Sep. 19, 2015

Getting Started with Writing, Part I

Not all organists are creators ... at least they don't act like it.  Some of them rarely stop to think about how the piece they're playing is put together and why the composer did this or that.  Even a fewer number of performers are interested to create something of their own.  They just consume music.  Most people find the idea of fashioning a work of art for themselves attractive, but they don't know what to create.  They're stuck if they can't envision themselves creating the next Michelangelo masterpiece.  They think every detail of everything they might compose, everything they might improvise, from Day One, has to be perfect, follow every rule perfectly, fit together perfectly, and work perfectly, at each and every point, each and every time, and anything less than that is no good.  It's no good, in their view, because they think the rule book stands poised, ever ready to crush them in an instant, if they deviate one microdot from common practice.  It's no good, in their view, to claim ownership of something they brought into existence out of nothing through their own imaginative skill which could be perceived to have the slightest imperfection.   So they're unsure.  They're kind of lost.  They can't seem to let go of this perfection thing.  Perfectionism is the art killer.

Then again, it seems so satisfying and safe to play a piece by some well known name, old or new, and so unsatisfying and risky to face a blank screen or blank sheet of paper.  We all slip into consumer mode sometimes, playing music mindlessly, mostly when we're tired, lazy, or feeling lost.  Here's the thing:  tired, lazy, or lost, we still can choose.  Choosing the creator mode takes an enormous amount of guts in the short run.  But it's infinitely more rewarding in the long run.

Before we start writing our own organ music, we need to know the basics about musical notation, intervals, scales, modes, keys, the Circle, how chords are built in triadic harmony, major and minor triads, diminished and augmented triads, 7th chords, and their inversions, chord progressions, melodic harmonization, and modulation.  Once we have this under our belt, our understanding of music has been taken to the next level, and we're ready to begin taking our first steps at composing.

To get started writing our own stuff the easy way, it's first necessary to get a notefook PC set up to use a music writing application and connect it to a printer.  As for software that dowloads to our computer, some possible choices are Forte, MuseScore, Scorecloud, Finale, or Sibelius, and there are others.  All of them are good.  From my own experience, I've found Noteflight a good way to get started.  This is a music writing software that allows people to compose music directly on line without having to download any software program.  It has a free setup, the first ten scores are also free, and customer service, in my experience, has been good.  It's also a very easy and understandable application to use, especially if you're like me and not especially computer savvy.  It has a playback feature which allows people to hear what they're composing as they go along.  It also allows easy conversion of their scores to PDF files for export and storage with their other documents, or for printing.

As you're setting up to use this or some other music writing application, you need to get a copy of two books:  The War of Art, by author Steven Pressfield, and Linchpin, by author Seth Godin [See blog, The Book, Parts I, II].  These are important to get and will change your life.  You'll find it helpful, after you read these two books, to go back from time to time and review them to give your mind more than one exposure to certain basic and critical information that they contain.  In the case of these books, everything in them pertains to creative endeavor, including writing music for the organ or any other musical instrument.  The language used by Pressfield can be a little frisky at times, but there's no finer description of it in print, and they're both an easy read.

As for what to write, we wonder if there could be some dimension where art exists before we even create it.  We wonder, for example, where Beethoven's 5th Symphony was before he wrote it, where Michelangelo's David was before he sculpted it, where DaVinci's Last Supper was before he painted it, and so on.  The answer is, when these artists set to work, things began to happen that weren't happening before.  Creative thoughts arrived, apparently from somewhere else, and began to stick together.  When you first hear a musical theme in your mind, whether beforehand or while staring at the page, you don't know at first where you're going to end up; as you begin to settle on a key, time signature, and get the notes of the theme down on the page more ideas suggest themselves, you think to add a bass line to the melody, you fill in the two inner parts of the harmony, then you might invert the theme in a related key, add a bass line, maybe switch the inverted theme to the bass, harmonize it, then make the theme into a canon at the octave in another related key, add a third voice in 3rds or 6ths to the harmony, then maybe make the first notes of the theme into a fugato section with yet another key change, invent a simple countersubject to fit in harmony with the theme, then maybe add a dominant pedal point, use this section to bring back the original key, then reharmonize the reentrance of the theme chromatically, and so on, until the piece just develops gradually into the shape best suited to it.  You don't start out necessarily seeing David in a block of marble.  You start by doing your work, by chipping away some of the stone with a mallet and chisel.  After you get some of it removed you begin to see a man.  It ends up being David [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XXVI].

