What's your brief? Do you have the money, the time, the energy, the resources, the information, the people? What do you need to do what you want to do? What exactly is it that you want to do?
I’m scoring a feature at the moment and there’s so much music to keep on top of that I had to up my organisational/project management game. So these are the apps and systems I’m currently using. Please note, it’s always work in progress and I'll modify this list depending on what the work demands, now and in future.
Disclaimer – just my humble opinions and life experience here…
I subscribe to the mantra, ‘a change is as good as a rest’. Or, rather, ‘a change is the sameas a rest.’
Rest for me isn’t just about sleep, relaxation, meditation and quiet stillness. It’s about balancing out my work activities and daily obligations with their ‘opposites’ to support me in doing these activities and obligations whilst providing a whole bucketload of benefits that make life more bearable, enjoyable and worthwhile.
Enjoying your work comes from autonomy, mastery and purpose says Daniel Pink in Drive; I know for me this is so so true – they were all factors I found intensely important for my work and life, even before I read his book. However, autonomy, mastery and purpose all take work to make happen, in and of themselves.
=&0=& asks that you structure your own time and/or way of working and requires discipline. Resistance and procrastination are ever present threats.
=&1=& requires years of focussed, deliberate practise, experimentation and learning from your mistakes. It takes grit, determination and a somewhat obsessive drive. Or just… discipline.
=&2=& requires thought, introspection and interrogation. The why of what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s obvious; often it’s not, and needs work in itself to get really clear on. What is your reason for doing the work? Be honest…
I think my theme for 2017 might have been 'getting out of my comfort zone'. I said YES to bunch of opportunities I perhaps wouldn't normally have gone for. Sometimes it worked really well for me, sometimes it... didn't quite turn out as I'd hoped. I learned a LOT about how, why and when to 'get out' of said 'comfort zone' for maximum value...
– Accept it. Don’t fight it. It’s going to get done. Have faith in yourself. If you don’t, who will?
– Prioritise. Cut out all the chaff. Remove extraneous work and social obligations – anything that can be postponed, do it. What’s the most urgent music to be written? On this project, I had several songs to write for choir, so these were written first so that the performers could get to learning them as quickly as possible.
– Schedule. Break all the work up into smaller bitesize chunks. Take a reasonable amount of time to plan your time so that you can…
– Concentrate on today only. Worrying about what you have to do tomorrow, the day after, next week is a waste of your energy.
– Focus. Turn off email, twitter, let the phone go to voicemail. Go offline. Work hard and jealously guard your time against anything less worth your while. This is important. No-one is going to write this music (or whatever work it is that you do) but you, and no-one else will get blamed when deadlines are missed. Work hard, whilst remembering to…
– Communicate. Keep everyone in the loop who needs to be. On this project that meant the director, the writer, the sound designer, the producer, and a number of others at different times and in different ways. Whilst it’s important to get the job done, it’s also important to get the right job done, especially on something as fluid as new theatre. Scripts get re-written, budgets get squeezed, new technologies have their unforeseen quirks. Plans change, and you’ve got to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
– Recharge. That amount of music cannot be written and still remain top quality when you’re running on fumes. Factor in at least a day or two every week where you step away from the mac/piano/manuscript paper and do something else. Anything else. Get your head out of the game. Your subconscious will continue to work on the problem and you’ll find a miraculous pool of ideas are ready for you to dip into when you’re back at work the next day. Trust me on this, it really does work. I work anywhere up to 5+ times faster that morning after a day off. It’s truly bizarre if you’re not used to it. 🙂
Accept – Prioritise – Schedule – Concentrate – Focus – Communicate – Recharge
A recipe for undeniable creative success.
This is a retooled post from 2010 when I was working on Anthology with Slung Low for the Liverpool Playhouse. I was far busier back then with work besides composition, including violin teaching and performance. Now I’m solely a composer, the method still holds true – so I thought it was worth another share.
It Happened Here is a Slung Low audio/installation adventure set in Holbeck, Leeds, which opened in August 2016.
It Happened Here was a surprisingly freeing project to work on; usually my work is underscoring dialogue or action, either as live theatre or onscreen, and synchronisation with these events is a high priority – synchronisation of tone, emotion, pace, volume and complexity. This synchronisation can be quite strict, as in the case of much of my animation work, or fairly fluid in the case of promenade theatre. Nonetheless, there are always ‘sync-points’ to hit.
In It Happened Here, there were spaces in the script where music happened; however, the only brief for each section was simply a title, and sometimes a little description from one of the characters on how they felt about that particular title (attempting not to give away any spoilers here!).
Even the durations were deliberately left quite vague – for all but one movement of music, they were somewhere between 1 and 3 1/2 minutes for each.
So… the music was to last as long as I (or the music, I’m still never quite sure) wanted.
