Four Things I’ve Learnt while Writing a Musical 

The Piper’s Mountain (book by Evangelyn Hill) finished just over a month ago! (My work ethic is still recovering hehe.) That project stretched me and pushed me, and the difference between my music before and after is striking. (You can hear for yourself below!) While I’m still growing as a composer and as a writer, I wanted to share some of the lessons I learnt along the way to mark the occasion, (also to note them before I forget and have to relearn) and hopefully help you too 🙂

1. Err on the side of “yes”

“I want to perform this in summer next year,” Evangelyn told me. (To clarify, this was American summer, so June to August, and she was asking me in August.) “Do you think that will be possible?” 

I didn’t know. I didn’t think so. If it was possible, it would be tight. Should I advise an extra year? Maybe just an extra six months? I had no idea. 

But one of my teachers and mentors, George Papanicolou, had taught me that if a client asks for something, it’s my job to say yes, and then figure out how to do it. 

So I said yes. 

*cue backstage freaking out*

But I do think George has a point. I was just over halfway through my degree at the time, and not especially experienced as a composer. I didn’t know how much music I could write in a day, or how long it would take to write and orchestrate a song. I also didn’t know how much work this would be, and how much time I’d have to do it. 

But I really wanted to do it. 

And looking back, I do think that it was the best way to respond to that question. Say yes, then figure out how to do it. 

The tight deadline forced me to start working on the musical straight away, and not put it into a “not urgent” pile of projects that I’d get to when I had time. I broke the project up into manageable tasks and set deadlines for those tasks. I only hit one of those deadlines before the whole schedule needed revising, but it got me started and working consistently on it. If I’d bartered extra time, I would have been more complacent about starting and continuing. 

In addition, that yes helps me answer the question more intelligently in the future. Now, if someone commissions some music from me, I have an idea of how to do it, how long it will take, and how I’ll feel afterwards. 

Now I know when to say no, and how to say no, and when to say “I need to finish this first.”
If a client asks if something is possible, and your gut instinct is “I think so? Maybe? But I don’t know how to do it…” I encourage you to act confident, and say yes. 🙂 

I know you’re scared. And yes, you might have to say “I’ve tried everything I could think of, and it’s still not working.” But you don’t know that you will. Push yourself. 

Err on the side of yes. 

2. Deadlines are amazing! 

Yeah, they really work wonders, and I’ve written on that before. (Remember what I said about relearning things? XD) As I said, the close deadline meant I had to get to work right away. 

I didn’t work entirely consistently on TPM. I wrote all the songs, then started orchestrating a few and sent them to Evangelyn for feedback. It all dropped off a bit as the uni semester started up, and I got stuck on songs. 

We had to make mini-deadlines to keep the process moving forward: 

  1. Demos of all the songs. Deadline: the day of the final read-through of the script. That forced me to finalise tunes for some of the songs (a job I’d been procrastinating). 
  2. Orchestrations of all the songs. Deadline: the start of August. That forced me to really dig deep and plough through those songs, to hit my two or three songs a week quotia. 

I had to not only work quickly, but efficiently. Instead of staring at my screen for ages, I had to come up with a formula that worked as a natural flow of parts tow rite. I used that formula in nearly all the songs, and I shared it in this reel. 

I’m still amazed that I hit those deadlines, and it’s made me lazy now. I have an assignment coming up that I haven’t started yet because I keep thinking, “I orchestrated a six minute song in a day; I can write a minute and a half of music in a week!” (I don’t see that theory ending well but anyway, let’s see what happens…) 

I really recommend making deadlines for yourself. They’ll push you to not only work hard, but to work efficiently. Plus, they give a date for you to reward yourself for your hard work! 

3. People do care and will invest! 

I put a lot into this musical, and it wasn’t even all in the music. I was posting about the musical on social media, organising merchandise and designing logos and graphics. I was just so excited that when I had an idea, I wanted to see it through, to see it eventuate. 

And all the way through, I was encouraged by my own excitement.

Because it wasn’t my musical. 

Evangelyn had come up with the idea. She’d written the book before I’d come along and put in some songs. 

It struck me over and over again that I was so excited and invested in a project that wasn’t my brainchild. 

That realisation overturned a myth I’d had about my own work. I’d always been surprised when I asked people to collaborate on something, and they seemed to really care about it. I’d approach it as a deal: I’ll do this for you, if you’ll do this for me. Because otherwise, they won’t care about my work.

But I was proving myself wrong. If I could care for Evangelyn’s project so much, why wouldn’t other people care for my projects? What made me think my career would involve organising people who are only interested in my product because it might make them money?

The level of excitement I feel about this musical encourages me that other people may one day feel the same way about my work. I hope that it encourages you too! 

4. A new time management technique: The PomodOreo technique 

This is a little silly, but it got me through the end and so I want to share it 😛

The official Pomodoro Technique is a system of time management that I’ve used on and off for a while. You work for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. Then you work for 25 more minutes, then take another 5 minutes off. Repeat the cycle until you’re finished! 

This technique helps me on those lazy days when it’s so hard or overwhelming to just get started. I can’t finish this assignment… but I can work on it for 25 minutes. That motivates me to keep working on it until I’ve gotten a lot done. My only problem with the Pomodoro technique is that I work for 25 minutes, then take a 15 minute break, then work for 25 minutes, then take a 30 minute break.

That’s where the PomodOreo technique comes in. 

I love oreos. It’s honestly unfair that they’re so cheap. I can’t walk past them in the supermarket, and because they’re like $2 a packet, I can’t even talk myself out of buying them. 

But now I don’t have to! 

The PomodOreo technique requires your timer and a packet of oreos. You work for 25 minutes, then you get to eat one oreo and have a five minute break. For every 25 minutes you work, you get an oreo. 

This is kind of embarrassing to admit to but this technique motivated me through the last few weeks of the musical, when I was tired and a little sick of hearing the same songs on repeat, and feeling creatively drained. I work for 25 minutes, eat my oreo (*chef’s kiss*) and go, that was just so d e l i c i o u s … I want another one! I’ll go work for another 25 minutes and then I can have ANOTHER OREO!

If you’re feeling stressed and tired, or at the end of a long project, I offer to you: the PomodOreo technique. Let me know how it goes for you XD. 

Lastly, I promised snippets of compositions from before and after I orchestrated the songs for the musical. Here are two pieces I wrote (neither related to the musical) to show the difference! Both are entirely MIDI-based, and I used sections that are mainly orchestral.

God of All Thunder (2021)

Dandelion (2022)


So tell me, wonderful creators, what’s something you’ve learned recently from your work? How have you seen your work improve? 

Published by Debbie Coll

I'm a storyteller, songwriter and author who loves God, fairy tales and music. I write about tales, creative tips and process on my blog, debbiecoll.com.

5 thoughts on “Four Things I’ve Learnt while Writing a Musical 

  1. This was really inspiring! I need reminded of the deadline thing… if I care and have a deadline, it gets done. And I need to use that more. Have you seen Abbie Emmon’s immersive writing sessions? They use the pomodoro method and I LOVE THEM. I use them constantly.

    Liked by 1 person

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