Fred Hersch: A Composition Exercise to Try Today

In 2001, during my second composition residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH, I was completely stuck with my writing.  I had come to the Colony to work on what I had hoped would be a chamber-opera-type-thing – only to find right before I left that I would not be able to procure the rights to the novel I wanted to adapt. I felt rudderless, taking frequent naps and spending an inordinate amount of time reading novels by the resident fiction writers.

It was also extremely cold – February in New Hampshire is no joke – so I was in my cottage going a bit stir-crazy. Then I got an idea by looking at a baseball cap that I had with me in my studio.  I cut a piece of paper into 12 one-inch squares – each square representing a note of the chromatic scale.  I put the squares into the baseball cap, shook them up, and got a “pitch”.  Then I set a timer I happened to have with me to 45 minutes – this I determined as ideal since it is the length of a typical psychotherapy session.  For example, if the “pitch” was Bb it meant either: Bb major; Bb minor; or starting on the note Bb.  So I had a starting place and turned on the timer.  The challenge was to write a tune (in scribble as no one but me had to read it) and complete it within the 45-minute interval.  So I was composing as close as possible to the speed of improvising – and the deadline meant that I didn’t have forever to wait around for divine inspiration to descend from the heavens.  I just used whatever came first and worked it out from there.

This process over the years has led me to compose many of my best and most durable compositions.  Jazz compositions these days – with computer notation programs and the fluency of younger jazz players in odd time signatures and complex structures – often have too many elements in them. They don’t leave room for the player to interpret them or add their personality and point of view to the theme or the harmonic structure – and many of them are simply not memorable. I was 24 years old and a very experienced jazz pianist who knew hundreds of tunes before I dared to write one of my own.  I figured “what could I write that would be better than Wayne Shorter or Billy Strayhorn or Kenny Wheeler or Ornette or Monk?” – so why bother?  Then I realized that all of these tunes I loved had only a few simple elements – a great progression, a durable melody and a particular rhythm or vibe.  So I didn’t have to re-invent the wheel after all – just write a short-form tune that is memorable and distinctive. (Richard Rodgers did extremely well with just the notes of the diatonic major scale). And, most importantly, simple isn’t easy. Everything that Monk wrote fits on about 100 pages, but each tune has its own beautiful logic and specific world and they are fun and challenging musical problems to solve over and over.

I have a beloved and banged-up kitchen timer that is always by my piano.  When I am stuck, I write a “kitchen timer tune”. Best case, I come out with something I really like – and can tweak later. Worst case, I only wasted 45 minutes. My “batting average” has gotten pretty good over the years when I set my mind to it. Maybe you will give this a try?


About the Author:

Fred Hersch is a 10-time Grammy nominee as jazz pianist and composer; he was the recipient of a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition and was named a 2016 Doris Duke Artist and 2016 Jazz Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. His memoir Good Things Happen Slowly will be published by Crown Books/Random House in September 2017. www.fredhersch.com

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  • Paul Read

    Just wrote a tune using Fred’s kitchen timer strategy. The pitch that came up from the ‘hat’ was a Gb. Maybe I’ve started a composition with a Gb in mind, but I can’t honestly remember doing so. One thing I added was a ‘random’ metronome tempo, so that fate decided that as well. The last 5 minutes felt a little stressful, but I finished and I think the resulting composition surprisingly (for me at least) good. In any case, I have a really solid sketch that may lead elsewhere. Terrific idea, Fred. Thanks for your post.