Earlier this week, one of my private composition students managed to completely surprise me. Instead of bringing a print-out of a Finale score, as he normally does, he brought me a completely hand written graphic sketch of a new work. The sketch had no notes or notated rhythms - only general descriptions of each individual part as they occurred over time. He was very proud of this sketch, and commented to me how liberating an experience it was to sketch the piece in this manner.
I was surprised NOT by the fact that he brought me this sketch, but that this particular student - a very tech savvy, computer geek in his own right - chose to sketch this work by hand.
Much of what this blog is about is on how to compose within the parameters of notation software. However, that doesn't mean that every task is best suited in the computer, and that pen and paper should be completely abandoned. Pre-composition - the creative process that each composer engages to help discover and organize their musical ideas PRIOR to the actual writing of notes - I believe is one of those tasks.
Now, before I receive 20 comments on how it is completely practical and legitimate to "pre-compose" on the computer, I want to stress that while I believe that pre-composition is best suited away from the computer, I also recognize that this is a very personal process. Each and every composer will approach this from a different perspective. Also, I should also stress that I have tried to sketch my pieces in Finale and Sibelius in the past, but in the end I always seem to eventually need pencil and paper to get my basic ideas down in a satisfactory manner.
So, why do I believe that pre-composition should be done on paper? For me, it comes down to immediacy and convenience. There may be hundreds of ways that I might choose to jot my ideas down - from simple words, to graphic imagery, use of a timeline, notated ideas, literary reference - the list goes on. While there are likely ways to incorporate all of these approaches into notation software, these programs really aren't meant to handle tasks like these efficiently. Similarly, I might be able to use other programs to assist in this process (such as typing ideas into a word processing program, or creating graphics in Photoshop or Freehand) but in the end this is a cumbersome and limiting approach for me, not to mention considerably slower than simply writing words and images on paper.
Still, despite this, there is part of me that WANTS to use my computer for pre-composition. Despite many failed attempts, I often will still turn to the computer at the beginning of my creative process. I understand that, for me, writing down my initial ideas by hand is my preferred method TODAY, but I would love to be able to discover a process that is just as immediate and convenient on my computer. I want to be able to have the same liberating feeling that my student had just this past week, only when sketching with a mouse and keyboard. I simply haven't discovered what this is - yet.
So, I am opening this discussion up to all of you who are reading this. How do you approach pre-composition? Do you sketch by hand, or have you found a method that works for you on the computer? Let me know, and I will likely try it out myself when I start my next piece.