I haven’t written like this in years. Even when I sketch themes for work in advance of a show or in pre-production for a film based on the script or a director’s brief, each sketch will be under a minute in length, and it’ll get to the point pretty quickly. None of this developing of motifs or gentle building atmosphere that you often need to do under dialogue or onscreen action.
Part of me was a little wary of having such a free brief. I like to bounce and push against the boundaries of a specific project’s requirements – those restrictions force a level of creativity that really gets the grey matter firing in quite an addicting way. It’s a problem solving exercise – how do I fit the music into a specific time frame, synchronising to specific moments, whilst still creating something that could still be described (sometimes in the broadest definition) as a coherent musical piece. And I do love a problem solving exercise, I think it’s just how I’m wired…
In summary – those sync-points are a handy little crutch, a pre-arranged structure on which to hang the tunes. It Happened Here was different – no crutches at all (apart from one little bit of underscored dialogue towards the end, but… spoilers! Sorreeee.).
I wasn’t surprised (after the first day of writing some really dire stuff that will never see the light of day, essential part of the process and all that etc. etc.) to find that I really relished the opportunity to just write.
One of the most common question I get asked is whether I write just for myself; not for a brief or a project or a commission but just for the hell of it, I’ve-got-a-tune-in-my-head-that-I-gotta-get-down situation.
I don’t. I wonder if that’s sad sometimes… I used to when I was younger – in my teens and early 20s, I’d write violin duets for my sister and I, and pieces that might make there way onto demo CDs… but even for these two random examples there appears to be purpose. This music had a function outside of existing just for its own sake (violin duets = social, demo music = finding work), so maybe I’ve never just written just to write – an interesting revelation to me just typing this out.
In chatting with a lovely new friend very recently, he suggested that it’s because I might prefer to be involved in (or at least instigate) something bigger than just myself and my tunes, and that it was more rewarding to me to have the piece be in service of, and add value to, that bigger thing. Maybe he’s right.
Anyways, less of the psychoanalysis and back to It Happened Here – it was chuffing glorious to write with such a free brief and I enjoyed it immensely… making me think I could seek out similar opportunities in future, something with a purpose above and beyond itself – in this case working with my fave people, the promotion and inclusion of an oft-overlooked part of Leeds, and entertaining a wide, diverse and on-going group of people – but with a much looser requirement for synchronisation. Maybe. We’ll see.
It’s designed to be listened to whilst wandering the environs of Holbeck so, if you’re ever at The HUB for a show or whatever, do add in an extra hour or so before to do the tour.
Alternatively, you can listen to it elsewhere and it’ll still make sense. Download it to your phone or mp3 player of choice and listen at your leisure…
The lovely John Hunter wrote it, the quiet technical genius of Matt Angove recorded and sound designed it, and logistical organisational heroes Alan Lane and Sally Proctor produced it. Direction was a magnificent all-hands-on-deck scenario on this occasion and I received brilliant notes and feedback from all concerned (big thanks you guys 🙂 ).
I took the pictures. Please don’t nick them. Not that you would, obvs. See more of them here.
So right now, for me, is all about taking the time to rest and recharge the batteries. To be honest, I took a couple of days off directly after the show finished before going back to work. I thought that would do the trick. Boy was I wrong! Though I did get through some work – a pitch for a cartoon miniseries and a budget for another little thing, it was more of a slog than it should have been. I’ve bitten the bullet and given myself this week off to see if that helps.
After powering through the last couple of months on the Somme project, fatigue snuck up on me and the creative well is running a bit dry. Politics, world news, the state of the climate… Right now, the world is travelling a touch too fast for me to keep up. I need to pause and regroup for just a little while longer so as to return ready for the next adventure!
Though I still find myself at the computer, pottering in the studio, attacking that mountainous paper pile of receipts. It’s quite hard to do just… nothing. Hopefully this slower pace with do the trick though – focussing on things other than what the next note or rhythm or modulation should be. Maybe a change is as good as a rest?
Next month brings with it more new and lovely challenges: preparatory work with Slung Low for the music of The White Whale and the V&A’s Venetian Masquerade exhibition starts in earnest. I’m also putting together a pitch for a film (keep your fingers crossed for me!) and I’m talking at the next Hack Circus, themed ‘This is Reality’. I’m not entirely sure what my take on it is, but ideas of controlling perceptions of reality through music and sound feels like a decent starting point. But, who knows, when I finally get a mo to really sit with the topic it could go off in another direction entirely…
These interesting articles graced my RSS feeds of late; all seem to be a bit ego-themed for some reason (maybe it’s all the yoga, you know, enlightenment, ego-denial and that):
I’m not quite sure what to make of this. I like being on my own, and I know that I’m not totally unusual in that (although I don’t know anyone personally who craves quite as much alone time as I do).
