From the Desk… Visualize It

12-01 Doris

A discipline I learned many years ago from my mentor, Doris Troy, was the technique of composing away from my instrument of choice. She was a pianist, and over the years, when there was no keyboard available, she’d trained herself to visualize a piano part, rehearsing it in her head, so that when she got to a piano, she could play the new piece unerringly at once. It might seem obvious, but at the time it was a new concept for me;  at that early point of my career I always wrote with either a guitar or a piano, but Doris believed that one’s instrumental technique could stifle the flow of compositional imagination.  She didn’t put it in so many words, but that was the gist of it.

There’s a temptation for the hands to follow tried and true patterns, and many writers do, indeed, have rudimentary instrumental skills. That doesn’t mean you can’t  write great songs, but it can mean that sameness may creep into the melodic and chordal end of things. Bobby Russell was a fantastic writer, especially as a wordsmith, but was a limited guitarist. “Little Green Apples” and “Honey”, Grammy winners both, pretty much encompassed his entire repertoire of chords, so in later years every new song sounded like a retread. I was working for him at that time, and tried to convince him to ‘visualize it’, but he considered that rather an uptown concept (which I guess it is if your uptown is Harlem, as it was in Ms. Troy’s case).

The advent of transposing electronic keyboards upgraded the Irving Berlin model (the great composer could only play in F#, and had a rigged piano which effectively transposed), and the capo fulfills the same function for guitarists, but freedom from an instrument can lead to a greater melodic freedom, overall.

Composing a melody chord-free can lead one to wonderful places, and then the chords can be shaped around the melody, rather than vice versa.

Composers and arrangers who use formal notation do this all the time, as they have the written chart as their equivalent of an instrument, but  less experienced writers might find themselves trapped, either by instrumental limitations or by too much in the way of chops. It’s a fine balance, but the private space between the ears is a perfect and peaceful place to get all the ideas in order, before you go to the instrument.

Try writing something away from your instrument of choice; i.e. write it totally in your head. It may take a while to feel totally comfortable, but work on it, until you can create a whole piece without tape,  cell phone or any other aide mémoire. And the bottom line is- if you can’t remember it afterwards, it wasn’t worth remembering.

Having a piece organized mentally can make the realization of said piece much easier when the instrument is introduced, because then one can choose the chords that will best serve the melody, rather than the chords dictating where the melody can go.


More on Doris Troy in Mersey Me! A Liverpool Lad on the Loose in the Swingin’ 60s