Fifteen Ways to Be Productive
When You're Not Composing
Sometimes you’re feeling creatively stalled-out and just plain can’t compose. I’m a big advocate of pushing through and trying to write anyway, but realistically, that’s not always possible. When I’m feeling creatively blocked, I put aside composing for a few hours or a day and do one of the things on this list.
It may be just coincidence that once you take care of everything else in your life — you tidy up your workspace, get in touch with performers and conductors, imagine future projects, and reconnect with music you enjoy — new work often comes in. In my experience, though, productivity begets productivity, and days full of the “busy work” on this list are often followed by exceptionally creative composing days.
This list is here for you when you need it. Come back to it the next time you’re feeling burnt-out on composing but still want to have a productive day.
1. Format a piece you’re currently working on.
You can, of course, still work on a piece without writing any new notes. Add in dynamics, slurs, and articulations for the music you already have. If you’re composing by hand, engrave the music you’ve already written. Occasionally, working with the existing music stirs up ideas for what might come next, and formatting a piece leads you back into composing.
2. Write program notes.
Again, this is “working on a piece” without actual composing. Format the title page and start writing program and performance notes ahead of time, so they’re close to finished when the piece is done.
3. Edit an old piece.
Go back to a composition that’s a few years old and take a second look for typos, collisions, sloppy formatting, etc. For bonus points: make a list of conductors or upcoming calls for scores to send that piece to once it’s been cleaned up.
4. Email five conductors or performers.
…Or make plans to do this over the next few days. Create a list of conductors or performers you’d like to contact, and plan out which 2–3 pieces you’ll send to each of them. Look up their contact information online, or ask a mutual acquaintance if they’d mind introducing you. Draft a cover email. Make sure the scores you plan to send are up to date.
5. Catch up on emails.
Don’t just answer whatever’s in your inbox that you’ve been neglecting; get back in touch with anyone who has expressed interest in working with you in the past. This could be a performer friend who hasn’t seen your newest work, but might be interested in performing it. You could reach out to a conductor who once mentioned a potential commission, or a musical acquaintance you’ve been meaning to ask out for coffee.
6. Update your website.
Do you have new recordings to upload? Exciting news that you haven’t yet shared? A list of upcoming performances to update? If you’ll be getting new recordings soon, can you start building pages for those new pieces now, so everything’s ready to go live as soon as the recordings come in? Are there any pages that you’ve been meaning to overhaul? Are any of your design elements looking outdated? Is your online bio up to date? Is it up to date on other sites (Soundcloud, Facebook, membership organizations, etc.)?
7. Submit to contests, or make a list of upcoming competitions.
Look for new competitions on Composer's Site or American Composers Forum that would be a good fit for your existing work. If you already have a list of upcoming contests, pick out three that you could tackle in an hour — ones with no entry fee and simple online submissions — and apply to those now.
8. Update your bio / resume / C.V.
I usually keep my website bio fairly up to date, but my resume and C.V. are usually woefully outdated when I need them for a contest or grant application. Take this time to update them.
9. Google your music.
Search for recent performances of your music online that you may have missed. PROs like ASCAP and BMI will often accept detailed online program information in lieu of an actual program; see if you can track down performances of your music to collect royalties on later, or to add to your C.V. Other nice discoveries may pop up here, too: a YouTube recording you didn’t know existed, or an ensemble posting excitedly about performing your music.
10. Post something.
While you’re taking stock of your work and updating things: are there any new or fairly recent recordings that you could share on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook? Is there a new project coming up that you could share? Could you share your recently-updated website?
11. Make a list of dream projects and goals.
Come up with a dream track-list for an album (or albums) of your music, with music you’ve already written or plan to write in the future. Make a list of the pieces you’d write if you were at a residency for two months — or six months — and had abundant time to do nothing else but compose. Brainstorm what you’d do if someday you received a MacArthur Grant for your work. How would you spend your $625,000? Make a list of twelve ensembles and soloists you’d like to write for in the future, or twelve conductors you’d love to program your music someday.
You don’t have to take action on any of these, but if you’re feeling ambitious, you could pick a dream project and isolate the first steps you’ll need to take to make it happen.
12. Take a walk (and listen to a music podcast).
Research suggests that taking a walk can improve your mood whether you intend it to or not. If you want to feel musically productive while you’re walking, listen to a music podcast. Choir Chat, Meet the Composer, Music Publishing Podcast, and The Portfolio Composer are all good options. Bring a pad of paper or have a note-taking app at the ready in case any creative or business ideas pop up along the walk.
13. Clean something — your workspace, your house, yourself.
This is the one tip that has nothing to do with music, but I’ve found that it often leads back to being creative anyway. Make a list of small tasks you can do now or when you need a short break: tidy up your desk, empty the trash, wash the dishes, fold laundry, clean the bathroom sink, etc. Do whatever you normally avoid doing. (My apartment is never cleaner than when I’m procrastinating composing; when I’m in a writing groove or on a deadline, it’s often a mess.) Create a clean workspace for when you return to composing tomorrow.
14. Sit down at the piano (or pick up the guitar, or sing) and play for fun.
You’re not aiming to compose right now; you’re reconnecting with music you love. You can try to arrange a pop song you loved ten years ago, or dig out old sheet music you used to enjoy practicing. The point here is to get you back in touch with making music of any kind.
15. Play through what you already have of a composition in progress.
This is the ultimate way to trick yourself back into composing: tell yourself you’re not allowed to add any new notes, but reserve the right to change your mind if you feel inspired. You may find something that’s not working; take it out now, and return to it tomorrow.
These steps are what work for me; your mileage may vary. When you’re feeling creatively blocked, take stock of what you’ve already accomplished and make space for new work to come. Visible work — work that you’ve shared on social media or your website — can lead to new collaborations. A clean workspace can create room for inspiration, as you mess everything up again creating new work. Dreaming up ambitious goals leads to ideas for big or small future projects.
All of this leads to actions you can take now, instead of passively waiting for new commissions or other work to come to you. And if work does beget work, then hopefully this list will lead you back to composing tomorrow.
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Originally published on the MusicSpoke blog.