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Composing Issues

Discussion in 'Ask Steve Lawson & Michael Manring' started by callmeMrThumbs, Jan 24, 2006.


  1. callmeMrThumbs

    callmeMrThumbs Guest

    Oct 6, 2005
    Omaha, NE
    I've found myself trying to write songs out of good ideas (I think) that I've come up with, but I can never seem to tie the ideas together. I'll have one really great section of a song, but no (good) way to end it or lead it into a new section. Michael, you obviously don't have a problem with this, but do you have any suggestions for this kind of "writer's block"? I listened to your artical with Clifford Brown Jr. at zonguitars.com. That was an incredible interview, by the way, with some amazing sound clips. Anyway, you talked a little about composing a song and how the song is basically written before you finish it. Sadly...I haven't been feeling this way with my music. Do you think the ideas are just bad or that I'm trying too hard? (or not trying hard enough...). Thanks for your suggestions.

    -Josh
     
  2. CurbowPete

    CurbowPete

    Aug 28, 2004
    USA
    I have a very similar problem. I will be interested to read any comments or suggestions

    -Pete
     
  3. jeff schmidt

    jeff schmidt no longer red carded, but my butt is still sore.

    Aug 27, 2004
    Novato, CA
    Count me in with that.

    Last year I was fortunate enough to take a private lesson with Michael at Gerald Veasley's BassBootCamp (which is coming up again in March) and I asked him this very question.

    Michael said something like "in any given point in your piece - there's only 12 notes to go to - and most of them suck".

    I know it may sound kind of flip - but it really cuts the issue down to size.

    I find - as I begin my walk down Solo Bass lane that the key to getting unstick - is to attach the part I have to something - ANYTHING - even if it's a simple chord change. I can flesh out the details later - but getting a basic form outlined helps get me to the stage where I can make "editing" decisions.

    I then go back and flesh out the various parts - cutting some out and putting new ideas in. I try not to carve anything in stone - even the wicked cool part I created that I'm so excited about but can't move forward on. Sometimes the main idea I started with ends up changing radically to accomidate other ideas that come up through the process.

    my.02
     
  4. Josh,

    Overly-caffeinated RIGHT-handed bassists rarely have these issues!! Ha ha!! LOL!!!

    Regardless of your level of musicality, let's take a crack at your possible writer's block issue by examining how you operate OUTSIDE OF THE MUSICAL PARADIGM.

    If you frequently encounter the kind of writer's block that you previously mentioned, you simply might be writing at the WRONG TIME of the day for your given biochemical make-up. The bottom line is the fact that we all probably feel "ON" which enables us to kick ass at different times in the day than others. Some are morning gloryites (that's me!) while others are night owls (probably the majority of the artistic community)!!

    Example: Coming up with something musically unique at 7:30 AM, just before you rush off to work, might not be the best time for you to utilize your creative brain. But from 8-10 PM, when the kids are in bed and your wife is hitting the Good Housekeeping crossword puzzle like a CHAMP, you might find that this is the best time to sneak off to your writing world, get focused, and HIT IT with unbridled passion and dedication!

    Through a detailed trial and error experimentation, you'll soon be able to determine whether or not the early morning, midday, early evening, or night owl hours work best for your type of brain and lifestyle.

    Put yourself in the appropraite structure and environment that works best for you and your compositional goals! This will ultimately allow you to focus on the music without any underlying distractions that could be contributing to your writer's block. ;)

     
  5. callmeMrThumbs

    callmeMrThumbs Guest

    Oct 6, 2005
    Omaha, NE
    Thanks a lot Jeff, for your thoughts. I appreciate yours, Jay, too. However, I am only sixteen with a busy enough life as it is, without a job or a wife...hehe. I think I play best PAST my own bedtime, which doesn't work out very well with my parents... The last couple nights I've gone downstairs to the "gigging room" and made up a few things...My parents want me to get more sleep than anything, I guess...but I think it's a waste of time...hehe.

    I've decided that I'm a much better arranger than composer, because I find it easy to re-voice things, but not to come up with something completely new.

    -Josh
     
  6. jeff schmidt

    jeff schmidt no longer red carded, but my butt is still sore.

    Aug 27, 2004
    Novato, CA
    At 16 - and please don't take this the wrong way - you're too young to "decide" what you are good and not good at.

    You have a lot of years ahead of you to work on being great at ANYTHING you want. Don't limit yourself.

    PS- you might also want to get Steve Lawson's ideas on this - he's a fairly prolific writer - at least from my perspective.
     
