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Sum of its Parts: How do you deal with writer’s block?

Sum of its Parts is a blog series where each of the Spectrum composers (and special guests) provide answers to questions about music, art, and life interfering with both… Whether art imitates life or life imitates art, we hope that you’ll find something to relate to in the contemplations of five chamber-jazz composers. Musicians and Listeners: feel welcome to share your answers as well!

How do you overcome plateaus of personal performance and growth? Or more specifically, the cliche question: How do you deal with writer’s block?

Shannon Graham answers: The creative block that I find the hardest to overcome is the one that settles in after finishing one project and before starting another. I’m currently experiencing this right now!!! I usually have a lot of ideas for pieces (particular things I want to express through music ranging from emotions, stories, or other arts that inspire me), but the hardest part is actually starting the piece. A practice that has helped me is to write every day before doing anything else. I don’t put any other restrictions on it, I just have to sit down with a sheet of manuscript and write something down. Some days I only write one bar (or something that I completely hate) but every once and a while inspiration strikes and I’ll come up with something that I’ll want to work on further. This quotation has really helped me: “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too” -Isabelle Allende

Heather Segger answers: Visual art can be hugely inspiring for me, as well as listening to new (to me) or exciting music, getting some exercise and/or going for a walk, or changing my environment (continuing work in a coffee shop or park or another room in the home) – anything that could bring a shift in perspective. I’ve read peppermint tea is also good for creative thinking, sometimes that helps! Time management is also key; it’s important for me to provide myself the time-space leading up to the work time to not have to plan to be anywhere or do anything else, to just focus on my personal practise, to give myself permission to freely experiment and play! A lot of ideas can stem from this.

Jesse Dietschi answers: My approach to overcoming plateaus of personal performance and growth is generally to venture into an area where I have very little experience or knowledge and restart the learning process from step one. I have done this with both musical and non-musical activities, exploring things ranging all the way from playing cello, an instrument on which I have no formal training but draws upon my experience as a bassist, to playing competitive football, a sport which I had never played previously. Both involved me re-evaluating how I learn concepts/skills that are completely foreign to me, which has allowed myself to take new insight into the fields I feel comfortable with.

Ben Dietschi answers: For me, it’s all about keeping my work in tune with my natural rhythms. I set aside times when I know I’ll have a high chance of success for composing, which for me usually means a few hours in the morning, or an uninterrupted longer block of time that I can find. Necessity truly is the mother of invention, and for me a deadline is essential. That’s part of what I love about composing for Spectrum. I find a lot of joy in writing towards our performances, and for a specific theme.  When I am focused, ideas usually flow. When they don’t, or when I’m struggling to figure out how particular material is going to work, my top choice is to take a walk outside, and listen to music which is closely related to what I’m trying to accomplish with that specific section.

Matt Roberts answers: Writer’s block is a demon that has definitely plagued me. At times I’ve gotten it so bad that not only did I feel that I couldn’t finish the piece I was writing, but also that I couldn’t breath properly! Because of this, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to deal with it. I’ve read books and essays, attended and watched talks, and interviewed several great composers on the subject. I learned a lot from all this (if you want the details, go to my blog mattroberts.ca, scroll to the bottom, and click on the tag “composer’s block”). However, nothing helped as much as a simple trick that I discovered on my own. Here is my creative process: I compose until I reach the point that I feel blocked – frustrated, confused, self-doubting, agitated, maybe even a little hopeless. Then, I grab a legal notepad, a pen or pencil, and I go for a walk. Usually I get an idea about how I can move forward with the piece before I get more than two blocks away. Then, I write the idea down on the pad. I continue walking until I think I have enough ideas jotted down that I feel I will be able to complete the piece easily upon returning. (However, I often end up repeating this process several times.)

So far, this method has never failed to help me overcome that “blocked” feeling – I’ve never returned with a blank notepad. That’s immensely reassuring to me. Because of this, I will employ this method even in the pouring rain or freezing cold. Why does it work? What is it’s magic? I think there are a few reasons:

  • It gets me outside. By the time I reach the stage of feeling blocked, I’ve often been stuck in a particular room for a few hours. It’s a change of scenery, some fresh air, and it gets my body moving and my blood flowing.

  • Walking distracts me from the problem just enough. If a solution doesn’t come right away, I don’t get worked up about it – at least I’m getting some exercise.While I walk, my mind will drift back and forth between thinking about the piece and thinking about the walk.

  • It gets me thinking more “high-level”. I don’t bring manuscript paper – just ordinary note paper. Also, since I’m walking, it is hard to write down anything but simple, quick ideas. Because of this, I’m less likely to get bogged down with details, which is often what has happened when I’m facing a block. However, I do try to get as specific as I can, so that my notes will be as helpful as possible to me when I return.

Nick Storring answers: I get over writer’s block by generally switching gears somehow. If I am too focused on the piece I explore it from another angle–improvisation, fiddling with an instrument, if I have it in recorded form somehow (a recording of reading, sketch of a recording-based piece) I like listening to in another environment — on a walk or on the TTC. Then I take notes or draw diagrams… I find that increasingly listening to a MIDI version and doing those leaps of imagination to hear what it’s really supposed to be like keeps me close with the work. To me listening is an important and active part of the process even if it doesn’t mean changing the score or recording … I’ll also just switch to another work in progress.

For me I find another helpful to not dwell on the idea of a blockage. If I love the piece, I try to trust it and the process it’s leading me on. I know that sounds new agey but I am a firm believer in storing material away and revisiting it later and also in the piece dictating what it needs to be and when… I had this one longer electronic piece that I started in 2005, worked on in 2007/09 and finished in 2011. If you love it and can’t work on it and there’s no deadline put it away, but come back to it see if you’re ready!

Elisha Denburg answers: I don’t know…I’m having trouble coming up with a response here…

Rob Teehan answers: Meditation, physical activity, lying on the ground, dancing around. in other words, getting out of my head and back to my body, and not thinking so much about it.

Brian Prunka answers: I actually like to transcribe a few works by someone else; trying to get into the head of another composer is a good way to bypass your own issues.

Jim O’Brien Jr. answers: Try to play the simplest thing you can.

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