Getting Started Composing: The Itch

The hardest part of composing is getting started. You need an idea and some kind of itch that you need to scratch, which can only be done by working out that idea and turning it into a composition. You can have a million ideas, but without the itch and the subsequent scratch, it don’t mean a thing, you won’t compose a thing.

More Wild West

(Photo credit: Pulse3)

I think the first time I started try to write down music I was in the 6th (maybe 7th) grade. It wasn’t my music. It was from a commercial on TV that used Western film style music. It had a lot of French horns. I played horn. I wanted to play it or something like it – my first itch. So every time I heard it, I tried to remember it and write down a little more of it. I noodled a bit at the piano, trying to find the notes. Then I wrote down my guesses on manuscript paper (I don’t know where the music paper came from – must have been from my mom, who was once a violinist, but hadn’t played in year. I really can’t come up with any good reason why we had it, but there it was). It was very empowering, taking the invisible notes out of the air and committing them to something you could look at, lift, count. My effort was innocent of bar lines, time signatures, key signatures, and was no doubt mostly inaccurate, but I was tickled about it. I could play (sort of) the notes, with a certain amount of (read: a lot) fudging. Notation = power!


(Photo credit: Pro-Zak)

I don’t remember writing anything original or even copied for years after that. I continued playing horn in band. In the 9th grade at a party, I picked up somebody’s brother’s guitar and somehow managed to plunk out the bass part of the Peter Gunn theme (TV show). Beyond cool. So I hounded my mother until she got me a guitar. I dabbled in folk guitar (from a Jerry Silverman book), and heard from a friend who had actual guitar lessons that he had to learn the notes on the guitar, so I learned the notes. I improvised in a simple arpeggio picking way – Got another book, started teaching myself classical guitar. Starting taking lessons with a pro as a senior in high school. Picked up a banjo along the way, started learning bluegrass style.

Henry Mancini - Peter Gunn

(Photo credit: kevin dooley)

Note that all this wasn’t composition, but there was a good bit of improvisation, and, as they say, composition is just-slowed down improvisation. It got me in the habit of creating music, anyway, even if only on the guitar and not the horn, a condition that was to remain for a long time. I developed something of a split musical personality – the classical, note-reading side on the horn, and the improvisation/composition side on guitar (although I also played a lot of classical guitar) and other stringed instruments that I dabbled with from time to time over the years (mandolin, dulcimer, autoharp, banjo, e-bass).

I played in some bands in college on guitar, with sprinklings of banjo and e-bass. I was asked to join a singing/guitar playing folk group as a freshman for freshman talent night. Then half this group joined half of a similar sophomore group to form a new group. That was the end of my singing career, no doubt a boon to mankind. I was just a guitar etc. player now. Later I also joined the Marijuana Brass – an excellent just-for-fun group that covered the repertoire (mostly) of the then-popular Tiajuana Brass. It may have been the most fun group ever. For a two hour concert, a rehearsal consisted of a half hour of playing and an hour and a half of laughing. Those were the days. I didn’t compose anything for any of these groups, although I did improvise a lot of accompaniments.

Herb Alpert

Herb Alpert (Tiajuana Brass)

I got serious about the horn and started doing less guitar by the time college was winding up. I did a certain amount of sort-of composing for music theory classes. I remember writing what might have been my first piece, a horn quartet: “Carol Fantasy”, which did something of a remix of Christmas carols. I don’t have the score, but I remember that it sounded pretty good at the time. Very episodic (like a good fantasy should), no overall structure or recurring motifs. There was that feeling: hearing your written notes played by someone else. Very intoxicating!

Then came some years in army bands and in grad school. I remember doing some arranging and transcriptions, but not really composing anything during that time. All good – it’s still compost for future compositions.

I really started writing after I was working as an orchestral musician in Switzerland. Details to follow. Stay tuned…

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