Katelyn Holub

blogging about music, art, and creativity

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Are You Satisfied With Your Approach to Composition?

Have you ever heard the riddle about a man, his boxes, and the bridge? A man had three boxes. Each box weighed 5 lbs. The man weighed 190 lbs. The bridge could only support 200 lbs. How did the man make it across the bridge with all his boxes?

*Photo Credit: Tom Thai, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Tom Thai, Creative Commons

This is from a scene in one of my all-time favorite television shows—Joan of Arcadia {a show about a high school girl who talks with God and learns from the various “assignments” God gives her}. In this particular episode, Joan learns that the only way the man can get across the bridge is by juggling the boxes.  Life is full of all kinds of juggling acts:

people carrying more weight than they alone can bear;

the delicate proportion of predators and prey in an ecosystem;

the forward motion of a planet offset by the pull of gravity on it by another planet.

This past week I had the pleasure of attending a talk about the art of composing by Augusta Read Thomas, a professor of composition at the University of Chicago and former Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1996 to 2007. In hearing her speak, I noticed a theme to her approach to composition:

making art is all about juggling.

Just as our lives and nature balance several inter-connected variables, music is full of distinct parts that are balanced by the composer: flux, harmony, rhythm, flow, density, resonance, counterpoint, ornamentation, spontaneity, form, etc.

*Photo Credit: Jesus Solana, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Jesus Solana, Creative Commons

Depending on the purpose of the art, the balance amongst the musical variables will differ. For example, Thomas meticulously plans and revises her compositions, focusing often on the balance between nuance and spontaneity. A unique quality of her work is what she calls a “captured improvisational” sound that she creates through writing highly notated music. She strives to create “the feeling that [her music] is organically being self-propelled.” Listen to Thomas’ “Double Helix” for two violins for an example of her captured improvisation style.

The next time you sit down to compose, write, or sculpt, consider what you are juggling. How well are you balancing your art-form’s variables? Are all the parts working together to form a cohesive work of art? Taking the time to recognize your work’s unique balancing schema will help ensure your art meets your aims.

Have you struggled with balancing different variables in creating your art? What kinds of practices have helped you in your compositional process?



Allowing Your Mind to Wander Is More Valuable Than You Think

Last summer, I was getting ready for work one morning when a new melody popped into my head. I hummed the tune to myself so I wouldn’t forget it as I rushed about. Just before I dashed out the door, I whipped out my cell phone and made a quick recording of me singing the melody so that I could return to it later when I had more time. While I loved the new melody I thought up, I couldn’t figure out where it came from and why I thought of it at such a chance time as when I was brushing my teeth.

Have you ever noticed how some of your greatest ideas pop into your head when you are least expecting them? It may seem like our ideas are coming at random times, but when we allow our minds to wander we open our awareness to new possibilities and increase our creativity.

*Photo Credit: Zach Dischner, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Zach Dischner, Creative Commons

There are two basic states of mind: focused attention and mind-wandering. Research by cognitive scientists has revealed that our “default” mode is mind-wandering. We innately prefer to drift from thought to thought rather than ponder any one idea deeply.

That’s why if we are not careful, we can find ourselves losing our concentration while we are trying to focus on our work. I know all too well what it’s like to read a paragraph or two only to realize I have no clue what I just read. Sometimes I wind up reading the same sentence over a few times just because my mind has drifted on to some other place.

While having focused attention is important for a lot of tasks, it can be the enemy of creativity.

When we allow our minds to wander we free ourselves from the devil’s advocate playing in our mind, cynicism, and judgment. As Daniel Goldman puts it in his book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” allowing our mind to wander brings us “utter receptivity to whatever floats into the mind.”

*Photo Credit: William Warby, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: William Warby, Creative Commons

Having a wandering mind with freely roaming awareness can allow us to make new connections and associations. Often the ingredients for our next great idea are already in our mind—they just need to be connected, combined, and drawn to the surface of our consciousness.

Instead of trying to force creativity or being hard on ourselves when our mind wanders (both are creativity roadblocks), what if we could allow ourselves to relax our minds and see where our open awareness takes us? We can, and this freely roaming awareness is invaluable to our creativity in many ways.

Have you noticed increased creativity when you are daydreaming or allowing your mind to wander?  


Live With Your Heart on Your Sleeve

I used to live more freely. With my heart on my sleeve, I was all into life. As a young girl, I was passionate that I could change the world for the better. I could make a difference. But those feelings were slowly eroded away by incidents of pain. Over time, my confidence that good could prevail wavered and I built up walls to hide my heart from the pain of this world. Is this the way life should be? Should we go from being children full of hope and passion to being cynical adults turning our eyes from the seemingly hopeless cause that is our world?

*Photo Credit: ClickFlashPhotos / Nicki Varkevisser, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: ClickFlashPhotos / Nicki Varkevisser, Creative Commons

I think the answer is no. It’s easy to let the world jade us into thinking we don’t matter and can’t make a dent in lessening the amount of darkness out there, but we must not let our heart slip away from us.

“Remember that kid with the quivering lip

Whose heart was on his sleeve like a first aid kit

Where are you now? Where are you now?” –“Slipping Away” by Switchfoot

This week, I’ve come to realize the beauty and truth in living with your heart on your sleeve. Yes, living this way is dangerous. It makes you vulnerable to experiencing pain. But it also fuels us to respond to those who are hurting and make that positive difference in the world we think we can’t make. There’s power behind true passion and emotional feeling—enough power to change history for the better.

*Photo Credit: Jenn Durfey, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Jenn Durfey, Creative Commons

And how does this relate to musicians and artists? As Seth Godin recently discussed on a podcast of The Portfolio Life with Jeff Goins, “art is born out of frustration.” Great artists live their emotions (rather than block them out) and let their feelings and tensions drive their creative process. By living with and responding to our hearts on our sleeves, we artists can positively impact the world by shining light on truths for the world to experience. How do you live with hope and passion for a better world? What drives your creative process?


Using Art to Convey a Theme

Remember all those literature classes where the teachers asked you to write a paper describing the theme of a novel and analyzing the different literary tools the author used to develop that theme?

I used to groan at the thought of having to pick apart a piece of literature like that. Often I felt like I was reading way too much into things the author did in order to be able to say that the use of such-and-such literary device was part of the author’s grand plan to develop the theme. Do authors really plan so extensively how they will foster a theme?

Now that I’ve started composing, I think the answer is usually “yes.”

*Photo Credit: kellinahandbasket, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: kellinahandbasket, Creative Commons

One of the most important stages of composition for authors and artists of all kinds is choosing a theme and giving thoughtful consideration as to how that theme will be developed. For musicians, we have both the medium of words and music at our disposal, and we should not overlook the powerful tools available within each of those art forms.

Over the past several months I’ve been slowly working on a new song about recognizing my weaknesses and crying out to God for strength, help, and purpose. The first couple verses are written, and I’m currently deciding what direction to take the second half of the song and drafting a transition/interlude section to guide the listener onward.

*Photo Credit: Jamie McCaffrey, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Jamie McCaffrey, Creative Commons

Throughout this drawn-out process of composing, I’ve reflected more deeply on the theme I want to develop through this song, why it matters, and how I can best convey my message to listeners. Here’s a preview of some of my lyrics so far:

“I might stumble but You’ll bring me back again/to the One I’ve been holding to”

“My flaws, my Achilles’ heel, they’re all that I see/but I know You can.”     

What are your thoughts about developing a theme?   How do you go through this part of the planning process when you are creating a work?