1. Trying to keep myself on track
2. Making sure I am actually doing what I am going to be suggesting to my students
My basic routine for working goes like this:
1. Long pre-composition stage of trying to determine concepts and ideas. I write a lot of notes (words) down and try to keep thinking about the piece when I have mental down time like on buses or taxi rides or walks to and from places when I am by myself.
2. After I feel like I kind of know what the concept of the piece is (or I am facing a deadline and have to get moving whether I want to or not), I sketch large scale form and proportion (in minutes or seconds). If the proportion feels right and connects with the overarching concept of the piece, I move on. This suggests no special compositional process like the one I employed with Memory Variations.
3. Something I've picked up from Art Gottschalk - write the climax or some of the most intense music towards the beginning of the process. Also, have an idea of how the piece will end. That way, you know where you are going and where the whole thing will stop. Is your ending the climax? If not, how will it be convincing since it is not the biggest moment of the piece if it is to end big. If you know these things, you can foreshadow. You can set the listener up to hear what you think is the climax as the actual climax. You can plan the ending out and really think about doing something other than a bang or a whimper.
4. I take a piece section by section, usually working out of order. If the piece needs transitions, I save those for after I've written the bulk of the sections. Again, you have to know where you are going before you can leave where you are. With each section, I usually make a smaller scale formal diagram, sometimes down to the second.
5. When I am working on sections, I typically sketch the piece out graphically first. This can include general things like rhythms, pitches if necessary but usually looks like a lot of scribbling. I really like this method because it is another level of pre-composition. You are essentially refining your idea one layer at a time. The picture gets clearer and clearer with each pass you take.
And you are revising constantly. I hardly ever revise after the piece is done. I live with decisions for a long time in the moment. I try to give myself options in the moment. And I play through things either on piano or my head a lot as I go. It takes me a long time to actually write notes down on the page. Maybe because I hate erasing. But, because I've had 3-4 passes on a section at various stages of the compositional process, what I actually write on the page tends to stay there.
6. I like to separate the process into Creative work and Administrative work.
Creative work is just that creative. You are building something. You are putting ideas onto paper in some form whether it be graphically or containing music notation. Creative work is almost never done in the office or at a piano. It happens when it happens. Like I wrote above, sometimes on buses or in the shower or anytime I have mental downtime. Trying to force creative work is very difficult for me and usually doesn't end well. So, if I can't be creative, I try to focus on the other side of the process, administrative work.
Administrative work is what I think of as rendering. You've already put your ideas down in some form - in my case, graphically. Now, render those ideas into musical notation. This is always done at a desk or in front of a piano. Since I like to revise in the moment I am not one to just blindly put notes down on the page. While I have a good ear for what I hear, my mental ear isn't so great. I don't have perfect pitch. I can't just write notes without a sound source in front of me. So based on my already formed concepts, the graphics are rendered into notes, chords, rhythms, and textures.
7. Input from the performers is always key. Unless a certain note is paramount to the concept of the piece or gesture or section or whatever, it can be changed to facilitate easier play. Because I largely work from graphic images to musical notation, many of my notes can be altered and still work for a gesture. Of course notes matter, but for me, gestures matter more. And if a note has to be changed to make it possible for a performer to play, do it. Done. Not even worth thinking about.