Igniting your Creative Fire

By Merrill Jenson
Meridian Magazine
If you've seen "Testaments" or "Legacy", you've been moved by Merrill Jenson's music. The composer of 27 feature-length scores, several albums and a Book of Mormon oratorio, he is one of the church's preeminent musicians.


I wonder, what are the inner workings of a creative mind? Is the creative person driven by a tightly wound clock? Certainly his mind is always ticking, reacting to stimulating experiences, synthesizing his reactions, sorting them out mysteriously in his mind and then somehow communicating them in a creative manner.

Part One:
Unlock Your Creative Self

I once had dinner with the artist Robert Marshall, an extremely talented painter. When he was young and trying to decide if he should follow art as a career, he said that some of his family members questioned his decision. Knowing that he had faced some opposition, I asked him why he decided to make art his profession. He answered, thoughtfully: "I decided to become a painter when I realized I couldn't NOT be a painter."

What is that force that drives someone to create? What is that extra ingredient that gives a person the power, drive and desire to search for an original thought or visual image or musical sound?

Fresh Air

A few years ago, I took a group of youth snorkeling. The event was located in a large and deep cave filled with water. After the boys became familiar with diving, I left them and swam over to an area where I could dive by myself. On one of my dives I went down quite deep. I became disorientated and could not find the surface. After struggling for what seemed like forever to find the surface and fresh air, I realized that I might drown.

Then, just before I was to give up holding my breath and succumb to my impending fate, I heard a voice declare; "Stop kicking and float." As I stopped struggling, I began to feel myself floating in the direction opposite of where I had been trying to go. Soon, but what seemed an eternity, I broke through the surface and found fresh air. What an exhilarating feeling it was to take that first breath. Fresh air never felt so stimulating.

A Consuming Desire

Composing music is much like that near drowning experience. Much of the experience of composing is fed by that all-consuming desire to create, much like that desire I had for air. At times, that creative desire takes over and controls all other desires.

In a September 1995 Ensign article, Elder Gerald Lund told of an incident in the life of Elder Henry B. Eyring and his family. His father, a world-renowned scientist, encouraged each of his sons to major in physics as preparation for a career in science. Elder Eyring was studying physics at the University of Utah, and one day asked his father for help with a complex mathematical problem.

"My father was at a blackboard we kept in the basement," Elder Eyring recalls. "Suddenly he stopped. 'Hal,' he said, 'we were working this same kind of problem a week ago. You don't seem to understand it any better now than you did then. Haven't you been working on it?'"

When Elder Eyring admitted that he had not, his father said to him, "You don't understand. When you walk down the street, when you're in the shower, when you don't have to be thinking about anything else, isn't this what you think about?"

"When I told him no," Elder Eyring concluded, "my father paused. It was really a very tender and poignant moment, because I knew how much he loved me and how much he wanted me to be a scientist. Then he said, 'Hal, I think you'd better get out of physics. You ought to find something that you love so much that when you don't have to think about anything, that's what you think about.'"

Elder Eyring was deeply impressed by his father's advice. He finished his undergraduate degree in physics, but chose to study business in graduate school. As he pursued his Masters and Doctorate degrees, he realized that it was the teaching of business that he really enjoyed. Before he even completed his dissertation, he was accepted as an assistant professor at Stanford University.


That drive doesn't come without a price: self doubt. I am my own worst critic. As the years have gone by, I believe I have improved and composed better music. But I still struggle with confidence as I start any writing assignment. After the initial joy of receiving a commission, I fall deeply into the cavern of self-doubt, insecurity and sometimes even despair. Can I measure up to the task?, I ask myself. What possibly could I write that would have any interest to anyone or enhance the given project? Have I finally been found out as the fraud I truly must be?

Following this comes a little light, not all at once, but a few rays at a time until the glimmer becomes a beam. I'll plop a note or two on the page. That beam warms my soul and I feel some stimulus of emotion, which grows into a flame. More notes come, perhaps a phrase or two. That flame will glow brightly through the writing process giving me energy and endurance to complete the seemingly impossible task of creating the intended musical work. The whole composition is developed and I can hear it in my mind.

Yes, there are ups and downs. The cycle of great ideas is followed by no ideas at all, repeating itself over and over. This is normal. I know this will happen and I am prepared for it. At the end, I feel I have written something wonderful and satisfying. Next comes the recording.

