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Planning for Inspiration

Many composers and artists speak of the ideas or experiences that inspire them to create. But often when I sit down to the piano I find no inspiration or no good melodies to express the inspiration I do have. Sometimes I just have nothing. It can be very frustrating. In fact, sometimes it feels like I want to escape the task of composing even though composing is something I love. So how do we find the inspiration we need to create good music? I believe it involves creating a plan.

In order to successfully create any kind of art one usually needs parameters. If you tell me simply to write a song, more than likely I will have some difficulty. What kind of song? What instrumentation should I use? What mood am I creating? But if you tell me to write a song that sounds like Elvis Presley's music, well, that's completely different. That creative direction makes the task of writing a song quite easy in a way. You simply mimic Elvis' techniques, chords, melody patterns etc. (Disclaimer: I'm not a professional Elvis impersonator.)

Similarly, when you are writing music you need to be your own creative director. Make up the rules for your work. Try making an outline for how you want to structure the piece. Ask yourself questions like, what do I want people to feel when they listen to this piece? What types of chords or melodies will help to communicate that feeling? The emphasis should be on creating a set of parameters to guide you as you create. They can be as strict or relaxed as you like, but they need to all point you in the creative direction you have chosen. Remember, you can always break the rules. Just make sure you have a good reason to do it and that your choice to break a rule still serves the overall creative goals.

Some might protest that art, and specifically music creation, should be spontaneous and to be sure there are times when it is. But consider other fields of creativity where planning is not just an option—it's essential. Architects have helped create some of the world's most amazing structures of art, and yet each detail had to be preplanned down to the millimeter. Graphic design, theater, film, literature and poetry are all creative fields that rely heavily on detailed plans. Why should music be any different? Even when music is spontaneous (improvisation) it still relies on some type of planned rhythmic and chordal structure.

Ironically, it's the planning that can actually spark the creativity. A structured plan clears away the clutter in your mind and leaves you a solid direction in which to think and create. I have found that the counterintuitive choice to make a plan often leads to the very sense of inspiration I was looking for at the outset. There are those times when you sit down to compose and you do feel inspired—everything does flow. In those times be grateful, but when that doesn't happen, make a plan. I predict you'll find inspiration much faster if you do.

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