Finding Headspace

Finding Headspace

Sometimes it takes a while to take a hint.

One of the vestiges that I have clung to from my pre-teaching days is the idea that I can compose at any time during the year, regardless of what else is going on in my life. I’ve prided myself on the fact that I could “turn it on” when I found time and could write effectively well into the night, negotiating my composing schedule around any other commitments I may have had. Over the years these ideas became habit and affected what type of projects I would take on and when I would estimate I could accomplish them.

As you might imagine, such habits are not exactly healthy and they have indeed slowly crumbled over the past five years—not surprisingly, the exact amount of time since I took a full-time teaching position. I had been teaching a fair amount before moving to western New York, so balancing my composing and teaching duties was not a new dragon to slay; both visiting and adjunct positions were challenging, but did not stand in the way of my writing projects. But recently—say, the past two to three years—it has become increasingly difficult to find that delicate balance.

The knee-jerk reaction to such a situation is to look at the amount of time that I have allotted towards composing compared to my other duties, as if time is the crux of the problem. And, of course, my calendar has become a bit more crowded—not only with the myriad responsibilities that come with academia (read: committees, curriculum paperwork, guest artists, more committees, etc.), but with the various other projects that I seem to create for myself (read: my interviews/book project, the column you are currently reading, etc.). My initial response to that knee-jerk reaction has been that I’ve dealt with such challenges before and my time-juggling skills are efficient enough that I should be able to manage.

The past few weeks have been nudging me in the ribs, telling me that my old habits may need to be revisited. The fall semester had been quite barren as far as compositional productivity was concerned, which didn’t bode well for the projects that were due by the end of the year. It wasn’t until the day after my final exams were finished that the wellspring finally decided to produce results, and over the following days I wrote more in a week than I had in four months; the works had been thought about, mulled over, planned, and re-planned, but the notes had been elusive till then. Those of us who create know how this feels, and once you’re riding that wave, you don’t question it—just close your eyes and hold on for dear life.

My interviews with other composers have consistently brought up not only the concept of time (which I discussed last year), but also the ability to clear one’s head and allow oneself to be open to whatever comes. I am convinced that it was the combination of unbroken chunks of time to work and the blessed freedom to not think about anything else other than the music in front of me that was the impetus for this latest creative watershed. Time itself is a requirement, to be sure, but the addition of “headspace” is both an obvious and easily overlooked necessity for creativity, and two of my resolutions this year are to explore how to both find more headspace and, taking a hint, to be more realistic when gauging when I can be productive.

I’m very interested to hear what you do to deal with this idea of headspace. The comment section is open for business!

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8 thoughts on “Finding Headspace

  1. Lauren Bernofsky

    I have come to exactly the same conclusion — the music comes easily when my head isn’t “cluttered.” This realization helps me not feel bad about not being very productive during certain times. And, over the Christmas holiday, I stayed home (while my family traveled) to enjoy some blissfully alone composing time — aaah!

  2. Robert J. Brownlow

    As I read this article, everything hit home. To perhaps put it more direct and simpler- the older I get the less time I have to compose. This coincides with the fact that for a wide array of reasons, I NEED more time to compose than I did when I was younger. Thus, I do not get as much music written as I used to.

    I often find myself trying to squeeze in composition time at odd hours and for short periods of time. I get an unexpected 90 minutes free so I get excited and sit down to write. Problem is, I am not mentally “prepared” to write. Most of the time, these scenarios produce little or nothing of value. Often, it seems the best way for me to be productive is the almighty “deadline”. For whatever reason, and I know I am not alone in this, it never seems to fail me.

  3. lawrencedillon

    This isn’t exactly a disagreement, but I don’t consider putting notes down on paper the only critical factor in composition. To put it another way, sometimes it feels as if the reason I’m able to write quickly when I get a break in my schedule is because the music has been churning around in my mind for a while, getting “composed” all the time I was busy with other things. That may be a truth (it feels like a truth) or it may be a rationalization. Yes, you are right, in order to meet deadlines it helps to have significant down time in order to get the lead out. But I don’t consider time I spend on other activities to be counter-productive – quite the opposite.

    1. Rob Deemer

      Hey Lawrence – I totally agree with you. The whole reason why I was able to finish the projects so quickly was that musical concepts were being solidified, but it wasn’t until I was able to shut off the other competing things in my mind that I was able to pull the trigger. This column is as much about how our processes change over time – I started composing late in the game (really not until I was in my late 20s), so a lot of habits that I would have normally cemented early in life have been morphing like crazy over the past few years.

  4. Jeff Tecca

    I have found that the purity of headspace really determines my focus. The extent to which I can focus on a piece (or any activity, really) is determined by the invading thoughts in my brain.

    Meditation helps me calm my brain, as well as pairing like-brained activities together. For instance, I might doodle and compose one after the other, then run some statistical analysis for work or write. The first two activities are right-brain activities, and the latter are left-brain. I find that this keeps me from feeling mentally fatigued from having to shift modes all the time.

    Less is more is my mantra.

  5. Todd Tarantino

    Lawrence Dillon’s comment reminds me of a particularly interesting session that Malcolm Peyton gave – was it in 1999 – as part of the composer’s forum class that graduate composers take at New England Conservatory. It was dedicated to how to compose when you don’t feel like composing or you can’t compose. Peyton offered all sorts of common-sense ideas about composing while not composing: choose an ensemble, take a walk, figure out how long the piece will be, so forth. Similarly, in the liner notes to a recording of Mac’s on Centaur, he writes that one of the pieces developed out of his swimming: the way he took his recreation at the time.
    Sometimes you don’t have to be putting notes on paper to compose – and perhaps some of the best ideas come when we’re not putting notes on paper.

  6. chris s

    I second Todd’s thoughts. Honestly composition comes from living and the humans that we are, we forever will grab a piece of music for an event or feeling or day that means something to us that day or for many,many years.

    IN a similar vein, new music will come to us as we live in and out of music. Yes, you do have to do grunt work up to a point, but have you had the experience after writing a ton of things, which all seems interesting in themselves but recalcitrant to be a part of the piece you are writing now and you wearily stand up to see the new day is dawning as the clock strikes 12:01 am and you sigh, take a warm shower and hit the pillows with musical remnants flittering on a receding horizon; when you awake to brew the coffee and breakfast, stare out at the morning landscape – and suddenly the sound you strove for the night before suddenly seizes and overwhelms you?

    You gotta have faith something worthwhile will come to you.

  7. Mark Winges

    I think there’s a lot we learn about our own inner rhythms: the longer I compose, the more fine-tuned I can be about how long something will take in relation to all the other things I typically do with my life. It isn’t just time / headspace per se, but also knowing when to walk away from the note-writing process and do something else. And the need to build that into my schedule when I commit to a project.

    Even when I’ve been at an artist’s colony, I find myself needing to take the occasional day off. If I keep pushing (despite seeming to have no “competing” thoughts), there’s a point where I’m aware I’m not doing my best work.

    But even beyond the headspace question, and the absolutely essential skill to “turn it on when I need to”, what of enjoying the journey? Certainly I like my finished aural contraptions as well as the next composer, but that isn’t the whole story. For some pieces, it isn’t even the biggest part of the story; rather, it’s being able to enjoy the process of composing. It’s the most absorbing thing I do in my life, and it’s where I learn a lot of stuff (very different than what I learn while working with performers or hearing a performance). I really want to savor that activity.


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