The Recording

Last December I recorded an album in Prague, Czech Republic, with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The album is entitled High on a Mountain Top featuring arrangements of hymns of the Restoration.

It was a thrill to be in this most beautiful city. During the recording sessions, as I conducted the orchestra, I had a translator interpreting for me. None of the musicians spoke English, but music is a universal language, and it did not take long for the musicians to capture the power of those hymns. The musicians played beautifully. At the end of the day, we all felt we had experienced something unique and beautiful.

By month's end, the album was finished and ready for distribution. Everyone who had heard the recording loved it. Then, in what seems to be an almost guaranteed event, I began having doubts about its quality. I felt the arrangements were not as good as they could be, the performances were lacking and the album would be a failure. I called the producer and suggested that we take it off the market.

Luckily, he didn't listen, and the album is selling very well. I suppose that is what I go through with every project. I often think about changing professions. Going back to the family farm seems to be the best option for the future. Then, I will make a list of the things I can do to make a living and another list of the things I want to do. Music always wins out, and I go back and try writing again.

Kieth Merrill, the director of both Legacy and The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd, for which I had the great privilege of writing music, told me that at the end of many projects he drops into the depth of despair. He knows to expect it, and he deals with it, somehow. However, he says he doesn't mind the lows, because he knows that the highs will come soon and they will be so high.


The huge budgets attached to hiring world-class musicians can cause anxiety and tension. The musicians will come to a recording session without ever seeing or hearing the music before hand. At the session they will be expected to play it perfectly. I, as the conductor, will be expected to conduct and mold the sound of the ensemble so it is pleasing to hear and suitable for the production. All of this needs to be accomplished in one day of recording.

I was recording an album called Beyond, several years ago, with the London National Philharmonic. On that particular day I had six hours to record nine titles. The schedule was tight and we were behind schedule. At 5:00 pm, that day the session would be over, the musicians would leave for an evening concert at Royal Albert Hall.

At twenty minutes to the hour, we started recording the last title called "The Majesty of the Risen Lord." We rehearsed through the first half of the piece until about ten minutes to the hour. The orchestra leader and concertmaster was Sidney Sax. He is a great man and I owe so much of my development and growth to his nurturing and encouragement. He suggested we start recording without rehearsing the entire title and see how it would go. All went well during the recording until about measure 78. The French horns cracked on a note at the top of a beautiful phrase.

We stopped the recording and picked it up again ten measures before the bad note, hoping to edit the two takes together. A few measures after that we began playing music that had never been rehearsed. As fate would have it there was another note played wrong and we had to stop recording. We picked it up again four measures before the mistake and continued on, recording music never rehearsed.

Once again, we found a wrong note and had to stop to fix it. At this point, the clock read 4:59 pm and thirty seconds. The rule of recording is if we can start recording before the hour ends we can continue until we stop again, then the session is over. Hurriedly, we started recording again four measures before the last mistake. My heart was in my throat as we played on. As I conducted, I searched the music for any potential problems that might come up. I saw none. I did my best as the conductor to help the musicians feel the emotion of the performance and help them play with a flawless performance.

As I turned each page, the orchestra played better. They seemed to catch the drama of the moment. It was adventure for them. Each measure seemed to be played with greater energy and more feeling.

Finally, as the last few measures were being played I held my breath, hoping there were no more errors. Then, we came to the last note. It was the most beautiful chord ever played. We had played it perfectly. At the final cut off there was a short pause to let the reverberation of the chord disappear. Then, as if on cue, the members of the orchestra walked off the stage and left the hall. It was over. No mistakes - a perfect performance and time to go, just like we had done that every day.

I love those experiences, recording with an orchestra. It is such an exciting process, someone playing my creation.

Part 2:
The Embryo of the Idea

How Do Ideas Come?

A composer needs to have a fire lit in order to compose. Overcoming the "writer's block" and stimulating creativity is a battle.

