A Beginning Composer

by Joan Magagna

Keynotes, March 2016

About five years ago, I started writing music at the urging and encouragement of a wonderful teacher, Jeffery Watson. Although I have loved and played music since I was a kid, I had never written any music, nor even imagined that I could. I always thought that composing was a magical realm that only the truly gifted and select few could enter. But Jeffery persuaded me that anyone could write music, just like anyone can write with words.

The difference is that we have a whole education system focused on teaching, from the earliest grades, how to write words--first in sentences, then paragraphs, then stories, poetry, and essays. But only those who seek it out are taught how to write music. And yet, writing music is just using another language. The process of creating something with individual notes is very much like writing with words. When I realized that, I began to think that I, too, could enter this magical world. And so, with a lot of help from my teacher, I started to write music in the same way that I used to write legal briefs when I was practicing law.

For me, just like writing with words, I have to write music that is about something. I can't just decide to write a pretty tune; the blank page remains blank. But I can write music about almost anything. For example, I have written about my children and my grandchildren, the sounds and images from a trip to China, the landscape of Wyoming, a compelling scene from a novel, a walk in the garden, and the grief after the death of a loved one. The pieces are not literal representations of these ideas, but convey the general emotions and moods that they create for me.

I was never very successful doing outlines when writing a legal brief, or starting from the beginning and writing through to the end. Rather, I would brainstorm, writing down all the possible ideas that might be useful. Then I would organize, expand and connect the ideas, and then edit, edit, edit. Similarly, I don't outline or plan out a musical piece, and I don't try to start from the beginning. I sit at the piano and noodle around until I find a melody, chords, or motive that I like, and then I write it down. I continue brainstorming this way, playing and writing until I have four or five ideas that seem to be promising. I begin to see what the structure of the piece might be. I decide what order the ideas should go in, which ideas should be developed more expansively or repeated, and which should be de-emphasized or scrapped altogether. I work on the transition between ideas, to make sure one flows smoothly to the next and I decide how to end the piece. Often, I write the beginning after everything else is finished. Finally, I edit, edit, and edit some more.

I try (not always successfully) to be disciplined about composing. My goal is to write at least eight good measures every day. When things are going well, I can write much more than that. But some days, it takes hours to push out the eight measures, and the next day they often end up on the scrap heap. If I am lucky, one of those scraps might become a germ of the next piece. Composing is not a quick or easy process for me; it takes about a month to write a three-minute piece. I am sure it would be a lot easier and faster if I had started learning how to write music in third grade. It is more work than inspiration, but it is also totally magical to be able to pull sounds out of nowhere and put them together into something that is eventually recognizable as "music."


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