5 Ways Constraint Helped Me Finish the “Pastorale” ‘Ukulele Transcription

In Episode 6 of “Beethoven of the ‘Ukulele” I play the entire exposition of the Pastorale in one go. You can get the tablature for the first pages of the transcription by signing up for my newsletter. What are you waiting for? Sign up here.

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” –Orson Welles

Episode 6. 73 to go!

This quote, and many from others that express the same sentiment, really hit home I was working on my first draft of of the Beethoven 6th Symphony Uke transcription. The essence of this idea is that it’s impossible to create anything unless there are constraints, or limits.

When I decided to create the transcription, I subconsciously put limits on the project. I really believe that these limits served me. Here, in no particular order, are five constraints that immediately come to mind. Maybe these will help you establish some limits in your own creative projects:

1. Use a physical, rather than virtual, method of capture.

Even in the digital age, nothing beats good ol’ pen and paper! By the way, this is today’s (July 9, 2019) transcription of the FIFTH Symphony. Yep, I’m working on that one too!

In this age of word processors, notation software, note-taking apps, voice recorders, video recorders and other means of digital capture, it can be tempting to create an entire project “in the box”, as it were. It’s possible for a piece of work to exist entirely as pixels on a screen, stored as ones and zeros on a hard drive or in something called the “cloud”. For me, this has almost never worked. There’s something immediate and intimate about using a pencil or pen on paper to create a physical manifestation of an idea in the world. I feel that this is the best way for me to capture initial ideas. For the next phases of a project (editing, etc.) a computer maybe works a little bit better.

I used the unlined paper in my hardbound journal. This got my brain into a “flow” state a little more easily. The unlined paper made it feel more like drawing and less like simply writing out ‘Ukulele tablature.

Why a pen instead of a pencil? Using a pen forces me to be more careful about what I write, to think about it before I commit it to paper. A pen is also more permanent. Pencil can be erased. With a pen, the only option for correction is to scribble something out completely and start over. Plus, I like how it looks.

2. One page a day, every day.

One page of the score takes up two and a half lines of ‘Ukulele tablature, for this page, anyway.

I gave myself this constraint right when the project started. I knew that if I thought in terms of the entire symphony, the project would be too overwhelming. However, one page a day was doable and progress became measurable. Using this method, it was also possible to project when the transcription would be completed. Looking at my start date of February 13 and considering that there are 79 pages in the score, it was easy for me to calculate when I would be done.

One thing that also helped this along was to think in terms of results, not of time spent. In other words, I didn’t say “I will spend 45 minutes every day on this project.” I made the outcome measurable in terms of something other than time: A page a day, no matter how much time it takes. Most of the pages took around an hour, but some were transcribed very quickly, in twenty minutes or so, and a few took 2-3 hours, but producing a measurable result every day gave the momentum I needed to keep going.

3. Work on the project at a specific time and place.

I sit on one end of the couch. Coco, my faithful Dachshund, camps out on the other side.

I made it a point to have a the project become part of my daily routine: Start the transcription immediately after waking up, taking the dog out and fxing a cup of coffee. I’m sure if I would have said “I’ll get to it whenever it’s convenient” the project never would have happened. The decision was made to devote time to the project at the same time every single day, no matter what.

As important as deciding the “when” was deciding the “where”. I did not worry about choosing a new location every day to do the work, and I did not try out different spots around the house. Every day I sat on the right-hand side of my living-room couch with my Uke, my journal, a pen, and the score of the symphony.

4. Stick to one system.

While it has its limitations, tablature is a remarkably good system for notating music for ‘Ukulele and other fretted instruments.

For the “Pastorale” transcription, I only used tablature, the graphic system of notation often used when working with fretted string instruments. Since the point of the transcription was to translate what I could of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony onto the ‘Ukulele fingerboard, I reasoned that writing out the notes as well was more work that would not provide me with very much more information.

For those of you who only read tablature, please note that I do find knowledge of standard notation invaluable and necessary. Think about it: If I did not know how to read standard notation and understand where the notes are located on the ‘Ukulele fingerboard, I would never have been able to create the transcription in the first place!

When I finally publish the transcription, it will include the standard notation along with the TAB….

5. Stick to one technique.

When it comes to the ‘Ukulele, I’m all thumbs-at least for this project. 🙂

Those of you who play the Uke know that there are almost an infinite number of ways the strings of the instrument can be plucked, each with its own advantages and each with its own difficulties.

For the past eight months or so, I have been experimenting with limiting myself to only plucking the strings with my thumb, so when I started this transcription, it seemed to make the most sense to stick with that technique. This eliminated the guesswork out of whether one technique would work better than another and forced me to concentrate more on how to arrange the notes on the fingerboard.

Will I stick with thumb-only when I eventually perform it? I don’t know, but for right now limiting myself only to thumb has made the process of creating the transcription much more efficient, as this is one less thing I have to worry about.

Well, there you have it. I hope you can apply some of these tips to whatever creative project you’re working with right now.

all the best to you!


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