  7. callmeMrThumbs

    callmeMrThumbs Guest

    Oct 6, 2005
    Omaha, NE
    Oh definately! I really look forward to seeing what Steve might have to say, as well as Michael, both being amazing writers and prefomers. I've been writing a lot on piano, but I can only seem to get blocks of ideas that are all in different keys, tempos, and time signatures...and would make terrible transitions. On bass, I find myself in the same situation. Most of the stuff I write ends up being just a groove, with no defined melody. This is one reason why I'd love to have something like the Looperative (topic of another recent thread). I have a Digitec BP80 which allows a busload of effects, and I've been trying to experiment with a lot of them. So far I've made three or four songs using the longest delay possible (2 seconds...which isn't much...you could see my limitations there, haha). My dad is going to try and help me find some good recording software, so maybe I could start recording several tracks...this would also spawn some creativity, I think. Speaking of software, does anyone have any suggestions? Thanks a lot for the help.

    -Josh
     
  8. steubig

    steubig

    Jul 17, 2001
    locustland, ca
    howdy,

    i haven't posted here for a long time, but figured i'd try to say something useful.

    re tunes not being finished - - there are a couple of reasons why this can be the case:

    1. you're not ready to finish the tune (either technically or inspirationally)/it's not ready to be finished.

    2. the idea isn't any good.

    it's okay to go on to something else (the trick is to not give up on writing, just the piece) and come back to an idea - - if it's any good you'll remember it and the time spent away might be a good gestation time.

    in terms of composing music, i find it useful to come up with the idea before i sit down with an instrument; let my mind wander and imagine what i want to hear. i think that most people get caught up in the mechanics of the instrument rather than the mechanics of the music when they are with an instrument. sometimes it is cool to start with something on an instrument, but i'm a big fan of "your brain is the best instrument."

    jay t had some useful ideas about writer's block - - you just have to schedule yourself to go into your writing space at a certain time and for a certain amount of time - - whether or not you get anything really useful out of it.

    last, i think a lot of people expect instant results. in my view you have to learn composing like you had to learn to play . . . it's long, hard and you'll lots of mistakes. we tend to forget that it took us a while to be proficient as players - - it'll take at least that long to be a good composer (most likely way longer).

    stig
     
  9. callmeMrThumbs

    callmeMrThumbs Guest

    Oct 6, 2005
    Omaha, NE
    Thanks for the reply Stig. I hope I didn't sound like I was whining, "waaah! This song isn't writing itself for me!" because I'm most definately not...hehe. If there's one true thing about me, it's the fact that I've got loads of patients. Nonetheless, your advice is needed and much appreciated. I've been just playing certain grooves that I've come up with and then trying to put a melody to go with it (...difficult to do when you don't have a looper or four hands). But it just seems like my pieces never seem to "go" anywhere. I dunno...I'll keep working on it. Thanks for the help.

    -Josh
     
  10. steubig

    steubig

    Jul 17, 2001
    locustland, ca
    "I've been just playing certain grooves that I've come up with and then trying to put a melody to go with it (...difficult to do when you don't have a looper or four hands). But it just seems like my pieces never seem to "go" anywhere."

    hey.
    okay, one technique with this would to have the groove firmly in your mind and then sing what you want over it. write down the contours (i'm assuming that you have some expertise with notation here) and then shape those contours by working them over and over until you like what you have.

    if the melody starts taking you out of the groove, you get to make a choice - - do or don't i want to stay with the groove. if you do the melody must change; if you don't figure out where the melody takes you and then either change the groove or come up with some sort of chordal material that will accomodate the melody . . . and then somehow get it back to the main part of the tune.

    i mean it's a pretty nuts-and-bolts approach,but it might help.

    i'm a big fan of hearing stuff in your head as much as you can - - it seems to have worked for beethoven, etc., might work for you too . . . gotta train yourself to do it though.

    by the way, didn't think you were whining, just frustrated and trying to get to the next place.

    hope this helps.

    stig
     
  11. callmeMrThumbs

    callmeMrThumbs Guest

    Oct 6, 2005
    Omaha, NE
    Thanks a lot Stig. By the way, still looking forward to hearing something from Steve and/or Michael. :D

    -Josh
     
  12. Michael Manring

    Michael Manring TalkBass Pro Supporting Member

    Apr 1, 2000
    Great advice, everyone! It’s interesting and informative to read the comments.

