Writer’s Block for Composers — A Possible Way to Handle It

Buckle up people, this is a tough one. 

Disclaimer: I am not trained in any form of psychoanalysis, coaching, guiding or mentoring. This is my process, what I have learned by working with such professionals over the years. I am sharing my own process and experience. This has worked for me.

The following passage was written on 30th September when I was going through a writer’s (composer’s) block. I started writing my thoughts impulsively, as if I was speaking to someone, so I did not erase anything in the process. Only wrote the first things that came into my mind and followed that train of thought to discover where it would lead. I had to do some editing today, 31st October, because some sentences did not make much sense and there were some grammatical errors, and some sentences that were a repetition of its previous one – as you would expect by writing without any planning – but it is 95% my impulsive, and spontaneous thoughts, that is why it is a little bit long. Might help, might give another perspective to dealing with a composer’s block.

I think I am going through a writer’s block. I have committed myself to write a piece for SATB, french horn, trumpet, and Solo Alto. I feel as if I have never written music in my life. As if I have never heard of a horn or trumpet or choir, do I even know how people speak! So to unblock my creativity I need to take some steps. Instinctively, and what I do regardless of the creative block, I started listening to music written for any combination and solos of these instruments and narrowed my search to listening to contemporary pieces. It is not working as well as I hoped. I am constantly searching for more music, not to mention how hard it is to find pieces for horn or trumpet. 

I know this feeling is temporary but I am in a time frame as I want to submit this piece for a call

So, what do I know about my situation?

I break down my feelings, needs, desires, fears, outline what is happening in my life at this moment (career, family, personal, all), what proceeded and how they are linked. 

Understanding and acknowledging  what is happening to me might help me unlock my creativity. 

Describe my situation:
I have gone through a stressful period. For the past year I have decided to focus my energy and available time on writing funding applications, and proposals trying to find a venue to host a project I want to put forward. Within the last 12 months, I produced a concert in Cyprus: wrote the application, most of the pieces were written but needed a good amount of polishing and arranged the instrumentation I ended up having, and then the actual production of the performance and sorting out things after it (video, pictures, payments, completing the funding papers). I did try to keep creative but when the only time I had available to work, as I am a mum and my youngest is 16mo, is between 11pm-1am and not every night as he is not consistent with his sleeps (I don’t have a problem with that,  I know children go through growth spurts, attachment issues, teething, illnesses so the only thing consistent I can do is be there for him) and also, I too get tired and have to prioritise being rested in the morning than creating (just) to keep up with my skills. I did not put in the extra effort to carry on training my skill and now I am trying to build momentum and write a piece. This makes sense why I am having trouble picking up the pace now and why I feel pressured – pressure I put on myself. 

Another thing that I feel is blocking me is a bit complicated. I have come up with a very good characterisation of what my composition style is about. I think there are some commonalities in my pieces written in the last 3-4 years or so and putting it into words is needed especially when applying to the places I mentioned above. And I believe it is helpful for me as well, I have a creative path to work on, I can be known for a specific sound and that would be easier to be hired. 

But… Now I feel trapped in this characterisation, I feel I need to please the person who reads that blurb so that I don’t appear as a fraud. I feel I need to belong in a certain community of musicians and anything outside of that those people will disapprove of. But at the same time I feel there are at least 2 communities I don’t want to disappoint and both are equally absolute views about what “correct” music sounds like –am I even listening to myself, there isn’t such a thing as correct music, or real music. (Maybe I can narrow it down to 2 people and those are the ones I want to please for absolutely no rational reason)

And another thing that unbalances my creative flow is that 80% of the contemporary choir and brass pieces I have heard so far have very similar forms, harmonies, timbres, and textures, and my natural instinct is to go against this norm. But before I rebel against this, I feel I should take into consideration why this may happen and there are 2 rational reasons I can come up with: 
1. It works so why go against it; 
2. The nature of the instruments/ voices is such that it makes only a few options possible. 
I disagree with both rationals 

But having heard so many pieces that sound has been registered in my brain and when I am not sure how to proceed (which if you remember I have blocked my creative flow so I don’t even know how to start) I keep feeling I want to recreate what has worked for so many people before me, even in the past 10 years alone.

Is it procrastination?
I do tend to procrastinate and all these actions could be just that. But when I procrastinate it is usually because I don’t feel ready or confident enough to take on a new task. In this instance my feelings are tiredness and fear and based on the self analysis I made further up makes sense. So let’s see where this self exploration leads to.

If I try to find solutions right now then I would start by saying to myself:

Don’t care what people think:
Saying “don’t care what people think” to an artist is like saying “just relax”, it doesn’t work like that. Since I want my music to exist out in the world: concerts, online, giving it to performers to perform it, then I need to care what people think or else they are not going to go see a concert that features my music or play it in their study. 

