How NOT to Write a Flute Sonata in 3 Simple Steps

I’m super excited about writing this flute piece, but starting any creative project, this one included, can be agonizing. Here are a few things I’ve learned about the creative process that might be useful to you next time you’re stumped or not sure what to do next.

Step 1. Stare at the blank page endlessly and wait for something to happen

It isn’t just that the hardest part of a creative project is getting started; it’s that the hardest part is getting started from nothing. Starting with nothing, in a way, can mean having nothing to work with. 

Instead, I suggest choosing a constraint.

Your constraint could be anything. For a painter, it might be “I’ll only draw squares and only use shades of blue.” For an architect it might be one bold line, drawn arbitrarily, to which every additional line will connect. For a composer, it might be a random sequence of notes. The point of the constraint is to create a problem to solve in whatever work follows. And of course the “arbitrary” constraint that served to get the process moving can be jettisoned or modified in service of aesthetic goals later on.

Catherine Boyack, the lead commissioner of this flute sonata, told me about her love for flowers, and we decided that each of the miniature movements would be connected to one of her favorite flowers. One of them is called … wait for it … the Queen of the Night Tulip. Can you ask for a better musical opportunity? So for this Tulip-based movement, I assigned myself the constraint of quoting Mozart’s famous “Queen of the Night Aria” (“Der Hölle Rache”) just enough to be fun, but not too much. And I happened to be thinking about Herbie Hancock at the time, and so I decided to nod to Herbie in the sonata too. (Naturally.) By putting those two puzzles into the playing field, I found myself asking “what do I do next with this” rather than “what do I do.”

Creativity through constraints isn’t a new idea, but it always feels new, refreshing, and exciting when I use it. Stravinsky wrote: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit … the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” 

Go, Igor!

Step 2. Try to be original

Artists seem to worry a lot about “being original.” (It’s not their fault; everyone else does it too.) But what on earth does that mean? Be something completely new, something we’ve never heard of before? Isn’t that a little silly? Doesn’t that betray the reality that we all come from somewhere and belong to people and places and influences? 

Antoni Gaudi is often quoted as having said that “originality consists of going back to the origins.” My family and I walked through his mind-blowing cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona last summer. Was it original? That’s an understatement—it’s one of the wonders of the world! But whywas it original? Probably less because he tried to do something no one had ever done, ex nihilo, and more because he fully embraced his Catalonian roots, nurtured his fascinations with the contours of nature, and used his hard-earned skills and native gifts to be “a link in the chain” and to “lift where he stood.”

So far, my best steps forward as an artist have been less about trying to “be myself” and “be original” and more about fully embracing and chasing my origins, passions, and fascinations. 

Ravel said that a composer “cannot do better … than say again what has already been well said.” That’s not very original. But Ravel did okay, in my view.

Say it again, Maurice!

Step 3. Protect your baby 

There are days when I wish I could wrap my younger son in bubble wrap. The poor kid seems to accumulate more bruises and scrapes than any other human I know. (He’s sporting a cast for a fractured humerus right now … not very humorous!) But I trust that his bumps actually help him learn to navigate the world and “protecting” him (except from serious danger) won’t serve him all that well in the end.

And so it is with creative work.

I used to worry more about showing my work, about letting my babies get bruises from rough encounters with the outside world. I’m nearly the opposite now. I can’t wait to see what happens when the latest creation gets its trial run. Sometimes the wheels fall off—helpful information. Sometimes the audience gets bored. Also helpful. Sometimes people unsubscribe. Also helpful. Each tiny collision with reality helps me make course corrections. 

In the case of the flute piece, any of my flutist friends can tell you that I’ve been texting them photos of various passages with all sorts of technical questions. Each time I get a “yes,” “no,” “yuck,” or whatever, I’m that much closer to closing the gap between the current reality of the creation and its best potential. 

Thanks, collisions! 

Well, there you go. Want to write a great sonata? Don’t follow any of these three easy steps.