Composing Career Bootcamp

😫 How to Overcome "Composer's Block"

🧠 mindset Feb 13, 2024

A student composer I’ve worked with in the past reached out to me a few weeks ago asking how I go about dealing with “composer’s block”.

Initially I was going to fire off a few quick tips, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how layered the issue really is.

So I’m going to try something different.

We’re going to do a multi-part examination into composer’s block and how to overcome it.

😨 Inspiration Can Wait

Before we dig into practical tips, we’ve got to tackle a fundamental mindset shift about how you perceive an artistic “block”.

See, many artists think that their ability to make something depends entirely on that fickle muse we call “inspiration”.

We’re either inspired (and we write), or we’re not (and we don’t).

But talk to any working composer, painter, or writer, and they’ll sing a different tune altogether.

Why?

Because working artists have DEADLINES.

When faced with a looming deadline—especially a tight one—there’s no time to wait for inspiration.

These artists have to rely on the discipline, craft, and other skills they’ve got at that very moment.

(Not the innovative, brilliant idea that COULD be discovered.)

They create with 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration.

It’s only AFTER the deadline is met that they even think to look back at what they’ve created to decide if it feels “inspired” or not.

So how do we develop the ability to seemingly ignore an artistic block and just make something anyway?

🗓️ Momentum, Training, and Routine

When I was in composition college, the first thing I was taught was to compose at the same time every day.

At the time, the idea couldn’t have been more foreign to me.

“What if I have a great idea late in the night?”

“What if I don’t feel like composing then?”

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the habits I’d built AROUND my creativity were enabling my dependency on inspiration.

So like a good student, I gave it a shot. Every day after class was done, I’d go to a practice room and sit at the piano.

I’d tell myself:

“I need to sit here for at least 30 minutes and compose. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. If after 30 minutes, I don’t feel like composing anymore, I’ll leave.”

I never left, and composing sessions lasted hours.

The simple low-commitment act of starting was often enough to get the ball rolling.

That’s momentum.

But here’s where things got REALLY interesting. 💡

On the first session, it took 2 hours before I had any decent ideas.

On the second session, it took about 1 hour.

On the third, 30 minutes.

And these days, I can generate passable ideas almost instantly.

(Not mind-bending, earth-shattering revolutionary musical ideas—but PASSABLE ones.)

How did that happen?

It’s two things: training and routine. 💪

Doing something over and over again gives us the ability to iterate and reiterate—to learn from our mistakes, bottlenecks, or knowledge gaps, and to fill them.

But the ROUTINE primes our creative mind to turn on faster.

So instead of dragging ourselves to our computer or instrument to compose for the first time in 2 months…

we’re sitting back down to resume our routine after 24 hours.

We have INERTIA.

And that inspirational “spark” we’re looking for has been nurtured and kept warm by our routine (instead of trying to spin two sticks together when it’s below freezing outside).

But what do we do when we lack the MOTIVATION to create that routine?

❌ … But My Body Says “No”

Sometimes, even with all the right routines in place, we still feel stuck.

If that’s you, consider if you might be feeling procrastination, burnout, or both.

How do we overcome THESE roadblocks? 🤔

First, we need to understand what causes these feelings.

Our bodies are very efficient, and very automatic.

(It’s the reason we don’t have to “will” ourselves to heal cuts, or remind ourselves to breathe.)

With that in mind, procrastination or burnout is our body’s way of telling us:

“I’ve thought about it, and I’ve determined that this thing that you’re asking us to do is NOT worth the time or effort we’d have to put into it. So I’m not going to do it.”

Make sense?

Our body is telling us that there’s an imbalance of effort versus result.

NOT doing it saves us time, energy, and pain.

So to overcome composer’s block, we’ve got to understand WHY composing doesn’t feel “worth our time”.

💓 Underwhelm vs. Overwhelm

Most of the time, things we WANT to do (but won’t) come from one of two culprits: underwhelm or overwhelm.

Underwhelm is boredom. It’s the feeling that the task at hand isn’t challenging or interesting enough to engage our time and energy.

Overwhelm is stress. It’s the feeling that the task at hand is insurmountable—impossible to achieve—and therefore we shouldn’t “waste our time” on trying.

Do either of these sound familiar?

(Take a second to think about which you might be dealing with, or deal with most.)

Once you’ve got it, let’s figure out how to remedy that. 💡

In order to get creating again, we need to balance out the scale between feeling OVERWHELMED by impossible ambition and feeling UNDERWHELMED by a lack of challenge.

We’re seeking an equilibrium. ⚖️

To that end, if you’re UNDERWHELMED by composing…

… Then you need to make it more challenging.

Here’s some examples:

  • ⏰ Create urgency (ex. tighten your deadline to 24 hours)
  • 💡 Try something new (ex. pick up a new instrument to compose with)
  • 📣 Create accountability (ex. tell your friend you’ll give them $200 if you don’t finish your piece this week)

On the flip end, if you’re feeling OVERWHELMED…

… Then you need to break down your goals into more manageable small steps (or cut back on your goals).

Here’s some examples:

  • 📦 Create restrictions (ex. write a piece for flute solo instead of wind section)
  • 🗓️ Divide your tasks (ex. sketch today, arrange tomorrow, orchestrate the following day)
  • 🏖️ Take time off (you’d be surprised how effective this is)

Dialing in that balance between underwhelm and overwhelm is the key to creating something—even when you don’t feel like it.

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