How the Music Gets Made

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Music composition has always been one of those mysterious things to people. In the “olden days” to share your process of composing was looked on as almost a travesty. People felt that no one would be interested or care about how a composer made his or her music. The only thing that mattered was the end product.  We’re a little more curious these days and with the internet age it’s awesome to take a peek into an artist’s process of how they work and learn or be inspired by that work. 

How it Starts

I’ll begin by saying there is no one size fits all approach to composing music. For me, most of what comes out is through improvisation – noodling around if you will. I’ll sit with the didge or the keyboard or be messing around with a vocal tune and BAM suddenly something catches my ear. I get it down as quickly as I can either on a page or on a recording (my phone is full of these) because I know if I don’t, I will lose it. I probably have hundreds of little snippets of music ideas like these….

20170223_154927.jpg

Or these......

As you can hear, these are raw ideas that have come through in moments of inspiration. Most of these ideas sit and wait for me to do something with them. But others find their way into becoming a song. The time it takes to make a song varies. Sometimes, it's a couple of days and sometimes it's a couple of months. I've stopped worrying about trying to finish a song and figure if a song wants to be finished, it will let me know. I do it this way because it's what works best for me. I encourage folks to experiment with different ways of composing and then observe, make notes (if you like). It's a way of learning how you tick when it comes to creating. When you find something that works, go with it. 

So what inspires music?

I remember a friend of mine answered this question years ago in a composition class at Cornish College of the Arts. She said “It could be anything, the squeak of a door, the honk of a car horn, anything.” It’s true! I’ve been inspired by many things from train horns to the rhythm of someone walking down the street to bird call, and yep, other people’s music. This world is a symphony of sound and rhythm to me and  I’ve found that inspiration means being an open channel to just about anything

Inspiration can hit anywhere too - in the car, on an elevator, during dinner or even in the bathroom. 

Ok, that’s cool but what about developing those ideas

"Where do I start?" is the big question that many people ask when they a beginner composer. Just start where you are. From there you can start gaining the skills just simply by experience. It’s a bit like learning martial arts – you can’t get to a black belt without the practice. Practice though doesn’t have to mean strictly sweating and slaving. I think of it as a balance between knowing what i want to say with music and flowing or being open to where the music leads me, instead of trying to make it where I think it should go. The minute I try to make the music go where I want, is the minute that I start making crappy music. I learned this when I was trying to compose a piece for a national competition in the mid-90’s. I was trying beat the music out to make the deadline and it just wasn’t happening.  The result was writing only eight measures of unintelligible music before giving up. The lesson in this? Go with the Flow.

Sometimes, developing ideas into songs comes when I put two contrasting but complimentary ideas together. This happens a lot when I’m composing for didgeridoo. I have a journal and a handheld recorder (Zoom H4n) that I use frequently to either write down or record fragments that I can reference later on. I’ve found that recording is much better than writing simply because I don’t always remember how it sounds when I look back on a written rhythm. Often times, to listen to a fragment later on will inspire something else to come out and if it doesn’t, I don’t sweat it. I just go on to something else. So how do I know when two ideas compliment each other? My tummy tells me. I just listen to what I put together and ask my tummy if it sounds good. If it does, then I just go with it. This alone has been a great tool for putting together rhythms on didgeridoo and  songs on the keyboard.

Song structure can be a challenge especially with didgeridoo. How does one make a song without it sounding like a bunch of rhythms strung together or even worse, playing the same rhythm over and over for three minutes? Here’s what one way I think of it when I put a song together for didge.

Intro

Chorus – Verse – Chorus- 2nd Verse (variation from 1st)

Bridge

Chorus

Outro

 

This isn't by any means the only formula I use but it's been one of the most handy.  Again, you can experiment with switching around your different sections to see what works well. One of the best examples I have of using song structure is this song:

There are other tools you can employ into your music too like dynamics (i.e. loud, soft), change of speed (slow to fast or vica versa), texture (smooth or choppy), vocals, pitch (horns or drone) and probably some things I missed. All of these can make a song more interesting and even tell a story (we can get into this a bit later). 

The bottom line is, don’t be afraid to experiment. Let yourself dabble, play, explore and see what comes out. Use your judgment in a good way to weed out anything that doesn’t seem to fit or make sense (this takes a bit of practice and patience) and most of all enjoy the process, be patient with yourself and throw perfection out the window. You won’t need it. Aim for excellence instead (again this will take a bit of practice). You can read some books on composition if you wish but the best way to learn is to just do it. This way you get to feel out your own learning style and find your own voice. If you do want a fabulous book for a better understanding of basic music theory, I recommend Practical Theory Complete by Sandy Feldstein. This is an awesome interactive book that is chock full of good material which is put together in a way that is easy to understand. There are other great music theory books out there as well. It's a good idea to just take the time to peruse them and see if they would be a good fit for you. 

So what is your process? How do you think of music and putting a song together? What inspires you? What do you get stuck on? When works best for you? Feel free to share here because we can all learn from each other. Many thanks for reading!

Love, Pam

PHOTO LOG: Pictures of Where I Live

Originally published in fall of 2016

I've been in Portland, Oregon now for about four months and I've found spaces here where one can go and you feel like you're not in a large city. I'm naturally a forest elf so when I found my way to the Terwilliger Trail, well, I found heaven. Below are some photos from the park  I go here when I need to be in the trees. After living on the Oregon Coast for a year, I have to admit, the city has gotten a bit harder place to be. Spaces like this make it a bit easier. Enjoy! 

