Self-Criticism, Self-Belief, and the Arranging Process

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I was recently chatting to a writer friend about our respective experiences during the creative process. One of the themes we explored was how we handle it when we're at the stage when we look at our work-in-progress and think, 'Oh, that's terrible'. This is an inevitable part of the process, because creative work never comes out perfect first time, however good the underlying concept. And if we never saw the flaws in our work, we'd never make the changes that are needed to make it into a finished product.

But how can we manage our own emotions meanwhile? Clearly, if we take these self-criticisms too much to heart, we will falter and stop at the first hurdle. You only get any good at something by learning to listen to the inner voice that says more work is needed without taking its critique personally.

My friend had a wonderful image for the anxiety you feel at this stage, when you are trying to develop your idea, but fear that it is going to melt away: the idea feels like a sugar lump in the rain. She has also developed a useful technique to insulate her work from this rain of self-criticism - she writes down her negative thoughts on a separate notebook from the medium she is working on. This allows her to acknowledge them, but move on without them blocking the path, and she can take the page of negativity and throw it away at the end of the session.

The conversation made me notice how I have adapted over time to specific stages in an arrangement's life-cycle that used to be full of self-doubt and frustration, but are now just steps along the way.

There is that moment in the very early stages when I identify what the specific problem that song is going to present. Most songs have one of these, and recognising that this is the case was a significant moment in my development as an arranger. Experience has shown that the charts I am most proud of (and those that tend to get the strongest responses in performance) are the ones with what seemed like the most intractable challenges at the outset.

These problems are usually technical issues to do with voicing and texture. How to get the melody lying in a sensible range but with a bass line that still works, how to generate interest in an a cappella idiom from a harmonically-static original that relied on timbre for variety, how to handle soloistic rhythmic complexity in an arrangement for a chorus. Most of my posts on arranging that address specific nuts-and-bolts bits of technique come in response to addressing these questions.

Before I recognised that this was an inherent part of the process, these problems used to worry me. What am I going to do with this? What if I can't think of an answer?? These days, though, I find I relax once I have identified the question. Okay, I don't know the answer yet, but I have the scale of what I'm dealing with. Let's go play with some possible solutions.

Another stage that happens every time is when I haven't really solved that problem, but I go ahead and start arranging anyway. You've got to start somewhere. And what I come out with sounds vile. Truly - if you heard my first drafts you would never think you'd want to sing one of my arrangements. But that's okay. You don't have to sing my first drafts, and I am sufficiently accustomed to the process that I think: 'Ah, we're at the bit where it sounds crap'.

I used to feel downhearted here, now I just know that I've not solved the basic problem. It sends me back to listening, and to footling about on the piano. The song and its constituent parts run on a background loop while I sleep and the next day's efforts will be more respectable.

My friend and I talked quite a lot about re-framing, about turning anxiety into anticipation. (Echoes here of Arousal versus Nerves: What's in a Name?.) Experience helps here a lot of course - as it does with performance. Not only are familiar situations less scary, but knowing that you have been through something before and come through it successfully helps you continue even through the self-doubt.

But the separation of emotion from intent is also part of it. You can't use self-belief to carry you through in the early stages, as that is something that only emerges in response to surviving self-doubt. You just have to disregard the fact that you hate what you've just done, think it's absolutely dire and would be ashamed for your peers to see it, and carry on. This is why the BICHOK method is so effective for getting things done (Bum In Chair, Hands On Keyboard) - it is framed in terms of persistence rather than inspiration.

Anyway, I am writing this post to tell you that you are not alone. It's normal to feel like this doing creative work. There are at least two more of us also going through these experiences...

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