100 Days of Creative Work: 100 Days of Composition

Over the past year, I’ve suffered from a very bad case of “just not doing the work.” I could make all kinds of excuses—writer’s block, creative malaise, lack of clarity with longer-term vision, but it all really comes down to one simple fact: if I want to write music, then I need to write music. I must put in the time.

So, I’m setting a goal for myself and creating this page for accountability. #100daysofpractice is a fairly well-known hashtag in the classical music community, and I’m adopting the idea for my composition. For the next 100 days, I will be writing daily, subject to the following guidelines:

  • Each day, I will write for at least 30 minutes. I expect that some days may expand far beyond that time, but I will sit down, pencil in hand, and work for at least 30 minutes every day.
  • The only permittable exceptions will be in the case of serious illness (haven’t had Covid yet… knock on wood…) or travel required for a family emergency. Even under those conditions, I likely can continue to do the work.
  • Daily work may be sketching, writing for the throw-away pile, reworking existing compositions, etc. Exercises (counterpoint, etc.) are not the same level of creative work and don’t count toward fulfilling the daily objective.
  • No limits with respect to instrumentation, form, length, etc.

I have a handful of pretty exciting projects in various stages of underway: a sonata for violin and piano, a chaconne for full orchestra, a handful of smaller piano pieces, and several others just coming into focus. I don’t know what these 100 days will produce, but let’s see.

As far as updates, I’ll try to update this post fairly regularly, and will also share some snippets to my Instagram. There’s very little point in sharing daily sketches, but I’ll try to figure out how to share some work in progress so maybe you can see it in some meaningful progression.

Also, my social media presence spans a few different worlds, so if you came here from a non-musical background, be prepared that the language in these updates might not be crystal clear. I’m going to write the text here for musicians, and won’t do the work to define terms. If there are bigger-picture lessons (and I expect there will be), I’ll eventually share them to my personal blog in another format.

So, here we are at the beginning… let’s see where we end up!

#1 1/29/22: Worked on a little minimalist toccata-type piano sketch today. Good start and easy work since it had been swimming around in my head for many months. Putting it down on paper felt good.

#2 1/30/22: Found myself thinking about that piano sketch last night and realized none of it was very right. Threw it out and started over, but it feels like it might develop into a big piece. Also spending some time thinking toward attacking the big orchestra piece that I tried to write last year… it blew up on the launch pad several times, but I think I’m ready to approach it again with a fresh perspective. Worked about an hour and a half total today.

#3 1/31/22: Sometimes I wonder if my attention span is not what it used to be, but I can easily spend 5-6 hours a day working on piano literature… so that’s not the problem. Several struggles to get engaged today, but eventually it clicked and I worked about an hour. Worked on the little (maybe not so little piano piece), playing with textures. Some very interesting things happening with fast staggered notes between the hands, which can also be played with one hand, leaving the other free to play more legato lines. However, I worry it’s going to be quite difficult at tempo. Also worked on the chaconne for orchestra today. Have had a few drafts of this with no success, but tore it down the foundation and started over. Very good progress, but don’t want to write too much here as it’s all still kinda goopy and note perfectly formed, but I think I see the thread now.

#4 2/1/22: Good work today. Worked about an hour… all on the chaconne for orchestra. I realize in my old drafts I was deliberately avoiding the lyricism of my seed ideas with awkward workarounds. There will be a good deal of diatonic dissonance in this thing, but the core ideas are simple, almost vocal ideas. I also have drafted out the whole piece structurally and will endeavor NOT to work from beginning to end in the actual composition. Working right at the beginning now, but we will see what tomorrow brings.

#5 2/2/22: Not my most productive day ever, but I did the work… and that’s a victory. Several things conspired to put pressure on my schedule today (though, oddly, I still found time to work on piano literature, spending an hour or so learning the last section of the Moszkowski Etincelles). I worked exclusively on the chaconne today, pushing through the first few variations that I had done in a previous draft, but those measures finally feel correct.