However I do understand the notion of having to distract oneself once you’ve found yourself a little cocoon of quiet. A good book, facecrack, a walk somewhere… it’s almost like the ego needs a purpose, that it makes you a bad person if you’re not doing anything, not using your time up deliberately, somehow. I used to vehemently be this person, ‘don’t waste a second’, be efficient (ok I still am a bit like this) but I also now revel in the not-doing. Checking out. Brain break. Staring into space.
I do wonder if there’s a grain of truth to this article but maybe the hyperbole has taken over for book sales purposes?
It’s funny but in this business (music, film, making new stuff and selling it) you meet so many different types of egos, but mainly you come to realise that they are useful things, these egos, in order to function in such a culture of ‘self’. Even I’ve described the business as selling oneself, and became enamoured with the notion of personality branding for a while.
What’s nice about this article is that it goes against the grain of ‘the ego is bad’ and in order to be happy/attain enlightenment/be a good person you have to get rid of the ego. It occurred to me during reading that, evolutionarily, the ego is there for a reason – as a mental construct it must have helped keep us alive as a species, and that really i=&0=&.
When it’s working properly by building you up and deflecting projectiles, it’ll protect you from whatever crap the universe throws at you and, by providing context, help you notice and appreciate whatever awesomeness the world sprinkles upon you. Rather than the other way around. And yes I do like to anthropomorphise quite a lot.
Hidden hierarchy in string quartets revealed
Here’s another story I can shoehorn into to my ego-themed post (even though it doesn’t reference it explicitly): in one quartet, the lead violin does her own thing and everybody else follows; in the other, timings are democratically altered between the four on-the-fly. As an ex-perennial second violinist I can tell you it is NO fun whatsoever (ok, it is a little bit) playing in the former when one of the other instrumentalists is a bit of a diva and ploughs through relentlessly ignoring any communication with her colleagues (and it’s not always the first violin… ok, it usually is) in comparison to the latter.
I can guarantee that these balances of power spill over in to the rest of the groups dealings! Looking back on it like this, clearly my ego might have taken a bit of a battering during time in the field; classical music performance can be a brutal arena. It’s just like Black Swan. Except without the tutus.
Also I’ve been on a bit of a caffeine detox for the last few days which may explain why I didn’t come to any of my usual searingly insightful conclusions. Sorry ’bout that.
I wrote a post a while back about being ok with not knowing. Sometimes you don’t know what your next move is, how you’ll get from the start to the finish line. The gist of the post is that this usually feels uncomfortable but it’s ok to feel that way. There’s no need to shy away from it – it’s a normal part of a process that requires you take a different path each time it’s undertaken.
This can be applied to music composition and any other creative endeavour. The point is that something new will be the end product; you can’t get there without the process, or some part of it, also being new.
But human beings don’t like not knowing what the future might bring, and they don’t like the associated uncomfortable, uncertain feelings. We all like to feel in control. The creative process by its very nature often requires the opposite.
Yes, it’s all well and good me saying to you, “it’s fine to feel uncomfortable and not know what’s going to happen and how you’re going to get there. It’ll all turn out ok.” However, I realise now this statement was an evidence-based expectation. It’s turned out ok in the past, specifically for me, so I have a reasonable expectation based on (admittedly biased) anecdotal evidence. It’s not blind faith on this occasion.
Perhaps I’m wrong to dish out this information – it’s really up to you to decide if you ought to feel ok about feeling uncomfortable or insecure, with not knowing. I’ll be honest with you – my amygdala is utterly useless when it comes to making work or business decisions. It sees danger and creates fear at every turn. I learned long ago to attempt to ignore it, and more recently to acknowledge it then to ask it politely but firmly to keep its opinions to itself. There are other bits of my brain that rely on previous experience to make decisions of which I choose to take more heed; for example, the part that says, “you’ve met more difficult deadlines in the past, you can do it again,” is a really helpful attitude that I prefer to accept. Based on evidence.
Mulling this over… I concluded that I’m ok with feeling not ok because I’ve evidence that the task ahead, though daunting, unwieldy and downright difficult is nonetheless achievable. I accept that, right now, I may not quite know which direction to take the work but there are systems in place, refined over the years, to help me take the next step, and the one after that, even though, right now, the one after that is completely unknown. It’ll become clearer as I progress. It doesn’t stop the blank page being the blank page, but now it holds less power and more hope.
Only you can know if you’re relying on blind faith or evidence-based expectations. I don’t recommend the former, but the latter can help you sit with the insecurity and unwieldiness of the next project and, who knows, even enjoy it a little bit, masochistic little beggers we creatives are. Knowing from previous experience of the process, you may even come to expect it, to require it, to chase it, crave it.
Maybe when you don’t feel that sense of certain uncertainty (aka doom), that’s when you start to worry.
Yes I’ve a big project coming up (Blood + Chocolate) and no this stream of consciousness has nothing to do with it. At all.