How Piano Performance Affects My Composition Workflow

Oftentimes when I am writing a piece, I first start out by playing through some ideas floating around in my head, which then get recorded onto my phone notes or camera (video) until being formalized into something I can write down on manuscript paper. I’ll stick with pen and paper until I start to hear/imagine an ending, which is when I start to transfer it onto Sibelius (a music notation software). For me, this is where all of the real work starts. I can safely say that in most cases, more than 75% of the time I spend on a composition is for the “finishing touches” after having drawn up a double bar line. I make a lot of minor changes during this time, often going back and forth between different options. At this stage, what affects the process the most for me is the inclusion of performance practice.

Given the fact that a majority of pieces I write is for the keyboard, I have the luxury of being able to try things out for myself. A new piece that I’m writing ends up being like any new piece by any composer that I check out at the piano. In other words, I don’t know really know how to play it yet, so practice is necessary until I get a grasp of things. Once I get a new piece more in my fingers, little note choices I made during the periods where I was just fumbling through passages as I am writing, seem to change for me. Being able to play through something gives me a better idea of what can work musically. What I mean by this is that there are two factors at play here: first and foremost how it’s written, but also very importantly, how it can be played. Sometimes there will be passages that I think will not flow well while composing, so I end up scratching it out. Later on at the piano, I realize that through certain dynamics and phrasing, it can indeed work, so I bring it back in. This, in my opinion, is not something one can easily figure out just by hearing a midi playback. That though, might depend on the style of music that is being written.

You can see the level of obsession this gets to sometimes… I am planning to write an extended piano version for a piece I recently wrote, “Sideways,” so I went into my inbox this morning to look for my drafts. The video below is what that looks like — most of the 30+ drafts were made in a period of less than a week. Each new draft represents a tiny change I made, which I would email to myself so that I can view it on my ipad to practice.

Who else has a workflow like this? Do you email things to yourself? At what stage do you spend the bulk of your time while writing a piece?

Nahre Sol1 Comment