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From Fearing Writer’s Block to the Excitement of Premieres

Ah, writer’s block, my old friend. I used to fear you. I didn’t know how to deal with you. Especially when I was a young (and then a not-so-young) composer.

I’m happy to say I’m learning how to defeat writer’s block. It’s been a long and winding road! I’ve had to challenge my views on the composing process and rethink what I expect from myself. I’ve had to battle fear and impostor syndrome.

It’s been worth it.

Singed music paper
Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay

I’ve never been a prolific composer. I dabbled in creating music when I was in high school and loved the idea of being a composer. But I didn’t really know how to be one. Despite that, I managed to successfully get accepted as a composition major in college, and I wrote enough music to fulfill my recital requirement for my degree. Not bad for a girl from a small town in rural Virginia.

After graduating college, I took the practical route. I wrote a few things here and there while working and pursuing a Master’s degree in Library Science, plus getting married and moving to another state. I finished some arrangements, meaning I took someone else’s music and, with permission, rewrote it for different instruments. While I began writing two pieces of my own around 2011, they were both quickly abandoned when I hit a wall of writer’s block. But mostly I’d fallen into a routine of work, life, and other musical activities.

But I kept hearing whispers. “Aren’t you supposed to be a composer?” they asked.

I pretended I didn’t hear them.

A turning point

Then in 2013, I came across the “Fifteen Minutes of Fame” project, where composers submit one-minute pieces for certain performers. The performers then select fifteen of those pieces to perform, resulting in a total performance time of fifteen minutes. Interesting concept, I thought.

One particular call for scores caught my eye — compose a solo for unaccompanied contrabass clarinet. I’m a clarinetist who specializes in bass clarinet, and contrabass, so I started thinking about entering.

Of course, fear and imposter syndrome showed up. They made me wonder if I could really compose anything good from scratch again. Arranging others’ music was one thing, but I’d barely written any original compositions since my senior college recital back in the late 1990s.

I decided I had to enter. I had to prove to myself that I could do it, that getting my Bachelor of Music in theory and composition wasn’t all for naught. After all, it was just one minute of music, right? I wasn’t trying to write a large-scale symphony or a Wagnerian opera. For this piece, it really helped to have a deadline. I couldn’t turn this into a “someday” project.

Notes for "Microburst"
Notes for “Microburst”

Success!

I finished the piece (“Microburst”). While I don’t remember the details of how I got it written, I finished it and entered the contest. And I was selected as one of the fifteen! I wish I could say that that success turned me into a prolific composer. It didn’t. However, I continued to arrange and took the leap of self-publishing my music.

But I still heard those whispers. “What about those two pieces you’d started so long ago?” they asked.

Eventually, I didn’t slam the door as I’d done so many times.

I opened it.

It was time.

I stole moments when I was home alone to sit at the piano and play around with melodies and harmonies. Ideas marinated in my mind and I thought about my overall vision for the music. I learned more about planning out my pieces, and unlearning the notion that a piece would just write itself, start to finish. I mean, wasn’t that how composers wrote?

While I still hit writer’s block, I just kept going back, knowing that even small steps add up over time. I decided I absolutely had to finish at least the horn choir piece I’d begun several years ago. It wouldn’t defeat me. I had to conquer fear.

I won the battle. In April, 2015, the Cor Corps Horn Choir premiered “Proclamation,” and I had the honor of conducting it. What a rush! The ensemble performed wonderfully. Having my piece, my own work, come to fruition after all these years was immensely satisfying. Shortly after that, I had the opportunity to arrange it for concert band. That arrangement was premiered by Crystal Lake Community Band in 2016 and I was invited to conduct again.

Finding my voice 

“Proclamation” gave me another nudge to keep working on my own compositions. Fear stayed by my side, of course; it’s the houseguest who has overstayed their welcome. But I pushed on. I read books on creativity and art. I listened for things I liked in other composers’ work and explored more about how I compose. A big epiphany was fully realizing I could rewrite something! It seems so basic, doesn’t it? But when you’re in the grip of fear, you don’t always see the simple things. Along those lines, I also realized that it’s okay if the music sounds like crap at first.

It's okay to rewrite!
It’s okay to rewrite!

Speaking of crap, I took the time to look through my composition notebook from college. A lot of what I wrote was bad. But you know what? That’s okay. The bad stuff still has the potential to be rewritten into something good. I also realized I had been trying to write the music I thought I was supposed to write, not the music I wanted to write. Even if it wasn’t explicitly stated, I felt like I should be writing music that suited academia.

In learning about myself as a composer, I’m proud to say I finished two pieces I’d wanted to write for years. In January, 2018, I released “Awakening Fire,” a solo for unaccompanied bass clarinet. Composing a bass clarinet solo had been on my mind since college. I finally did it!

The next mountain

Later on in 2018, I tackled my clarinet choir piece, the one I’d begun back in 2011 alongside “Proclamation.” I really wanted to make this one a reality. And this time, I finally felt like I was up to the challenge.

Not only did I finish it, I finished it more quickly than I imagined I could. I firmly believe that all the learning I’d done about my process of composing helped me. Additionally, I feel I kept fear at bay more easily. I still had doubts, but they didn’t trick me into putting this composition away for another several years. Take that, writer’s block!

My clarinet choir, Knock on Wood, premiered “The Monk’s Turned Topsy-Turvy” in June of 2019. The group did a great job with it, even giving me goosebumps while we played it! I’m proud of that moment. A piece I’d had in my mind for so many years finally emerged into the world.

Lori as conductor
Lori as conductor

I continue to compose. I’ve written several short pieces for beginner instrumentalists and reimagined several clarinet etudes into different musical styles. I mull over ideas for larger works. I still have moments of doubt, moments where the ideas just don’t want to come easily. But I’m not as scared of those moments now. No one can be “on” all the time, and sometimes the right idea just has to come at the right time.

I will keep working, finding my voice, and bringing my music to the world.

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Lori Archer Sutherland

Librarian & musician. Collects model horses of all sorts. Bass clarinet nerd, doing more composing & arranging.

2 Responses

  1. Diane says:

    Love this, Lori! It’s been a privilege to watch you in your journey and engage in conversations about creativity with you. Congratulations! No one can ever completely defeat writer’s block, but you have nearly tamed it.

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