Many times the musical idea comes without any nurturing. It may come unexpectedly, like while driving a car, going for a walk or even in light slumber before sleep. That becomes the embryo of the idea. Some make the mistake of thinking that nothing can be any better than that first impression. Most are sadly mistaken if that is the end of their musing. Mozart, in a letter to a cousin describes where his ideas come from.
"When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer - say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep, it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them. Those ideas that please me I retain in memory, and am accustomed, as I have been told, to hum them to myself. If I continue in this way, it soon occurs to me how I may turn this or that morsel to account, so as to make a good dish of it, that is to say, agreeably to the rules of counterpoint, to the peculiarities of the various instruments, etc." A Letter, from Life of Mozart, by Edward Holmes.
This morsel or fragment of a musical idea needs, in most cases, nurturing, development, revisions, time to let them mature and then more revisions. There is a great gap between what is in the composer's head and the ability to communicate it to the listener. This can be a painful process, to say the least.

After the musical thought has grown into its final form, it is left up to the listener to pronounce it a success or not. And there is no guarantee that anyone listening will like the result.

In a creative realm one has the ability and power to absorb, digest and organize external stimuli, reshape them into something novel, and re-communicate them in an art form.

Who has this creative gift? You do not need to compose, paint or write poetry to be creative. Just choosing a gift for a friend, what to wear to a party or what to eat at a restaurant are fundamentally creative acts that all of us do regularly.

Developing Your Creativity

I believe that you cannot be taught creativity. However, you can be taught ways to effectively communicate your creativity. Assuming that you are starting with some talent, imagination, and a love for music, there are basic principles involved in being a good composer and those can be taught. If that creative fire burns brightly enough, the composer in embryo can grow and develop his craft.

When I was taking piano lessons as a young child, my fingers would go to notes that were not on the page. I sort of felt that the harmony wasn't full enough and I would just add a note or two here and there. Out of the hand of my teacher would come the ruler and my fingers would get a rap. "Play the notes on the page", she would demand. As I recall this incident, I am reminded of the following account:

Ludwig Beethoven's father Johann was a small-time musician and teacher in Bonn, Germany who earned little and drank much. Although he was the one who introduced his son to both the piano and the violin, Beethoven senior was harsh in trying to cure young Ludwig's "bad habit" of improvisation.

"What is all that silly nonsense you are scraping?" young Beethoven's father would say. "Scrape from notes, or your scrapings will be of no use to you." Thankfully, Ludwig followed his creative fire.

Finding Your Own Creativity

How do we start the compositional process? Alfred Newman, the Academy Award Winning composer struggled with every new assignment.
"I'm terrified every time I undertake a new film score. I sit and stare at the blank manuscript paper, pondering the unfathomable depth of my dry well. Finally, in pure desperation, before I can run and hide, I reach out and jab a quarter note onto the page. It is not that necessity is the mother of invention, but more like insecurity being the father of action."
Let me tell you a personal story. When I began the writing process for the film Legacy, I stared at a blank page of music for five full days before any concrete ideas came to me. Each day started with enthusiasm and anticipation. After a wastebasket full of unworthy melodies and themes, I went to bed that night dejected.

On the sixth day, my mind swirled with thoughts of self-doubt and the pressure of the deadline staring me in the face. I took time off to play with my infant daughter, Emilia. She was fussing, so I sat with her at the piano and played anything that came to mind. I improvised some lullabies. While in a relaxed and pleasant state of mind, ideas started to flow. One of those simple melodies struck my interest. The musical idea began to develop and take form. Soon I could hear specific sounds, melody and harmony, form and length.

Quickly, I reached for a piece of manuscript paper; I played and wrote, played and wrote. In a few exhilarating minutes, I had it: "Eliza's Theme". Next, I went to my video player and synchronized a scene featuring Eliza with my newly composed musical theme. It fit perfectly. As I quickly wound the video tape to other parts of the film where Eliza's Theme could be used I found it worked well there too. In what seemed but a moment, I had written Eliza's theme. Where it came from, I do not know, except that I thank my Divine Redeemer for sending it my way.

Deadlines are sometimes difficult to achieve. On most occasions during a film project, because of delays in scouting locations, shooting, editing, etc., the music deadline is shortened to accomplish the overall deadline of the film's production. Many times what seemed like a do-able time to write the music is cut in half. On one such film I had three weeks to compose and orchestrate fifty minutes of music. And all this was over the Christmas season. I saw this saying hanging on a wall of a studio. It sums it all up:

The Composer's Creed
We the willing, led by the unknowing,
Are doing the impossible, for the ungrateful.
We have done so much for so long, with so little,
That we can now do anything
With nothing.

A young, budding composer once came to me for advice, asking if he should pursue a career in composition. His demo reel was good and he showed me he had the basic talent necessary to give it a shot.