#6 2/3/22: I don’t feel I’m doing great work, but I am doing work, so that’s the entire point of this exercise. I worked today on the little piano piece… it might take shape as a brilliant little toccata with a minimalist, sorta pointillistic texture. I mocked some of it up in notation software just to check that I was hearing accurately, as it’s too technical to be tied down by learning it as I write it. Next time I work on this, I’ll work on a bigger picture sketch. I’m very much stuck down in the details level, and this is a piece that would lend itself well to more sectional guidance.

#7 2/4/22: I forced myself to work only at the outline level for the piano toccata today. This was extremely uncomfortable, as I wanted to fall down into the details immediately, but I made myself stay at this high level. I also spent quite a bit of time thinking through the overall structure and the flow of the piece, and worked about half an hour total. I also noticed that I’ve been letting my work sessions slip later and later into the day/night, so I need to prioritize this creative work earlier in the day.

I also got a recording of a practice session from a violinist and pianist who are rehearsing to record two of my other pieces. So exciting to work with sensitive, passionate musicians. Spent some time sending them some feedback on the rehearsal and I’ll look forward to sharing the finished recordings with the world soon!

#8 2/5/22: Got most of the toccata outlined. Working like this has been EXTREMELY uncomfortable… I’ve outlined before, but it has been more like I’ve just thought about where the piece is going and then zoomed in to lower levels and have created more or less complete chunks that will end up being different spots in the piece. This is such a different way to work… there’s such a tendency to say “ok, so how exactly is that transition going to happen? How are the hands fitting together there? Where do you play with the little extra additive beats?” and it’s very hard to avoid that. But the reality is, these things will work themselves out. I certainly have the skill to craft those points in the piece and to answer all of those questions, and the beauty of the outline method is that it forces me to get to the point to be able to ask all those little detail questions.

I also have to say, after a few hours working like this and feeling I was cheating or wasting my time, something glorious happened–the structure of this (maybe not-so-) little toccata snapped into focus and a beautiful chorale melody that will cap the piece revealed itself. Kind of fun to see flashes of revelation like that… had circled around this little pentatonic idea for a while, but pentatonic stuff can so often seem tensionless and trivial.. the key was harmonizing it with some tension. Still a lot of work to do, but the outline is largely clear. Wonder what will happen when I point this new tool (the high level, skipping outline) at other projects?

#9 2/6/22: Worked on the chaconne for orchestra today. Still fleshing this out to the point where I had a previous draft done… some cool textures and nice contrapuntal games. Tomorrow, I’ll outline the whole piece like I did the toccata.

#10 2/7/22: Worked about an hour today, mostly on the violin sonata. I had about 6 previous drafts of this thing… what a disaster! I don’t know why this has been so hard to write, but one observation is that it is very intricate and detail-oriented. I am going to point the outlining technique at it, and also go back to aural conception and just make sure I’m in charge of the piece (and not the other way around).

#11 2/8/22: I guess yesterday was a bit of a milestone with 10 days in the can! Falling into the routine fairly well. Today, worked about an hour, and focused on the violin sonata. There’s a real tendency when outlining to get down in the details, and that happened to me today. This is a very intricate, motivically-driven piece, and, for me, there’s a fascination with doing this work. Composing is almost like discovery, so I want to look at the transitions or any passage and work it out in full detail… I want to ask it “what are you going to be?” But that inclination really goes against the push to outline, so I really want to keep myself on that higher level. I’ll try again tomorrow with the outline (or perhaps the next day I work on this thing since it might not be on the menu tomorrow.)

However, having said all that, I made fantastic progress today. I do think I have a sense of the full scope of the first movement, which is going to be a nod to Sonata-Allegro procedure, but maybe using harmonic tension more than key center. The second movement was already worked out in some detail before, and I had planned to write a heavy chaconne for the final movement… but I’m thinking this might lean toward a set of variations, perhaps on a traditional fiddle tune. Let’s see what it wants to be…

#12 2/9/22: Despite many distractions in real life and business, turned out to be a good working day. Worked for about two hours. Got down in the details of the toccata, writing from the beginning, following along the outline. Put some of it into notation software and have about 40 seconds of output. This is not usually a critical part of the process, but there’s enough interplay at high speed with this piece that it’s a good check that what I’m hearing in my head matches what will come out of the instrument. I need to make a few tweaks, but basically really on track. I think this is going to be a VERY nice little piece, and I don’t know anything in the the repertoire that is quite like it. I’ll share an audio clip in the near future.

