Part 4 of my practice routine to become a better musician involves composition. I usually get a few puzzled looks from saxophone students when I bring this up as it is not always immediately apparent to them what the connection is between playing your instrument and composing. To me, the two disciplines are closely related and working on composition will absolutely help you to become a better player and improviser.
The Stravinsky quote is a good one to illustrate just one of the ways working on composing helps you with your musicianship. We've all had those moments where we've obsessed on a problem, a project, a person, or whatever. You are hyper-focused on getting it done, working it out, solving the equation, but for whatever reason, the answer doesn't come right away. We sleep on it, or step away from the computer, or take a walk to clear our minds and later, we get an idea or an answer to the question that helps to reach the goal. The same is absolutely true in music and composing is the "walk to clear our minds" that will unlock answers to your other musical questions.
Unlike the other steps in my routine, I don't have a prescribed exercise to start composing however, I will break it down into a few different approaches. First and foremost, you must learn other compositions. Another great Stravinsky quote that I use often is "great composers do not imitate, they steal". The only way you steal is if you learn, note for note and chord for chord someone else's composition. Most young improvisers and jazz musicians start by learning what the jazz community call standards. These are songs from the jazz lexicon that many greats have played and recorded over the years. Something like All the Things You Are by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein or I Thought About You by Van Heusen and Mercer. This approach is solid and the results manifest themselves in many ways. By learning these tried and true compositions, students learn melody, which is useful when identifying chord shapes and colors (I.E. the first note of All the Things You Are is the third of an Fmin7 chord), they increase their repertoire, and they begin to understand basic harmonic motion like ii7-V7-I. Students also learn form, or the basic structure of how a song is put together, and they also learn rhythm, by exploring key rhythmic figures within the melody of the composition. Internal time can also be improved by practicing the composition on your horn with a metronome, taking care to play the melody exactly in time and in rhythm.
What I describe above is a very high-level overview of the benefits of learning a song. There are many more, trust me. How you learn it is up to you, but I recommend making sure you have a good recording of a master playing the tune and then sitting down with this recording for a good, long time. This will be your reference guide. The picture I posted with this blog entry is my transcription of Wayne Shorter's tune, Hammerhead (there's a mistake in the transcription -- do you know what it is?) I usually take down the melody first and go back and add the chord changes. Again, how you learn the tune is up to you because I feel that each student must discover his or her own way. Some play along with the recording and memorize the melody and chord changes without ever writing anything down. Some will use sheet music (like the Real Book) as a reference and learn by repetition, playing the song over and over again with a metronome. Word of caution and advice: if you chose to use the Real Book or Jamey Abersold play along books, please double check the melody and chords with an actual recording! Many of the charts in the Real Book are incorrect -- wrong chords and wrong notes abound. I learned this the hard way and you do yourself a huge disservice by skipping the source material. Don't be afraid to use your ears, they will work!
So to recap, learning other's compositions is a fantastic way of improving your musicianship and can often lead to other discoveries. Be patient with this step. If you've never learned a song before, the process can be very time consuming. Picking out chords and melodies is a delicate and often grueling exercise but please believe me that it will pay big dividends later. In future composition posts, I'll go into some detail about how to make the jump from learning tunes to actually composing your own songs, which is another great way to tap into your own creativity and improve your playing and overall musicianship.