    I’d like to back up something Stig wrote about singing (and by the way, if any of you haven’t checked out Stig’s music, please do! He’s a brilliant composer and improviser using our instrument in a highly sophisticated and expressive way -- wow!). I recommend singing as much as possible -- in the car, in the shower, anywhere you can get away with it, just sing compositional ideas to get your mind in the habit of expressing itself and working with motives in different ways. I’d also like to suggest that if you’re working on a tune that you can’t finish, consider the possibility that it’s already done. Ask yourself if there is a way that the music can be complete as it is. If not, ask yourself what it needs and why. Having a clear understanding of what you’re trying to say makes the process a lot smoother. And lastly, if you get stuck, please don’t be afraid to stop and go do something else. I find it easiest to compose when I’m inspired by the things in life that are important to me. Consider spending more time doing those things that expand your horizons, challenge and engage you. Good luck, and when you’re ready, please let us hear what you come up with!
     
  13. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    This is such a huge area, and a good one to bring up, Josh. Composition works in very different ways for different people. Some see it as a sculpting process, where the perfect composition and arrangement are chiseled out of sound at a pain-stakingly slow pace. For others, it's more a matter of starting to play and listening for where the music takes itself...

    I fall more into the latter camp, though to occasionally do the former, to a lesser extent.

    What's important to realise is that you can practice inspiration - it's not just some esoteric thing that falls on you - I don't think there's a spiritual tradition in the world that suggests that music is gifted from on high without any practice/hard work - all of them recognise the great gift that is music, but acknowledge the work involved in unearthing the gift.

    The first thing you need in your improv tool-box is a vocabulary, and that comes by exploring the neck of your instrument building a phrase-book of lines that you can hear and then reproduce - improv isn't playing things you've never played before (in the same way that conversation isn't about making up new words) - it's about using your musical vocabulary to say what you feel needs to be said in that moment. The wider your vocabulary, the greater the range of emotions you'll be able to express.

    Try this - pick up your bass, and without worrying about 'groove' or tempo, try playing a non-repeating melody in the key of A minor for about a minute. What are the elements of your playing that crop up time and time again? Particular intervals? Is it nearly all scale-based, or stacked thirds? are you varying your right hand technique? what about rhythmic groupings?

    Now, make a list of the things that you find yourself repeating, and try it again, but ban all of those elements - you can set the rules wherever you like. One I really enjoy is stopping myself (or my student) from playing any two consecutive notes on the same string. Set rules that force you to play new things. Bear in mind that this is going to HAVE to be really slow - this is about building new vocabulary, and that takes time. If you're getting your hand to play note combinations that it hasn't played before, it's going to take time.

    When you hit on an idea that you can't do, step outside of that particular exercise and formulate a pattern based exercise that enables you to train your muscles to be more comfortable with that particular set of parameters. For example, you could go through the key that you're in (A minor) and stack all the notes in 6ths - A F B G C A D B etc. see how many different permutations of that you can come up with.

    Now go back to the exercise, and try playing your free melody using those sixths, then go back to playing it completely free using any technique, and see how much of the new material has stuck.

    Rinse and repeat.

    Make sure you record as much of this as you can, and go back and pull out the bits that sound like new compositions - hopefully these will give you a launch pad to create new tunes, a mechanical kick start to your creativity.

    This is a life-time of study - I still spend a fair amount of my practice time doing this, finding those areas that are lacking, devising an exercise, and then incorporating it into my playing.

    cheers!

    Steve
    www.stevelawson.net
     
  14. JazzBassvb

    JazzBassvb

    Aug 5, 2003
    What a great and informative topic! Thanks very much for the wealth of info here!

    I really love this point you made, Steve. I guess sometimes when improving, I fall into this. I think "let me try this" and usually it's something totally new and sometimes doesn't do the music justice. I think thats more for the practice room/woodshed. (At least for me)

    Great exercises and ideas on practicing. I'm going to start using them and hopefully I can expand my vocab a little more.

    Michael and Stig,

    Great advice on singing! I've noticed I'm subconsciencely doing this more and more lately. Just on Friday, my wife and I were watching the 'Legends Live at Montreux 1997' DVD and was commenting to her that I wanted to play more muted lines like Marcus does. I then started singing(scatting) a melody as one of the songs begun and she got this huge smile and her face and said what I sung was cool. So I guess I have it in me and is a great way to come up with lines or melodies.

    Just to add to the weight of using singing to help progress, John Patitucci recommends it in one of his Electric Bass videos (not sure if it's 1 or 2).

    Thanks again!
    JB
     
  15. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    Yup, forgot to add my +1 on the singing thing too - I'm doing more and more singing along with what I play these days (though not too near microphones.... :) ) - it certainly helps to internalise the ideas.