#13 2/10/22: Not sure how much I worked today… probably 3 hours. Focused completely on the piano toccata and finished the first section. You can listen to a minute of it here, Not sure what tomorrow will bring. On one hand, I’d like to carry this through to the end. I’m very curious and excited to meet the finished work, but I might also focus attention tomorrow on one of the other pieces. At any rate, a good day.

#14 2/11/22″ Obsession is really the only mindset where you get anything of value done. I don’t know how much I worked on the thing today. Maybe 6 hours? I have it mostly done and also mostly put into notation software. Will be quite a bit of work yet to do as far as smoothing off the rough edges, but I have a good sense of what it will be. Pacing is very hard in something like this that is so static, and notation software playback can show you some errors. Useful. This piece also works at a slower tempo than I’d expected, so that’s good. Still fast… 144 vs 160+, but that puts it in the category of pretty nasty difficult instead of wicked difficult, so that’s good.

#15 2/12/22: Pressed ahead and finished the piano toccata. Mocked up in cubase and distributed to social media channels. Probably 4-5 hours spent today (including a few hours of actual composition to finish the thing.) Good work and feeling slightly burnt out, but that’s a familiar feeling after pushing through to finish something in a few days.

#16 2/13/22: Half an hour or so today, on the orchestral chaconne. The thing about a ground bass is… the ground bass has to be just right. This one isn’t, yet.

#17 2/14/22: No fun today, but a couple hours completely re-notating the toccata in Dorico. I had originally notated the alternating hands with eight notes (marked sempre staccato), but decided cross-staffed sixteenths were clearer. (I discovered this when I put it on the music rack and tried to read it! The original notation was quite difficult to read.)

#18 2/15/22: A major breakthrough on the chaconne today. I think I finally got the c.f. right so I can start writing the damn thing.

#19 2/16/22: Inspiration wasn’t really flowing, but I did a solid 30 mins work today on the chaconne. I spent quite a bit of time working on piano technique and literature… this continues to be something of a distraction, but at least it’s a distraction that is somewhat coherent with what I’m trying to accomplish.

#20 2/17/22: I really didn’t want to work today, but I did. The nice thing about 30 minutes is that it’s such a short time. Anyone can do anything for 30 minutes. I can imagine how many other constructive life changes people could make if they would just do something for 30 (or even 15) minutes a day, every day. Even though the last two days have been lacking in compositional motivation, I have made progress through the outline of the chaconne. This has also involved a lot of throwing away, but I’m now further along than I’ve ever been in previous drafts, and I have a sense of the whole thing. It’s not at all clear, but it reminds me of the Hindemith suggestion, that you should be able to see the entire piece like an afterimage of a lightning flash. I think I’m there with this piece. Now let’s see if we can nail the whole thing down in outline before getting down into the details. I may be able to write directly to notation software after getting the outline right… maybe.

#21 2/18/2022: Made some pretty significant headway on the orchestral piece today, but came to a realization–I think the reason this piece has been so difficult is that the rigid chaconne structure is not appropriate. I realized this after I wrote to the first climax in the piece… so, need to rethink a bit about the overall structure.

#22 2/19/2022: Leaving the orchestral piece aside for a bit, turned attention the violin sonata’s first movement. Good work already done on this… have to keep pressing forward in the outline

#23 2/20/2022: Worked today on the violin sonata. Finished mapping out to the end of the exposition and explored some developmental ideas. Also did some work on the second movement, which will be easier to finish than the first.

#24 2/21/2022: Worked half an hour today, but also took some steps to normalize my work across several related tasks. I’ll be taking time away from working at the piano and devoting it to other composition-related areas.

#25 2/22/2022: Yesterday and today I worked at a model composition for a Classical sonata-allergo… just really getting down in the specific details to appreciate subtleties of tonal relationships.

#26 2/23/2022: An unremarkable work day in all respects. I chipped away at the Sonata (model), but I’ve also taken steps to better structure my time so I don’t “waste” time on piano technique and repertoire. I think it still makes sense to work on some aspects of technique, and to work on memorization on a regular basis (just to exercise that muscle). Also added a few other ear-related tasks to do daily.