He confessed that he had always wanted to be a composer. I showed him my process of writing, showed him my studio and equipment and talked about making the decisions of where music should be placed in a film. I talked with him about schooling, practical experiences, self-promotion, getting a project, schedules and deadlines. We talked about the mood which music sets and about various styles of music that are possible in scoring a film. I showed him how to time music to fit the action of the film and other facets of film scoring.

I described the long hours of writing without sleep in order to meet a deadline and told him about overcoming writer's block. Also, I talked about the emotional struggles and how to handle the bleak times when there is no work. I told him about the feeling of self doubt, and warned him not to watch for success, because it is fleeting. I reminded him that he will always be graded on his last project, so always make it the best.

Continuing, I warned him that sometimes the great ideas come at the most inopportune times, perhaps at a restaurant, or during other activities. Some ideas may come in the middle of the night. Are you willing to write while the muse is flowing? Many times you have to give up the pleasures of life that are experienced by the average person. I told him that early in my career I went without vacation many times to finish a project or two. Many times, I explained, a deadline means there will be little or no sleep for days and weeks in order to complete an assignment.

Therefore, to sum it up, I asked if he loved music more than life itself. Was he willing to give up a great deal of recreation and relaxation in order to satisfy the creative side of life? Finally, I declared: "Isn't it wonderful. I just love this work." As he was leaving, I told him I would help him wherever I could. I never saw him or heard of him again.

Part Three:
The True Source of Creativity

This creative resource is God's gift to us. What we do with it is our gift to God.

In Part I of this article I described my experience of nearly drowning. At that moment when I felt total doom, I heard a voice tell me to stop kicking. Slowly I came to the surface and felt the fresh air filling my lungs. The lesson I learned is of great worth to me:

The desire for air was overwhelming, yet in reality, the harder I struggled to find the surface the farther down I swam. When the voice came to me to stop kicking or struggling, it didn't seem consistent with my desire to find fresh air and life. Yet, by following the voice, I did reach the surface, without any effort on my part. I trusted in that voice. Proverbs 3:5,6 echoed in my mind; "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy path."

Why Did It Say "Stop Kicking?"

What is the lesson learned? Comparing the overwhelming desire for air to the fire to compose, it does seem that the harder I work the more successful I will become. That is true, but why did "the voice" say "stop kicking"?

Well, the answer lies in the concept of faith and trust. I am a person with free will, but in order to fulfill the measure of my creation, I am bound to ask, "What do you, Heavenly Father, want me to do with my talent?" The drive to create is certainly there but, for me, I have to respond to the prompting of the spirit and find the direction He wants me to take.

What, then, is the fulfillment of our creation? How do we use this creativity? For each of us it is different. We are each created as unique beings, therefore our creativity is unique. Our path may seem uncertain, but in the Lord's hands we will be directed in the path best suited for our abilities.

Confusing Inspiration with Perfection

We must be careful not to confuse creative inspiration with perfection. Because our creative impulse is inspired, it does not mean that it is perfect. This gift does not give us the right to suggest to others that our creative work is inspired, and therefore perfect.

On one occasion, Kieth Merrill asked me to rewrite a piece of music for the film Three Warriors. I balked at the suggestion, knowing that I had personally prayed for the correct way to score that particular scene. The scene showed a young Indian boy seeking to obtain healing powers by climbing to the top of a mountain and capturing an eagle feather. Because of the spiritual nature of this particular scene, I felt prompted to pray for the right way to write the music.

Upon hearing the recording, Kieth indicated that I had missed the mood of the scene entirely. I had written something through the eyes of the young warrior that was big and bold in nature. Kieth wanted me to write it through the eyes of the eagle, something more soaring and tranquil. I defended my idea with vigor. As a final justification for using the existing music, I even mentioned that I had prayed about it.

Kieth, knowing what mood was best for the scene, emphatically commanded me to stop praying about it, and he told me to get to work and make the changes necessary. Even to this day he teases me about my music and says, "You're not praying about it, are you?"

The lesson was well learned. I wrote another piece of music. It was much better than my first attempt, and the new music certainly enhanced the scene. Of course, I still pray over my music, but I don't use that as a manipulation to justify my creativity. Prayer is a personal and private help.

We must realize that our human frailties and imperfections will almost guarantee that our earthly efforts will have flaws in them. But of course we still must strive for the highest quality possible.

