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Changing Hats Part 1 – Not multi-tasking

For my first blog entry, I’d like to delve into the challenge of changing hats. When developing an album from the first ideas into a completed work, I find it helpful to conceptualize myself as being separate workers, each having one’s own task. Managing these workers is a skill within itself and being organized makes the process quite a bit easier. Imagine a manager watching his/her workers in a window up above and what ability it takes to coordinate the whole workforce successfully. Part of managing is knowing when to give breaks. In this vein, even a quick walk around the block will helps me see the bigger picture and pull through a snag. I do not consider changing hats multi-tasking, since it is imperative to focus fully on just one task at a time. In my experience, I find multi-tasking will bring about a muddled result.

Wearing my composer hat, I begin writing the skeleton of my pieces without any worry of budget, time restriction, musicianship or placement within the marketplace. Often I  use constraints within which to write, as a rule may help facilitate the creative process. For example, film composers will frequently use the constraints of a temp score as a way to write a new piece. Jazz improvisors may use a chord progression as a race track, driving their melodies around an existing structure. The point is to find a device which permits ideas to flow naturally and without inhibition. Speaking of time, a fully fleshed out song could be written as quickly as 30 minutes yet others could take several months. A few may even need to be put down for a while in order for ideas to coalesce. There should be no judgement placed on the time needed for their completion. One note about musicianship; mistakes and flubs should be considered opportunities which can inspire new directions. I’ll have energy to master the melody or guitar part after the song is written. I may let a recorder run while I “noodle” with lyrics and melodic fragments. Listening back to those recordings, I’ll pull out the ideas I’d like to develop further and notate them. In the midst of writing, I often will repeat a mantra; go with the flow and do not question what is happening. The key is to not censor anything and let your creatively flow. Check out “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron for more ideas on how to approach writing.

Once the song is finished, I can approach the arrangements. I find it helpful to begin arranging a number of months after writing, as I find decisions are easier to make without being too close to the music. At this point, I act as a hired arranger being brought into another writer’s project. The detachment from the songwriting ensures I will not re-write the song, only arrange for it. A fresh ear is also extremely helpful in order to “hear” new sounds within the writing. I will sometimes listen to diverse genres as inspiration and write down what I think could work for certain songs. Another subset of arranging is vocal part writing, which I will either start before or after the band arrangements are finalized. At this juncture I start using the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) as an arrangement tool. First, I record a demo solo performance, which would have me singing while playing guitar or piano. Then, I will use that demo to build a metronome track corresponding to the natural rhythm of my playing, subsequently adding other instruments either by overdubbing or via a software sampler. In the DAW I use, Logic Pro X, this metronome is created by the “Beat Mapping” tool. Using it makes writing charts for rehearsal quite a bit easier because I can take the parts I write, tether the MIDI data to a sampler instrument and output the MIDI via the Logic Pro X scoring window.

Thanks for reading! My next blog entry will cover workshops, recording and the beginnings of the production process.