#27 2/23/2022: Went back to the violin sonata, and worked through some ideas for the development. In the process, a quirkly little piano piece took shape and I now have this idea to work on in coming days.

#28 2/24/2022: Worked on the new little piano piece.

#29 2/25/2022: Spent time today working on improvisation, looking for some new seed ideas.

#30 2/26/2022: A somewhat destabilizing event: discovered my piano is outputting sound > 100 dB at times. This explains the ringing in my ears… Will need a few days to figure out how to do that. I’ve also slightly broadened my work to include some further study in a few topics. All of this has diffused my focus on composition (along with, of course, the Russia/Ukraine situation which required a lot of focus on my trading). I have, however, still been putting in the work every day and did so today, though came in slightly under the half hour.

#31 2/27/2022: Worked on some modal ideas against a drone… thinking about melodies as a series of resonant sensations. Not sure if this can practically translate to listeners’ experience, but it’s a powerful exercise to look that deeply into sound.

#32 2/28/2022: Worked on the new piano piece and the violin sonata.

#33 3/1/2022: Worked again on the piano piece, and also started sketching out the framework for an interesting harmony for another little piano piece.

#34 3/2/2022: Spent some time both writing and also working through some more free-form improvisations. I find these to be very useful for idea generation.

3/3/2022: This thing with the sound level with the piano has really kind of thrown me for a loop. Realizing that I’ve been doing irreversible damage to my hearing on a daily basis… well… let’s just say it’s distracting. I did some composition work today, but it was distracted and bad work, and not much of it. I won’t count this day toward my 100 days, even though I did sit down to work to maintain the rhythm.

#35 3/4/2022: Worked exclusively on the piano piece… had to throw away some of the past work, but that’s ok.

#36 3/5/2022: I did very good work today on both the new piano piece and the violin sonata. Had fun sketching out some cells for the sonata.

#37 3/6/2022: Finished the piano prelude. I had no intention of writing this piece, but started with a silly a minor 64 chord and said… where can we go from here? Popped a little melody on top, came up with some interesting harmonic stuff, and a little thing emerged. Spent a bit of time finishing it today and getting it into notation software. It’s not quite right, but I can see the finished thing…

#38 3/7/2022: Worked more on that piano piece. It’s almost right. Now I need to play it and will be open to some changes as I put fingers to keys.

#39 3/8/2022: worked a lot on the last page of the piano piece. Still not quite right.

#40 3/9/2022: Still not there, but will take a break from this piece for a day or so.

3/10/2022: Missed day. Struggling with some vertigo (seems to be seasonal) and really not in the right frame of mind to do any real work. Played around a little today, but fairest assessment is to call this a missed day.

#41 3/14/2022: Has been a really rough round of vertigo, but have figured out that it’s seasonal (tied to allergies?!) Anyway, was really feeling too under the weather to write for several days, so this was the “medical exception” clause… back to writing today, and spent some time on the sonata. I continue to play the little piano prelude, and still haven’t quite gotten the last part right. I think I’m leaning a bit too heavily on polyrhythms when it should just be a relatively simple sparkle. Won’t invest much time in it, but will continue to think.

#42 3/15/22: Worked on the violin sonata.

#43 3/16/22: Worked on a set of variations on an Appalachian fiddle tune

#44 3/17/22: Worked on the violin sonata again

#45 3/18/22: Came back to the piano piece… still cannot quite nail down the ending. Have never been so frustrated with a few measures. (But, in fairness, it is a strange little piece.)

#46 3/19/22: Very good progress on the violin sonata today. The structure is falling into place, and the character of the piece is is becoming clear.

#47 3/20/22: Did some work playing with some variations on fiddle tune. Probably nothing will come out of that, but it was fun to stretch the material a bit.

#48 3/21/22: A good day’s work!

3/22-23/22: Vertigo was bad today. Made some efforts at work, but nothing that should really count. We will call these missed days, even though it wasn’t full true.

#49: 3/24/22: More good, solid work, on the violin sonata.

#50 3/25/22: I was eager to get to work today… no burden or effort at all! 🙂