You might begin by first taking someone else's theme and working it into a short form which paints a musical picture of some aspect of your personal experience.  Once you do this, you can try it again, selecting a different theme in a different key and giving it the identical treatment [See Getting Started With Writing, Part II].  After this you might try inventing your own theme, perhaps making use of some thematic idea that happens to be in your head some day when you wake up.  Themes and ideas and insights arrive once you just make up your mind to simply sit down and do your work.  It's as if the powers of creation, which have their home in heaven, look down upon this scene and approve, then come to your aid.  You then begin to see that the same pitches in one of your original themes, with rhythmic transformation, becomes another theme that suggests another form.  In a few weeks or months more new works can make their appearance this way.  You don't start out thinking you're going to write a collection of 24 pieces and then undergo some kind of mammoth search for the ideas.  You don't wait for inspiration to arrive to energize your thoughts before getting to work, like waiting for lightning to strike.  No.  Instead you just start working.

Imagine a man who's just bought his own private airplane.  He's taken many flying lessons with instructors in the past but never made his living as a pilot or flown his very own aircraft into the sky before.  The voice in his head, the same voice that's in all of us, is telling him that he's not a real pilot and never will be, but he still has that dream of flying ... it's in his heart.  That heart of his is telling him that flying is one of the things that he was put on this earth to do, thus he stares at this airplane of his with a certain awe while every minute the voice in his head keeps telling him that he's spent his entire life professionally employed outside the field of aviation and that he just needs to compromise, back off, and play it safe.  Everything on the aircraft's instrument panel is working, it has plenty of fuel, but he's got no particular destination in mind, and he certainly doesn't know what kind of weather he's going to encounter today.  He has neither of these answers in front of him at the moment.  The fear he senses is reasoning with him like a lawyer telling him to ease back and just stay on the ground.

But he doesn't run and hide.  He realizes that the fear he feels is an indicator that there's love there and that he's on to something.  Instead of doing what fear is telling him, instead of yielding to the winds of fear blowing from a certain direction, he makes up his mind to head directly into it.  He takes a 180 degree turn and climbs into the cockpit.  He turns the key.  He starts the engines.  He taxis his aircraft down to the end of the runway.  After the tower clears him for take-off he looks up the runway with that voice in his head screaming in his ears by now that he's not a pilot and never will be, that he doesn't have what it takes, and to not risk making a fool out of himself.  He then makes a move that changes his whole destiny for the better.  He leans on the throttles.  Pretty soon he's picking up speed.  Suddenly unseen forces come to his aid, lift him into the air, and he's flying.  Soon he's looking down from a place high above the clouds where no one, including himself, thought that he could ever go.  He drained that voice in his head of all its juice by denying it the fear that fuels is.  He's beaten it at its own game and, in the process, realized his dream.

That's what it takes, and that's what it's like, to write your own organ music.  And once someone else slays that same inner dragon that keeps trying to sabotage every new creative move they make, it will take them to places they never even dreamed of.  The exciting part of all of this is not knowing at first what you're going to end up with ... you just know that above the bottom of that cloud you can see from the ground is something fine and good and lasting and worth pursuing ... something beautiful full of power, love, and purpose.