    And, having played with both Stig and Michael, it's obviously paying off for both of them! I'll second Michael's endorsement to check out Stig's music, he's a great player and composer, and was a joy to play with on the gig we did together in January. Let's do it again!

    Steve
    www.stevelawson.net
     
  16. callmeMrThumbs

    callmeMrThumbs Guest

    Oct 6, 2005
    Omaha, NE
    Wow, thanks a lot for the replies! Definately some good ideas from some obviously talented and experienced people. However, I don't think now would be a great time to try all them out because I have "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers running through my head (our school's doing the musical...we had rehearsal all day). Anyway, I can't wait to start experimenting more with these ideas in mind.

    One more quick statement/question. Currently, I don't have anyway to record myself other than a tape recorder, and it'd be really handy to have some kind of computer program where I could record and edit my music (add/cut parts, add effects, mix...blah blah blah). Do any of you have a program that you think would be good for a beginning composer like myself. Or do you have another way of recording that you could recommend? Thanks a lot.

    -Josh

    PS. Oh, almost forgot! Do any of you have a preference on a simple looping machine or loop station (although the Looperlative looks really awesome, it surely doesn't fit my budget (-$150)? Do you know where I could get something like what Michael uses on his "Teen Town" video at basslobster.com? Thanks a million for the replies!
     
  17. Fantasic advice and thoughts on the VAST subject - I'd like to add that re-harmonising things is so rewarding as well. I did this recently with a really simple melody but changed the 'landing' notes in the melody so that they would fall on chords that weren't in the key center - thus creating some really intersting hamonic shifts - and in turn creating a really unusual set of chords. It was a bit of a nightmare actually analysing the sequence and working out the correct groove and timiing that would work, I finally showed it to a piano playing freind of mine and once he was playing the chords and the melody I was knocked out at what I'd come up with -I'm not massively confident with my own writing skills - but this just proved to me that if you stick at it and really work stuff out - the results can be beyond your expectations! Now I just have to do some more...but try rehamonising simple tunes - forget the noddle - go and doodle ;)

    Cheers good people

    Mike
     
  18. winston

    winston Supporting Member

    May 2, 2000
    Berkeley, CA
    This is a very helpful thread, especially Steve's vocabulary-building suggestions the bits about singing and playing melodically. Jaco Pastorius always said that Frank Sinatra was one of his biggest influences. I feel like I didn't start understanding how jazz works until I started learning melodies to the songs I liked.

    I'm participating in something called February Album Writing Month www.fawm.org where the goal is to finish 14 songs in 28 days. I've got two in the can so far, and the funny thing is they both came about with little effort when I was struggling with other songs. I've found that having some sort of goal to work towards (and a supportive community) has really jump-started my writing.

    Though this might be sacreligious (since we're on TalkBass) I would also suggest fooling around with other instruments if you have a hard time coming up with melodies on the bass. You don't need any real proficiency on them, but the different range and layout of another instrument may suggest ideas you'd never conceive on bass. I'm partial to the guitar and especially the piano for writing.

    Another suggestion I have for coming up with parts is to think in terms of balance or contrast. If the part you have is, say, fast, busy, and ascending melodically you might try a part that is mellow, sparse and has a static or downward melodic aspect.

    Also, I've found that linking music to ideas (what is this piece really about?) gets your imagination into the act and can keep me from getting bogged down in technical details. And experimenting with new sounds often leads me to come up with new musical ideas (and is a great excuse for buying more gear!);)
     
  19. callmeMrThumbs

    callmeMrThumbs Guest

    Oct 6, 2005
    Omaha, NE
    Hehe...funny you might say that. I've been playing piano since I was five, and it's really what I do most of my composing on. I'm also "proficient" at tuba and trombone, which have taught me hundreds of things about "time and place" in music...if you know what I mean. I'm also giving basic guitar lessons to elementary school kids (I'm quite awful, but I'm learning as much as the kids are). Oh...and I do enjoy playing accordian some evenings for just a little while. It seems like in an average day for me...I'll usually play at least three instruments before I go back to bed. Sometimes it's four or five. Each instrument also puts me in a complete different state of mind, so I've been trying to come up with ideas on each instrument and transfer them to the other instruments to maybe spark some creativity. Anyway...my point is...I've got plenty of instruments to experiment on. I only wish I could play alto sax...hehe.

    -Josh

    PS. Anything on a decent, "cheap" Looper?
     
  20. All_¥our_Bass

    All_¥our_Bass

    Dec 26, 2004
    If you want free software that's pretty hassle-free try downloading Audacity. I use it all the time-it's even got a noise removal feature so you can eliminate all or most of that annoying hiss.