The 'Crap it Out' Theory

The new chamber work was due in a mere four weeks, but Tristan's hectic schedule had not permitted him to begin working on the piece until now. He had shifted his piano student's lessons until this afternoon and had the entire morning to begin sketching.  

He had everything he needed, the house was quiet, his favorite pencil was in hand, and manuscript paper was loaded on the piano.  He had been noodling around with an ornamented melody, but it just didn't sound right, so he stared at the blank manuscript paper, and it stared back.  He had up to come up with something quickly, but nothing came - how in the world would he finish this piece on time!?

There's nothing more intimidating to an artist than a blank piece of paper, a deadline looming, and the feeling that you're not at your 'creative best'.

When I'm in these situations, I recall the story a friend once told me about a theater technician who used to 'crap out' his initial designs of the stage layout for an upcoming play.  He knew that the initial design would not even resemble his final design, but he recognized that in order to speed up the creative process, he needed to 'crap out' something initially to criticize and improve upon.

Part of the problem many artists face, including yours truly, is the desire for perfection.  On some level we understand that humans are not perfect, and that in the end we'll not really achieve perfection, but we constantly strive for it.  This desire can be paralyzing in the first stages of creation, because it's rare that initial ideas are 'perfect', so they can be rejected outright in our heads before even hitting the page.  It's a mistake to approach music making this way, and in the end, it inhibits the creative process.

Need proof?  Take an afternoon and look at the sketches of Beethoven.  I find it comforting how far this great artist's ideas progressed from his initial sketches to their final versions.   

I am a tinkerer, constantly tweaking small details of a theme, a harmony, a rhythm, to get them just right.  Well, as a tinkerer, I need something to tinker with, and a blank page doesn't provide this.  

In the past, I've tried tinkering with ideas while they are still in my head.  Eventually however, with this approach, the idea will either be lost entirely, or I'll no longer be able to recall the initial kernel because so many changes have happened.  I've found that 'crapping out' imperfect ideas onto manuscript paper is a much more productive approach for me.  Knowing that the initial idea will most likely not be perfect sort of takes the pressure off.  Having something concrete on paper allows for complete recall of the idea at a later time and allows for further tinkering during walks in the neighborhood. 

Oh, if you ever see me walking around the neighborhood, conducting, you'll know that I'm tinkering. I know how foolish it looks, and I don't mean to do it, occasionally I get so wrapped up in a new musical idea that the conducting just slips out. It'll be our little secret.

And one more secret, 'crapping it out' works in a lot of other creative endeavors.  I crapped out this blog entry initially before revising it as well!  


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  • 6/19/2010 8:23 AM Joshua Keeling wrote:
    Great advice! Kind of gross but so true!
    It's often easy to get trapped in the quest to "hear" an idea just the right way before etching it on paper so you don't have to spend time revising it. Ultimately, though, this method takes even more time, and still doesn't sound exactly the way you initially "heard" it.

    Writing out initial, "crappy" ideas first can be a little hard on the ego ("did I really think that would work?") but it also makes for a better overall formal construction of the piece. If you spend too much time trying to perfect ideas before writing them down, you will likely end up with several isolated, unrelated themes that you must then connect. This can work but if you want to write a piece whose form flows smoothly and intuitively it may be difficult to pull off. Not that you have to write the whole piece from beginning to end, but I think the more you can get down in a single sitting, within a continuous mindset, the less time you have to spend revising later.
    Reply to this
    1. 6/19/2010 2:35 PM Ralph wrote:
      Thanks Joshua for your comment.  I appreciate it.  We don't have to show anyone the initial 'crappy' sketches, only the refined finished product.  Might that help the ego?  I agree on the approach of trying to get as much down on an initial setting as possible.  That's a great approach.  I often forgo the pitch aspect of initial drafts and sketch out the rhythms for a big section with some contours to the notes that help me recall a quasi-melodic shape.  It really helps.  Pitches take me forever to finalize, so I know I should avoid obsessing on them in the early stages.   Take care!
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  • 6/20/2010 11:40 PM Duroje Gwamna wrote:
    This was a very revealing article for me, in regards to the fact I struggle with the same thing! For me it takes an hour to come up with something that I am completely satisfied with. It's the fact that I expect each idea in my mind to eventually make it as a piece, but like you mentioned it takes time to meld the crap and make something out of it. It makes me relieved that there's a solution toward efficient and satisfying composition, and that's just to keep writing! Thanks for this article!
    Reply to this
    1. 6/21/2010 8:19 AM Ralph wrote:
      Duroje, thanks for your comment.  I'm glad that you've found some of the ideas to be helpful.   Composition can be fun and it can be a drag.  I've found that it's more fun when you take the pressure off and don't worry about trying to create a masterpiece.  After all, whether something is a masterpiece or not is for other people to decide.  Keep pluggin' away my friend! 
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