Ambitious people fearlessly indulge in big ideas and goals but often succumb to doubt. They’ll recast this doubt as prerequisites such making lists, doing research or perfecting a related skill. Anxiety sets in as time breezes forward but doubt keeps us in neutral.

For many composers this internal battle is a way of life but it need not be. Maybe you want to write more compelling melodic themes or deepen your orchestration skills but the thought of taking long, expensive courses can be overwhelming. Instead of dismissing these desires and hindering progress, consider some paths forward.

Get small. Get those 10 yards. Short, substantive actions will move your ball down the field. As in other professions music endeavors can be broken in to short tasks and rotated throughout the week. This is how you can push back against doubt.

For example, you can generate fresh melodic ideas by creating an original but simple  2-part round in the style of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. In the first part (the leader)  write a 2 bar phrase on the I (tonic) chord using half or quarter notes. In the second part, (the imitator), write the same line but 2 or 4 beats later. Repeat the whole phrase diatonically on the IV chord. The offset melody lines playing against each other create a natural inertia that propels the material forward and now the short phrase starts to blossom into a complete piece. Notice how the imitator will follow the leader’s pattern at first but its natural tendency to deviate will give it a life of its own, becoming an independent voice. In 30 minutes or less you’ll discover several possible spinoff melodies that continually evolve. This is material you could work into a new composition that breaks away from anything you’ve previously written.

A great way to expand your orchestration skills is to take an existing passage, such as the first 10 bars of Holst’s “Venus” and try to create something in the same style. From the original score enter all the parts from the opening 10 bars (we’ll label this as the “A” section) into your sequencing program, then complete the phrase with your own original B section. Now write an original A section to put in front of your B section. This works like musical training wheels to dial in a specific orchestral sound as well as compositional style.

It’s great if you have the time and finances for formal study but short exercises like these can add up to big benefits. If you can say “yes” the the question “did I get 10 yards today” then you have successfully pushed doubt out of the game.

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