But what if I rephrase this: Instead of saying “Don’t care what people think”, I say “It’s okay” and then I do what feels natural and truthful in the moment. If the people I know don’t like or approve of 1 of my pieces, it’s ok. There will always be people disapproving of something, even I do it sometimes (disapprove of other people’s actions), everyone does it. It’s ok. There is an audience for everything.

Afterall, this piece isn’t for me and my needs but will go to someone else. I will compose what I think fits in the description of the company potentially performing the music.

Why am I taking too long to start?

What is it that I feel afraid of?

I know I am tired physically and mentally. It is hard work being a parent no matter if you stay at home, stay at home and work or go to your work-place. It is amazing being a parent and as everything that you do, some periods you feel drained, are more stressful than others – again, I am not complaining and don’t wish things were different. So if I can balance out the parenthood tiredness with ordering food once more often than we do now, cleaning at different intervals and accepting to find a sitter for the little one even for a few hours every week then I can regain some of my mental capacity to compose. This leaves us with the event of procrastinating because of fear. 

Fear of what?

Not succeeding? I have received countless rejection emails, from the companies that were decent enough to send out the rejection email, from applying to all the various composition calls, funding opportunities, contests and what-have-you so I am not afraid of another rejection email. I know more will come. 

Do I need to live up to my last project? 

Have I put pressure on myself that this is the opportunity I have been waiting for to open up my career? 
Maybe I have put a bit of pressure on myself that this call needs to find me on the winning / accepted side. I certainly do not wait or expect for it to open up my career. 

Okay, so I have put pressure on myself that this piece needs to be amazing and fit the needs of the company because I am tired of the rejection emails and the “we can’t program that” and “we’re already doing something completely different but don’t know you and won’t give you a chance, but thanks for reaching out, we’ll keep your info.”

Okay, so now I see there is more to this feeling. I am not afraid of the reality it will bring immediately. I am afraid that the career reality I want may never come.

What do I need to do now regarding only this call?

Re-centering myself and joining the present. 

Do I know what the company needs?
I have watched almost all their videos and performances on YouTube. I have contacted them and asked specifically what they are looking for. Was I satisfied with the answer? About 90%. Can I send another email and ask them to be more specific? I can. I probably won’t though to not be rude. So I am satisfied. 

Can any composer write a perfect piece?
Unless you are asking devotees of the composers who are considered to be standard classical repertoire by more companies necessary worldwide, then, the standards of perfection are personal and change throughout a person’s lifetime so that question is useless.

How will I move forward? How did I used to write music from nothing in the past?
– I had a musical idea – melody, rhythm, or harmony
– I had a non musical idea that I wanted to explore musically – the shapes of water
– A combination of these two
– Sat at the computer and pressed on random keys until something sounded good (I haven’t done this since my first year in uni)

I am still not over my need to fit in a musical circle where the people who belong in are true to what they write which is just different to what I write but have gained recognition and respect for their distinctive style. Have I been disapproved of by the people I know? No! So why is my brain fixated on that? So let’s fit into a different circle.
Do I know of any people who have a similar sound to mine? Yes! Have I been in contact?


Do you care if your (speaking to myself in the 3rd person to get more distance and perspective) piece is selected? 

What will happen if it’s not? 
I have things I want to write – no one to write for, but I have things I want to write. 

I have many things I want to write and writing all these applications and proposals and calling to see if they saw my email just takes away – this is a different subject. 

What am I going to write for this call?
I have the idea, the form, there will be a story – there is always a story in my music that makes it sound like a film but it’s not film music so why am I fighting this narrative music writing I am drawn to, at least for this composition? (it goes back to fitting in the circle of musicians), I am pleased with the instrumentation I chose, I have the text, don’t have set melodies (now see, melodies and harmonies is another thing I am fighting against but all my music, vocal or non has its melodies – dare I say, singable melodies), what else am I missing? Textures and specific timbres. I have not yet settled on these. Maybe before moving on to the big piece I should focus on a small section. I don’t usually work like this. Textures and timbres come organically, actually when I am setting the form I am more often thinking of setting textures and timbres in order than anything else, so why did I miss it this time? (fitting in, having the music approved so the closer it sounds to what is usually written for the combination of instruments and voices I am writing for then it should have more chances of being accepted even though in the email when I asked for guidelines the person specified to avoid the norms). 

There. I have my answers. I can’t hear the piece (in my head) still but I feel better and know where to carry on from; from the middle and move outwards.

So, I did write the piece, I sent it. When this is published I would not have yet heard anything from the company. I was thinking of posting this after I got a (positive) answer but I think it defies the purpose of it being a helping tool.

Read Part 1 here

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