Benefits of Composition

No more technical exercises!

Sometimes, you need a break from playing what you already know, trying to learn new repertoire or working on technical exercises. Of course these all have benefits but it's human nature to get bored of repetition after a while. The best alternative for the pianist is composition, a word which seems to have a very negative connotation to many so I'd like to address the benefits of composition in this article and soothe your perhaps too negative concept of this very enjoyable and rewarding activity.

First of all, here is the video which relates to this article. In it, I share three approaches to composition (which I shall expand upon in this article), as well as some examples from my own compositions by way of demonstration. I hope you'll benefit from it after reading this article:

I think it's a good idea to begin by softening what composition is, which will hopefully edge you a little closer to seeing it as a fun, beneficial exercise rather than some huge, never-ending task, as if composition means working 3 hours a day for 2 months, pencil in bleeding hand and a piano covered in manuscript paper with scrunched up balls of the stuff all around your stool. Not at all!
Composition need not have such conditions placed upon it such as: it must be long and complex; it must have a fixed (complicated) structure like a concerto; it must have a start, middle and end; it must begin with a motif which is developed into more advanced variations; it must require at least an intermediate technique; sight-reading is a must because it must be written down or recorded on-screen; it must be given a title; it must, it must, it must... 
None of these at all, in any way, are part of how a Water Pianist thinks or composes!
Why not? Well, above all, because a Water Pianist doesn't follow traditional rules (!) but aside from that, because composition for us is personalised (like everything else on our destinationless piano journey), which means you will compose in your own way, according to your own technique and emotional preferences and will rubber-stamp the final result as Yours and nobody else's!

Before discussing the three approaches to composition, I'd like to highlight the benefits, which are more than you might imagine and include ideas you may not have considered:

1. It's a pleasant break from technical exercises and repeatedly playing what you can already play (which isn't progress, it's instant gratification);
2. Its result is something unpredictable, unlike learning existing repertoire which you can listen to over and over and hear many interpretations of it and know how it goes very well;
3. It's completely personalisable, so you can choose a frame of conditions within which to work according to your abilities and interests, such as how many bars, which key, which chord types, what techniques it requires, what rhythm it will have, what time signature it's to be played in, its tempo, its structure (verse, chorus, bridge, or just one long flow like something of Eric Satie) - you can add any conditions you wish!;
4. Instead of thinking that technical exercises are the only way to improve, composing your own piece can focus on elements that you'd like to improve. Think of it as an 'exertoire': you put exercises to your own repertoire. If you need to practise certain chord types, compose using only them; if you need to work on rarer major scales like Gb or B or C#, make sure to write in those keys; if you need to work on leaps and larger intervals, make the melody involve those; if you need to enhance your ragtime, make sure the left hand part follows standard ragtime patterns and that your melody is syncopated, etc., etc;
5. You will be very amazed at what melodies you will create, either by hearing them in your mind or finding them by trial and error. If you note every chord progression you come up with and try to record then memorise your melodic patterns, the sheer pleasure of experiencing this process should keep you motivated to continue your piece to its natural conclusion!

So what are the three approaches to composition, no matter your current abilities or knowledge?
Trial and Error
This involves no conditions or pre-intentions. You simply sit at the piano with a pen and paper and play a bunch of notes (around 5-10) which sound nice to you. You're not thinking about what key they're in or what chords will go with them just yet, just a bunch of notes. It doesn't have to be an introduction or the main melody. It's just a bunch of notes. Write it down or be sure to play it enough times that you have memorised it with ease.

Then, take a few of the notes (1-4 or so) and see which chords contain those notes, or chords which contain most of the notes, where the notes which are not in the selected chords (their key is irrelevant for now) will become either exotic sounding notes or just passing tones so they don't need a key. Write the chords in such a way that you know which few notes go with them and refine the melody notes by a half-step (semi-tone) if something sounds clearly off. Within half an hour, you could easily have 2 or 3 chords against 10-15 notes!

Then, you'll start to feel a rhythm and how long each note should be played against each chord. This will then enable you to feel what the time signature is (probably 4/4 but it may be a 3/4 Waltz). See now if you can enhance the melody with grace notes or playing some of it in another octave; perhaps one note sounds good if you play it a few times repetitively?

Eventually, if you do this a little each day, you will have a 2-3 minute composition that you created from nothing. It doesn't need a key, the chords will sounds nice and the melody will work. This is trial and error and is the best way to get into composition. You choose everything at will until you're satisfied with the result, no matter how long the piece is or what traditional rules it breaks.

A little stricter than trial and error, this method dictates a few confines within which you can choose your notes and chords, which is also a useful thing for beginners. This is where you choose a master key (in my video, I chose Bb for demonstration purposes) and note the diatonic chords according to modal theory (video on that here). You have a strict pool of notes (the Bb major scale) which can be enhanced using an occasional out-of-key note for exotic or spice reasons.

You choose an established structure (such as a 32 bar pop song with intro, verses and a chorus and maybe a bridge... maybe an ending), the tempo and time signature, as well as rhythm and overall feel for the song before you start finding notes. This template-in-mind is useful and can save you from getting totally lost, especially if it's your intention to write an actual song (whereas by trial and error, it is not).

You'll mess around with a chord progression (I chose 1 3 4 5 in my demonstration video) and then find a melody which fits nicely to those chords. Again, note everything you do once you've settled on it and played it a few times. You will be very happy with the results!

Inspirational Source

This is how I always compose. I didn't know this is how I compose the day before I started composing but it was my natural way when it did happen and that's always important to identify. I don't fully adhere to theoretical standards but I don't allow myself to get too lost as in trial and error. I don't have perfect pitch so I don't know what key the melody and chords are in that I'm hearing but when I get to my piano, this becomes established very quickly (as demonstrated towards the end of my video).

My first composition was this one - Budapest Theme Part 1 - the melody for which, along with what were probably the right chords which I knew thanks to having an emotional connection to chord types (video on that here), I could hear while walking along the Danube each evening. In fact, this was the reason I had to get a piano (the one you see in my videos) - I had all these melodies pouring into my head and I had to get them out (as well as being inspired by Liszt and wanting to work on technical exercises with my eyes closed!)

So it's about listening from a quiet mind to what your inspirational source throws at you. You don't seek the melody, it arrives. You don't decide which chords go with that melody, you just feel how the melody makes you feel and know which chord type that is (thanks to watching the video provided previously) and then once at the piano, you refine the melody, find your natural fingering and experience for real what was only in your mind.

Sometimes, I need to use the trial and error (5%) or theoretical (15%) approaches because my inspirational source is unable to feed me the entire song but that's fine, I still make sure I like the result and be happy that it fits with what I already have.
I hope that this article inspires you to give composing a go and to spend a little less time doing technical exercises and playing repertoire you already know! You'll love the feeling of composing, I assure you!
Oh, and you may enjoy this video!