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  • Writer's pictureJoe Martin

Composition in the Time of Coronavirus

Originally posted on the 18th April 2021


It's hard to think of any one person, profession, business or company that hasn't been affected in one way or another by the pandemic. Work-from-home became the new norm, Zoom downloads spiked and we all got a lot more used to queueing on the street for our weekly groceries.

I started my undergraduate studies in 2017, which meant I 'graduated' in 2020 (I put 'graduated' in air quotes because the celebrations at end of my undergraduate were formed of an email from the university and a takeaway chicken katsu curry). The months of March through to June were confined to my flat, trying to finish my dissertation, practice for a piano recital and write a portfolio of compositions. As I'm sure most people working in a creative field found, the creation of inspired work proved elusive when there wasn't much to do or see, and every day seemed to blur into one.

Of all the work that needed to be done in those few long months, composition proved to be the most difficult to maintain. I hadn't realised how much I rely on everyday human experiences to influence my creativity, and with the sudden absence of this, my work suffered.

This struggle has continued onto my masters studies, where I am studying composition exclusively.

Creativity aside, working from home and social distancing has had huge ramifications on the work process of all composers. The discourse surrounding the use of music notation software, such as Sibelius, Finale and Dorico, is now more relevant than ever given that workshops and access to instrumentalists is constricted. I have noticed my dependence on the playback ability of Sibelius has increased as my interactions with other musicians has decreased, and the danger of over-reliance on this feature is now at the forefront of my mind when writing music. It is possible to see the impact that restricted access to instrumentalists has had on my musical output in terms of instrumentation - I have written more for piano and clarinet, my two principal instruments, more than I have in years previous. Being able to play something myself to figure out if it works or not is the simplest way to get musical ideas into the world these days, rather than relying on virtual meetings with other instrumentalists.

So how can we start to combat these issues?

Given the unpredictability of the current state of affairs, we can't count on waiting out the storm. I think the single most beneficial thing I have started doing is getting outside more, and with the weather getting better as we head towards summer, this will have even more of a positive impact. Getting out, going for a walk, or doing just about anything in the sunshine is bound to help creativity and inspiration. For example, some of my more recent work has been directly inspired by the bits of nature I can see through the window whilst sitting at my desk.

Something else which I have found helpful is watching films, TV or reading books. Whilst also being a great way to unwind and relax, consuming someone else's creation can be immensely helpful in kicking your own ideas into fruition.

Try talking to people, whether it's someone you live with or a friend over Skype, about anything, not just music, as this can also help prompt a creative workflow.

I think perhaps one of the most important things to do is to not be too hard on yourself. I spend a lot of time researching productivity tips and tricks, but it's important to remember that these are the means, not the end-goal - for me, this is to be creatively satisfied with whatever I've made, for you it could be something different. Whatever your end-goal is, being able to clearly see it and know what steps you can take to achieve it is half the battle.

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