December/January 2021

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Scheduling Creativity

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Scheduling Creativity

Over the years my Building Blocks contributions to New Zealand Musician have focused mainly on sharing band management tips and working musician life skills. But there’s a whole other side to my online educational content.

Over the past decade, I’ve developed an online community called Orchestration Online, providing guidance to tens of thousands of composers regarding the craft of getting their music ready to be performed by an orchestra. With this article, I thought it might be fun to share some of the advice I’ve passed along to that community. While it’s really targeted at concert music composers, there will be a few useful insights that could help creative musicians in any field. The following question is taken from my book ‘100 Orchestration Tips, available at my main website

What kind of schedule should I have to be productive and creative?

Every artistic personality is different. Some find it necessary to take a huge bite out of the world to get their creative juices flowing. Others are quite happy to be left to themselves for hours, days, weeks, and months to get the job done. One composer might bounce out of bed, ready for a day’s work, while another treasures working in the afternoon, or even into the late hours.

The two biggest scheduling factors for productivity lie in knowing when your mental facilities are at their best, and then ensuring that you’ll have the privacy and composure to get your work done. If you’re an evening person but your roommates are always up until the wee hours with the television blasting, then get new roommates or better headphones. If you’re a morning person, then you might want to get a day job that starts with the lunch rush.

Privacy and composure are hugely important. Ravel never allowed anyone in the same room while he composed (though he didn’t mind company while orchestrating). Shostakovich, on the other hand, had the ability to ignore everyone while composing works of enormous complexity straight onto staff paper no matter what ruckus might be going on around him.

In a sense, both composers were doing the same thing – creating a private world within which they could freely create something of their own without disturbance. But privacy isn’t enough – what’s also necessary is a frame of mind that’s open, focused, and eager to express its inner musings. That’s a state that seems difficult to developing composers at first, but can eventually become a tap that turns on and off at will.

Career composers generally have schedules that use the optimum available time to its best use over any other consideration. Beethoven and Schubert both got up and got to work first thing in the morning, and composed straight on to the early afternoon. After that, they socialised, stretched their legs, taught some lessons and took care of business. Early evenings might see them back at their writing-desks, composing until the ability to stay awake departed.

All the same, never limit yourself to a rigid schedule if there’s a chance of getting work done at some other hour. When I’m working on a project, I may commit every available scrap of time during the day, sorting some little problem here, doing a bit of busy-work there, and keeping my mind constantly involved, even if the pot is simmering on the back burner from time to time.

Not particularly a morning, evening, or any-other-time-of-the-day person, I simply love to create in any time that I’m allowed. Nevertheless, as a family man, I’m well aware that the best time to work is when everyone else in the house is predictably unconscious, so I’m often up hours before dawn, at work on some project or other. This makes me a rather sleepy and dull dinner guest at times, and often hopeless at evening soirées, but the world of my own creativity is so personally diverting and entertaining that I find it well worth missing a few late-night adventures.

The above tip was written to help composers manage their time. But there’s an even more important point to make – that making time for music is the first and most important factor of all. You might have read the above and thought, ‘Yeah, right, when am I even going to find the time to practice or play with my mates, let alone all that other stuff?’ And you’re not wrong. Our modern world pretty much assumes that everyone is going to get up in the morning, go to school or work, come home and eat dinner, then watch TV until unconscious. There’s no time built into this schedule for your art. You have to make that time yourself, and then fight to keep it.

That’s one of the reasons I feel it’s so important to keep your mind engaged with music even when you don’t have access to your instrument. Think about what you’re working on as much as you can. If you’re learning a cover song for your working band, play it on repeat through your headphones during your day job or doing chores around the house. If you take a walk, run through music in your mind. There are so many moments in the day that could be improved with the flavour of music – not just as a passive spectator, but as an active participant who’s thinking creatively about what to do next. The more that music is usefully worked into your life, the more it will tend to improve it on a daily basis.

If you feel like learning more about composing for orchestral instruments, please check out Orchestration Online on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky.