Forte: The art of composing music


Denise Dillenbeck, Yakima Symphony Orchestra concertmaster.

I had a conversation the other day with a friend about the difference between playing concerts and composing music alone in the studio. There is definitely something addictive about sharing a performance with an audience. After all, where else in life do you get that kind of instant feedback, mostly positive, from a large group of people?

But my friend mentioned that what he really loves is practicing for the concert. He described the sense he has of touching some elemental force when he is immersed in creativity and discipline in the practice room, and how composing music allows him to apply himself in that same way, making a ready space for the muse to work through.

As he spoke, I pictured someone whittling with a knife on a piece of wood. That’s what musicians do in the practice room, day after day. There is such deep contentment in this simple act of sitting down to whittle, feeling the tools in your hands, sensing a shape inside the wood that wants to be revealed, and making your hands as lithe and supple as they can be with those tools in order to set that shape free.

You enter a different mental zone when you hone your craft in this way. It’s different from the passion and emotion of musical expression, but it is just as fulfilling.

There is a framework that this kind of discipline and inquiry supplies, like the rituals of religious life, that is comforting and grounding. When life gets shaky, when we realize we don’t have all the answers, when we lose things that were formerly parts of our identity, we can take the knife and the wood into our hands again each day, and we find that the shape we’ve been whittling away to reveal is actually inside our own selves, not inside the wood.

This work of developing our craft turns out to be about making who we are, as much as it is about making a piece of art or music. And it is never finished — there is always more to be learned and revealed.

• Denise Dillenbeck is the Yakima Symphony Orchestra concertmaster. Learn more at

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