Coloring inside the lines


Have a look at this baby girl, col­or­ing in a col­or­ing book. She is enjoy­ing the sen­sory expe­ri­ence of it, the tac­tile sen­sa­tion of hav­ing crayons in her hand and explor­ing the paper.

I was chat­ting with a begin­ning com­po­si­tion stu­dent recently and I asked him to show me what he’s work­ing on. He offered to show me some the­ory home­work, and this raised again the old issue of the­ory vs. com­po­si­tion. He seems adept at the­ory, but is just get­ting started with composition.

I talked about chil­dren like the girl in this pic­ture, who go off into the cor­ner with some crayons and a col­or­ing book. They just start col­or­ing, don’t they? They don’t con­cern them­selves with whether it is “right.” There’s that sen­sual, enjoy­able expe­ri­ence of run­ning your crayons over the page.

Later, some­one will tell this child the impor­tance of stay­ing inside the lines. And thus begins a life­time of our own inner critic ask­ing, “Is it good enough? Is it right?”

Music the­ory is “the lines” of the col­or­ing book. I’m not say­ing that it is impor­tant to ignore “the rules” or that the­ory is insignif­i­cant. As com­posers, obvi­ously, we should know where the lines are.

But as com­poser, also, we don’t let the lines define us. We can com­pose what­ever we want to, for the tac­tile, sen­sory expe­ri­ence of it. It’s a good idea to explore strate­gies that return us to this child­like state!

About Richard D. Russell

This was written by Richard D. Russell, New York City based composer of fine music.