All musicians know how to juggle. When we begin our musical journeys, usually by learning an instrument, we juggle practice, scales and lessons with the rest of our lives.  Juggling is evident at a new level when you become a student, and then a full time professional – be it in music or otherwise. Personally, I was juggling composing, engraving, lesson planning, teaching, resource creating, editing and transcribing (and more!) when I first embarked on a career in music. On top of all these elements we have our personal responsibilities too – to our family, to our friends. To keep our houses tidy and clean, make enough money to get by… the list is endless!

As I compose more and integrate composition more into my daily life, I’m becoming aware of just how much our lives are reflected in composing. Recently I’ve been contemplating the concept of juggling, and how this too is reflected in compositional practice.

As composers, we juggle while writing music, whether we realise it or not. There are probably countless elements, but below are a few of them that have crossed my mind:
– Trying to create something new, that reflects our compositional voice, but yet that will appeal to others. Sometimes the opinions of others are very important, at other times they don’t really matter at all – yet whether consciously or subconsciously, they’re often in our mind – especially when preparing a piece with a performance in mind.
– The dilemma of material: A new piece needs new material. But use too much new material and the piece will be too confused. Material needs reusing, recycling and revisiting to create recognition with the audience. But how much material is too much? How much material is needed per piece? Lots of works use too much material, but if you start chopping it down when do you then have too little?
– As mentioned in previous posts, juggling the element of control. Precisely how specific do we want to be about dynamics? Articulation? Tempo? How much freedom should we give the performers?
– Instrumental forces. We may adore writing for full orchestra, but is this piece too small and intimate for such a large setting? On this, I find writing for a range of forces across my current ‘active’ works helps ensure I don’t get frustrated with this element (currently string quartet, SATB choir and piano).
– Balancing inspiration, thinking and writing time. Sometimes all three may come simultaneously, but at other times inspiration may be found in a certain setting (e.g. walking through a park), and you find yourself wanting to do this to gain more inspiration. However, if you spent all of your time doing this, nothing would ever get written down! This is partly my problem at the moment –too many ideas in my head, entwining and developing, while I have very little time to write it down. I’ve taken to recording myself singing and playing sketches in an effort to capture ideas more fully while I wait to get round to the notation stage.
– Juggling the balance of commissions, requests, competitions and wish lists. I have a couple of pieces on my wish list (CPD list!) that I want to work on, but often the other three get in the way. At the moment, the wish list has a suite of piano works and the Requiem on it; these are both works that sadly have to get put to one side when other pieces are in progress.
– Juggling research and practice. If writing for an instrument you’re unfamiliar with, you can spend ages researching it, but without the practice of composing you won’t progress. However, if you jump straight in and write, you won’t understand the instrument at all.

These are only a few examples of course – there are probably hundreds of elements we juggle, whether consciously or subconsciously!

Of course, some composers also juggle multiple pieces. I’m one of those – if I’m getting stuck at one point on one piece, I like to have another to work on to take a ‘break’ from the first. However, I’ve recently realised that I was trying to juggle too many. I’ve had to accept that some will have to stay on the back burner, with a very small number being worked on at any one time.

So, what am I currently juggling, music-wise? A rearrangement of the accompaniment to a clarinet suite – originally for clarinet and piano, but now being rearranged for clarinet and string quartet (possibly the subject of my next blog). I also have a carol on the go and a couple of small piano pieces. On the back burner are the Requiem, and solo violin and harp pieces – and an orchestral piece, which I will be blogging about in the near future!


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