Playing In The Sandbox: An Exercise of Creativity for Composers

The Noteflight Team is pleased to welcome guest blog writer Jesse Strickland! Jesse is a Composer and Music Theorist specializing in sacred choral music. For the last 8 years, his studio Take 3 Creative has been producing content and resources for music students and music educators. His latest online course, Start Write Now, walks students through the process of writing their first composition. More on this and other resources is available on his website:

I want you to think back to when you were a kid. You’d go to the playground, and in the midst of all of the slides, swings, and monkey bars, there would be a sandbox – very unassuming – it’s just a box, and that box was filled with sand. Or, maybe you lived close enough to the ocean, and you can remember going down to the shore and being there amongst hundreds of square miles of sand. You probably even brought specific toys to better enjoy the sand.

Here’s the thing about the sandbox: You don’t come to the sandbox with an agenda – unless your agenda is “to have fun.” You approach with curiosity and excitement – your only goal is exploration. You just find enjoyment in letting the sand run between your fingers and toes. Your only limitation is your imagination. Even if you came into the sandbox with a goal to build a castle, whatever you build is temporary, and you’re okay with that. If it falls apart, it’s not a big deal. There are no right or wrong answers here. When you’re done, you either smooth the sand over, or the next kids to show up will destroy whatever you made. At the end of the day, you had a great time doing it.

It makes sense, really. Sand is made up of rocks that have been broken down into tiny grains. It stands to reason that anything built with this material is also destined to be broken down so finely that no evidence remains. It’s rather poetic.

As composers, we need more of the sandbox in our writing process.

This may seem strange at first. We want to make things that last. We want our music heard in concert halls, churches, auditoriums, and stages all over the world. Often we feel like we must constantly focus on setting our music apart from our competition, especially in an economy in which ensemble directors have seemingly infinite music from which to choose. How will my music even be heard if I don’t carefully craft it into a masterpiece? So, it may seem strange that I recommend intentionally writing something “temporary.”

Maybe that’s not you. Maybe you’re in a situation where music needs to be churned out constantly. How can I suggest that you goof off in a sandbox when there are deadlines approaching? I fully understand that. I spent a few years as composer-in-residence at a church, and Sunday comes every 7 days, relentlessly. The turnaround is rapid, and you’ve got to constantly be on it. But yes, even for you, I think the sandbox would be helpful.

Regardless of our situation, sometimes, we just need to go play in the sandbox. I’d venture to say that our work as composers is made easier if we spend time in the sandbox. Much like the sensory and cognitive development we get from playing in the sandbox as children.

Perhaps you’re asking at this point: What is the compositional equivalent of the sandbox? It’s a technique called freewriting. It’s not unique to music composition, it has applications in every form of writing, but I have found it immensely helpful in my writing process.

How Does Freewriting Work?
The mechanics are pretty simple: clear your mind, and then write down whatever pops into your head. There’s nothing more. I know. Crazy, right? It’s a concept so simple that I overlooked it for years.

I do suggest setting aside time for this exercise – this allows you to come into that time with the proper expectation, which is “whatever happens, happens.” Perhaps you want to allot a specific amount of time, but it’s okay if you just want to go until you feel like stopping.

5 Benefits of Freewriting
Other than the fact that it is really fun and can remind you of the excitement and wonder you felt when you first started composing, there are quite a few benefits that come from freewriting. Additionally, I think you’ll be quite surprised at how effectively you transfer lessons from your freewriting that you didn’t even realize you had learned.

1) Removes All Pressure
Approach the freewriting session with curiosity and excitement. Your only goal is exploration; your only limitation is your creativity. It’s possible you want to use some writing prompts to guide your time, and that’s perfectly fine, so long as you retain the mindset that whatever you write is, for all intents and purposes, temporary, and you’re okay with that. If it falls apart, that’s okay. There are no right or wrong answers here. Having this mindset removes all the pressure of writing “good” music.

2) Creative Flow State
The term “flow state” means a complete mental focus on one task or activity. The lack of an agenda in freewriting allows for uninterrupted writing. Furthermore, since nothing is right or wrong here, you won’t be pulled out of the flow state pondering if an idea is good or worthy to be used – all ideas are equal. You might be particularly excited to enter a flow state if you’ve been experiencing writer’s block.

3) Fighting Writer’s Block/Lack of Inspiration
I’ve just released an eBook on overcoming writer’s block. It’s a step-by-step guide made up of strategies I’ve learned and employed over the years in overcoming my own creative struggles. One of the first and best recommendations I have for writer’s block, or just a lack of inspiration or motivation, is to try a number of freewriting sessions. There are plenty of causes for writer’s block, but honestly, most of them dissolve when you engage in freewriting. You’re overthinking the music, or you feel the pressure of an impending deadline – that doesn’t apply in freewriting. Perfectionism, fear of rejection or failure – that doesn’t matter in freewriting. As much as a kid can forget that his mom is sitting over there watching from a park bench, you can temporarily forget all of your stressors and just write. It’s therapeutic.

4) Getting out of a Formulaic Approach
I personally feel this when my workload is on the heavier side, and I’ve got a number of deadlines that are imminent. You start hastily solving all of your problems using the same musical tropes and cliches. And yeah, sometimes that is necessary. But, after a while, you start to feel like you’re in a creative rut. Freewriting is a great solution to that. It encourages you to approach writing from different angles. In the course of daily writing sessions, an idea came to your head, but you dismissed it. But in freewriting, ideas you may have overlooked otherwise now have a chance to come to the forefront. This leads us to…

5) Experimentation
Now you’ve got a chance to really start digging around: What would happen if I did this unusual thing? This melody is a little off the wall; why do I like it so much? Hmm, I didn’t care for that, but I’m glad I tried it. This chord here just makes me really happy.

You can find some really cool new sonorities in freewriting you might not have found without giving yourself the freedom to explore. In the immortal words of Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”

I know I’ve said that everything here is temporary. Perhaps I should clarify: Everything here has the option of being temporary. If, in the course of your experimentation, you find a nugget of gold buried in the sand – I highly suggest you take it with you. I tend to go back and forth. Sometimes I’m more like a kid in a sandbox, and sometimes I’m more like a scientist. If you want to write down notes on your findings, by all means, go ahead. But don’t put any pressure on yourself to produce something more permanent.

Give Freewriting a Try
So, regardless of your skill level as a composer or how busy your writing schedule is, you can greatly benefit from adding freewriting as a fixture in your writing process. Whether you’re looking to overcome writer’s block, run some experiments, or just to remind yourself why you fell in love with writing music in the first place – each and every composer could stand to spend a little more time playing in the sandbox.


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