Verily, it takes guts to be a creator, but it also takes guts to go out the door every day and mix again with the world, which means, you can do this.  It's up to you to inform yourself so that you understand how to be productive and know how to work with fear to deny it its juice and get it out of your way.  The hardest part is just making up your mind that you're going to sit down and bring something new into existence.  When I first started doing this I didn't have a clue about where this adventure in music writing would take me.  I thought what the average person thought.  I said to myself, "Come on, you don't really think you can write anything for the organ, do you? ... it will sound stupid."  The same little voice calling on us to compromise, play it safe, and hang back from trying that new creative project, whatever it is, that would uplift us to a high level of attainment, is in all of us [See blog, The Lizard Brain, Parts I, II, III, IV, V].  Every practitioner of the creative arts who ever walked the face of this earth, without exception, struggled against this same voice, every hour of every day.  No artificer or craftsman ever really knows how far or wide their next original creative project will lead.  I kept telling myself I was never cut out to be a composer.  That's the voice of the lizard, the same voice in all of us, sensing peril, a peril that isn't real, acting to kill our desire.  You're undoubtedly telling yourself the same thing, right now, as you read these lines.  You're telling yourself, "Great day in the morning, I don't have what it takes to do that, it's ridiculous to even consider it."  So did I.  Many, many times over.  Until, that is, I started reading Pressfield and Godin.

That was 4 collections and 28 Opus numbers ago (photo shows first page of F Major Toccata and Fugue Op. 19, from 3rd collection).  Because Pressfield's and Godin's books explained how to identify and break through what was holding me back, I was able to beat the lizard at its own game.  The world now has a few things in it that it didn't have before, something fine and good and lasting and beautiful, something full of power, and love, and purpose in which people everywhere may find strength to carry on in their lives, something in which they can find the encouragement for carrying on their own personal creative endeavors.

As for knowing what to write, sometimes, rarely, people start with a musical idea or theme already in their head, but more typically this isn't how it works.  The majority of the time people get their musical ieas only after they sit down and start working ... only after they've started their engines, taxied to the end of the runway, and leaned on the throttles ... only after they've started a very simple improvisation or set the first note of a new musical work on a staff.  It wouldn't matter if they're writing a novel, drawing a picture, painting an oil landscape on canvas, sculpting a statue, choreographing a dance, arranging flowers, or composing a symphony ... every creative endeavor like this is subject to this same mysterious process:  inspiration comes, but it has to find us working [See menu bar, Free Stuff].

None of this should intimidate the organist who never tried composing or improvising before.  No matter what their level of skill is at the organ, presuming there are no mitigating medical issues and they have a modicum of talent, people can learn how to play it.  They can learn in time how to improve their playing, compose for it, or how to improvise.  They can train their brain in time to sight read the printed page.  They can train themselves in gradual steps to perform pieces from the repertoire.  All of these things are within their grasp because all of them can be taught.

One of the reasons this web site was created was to help show, among other things, that while organists are all subject to this natural force, and while the peril or danger the performer senses with it isn't actually real, they can use it to remind themselves every day of what it is they need to be doing and then do the opposite of what the voice in their head tells them.  The hypercritical voice in their head will pick apart anything creative a person tries to do in order to preserve its own selfish sense of short-term safety.  The organist's alternative, as a creative being, is to acknowledge the function of this voice to show them the direction in which they need to be headed for the evolution and growth of their own soul and to develop a sense of loyalty to their mission as a creative being.

Organ Bench is therefore bringing the visitor something more valuable perhaps than even academic credentials could provide.  It brings a message of understanding, of courage, of positive thinking, of inspiration, and of experience about the impact the organist has on the world through his creative powers and how he can win against his own fears, apprehensions, and whatever other obstacles may be facing him in this study on his journey to achieving that success.  These are things a church musician or fraternal organist needs to know just as thoroughly as music theory, technique, or repertoire.

Finally, it's necessary to cultivate the attitude that nothing you write shall be of better quality than anything else you've written.  Let it all be fine.  Remember Cesar Franck's words to his own composition students:  "Do not write much, but let it be very good."  Have another trained pair of eyes, someone you trust, who's written pieces for the organ themselves, go over your work and make suggestions for making your music more compelling, if needed.  When you're done, everything in your compositional output should stand solidly all by itself.

This is what one retired doctor of dentistry did.  And you can do the same, or better.

(con't in Part II)