One of the most valuable lessons I’ve been taught as a composer is to be constantly in a state of creating music. As important as studying theory, analyzing scores, and listening to other composers’ music is, nothing inspires the compositional process more than the actual act of composing, and there’s no quicker way to compose than to turn off the left brain, stop thinking about the analytical nature of music, and simply create—sing, hum, beat a drum pattern on a desk, play an instrument.

Having taken that lesson to heart, I spend time every morning sitting at a piano and improvising. Nothing written, nothing planned, nothing structured (though structures and form do tend to manifest themselves). Sometimes the results are musically “improper;” an unexpected extra beat, fluctuating tempos, missed notes. But the idea here isn’t to create properly notatable music for future performance, but rather to engage in a mindset where creation is accessible.


As a composer, it’s important to understand that the brain does not create music out of notation; notation is the formal, readable manifestation of music already created internally. More importantly, a piece of music with notation on it is itself NOT music, it is only the instructions given on how to perform. Accessing the internal music and reaching the conscious sphere where true musical creation exists can only be achieved by ignoring the rules that govern the more formal nature of composition as an analyzable science, and only paying attention to the id-like impulses that make you aware of why an F minor chord in all of its sad pull is the appropriate choice at that instant. In simpler terms: don’t dwell on the act of creating, just create.

Now, this idea of boundless performance to bring to the surface musical ideas is critical as a compositional exercise, but it’s only one part of the larger picture. Indeed, Liszt neither learned how to compose nor play piano by simply sitting at a piano and playing. Engaging in the more rigid nature of composition, such as the study of theory and scores, and of performing, such as devoted, metronomically-precise sessions practicing scales, arpeggios, and other fundamentals, is just as important in the grand scheme of being a musician. It is the rare musician who can routinely engage in both the formal study and the internal soul-searching of “lawless performance” who truly succeeds in creating lasting, worthwhile music.


nick March 18, 2013 Piano Improv