Judith Weir CBE, Master of the King's Music
David Matthews

The delete key is your friend

By Martin Jones


We composers all have days where inspiration is in short supply. We doggedly write notes on staves following a line of thought that turns out to be unpromising. We compose ourselves into a corner and think how do we get out of this to finish the piece? Mstislav Rostropovich tells the story where he called on Shostakovich one day. He was asked to stay outside for ten minutes and then when he was called in he found Shostakovich screwing up sheets of manuscript and throwing them into the fire. Shostakovich explained that he had writer’s block. To keep his hand in he was orchestrating piano pieces by Mussorgsky that he hated with a vengeance, and when that was done he couldn’t bear to keep them.

The moral is: don’t stop, even when you are discouraged. Write something, even if it’s rubbish, to keep your hand in. You might just find that the creative juices are stimulated back into life just by the need to think. The piece you are working on may then turn out to be OK later on, leaving you just with the unsatisfactory section to think about. A good strategy is to delete it and forget it, or stash that bit away somewhere else, leaving some empty bars. In filling them in you now have a decent section later on to aim at, which will colour or direct your imagination. So the delete key (or eraser if you are working in manuscript) is your friend. It may be a last resort, but can get you out of trouble. It’s too easy to cherish a mediocre result because you put so much hard work into it. Just say to yourself, that’s below standard – I can do better.