My husband popped his head into my music room to let me know he was heading out. He took a look at me and asked, “how are things going?” I grimaced and said, “My piece is in the ugly chicken stage.” “Oh,” he replied, sympathetically, “You look like your piece is in the ugly chicken stage – face pained, hair a mess.”
The “ugly chicken stage” is my term of endearment for the part of the process of composing when I get gripped with anxiety about how the piece will turn out. I start to hate the piece, think it is awful, and want to throw it out and start over complely. I’ve been composing long enough to know that I hit this stage every single time I write a piece of music, and it usually starts when the piece is about two-thirds done, when it starts to become recognizable and take shape. Thankfully, I have learned that this is only a stage and I just need to relax (as best I can). I can’t quit, but I also can’t rush the process. I must wait for the piece to finish forming. It’s not done yet, so it is unfair to judge it.
Why call it the “ugly chicken stage”?
We’ve raised chickens for about the last ten years. A piece of music grows a bit like a chicken does. When it is still in the egg, in the embryonic stage, you don’t know exactly what type of chicken will come out. The idea is barely there, a wisp of something that needs to incubate and until it is ready to hatch. At “chick stage”, the piece is a wonderful new idea, like a new chick. Chicks are cute puffballs. They are fun to hold and pet. When my piece is at “chick stage”, it is time to play around. What can I do with this idea? I like to talk about how I will flesh out my ideas in the form, orchestration, and musical devices.
Then comes the “ugly chicken stage.” In a chicken’s life, this takes place between two named stages of growth: chick and pullet. A chick is the well-known puff ball. A pullet is a young chicken that has all its feathers. The time between, the “ugly stage” is when the chicken starts losing its down and growing in real feathers. The problem is, they don’t come in all at once, and neither do they come in any pattern. Ugly chickens have feathers sticking out in random patches all over their heads and bodies; some patches are bare. There are not yet enough feathers to cover over the tendon-like strands that attach them to the body. I promise you, these chickens are ugly and not enjoyable to look at. At this point, it is still dangerous for them to be exposed to cold because they don’t have enough feathers to keep warm. Someone who doesn’t know chickens might look at them in this stage and wonder if they are healthy, but the only thing they need is more time.
My growing piece in the process of getting fleshed out is an “ugly chicken.” It’s no longer a cute idea to play with. It has become work. During the course of work, some things are turning out great. Other parts are not so great. I don’t work linearly, so some sections of the piece are complete, while others are barely a skeleton. It’s hard to follow while listening back to anything I’ve inputted into the computer because I have to switch back and forth between listening with my ears and filling in the missing bits with my imagination. At this point, it should not be exposed to the elements of harsh scrutiny. I have to take a breath and remind myself that this ugly stage is not an indicator of a problem inherent to my piece. I must allow my piece more time to continue to fill out.
Calling my pieces at this stage “ugly chickens” is a term of endearment because I know that all the ugly chickens I’ve raised have grown into handsome hens and roosters. When all their feathers are fully out, they are glossy and shine with iridescent colors. I might laugh at the ugly chickens when they are young, but when they are fully mature I will gather eggs and perhaps raise new chicks. So, I just need to wait it out.
So, here are the stages of my composition, in terms of chickens. Unlike chickens, there is no standard amount of time a piece may exist in any stage.
- Egg: new idea floating in my head that has not yet begun to “hatch” into a piece.
- Chick: new piece, fun to play around with and talk about
- Ugly chicken: the piece has begun to take shape, but it is random and hard to follow. I wonder if the idea I had is any good after all
- Pullet: the piece is finished, but not polished
- Mature chicken: the piece is ready for performance
- The hens lay eggs: the piece gets performed