I remember one particular composition lesson when I commented to my teacher that I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. He chuckled slightly and said, “Oh, you know what you’re doing.” I protested and said, “You’re saying my work is good, but I don’t know what makes it good, and I don’t know how I got here.” He told me I followed my intuition. “Where did that come from?” I asked, and he responded by saying that it came from all my years of studying piano.
I took that nugget of information home with me and pondered it for a long time. Years, in fact. As my experience as a composer grows and expands, I understand more about the role of intuition.
Through participating in the 2022 Impulse New Music Festival over the last couple of weeks, I now understand that my musical intuition has come from far more than my piano studies. In fact, it is related to almost every musical decision I have made since I was a young child.
One of the exercises suggested in the composer bootcamp is to read a Bach chorale in closed and open score and sing all the voices, one at a time, while playing the other voices on the piano. Then, we are to move back and forth between the voices. My initial thought was, “That’s not too hard. It’ll take a few tries, but not too hard.” The reason I can even think that is because I have been playing and singing four-part chorales since I was six years old. My first exposure to chorale writing was through the hymns at church. Later, I was either singing in or accompanying choruses – at church, at school, and in the community. SATB voicing is in my blood.
Another exercise involved rhythmic modulation and polyrhythms. Again, I was surprised by how easy I found it. Sure, I picked up some of this by playing the music of Frederic Chopin. But my experience in wind ensembles was just as influential because they perform primarily 20th C music and beyond. I played a lot of pieces that employed rhythmic modulation. I might not have known the term at the time, but my ear and my gut became quite familiar with variations in pulse and the way the conductor changed the beat patterns.
Learning jazz piano and playing in the jazz band exposed me to extended chords; playing in the woodwind quintet showed me how chamber music is different than large ensemble music. I learned the qualities of many, many instruments through their entire ranges because I spent time with them day in and day out, just listening to them during rehearsals. I was able to get my hands on many as my friends let me play their instruments; I even learned a scale or two on most of them. Today, while I may still need to look up some practical information like fingering, I can hear, and even feel, all the instruments in my head.
I made a decision my first year of high school to get involved in as many musical ensembles at the school as I possibly could. One of the reasons I did this was because I wanted to learn as much about music as possible. I just didn’t realize how much I had actually learned. I didn’t realize that, though I didn’t take a composition lesson until I was thirty-seven, every musical experience had been, in its own way, training me for composing. All of those experiences were feeding my intuition so I could draw from it later on. It didn’t matter that I didn’t use most of that collected knowledge and intuition for a couple of decades. It was there, waiting, all along.
Intuition isn’t just in-born; it can be developed. I can add to it through listening to a wider variety of music, and more exposure (preferably in-person and hands-on) to new-to-me instruments, though I must say that I think it is immensely more valuable to actually be playing and actively participating in making music. Intuition is something anyone can develop or help their kids to develop. All it involves is encouraging curiosity and allowing exploration as far as one can take it. Then, let it bubble up into creativity in its own time.