Thursday, 19 February 2015

Walk It Off

Hello! I'm the new guy around here -- Rob Hartmann, a writer and composer. Currently I teach in the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at New York University, but come the fall I'll be with Jenifer Toksvig in London, running our new MA in Writing Musicals at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.

I wanted to jump in by writing about the writing process: various sorts of things that I've found have helped me when I'm deep into writing a show (as I am right now, as it happens.) And the first thing is: taking a walk.

When I first began writing music, I did what so many of us often do: propped the scribbled lyric on the piano, and started improvising. That served me decently well … but I'd find at times that I became too focused on creating patterns on the piano, and would fall into the same-old-same-old progressions that were familiar to my fingers.

I had picked up an old book which talked about the writing habits of classical composers, and was surprised to find that many of them did their musical creating while walking. So I got up from the piano, and began to walk.

There's something about a steady physical rhythm in the body which engages the "logical" part of your brain, and allows you to enter that other creative state. It's the same sort of thing which can lead you to come up with new ideas while driving or cycling or doing the dishes -- distracting one part of your mind while allowing the rest to float.

So, I was the guy marching around the neighborhood, clutching the scribbled lyric, humming quietly (or not so quietly.) Or singing. Well, singing in that funny little "I'm not really singing!" voice. Yeah, that guy, doing that.

But the words found a rhythm and the rhythm shaped itself into a melody. The melodies that took shape felt more organic -- more connected to the voice and the body. The melody went where it needed to go emotionally, bringing the lyrics to peaks and valleys, giving the song dramatic shape. If a melody managed to stay in my head for the entirety of a good long walk, then that meant it likely had some vitality to it -- it was well-built all on its own, without accompaniment. Then I'd head back to the piano and then start to give the melody some harmonic underpinnings.

More often than not, I'd find that conceiving the melody away from the piano took me to places I never would have gone if I'd stuck with improvising on the keyboard. When I'm in a full-throttle writing mode -- like in the crunch time of finishing a show -- I find that walking is an absolute necessity to keep my mind alive over the course of a long writing day. I like to be at the keyboard/computer for about four hours at a stretch -- then I can feel the brain fog setting in. That means it's time to get up and move.

Currently, I spend about half my time in New York and half in Washington, DC. I'm near the National Mall in DC; much of my current show has come to me while tromping from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and back again. The sights are inspiring but familiar enough to allow my mind to open up to that place where music takes shape and melodies form.

And right now, mid February 2015, New York is experiencing a stretch of cold, cold weather -- this morning it was 9 degrees F / minus 12 C. That level of cold, at least to someone used to the normally milder New York weather, makes walking (wrapped up in layers and layers and layers) is just unpleasant enough that you can't get easily into the creative flow -- too much attention focused on not slipping on the ice and slush.

I was trying to get a song finished and found myself in that kind of irritable, itchy mood, where the creative energy is being blocked for some reason. I realized: I hadn't been for a good walk in over a week (and was substituting sugar for quick energy in place of the walking.) I bundled up, and headed straight out. Eventually, the cold didn't seem quite so bad, and I got back to that creative, flowing mental state.

So if you find yourself stuck -- a way to change your thought pattern is to change your environment. Get something new in front of your eyes. Get a rhythm going in your body. Let yourself get into the flow. Go for a walk -- and you'll come back with something new.

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