Composition Tips

Before you start on the journey of  composition, you need to commit wholeheartedly to the process. Going into this project, I was unsure if I was going to complete my piece and that was one of my downfalls in the beginning. Only once I told myself I was going to finish my composition, I believed in myself enough to get further out of my comfort zone.

The first very important piece to the process is choosing a key. A key has the power to shape the quality of sound of the whole composition. I chose Fm not only because I like the sound of that key, but because it felt right in my fingers. Especially in choosing a key for your first composition it is important to love it and feel comfortable with all the notes that key encompasses.

My mentor began composing when she was sixteen, and gave me some key advice: turn on a recorder and just play. When I first implemented this, it was a little rocky and I was self-conscious about what I was playing, but as the time went on I forgot I was recording myself and that is when I found some of my favorite parts of my piece.

Do not start writing out parts of the piece until you are able to play it with the same consistency. Another thing to recognize is even after you physically write the notes on paper, you can still change them. It wasn’t something I even thought about, but my mentor said subconsciously when you write something down there’s a need for it to stay the way it is. This is not true.

Something that helped me remember to compose throughout the process, even when I doubted my ability, was to put a reminder on my phone. Every night at 5pm my phone went off reminding me to compose. This reminder largely helped shape my project. It kept me engaged and allowed me to take time out of my schedule to dedicate to composing.

Throughout the composition process continue to record everything you find that you like. I was able to go back multiple times and re-find parts of my composition I played in a fleeting moment. This turned out to largely shape the feeling of my piece.

Remember that you should be composing for you, not anyone else. Create music for you first and then get excited to share your hard work with others. You need to believe in yourself or composition will not be possible.

Post-Recital Reactions

When playing my composition for my fellow students and their families who have seen me grow as a pianist throughout the years, the room felt as though it disappeared. I was not playing for them and worrying if I was going to make an error. I felt accomplished and was proud of myself. It was the first time I really played for me in front of an audience and it felt great. I am so glad I pushed myself to play my own composition as my final recital before I leave for college.

After the music portion of the recital was over, I was able to get some very candid feedback on this blog and also my composition itself. A father came up to me and was impressed how open I have been with this process, and I’ve admitted that I am hard on myself. It is an issue that isn’t talked about enough, and I was so glad to start conversation about it. That was one of my main goals for my project. One of the other teachers in the music school told me she has the same issues with composition and has always been too afraid to try, but by reading about my process and hearing my final product I inspired her.

The ultimate goal of my senior project was not just to compose a piece for me, but to start conversations about being your own worst critic and inspire others to face their fears and push past them. I hope I accomplished that.

Pre -Recital Jitters… or Not

Coming into the recital this past week, I expected to be much more nervous than I was. Before arriving I did not experience the telltale signs the performance was coming. My stomach didn’t get butterflies, my heart didn’t start to race and my hands weren’t clammy. I figured once I got there, all my nerves would hit at once, but they didn’t.

When it came time to perform, I felt at ease. I was proud of myself for completing my first composition and was excited to show everyone. Throughout the piece, I was not afraid to make a mistake because I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone. I was performing for me.

Finishing My Composition

This process as a whole has taught me more than I ever thought it would, but finishing my composition was different than anything I had felt before. When writing papers for school, I feel like I can always add more to make it better or “more complete,” but after I played my composition in its entirety for the first time I knew it was done. It’s hard to explain how I knew this, but I felt confident.

Last Saturday and Sunday, I had piano recitals and was planning on playing my composition. In the weeks leading up I was extremely nervous and thought I wasn’t going to finish the song in time. I knew I had all the pieces, but was entirely unsure how I was going to put the song together.

One night, I was home alone and I decided that I needed to finish it, so I sat down and just played and played until it somehow fell into place. I had my intro, beginning, and middle section figured out, but still wasn’t sure how to end the piece. The next day, I asked my parents to listen to my composition and when I was playing something just clicked and I found my ending. Right then, I knew I was done with the piece and I couldn’t be more excited about the end product.

Student Inspiration

I have been teaching piano for about four years now, and something that’s always impressed me is my students’ willingness to show me songs they’ve created. When I think back to who I was when I was just starting to play piano, I did the same. What changed from then to now? We all face pressures from society that give us the impression that in order to be good at something you need to be perfect. I certainly wasn’t thinking about that when I was first toying with composing at ten years old, and I hope my students aren’t either. I absolutely love when my students tell me they created a song. It is actually one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching for me. It shows that I am inspiring them to explore the instrument further by creating something unique to them.

I am inspired by my students too. One of the reasons I decided to embark on this composition journey, is because I wanted to be more like my five year old students who are able to put themselves out there. Teaching others how to play piano has also taught me a lot. The most valuable being: I need to be vulnerable if I am going to expect the same of my students. By doing so, I have not only been able to improve my sight reading, but I am also more confident in my abilities to teach and play piano. I am so thankful to my students for inspiring me to choose a project that pushes me so much as a musician.

Fear? Not Anymore

When I first started experimenting with my piece and was trying to write components to the song, I was extremely intimidated and went through a time period where I didn’t think I was going to be able to complete it. I was reluctant to show my mentor my progress, and completely doubted myself. My ultimate fear of not being able to finish my piece started to envelop my thinking about composing, and I was stuck.

After writing my first blog entry (the “About Me” tab), I was inspired again. I decided to put a reminder on my phone to compose that would go off every night at 5:00 pm. Not only would it remind me that I actually needed to compose, but it motivated me because I wanted to have something new by the end of each composing session. That being said, I was still somewhat fearful that I wasn’t going to be able to finish.

Fast forward to last Tuesday. My mentor asked me to show her my progress on my piece. I was so accustomed to saying no, that I blurted “I haven’t come up with anything new.” She looked at me and asked “Are you afraid of composing? Sometimes I don’t want to show people my progress because I am afraid of the actual composing.” Surprisingly, what popped in my head was “No, I am not afraid of that anymore.” It was the first time I actually realized my fear about composing had subsided and I actually believed I could finish this project.

Finding a Melody

Throughout the process of recording and improvising on the piano, I found myself attracted to the same set of notes. From there, I created a central melody. How my fingers feel when playing is a determining factor as to what songs I keep up, and what songs I eventually let go from my memory. “The Piano,” “Porz Goret,” and “Moonlight Sonata” are all songs I’ve made an effort to keep up, and I have partly because of how my fingers feel when I play the songs. When I found my melody, it flowed in my fingers, and that is when I knew I wanted my piece to be centered around that grouping of notes. I drew  inspiration from composers like Yann Tiersen, Michael Nyman, and Beethoven that involve variations to the main melody. Now I am working on creating variations where the listener can tell a part is a riff off of the melody, yet it is something different. That is my next challenge going forward.


My First Step

My senior year in high school, everyone is required to take “Senior Signature Projects.” In this class each student chooses a topic to explore. At first, I thought I would do something involving the environment, but after thinking about what I am truly passionate about I decided to change my exploration to piano composition.The idea of composing a piano piece has always given me stress and anxiety, but I really wanted to challenge myself and choose a topic I could see myself working on for the next six months. My first project idea was to simply compose a piece, but as I did more research on being your own worst critic I decided to also write about my process in a blog in hopes to make the idea of composing less daunting to others.

My piano teacher, Tara, has been composing since she was sixteen so I figured she would be the best mentor for me throughout this process. She has first hand experience of composing at a young age and knows me and my musical style. To start, she suggested deciding on a key (I chose Fm), turning a recorder on and just start playing. At the beginning I was caught up in trying to sound perfect, but as the time went on I just let myself play and now I am able to go back and figure out parts I liked that normally would have been forgotten.