computer) and then turn on the editing brain. I think all of us humans are capable of so much more than we know. You just have to trust yourself and allow your unique voice to come through. This can only happen through constant work-then-evaluation, work-then-evaluation, work-then-evaluation. But the evaluation part can’t happen without the work.

Now for the ending…

I told you at the beginning of this article that I was “winging it.” That is entirely true. But I knew all along that this article would be exactly like composing a piece of music, the process of which I was describing the entire time. I put little editor’s notes in the beginning, so that you would see my brain at work. I dropped them out as the article went on—mainly because I knew they were getting in the way (a compositional metaphor for “too many notes”). But believe me, there were many times along the way where I edited, or I stopped to eat breakfast or to take a shower, all while my brain was still at work on composing this article.

Even now, I can confess that what you’re reading has been edited many times. This very sentence is only still here because I read the entire article yet another time and decided it fit the shape and scope of the entire piece. I actually even typed this before finishing the previous paragraph because it was a thought I wanted to get down before I forgot it. I filled in the rest later. (Sound like composing?)

I was worried about getting this done, but in actuality it only took 45 minutes. All because I sat down and got to work.

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