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I'm a pianist, and I also compose songs in DAWs. My main spare time occupation is to improvise on the piano, and I've been doing it for several years now.

Even before I learned any instruments (when I was a kid) I always analyzed music in my head, trying to predict how the rhythms, melodies and chords would play out before they actually did. This made practicing a lot harder, since I already had a good feel of what I enjoyed to listen to.

I've always played mainly by ear and several years ago I started teaching myself how to improvise; just trying to play what I could hear in my head. My technique isn't close to be able to keep up with the symphonies in my head, but I think I'm doing alright now - and my neighbors often say they enjoy when I play (I live in a small apartment with very thin walls).

The last year, however, I've started to become frustrated after playing a few minutes of music that isn't good enough to satisfy me. So I just stop and start listening to music I enjoy instead. It's becoming a bad habit, and it's a shame since I still have great ambitions for composing.

This summer I was on a songwriter course, just for the heck of it. One thing I was advised there was to learn to let go of the inner critic, and just try to compose a simple song that is good enough to make you satisfied. I thought it was good advice but I didn't succeed at it in the week I was there.

I'm still trying to apply the advice today but when I compose something, and suddenly hit something I enjoy I get excited and feel like I'm finally about to compose a song that I'll be satisfied with. Shortly afterwards it either starts getting too predictable or too special, and then I suddenly become impatient, longing to be back into the vibe I just experienced. After a few minutes of trying to get back on track, or just starting over with something new, I usually give up, or at least get the feeling of sadness and discouragement.


Is there some general advice to composers who are discouraged by their lack of practical musician skills?

I mean, 'keep practicing' is the obvious answer here, but what about on the mental part and practices that pays off better to more rapid improvements?

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This is more of a psychological question than a music question. –  American Luke Oct 6 '12 at 2:11
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@Luke - creativity does have a psychological component, IMHO, but OP will likely get better musically practical advice in this forum than in another one. –  Kristina Lopez Oct 6 '12 at 2:29
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Could also be worth looking at productivity SE as elements of this question are on topic there. –  Dr Mayhem Oct 6 '12 at 10:22

5 Answers 5

I think that you may be held back by your focus on improvisation: one of the wonderful things about composition is the ability to go back and revise already-written material. Consider trying traditional notation, or thinking of your recordings as rough drafts that you then edit slowly in a sequencer—it's unreasonable to expect a great work of music to spring from your fingers without revision.

Just as a sculptor first forms the clay into a general shape, then refines it, then adds final details, you must learn that the most important part of music composition isn't that what you have is amazing... the most important thing is that your piece is becoming more amazing every time you edit it. Having that right 'trajectory' will, ultimately, produce better work than an exceptional first draft.

When seen in this new context, your high standards become an asset rather than an annoyance—they will help you know what to edit, and help you continue to edit until you have something you love.

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Practicing

Practicing is not listening to music. Yes, you must listen while you practice, but you do so expressly in order to detect mistakes and inconsistencies so that you can correct them. You cannot expect to be able to play for the pleasure of listening without first learning how to play!

Method

Improvisation is always good, especially if you are playing what you hear in your head (as opposed to playing, and then hearing what you played). If you have an imbalance of head-creativity to physical technique, then you should really work on reigning in your improvisational head-creativity to the place where it is within your zone of proximal development for your physical technique. Once you know where that zone is, you can make a plan for expanding your physical technique to the point where it is more in-sync with your head-creativity. This is where real practice comes into play--my internal monologue might sound like:

Okay, I hear a riff in my head that I can't play immediately, but I can transcribe it and play it after a few minutes of practice. Now, let's turn it into an idee fixe, playing it over and over again in different rhythms, then do the same in all 12 keys, then play it in a few different modes, then invert it, then reorder the pitches...

There are a lot of possibilities there. You don't have to do them all, but those that appear to you as useful and relevant to your head-music can get you hours of practice that will develop technique that you didn't have before.

Efficiency of practice

Understand that your musical brain is made up of all of the music you have ever heard before being remixed and influenced by other non-musical stimuli. This means that the music you come up with in your head has roots in and shared technique with existing pieces of literature.

This is where notation comes in handy (and I see you mentioned you play mostly by ear, but bear with me)--you can use those existing pieces of music to help develop the technique that you require in order to play the music your own head comes up with. Identify what literature influences your creative mind, and then learn how to play it! The alternative to learning from existing sheet music is to learn after transcribing everything--either by actually writing down the music before playing it or by playing it by ear. Transcribing is an incredibly valuable skill, but when you do it you are spending time exercising your ear to figure out the piece that you could be devoting towards developing the technique to play the piece. If you want to practice more efficiently, you need to figure out the proper balance for what you want to achieve.

It is for this reason that learning to read music is a required skill for virtuoso-level playing in the western classical tradition. Exceptions can be made for certain traditions passed down aurally; you will find some great jazz and folk musicians with virtuoso-level talent, but those traditions are not reliant upon sheet music in the first place, AND in almost all cases these are people whose creative minds have grown up in sync with their technique. For us, we need to be a bit more strategic.

