composing is scary.

The thought of writing my own music is generally terrifying to my inner perfectionist. ("This is ridiculous. How can you possibly want to do this? There are so many people who are already awesome at it." she says. "Why waste your time? You might seriously suck. Don't embarrass yourself.") I've always had such high respect for the great composers and songwriters that I completely avoided any attempts at composing until three years ago when I wrote my first song. I haven't started another one until this week. (More on the details of it next time.)

Several years ago, I reluctantly delved into improvising (composing on the spot) in a fusion band. I desperately wanted to get better at improv, but I was paralyzed with fear. During rehearsal, the guys would signal that it was my turn for a solo. I'd do my best to avoid it. "I don't need a solo. No, really, you take one. I'm good. Seriously. I'll just play what's written here." Meanwhile, my inner voice is screeching, "DEAR GOD, PLEASE DON'T MAKE ME TAKE A SOLO!" Those poor guys were so patient with me. They were encouraging and kind, and even more importantly, they insisted on me taking solos. I started learning that the only way to shut up that nagging inner perfectionist was to actually do whatever it is she swears I can't or shouldn't do. Little by little, solos got easier. Enjoyable, even. I even found myself looking forward to them. My perfectionist voice was getting more and more faint. Did I play and sing sour notes sometimes? You bet. But I started learning to let those sour notes become part of the composition rather than trying to act like they didn't happen. On my best days, they just redirect the line and shape rather than being a smudge on the canvas. 

After starting to do some improv, I decided to try my hand at arranging. Performing tunes that you've arranged is a grand tradition in the jazz world. I love this practice because the artist can share their musical taste with the audience. It's fun to know you like the same things as someone else. I've discovered several musicians just because they covered a tune that I loved. My favorite instances are, without fail, tunes that are pulled from outside the jazz genre. The flip-side of paying homage to my favorite tunes and musicians through arranging was that somewhere in my subconscious, it felt safer to try out musical ideas without having to take full responsibility for the whole tune. Don't like the melody? Blame the composer. Don't like the words? Blame the lyricist. I can handle taking flack for the rest. This is obviously not a viable idea since the arranger's choices can totally ruin a perfectly awesome melody or lyric, but it made me feel better and at least got me started. Just like the improv experience, it got easier as I did it. I don't have many arrangements under my belt, but I'm finding it less intimidating with each tune. As I finish each one, there's somehow less pressure on the next one to be o-mazing. 

So now I'm trying this composing thing again, hoping to make originals a bigger part of my setlists. I'm getting used to that fact that the perfectionist will start mocking me every time I try something new. "Wasn't the arranging adventure enough for you? You should just sing the amazing music that's already out there! You're going to get worse at everything else if you waste time on this!" A knowing smile spreads across my face. She's wrong. And she's starting to know it, too. Yes, it's scary, but we're gonna do it anyway.

Patterns and Shapes

I just spent the last 30 minutes having my mind sufficiently blown by Vi Hart on the topic of 12-tone music, thanks to Boing Boing and my friend Alan. I think it's safe to say that 12-tone music isn't everyone's favorite stuff, although I was one of the oddballs in school who loved studying and performing it. Thankfully, Ms. Hart has made it accessible using laser bats, nursery rhymes, wit, and humor, and for good measure, she throws in some ideas about copyright and the meaning of life. (It's super-fun, but probably not for kids.) It's the best 30 minutes I've spent on YouTube in a long time. Maybe ever. Don't skip a minute. The last segment won't make sense without the rest, and the last part was pure joy for me. 

Related to Stravinsky and the human brain's obsession with finding patterns, you should check out this Radiolab segment. You could skip to 7:33, but the beginning will help it make more sense: