I believe that there are two main stages to composing a piece. The first is instinctive, during which the critical part of the brain needs to be switched off. Be too critical too early and it is far too easy to reach an impasse, get a few bars meticulously polished and then be unable to work out where to go next. Instead I think that you should just write, improvise onto paper in the same way as an artist or instrumentalist might just doodle to get hold of ideas. Only at a later stage, with the vague outlines mapped out, should the critical process be brought to bear on the results. A sculptor, after all, does not begin with the smallest details, but instead works on the grander shape, the proportions, and only slowly releases the figure captured in the material.
Once the critical part does kick in, however, it can be very easy to ignore it, or to convince oneself that it is interfering. However, it is the accumulation of all those notes over the years that have and have not worked that has forged that critical ability, experience finally brought to bear as a kind of constant quality control, and any writer would be wise to listen to those nagging doubts about a note or a chord or a rhythm or a progression…
…or, most recently for me, a whole piece. With the humblest of apologies to The Bard, especially in his anniversary year, I have had to admit that my choral setting of one of his sonnets is just not working, and (reluctantly, but ultimately with some relief) I have come to the inescapable conclusion that the sketches at the moment, while passable, are simply not good enough. Better to admit that now.
Having admitted it, though, one needs to find something else to write in its place, and I am awaiting approval on a text by Keats that I think is much more suitable for the occasion and for this composer. It is a good sign too when musical ideas spring unannounced into the head merely upon reading the poem. Will it be great? Probably not, but it will be better than the abortive Shakespeare setting, which may well eventually see the light of day as a solo song, but certainly not in its current incarnation. In any case, it will go into that well of knowledge of what does and does not work, and I will be happy to put it down to experience.