Composing

Composing music is GREAT, but it can be a daunting task. There is some wisdom to just putting in the hours--even if you spend an hour a day writing motives on scraps of paper that you end up throwing away or never use, that's still something. Writing lots of little pieces is going to benefit you far more than spending the same amount of time on one large piece. Particularly, if you are having trouble just getting something DONE, you need to make sure you set your compositional goals as achievable as possible, and give yourself STRICT GUIDELINES and limits to your compositional process.

One of my teachers once told me that creativity does not come from complete freedom, it comes from limits. It took me a LONG time to realize she was right, but the point is IF you give yourself some artificial rules to follow, for example:

  • Compose eight bars of music in 4/4 time using only the notes in D major and related secondary dominants.
  • Write a 16-bar two-part invention in the style of Bach.
  • Write 32 bars of music based entirely on a three note theme x y z.

...or even...

  • Write 3 bars of music consisting solely of rhythms and articulations on the pitch A4 with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

... then you will find ways to be creative within those constraints, and the same constraints will make it easier to actually finish pieces. The constraints above I made up off the top of my head, but I'll list below some specific composition exercises that my teachers have assigned that could be useful:

  • Arrange "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" for solo piano by reharmonizing.
  • Be handed a sheet of staff paper that is blank except for the first bar of music, which has been provided for you. You must fill the remainder of the page. You have 40 minutes.
  • Set the text of a poem of your choice as an art song. (This one is nice if you have problems determining your compositions' pacing, since that will be decided for you by the text.)

So, the above won't work for everyone, but hopefully it will provide some food for thought on a few of the topics you mentioned. Essentially, don't become discouraged by perceiving yourself as lacking technique, instead, become motivated to develop that technique so you can put it to use! And, as Steve Vai has been known to say on occasion:

"If you want to play something that you can't, you need to see and hear yourself doing it in your minds eye. It will start to happen."

To paraphrase: if you can visualize yourself playing/improvising/composing the way you would like to and with the facility that you desire, you've already taken the first step to achieving that goal.

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+1 Congrats on your 10k! And 10.000 thanks for all your superb and inspiring answers! –  Ulf Åkerstedt Oct 7 '12 at 21:18

I've had the same problem, but I managed to get mostly rid of it.

My first step was to be able to accept my style, when you're playing you have to know that you're not going to play the music you listen to, and if you're not used to the idea it can lead you to think it's bad just because it doesn't sound like what you enjoy listening.

My second step was to record myself and take the habit to do an analysis of what I played, not to see if I played well but mostly to improve the songwriting, and how I can have made a part better just by changing the way it's played.

The third step was to accept the mistakes I can do while playing, and not to make a big deal out of it, to play well you have to play relaxed.

Playing with other people also can be inspiring, and can help you to like your own style when hearing it as a part of a whole.

The lack of skill is not the problem, what you should first improve is your feeling, when you get to like at least objectively what you do, you'll be able to find more pleasure in improvising and then improve your skills.

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For actual composing, you might want to ditch the DAW in favor of a little notebook of staff-pages. When you improvise a nice riff or melodic fragment, write it down before you improvise on it too much.

Most of my pages have just a few (2, 4, 8) measures of melody and rhythm. But the great part is when you need a melodic or rhythmic idea, you can borrow from your past self. If you need a busy syncopated left-hand rhythm, you can scan just the beams for a measure with lots lines. If you need a sweet melody with an early jump, and if you've been doing this diligently for a few months, you've probably got one.

While the computer is a great tool in realising your work; for the storage of musical ideas, pen and paper is still tops.

This can also help to focus your improvising sessions. Sometimes you want to come up with an entire song; sometimes you only need something worth remembering (to develop later).

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I think it's easier to use a dictaphone, since you don't need to pause while improvising, and then you don't have to use focus on memorizing what you're coming up with. Of course, you can end up having lots of more material than you want, but usually what I need to improve a song is just to hear the "draft" again. –  Aske B. Oct 6 '12 at 12:55
    
I have worked that way in the past. But in a way it's exactly what OP doesn't want, being "too picky". Using a notebook means much more "music" gets discarded, only the themes, the seeds that led to compelling moments go into the book. The same "territory" can easily be found again by improvising on the theme. And the ability to scan should not be underestimated. Many music books contain thematic indices for much the same purpose. ... But combining these two methods may be ideal. How else are you gonna find that great solo that was somewhere between 'Untitled 32' and 'Untitled 97'? –  luser droog Oct 7 '12 at 4:06

I admire your devotion to working at your improvisational skills but think that your playing skills may not be your primary problem.

Those of us who write (authors, not composers), can run into the same problem where if our first draft is not great, we abandon the story or idea.

The best advice I have been given is to just get something written. It's far better to let the idea live long enough to survive an attempt to edit it or even let you walk away from it for a day before killing it.

Though easier said than done, patience and dilligence can vastly enhance your already inate talent for imagining the music in your head.

Best of luck with your composing!

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Sometimes I'll walk away for a week or more… it helps me be more fairly critical, without having any attachment to the work. Usually, I end up liking it more than I did while I was creating it! –  Josh Fields Oct 6 '12 at 12:00
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@Josh- I agree that time and distance can be important tools to let ideas ripen. –  Kristina Lopez Oct 6 '12 at 13:31

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