Keep Chopping WooD....Unless...

There’s an old zen proverb that we’ve all heard:

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water,

After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

UNLESS...

The wood is a nice log.  If it is then turn it into a didgeridoo. If it's not, then....

Keep chopping the wood and keep carrying the water but don’t forget to have a cup of tea by a nice fire.

Peace

Revised 19 Jan 2017

Open Free and Alive

I think a lot about where we are collectively. No doubt we’re in some pretty hard spots.

I see it every time I go out into nature and then come back to the city.

One never seems to be enough in the city

                                           but everything is enough in nature.

All is about balance there.

                 Energies are used to survive and thrive.

                                        Never for anything else.

 

I see hard spots when I journey with music and come back from a place of no judgments. 

                            No lack.           No shame in being.

All energies go into being.                    

                                                  Open, free and alive

GROWING

How blessed I am to be able to make music. To be able to express feelings, thoughts through sound means more than I can say. Sometimes, words literally cannot express the experiences I have when making music.  I can say that there is an expansiveness I feel when I'm in the zone. I'm literally not of this world but rather more a part of the universe which sometimes feels like it includes inter-dimensional leaping. If this sounds a bit far out, it is. But this is what making music does for me.  It takes me awhile to "come back" and I'll admit that sometimes i come back kicking and screaming. 

I shudder to think of where I would be without the expression of this art. I often think about people who haven't been allowed or who haven't allowed themselves to fully explore their potential. I guess fear would  be the biggest reason for this -- the fear of failing or even worse the fear of success. I've gone through this. To hold myself back has been one of the worst things I've done. I don't like admitting this but there it is. I think we all do this to an extent. We do it to ourselves and to each other. But can you imagine the kind of world we could live in if we didn't limit ourselves so much? Holy freakin; cow!! There wouldn't be anything that we couldn't do either on a personal level or collectively. This is why I encourage people to dive into an art. Not so much to be an artist but more to allow the exploration of potential. I can't even begin to say how much I've learned about myself as a being because of allowing myself to make music. I've learned that I have the power to transform, I can be disciplined, I can bring joy and express joy and that I always have choices and am never stuck in anything.  It's been a beautiful process and one I plan on engaging in for a long, long time. 

So as Kurt Vonnegut says, go into the arts. See what beauty you can find in yourself to express. It doesn't have to be to the whole world if you don't want to. It can just be for you if you like. The point is, you owe it to yourself to explore. your own potential because,...well, because you're amazing!! 

What I'm Learning From Surrender

I hear the word "surrender" a lot and how important it is to do when it comes to living a life of peace, happiness and love. Now, I’m starting to feel it. Just getting out of my own way and letting things happen for me instead of forcing them to happen just because that’s what is expected. We force things all the time. This I believe is what we call “working hard.” You have to work hard to get ahead in life. You have to work hard to get along. You have to work hard to be successful. But what if success is about relaxing into what is and what can be?

Nature has been my greatest teacher when it comes to doing and being. She moves slowly and intently. Not a single ounce of energy is wasted, not even in the smallest things. I find that we, as a species, waste so much life energy on what we think we need just because we’re told we need it. But is what we think we need really worth our life energy to acquire? For survival, yes. Every living thing needs to do whatever it can to survive on this particular plane and by the way this is what ego is really for - survival - no more, no less. But what about the rest? The material world that we are sold every minute of every day. In the last year and a half of living with less, I’ve been learning I am happier. I’m getting back knowing who and what I really am. It’s like layers of an onion being peeled back to reveal the soft, vulnerable and tender Love that's inside. Not the kind of love that advertisers try to sell us on but True Love. The kind that defies words but you know what it feels like when you do feel it.

For me, life hasn't really been about acquiring as much as I can. It’s been about experiences. Rich, deep and fulfilling experiences. They don’t have to be exotic either. For example, I get a lot out of just sitting for an afternoon in the sunshine with a cup of great tea and just observing life as it happens. I get a huge amount of fulfillment out walking in the forest, being with the trees. These tall Brothers and Sisters surround me like Family and it feels like they watch over me to make sure I stay safe. And it goes without saying, that I am most fulfilled when I’m creating music. It is literally my gift that comes out when I get out of my own way and let it come through. When I do things like this, I feel like I can breathe and relax with no judgments – not even from my own head. My soul smiles and I feel the most joy and happiness. Sometimes, I feel expansive, like my physical body can’t contain the energy that I feel. Feelings like this I can only describe as crazy beautiful because they are.

So, with all of that said, let me throw this out there:

I wish everyone would take the chance to feel this kind of joy in their lives.

I wish everyone would take a moment to find what makes them happy and then do that thing.

I wish everyone would take the courage to say no to what is not good for them and say yes to what they really want. 

And I wish everyone as much happiness and joy they can stand.

So......how much joy and happiness can you stand? How much are you willing to get out of your own way - to surrender - and just relax into what is? I know it's easier said than done but you can start practicing any time. What's worked for me is taking small steps at first to see what happens. I try not to worry about failing or not being good at it. Sometimes, I fall down in this category but overall, I'm learning and I'm getting better at it. I just try to be kind, patient and loving to myself as I keep practicing and learning. You can try this too. If you decide to, just know that I'm walking right there beside you because.......we really are in this together. 

Take care, be well and ......I Love You,

Pam