Comparing Ourselves to Others

We must be careful not to compare ourselves to others and their talents. Our only competition should be with ourselves. One of the greatest pit-falls of this creative life is to bury ourselves in self doubt. It is hard enough to compete with ourselves without having to compete with others.

We must strive to increase our own potential. John Williams said it better than I.
"I think each of us gets to the point of coming to peace with ourselves, making what ever contribution we can. I mean, anyone who lives in a world already populated with Mozart and Beethoven has to be happy with whatever they can do and be willing to take their proper place."
Personal Stories

Perhaps I could tell you about two very personal events in the making of the music to the film The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd. At the time I was asked to compose the music I was told that I had been chosen from several other very capable composers. The producers expected the windows of heaven to open and give me inspiration. It was their hope that the music could be the soul and spirit of the production.

My first assignment was to compose a theme depicting the Savior. During that process I wrote theme after theme only to be disappointed each time that it was not the right music. After two weeks and several rejections by me and the producer, Gary Cook, a kind and gentle man, I came to a depressing conclusion. I called Gary and told him he had asked the wrong composer to score this film. He was not fazed. He told me to keep writing and the right music would come.

The next morning I woke up dejected and tired from a sleepless night. I felt my career was over. Sorrow and pain and torment racked my entire soul. I felt I was finished, my talent had left me and I was forsaken and left to my own devices, not God's inspiration. I cried out to the Lord to forgive me. I felt . . . still alone.

Later in the morning. I went from my studio to the piano in the living room of our home and tied to see if there was anything creative left in my soul. Slowly, I began tinkering around with a melody or two, later a phrase here and a chord progression there. Soon I came upon a phrase that seemed pleasant enough to listen to. As I developed it further, slowly and with great desire I fashioned this little melody into a simple hymn I thought suitable for a choir or something simple.

Later in the evening, still fussing with this little hymn my good wife, Betsy, came into the room, listened and asked if this was the Savior's theme to the film Testaments. I replied that this little piece was not worthy of such an important subject. She said it sounded like it to her and encouraged me to give it good consideration.

After she left I wondered, could this in fact be that melody I was looking for, for so many days. The next morning I refined the melody a bit, changed some of the chords. Low and behold something filled my soul with an emotion not felt for a long time. I felt love, joy, charity, hope and trust. I felt my prayers had been answered. I now knew this was the perfect theme for the Savior.

Emergently, I jumped to my feet, reached for the scribbled manuscript that contained the musical sketch. I headed to my studio confident I had found what I had been searching for, the Savior's hymn. But, in that instant I heard in my head, as it were a choir singing "Alleluia, Alleluia."

What was that I wondered, a new hymn, or was it part of the hymn I had just written? How could it fit with what I had just written? The newly completed hymn was in a 4/4 meter. This choir piece was in 3. To make it more complicated I heard the new music in a different key than the hymn I had just finished.

Yet, I knew somehow they both had to fit together. As I sat back down to the piano I looked at what I just written. I quickly realized that the new choir part fit beautifully. The last chord of the original hymn modulated perfectly into the new key and the alleluias.

Trembling with emotion I went into my studio, wound the video of Testaments to the scene where the Savior is greeting the people at the temple Bountiful after his resurrection. To me the most wonderful part of that scene was the close up of a women kissing the hand of the Savior and seeing the prints in his hands.

As I started the video and hummed the newly created hymn together with the video I marveled at how beautiful the visuals and the music worked together. The feeling was as I would have imagined had I been there to witness this miracle for myself. At the moment that the close up came of the women kissing the hand of the Savior, the music had progressed to the part where the choir would sing "Alleluia, alleluia."

I was stunned. Tears welled up in my eyes. My heart felt great love and peace. I could not believe what I had just witnessed. The alleluias which seemed a few minutes before to be an afterthought fit perfectly with the film and that close up. I could not have written it any better if I had tried.

I knew at that moment that I had written it before, in some realm, now to have it fit this beautiful and inspiring scene of the film.

The other event of interest in producing Testaments was the recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for the crucifixion of Christ scene. I had the scripture in Isaiah 53:4 "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows;" translated into Hebrew for the choir to sing. The music would hopefully show a tragic yet hopeful piece depicting the trial and crucifixion of the Savior. The men were depicting the rabbis with hard, penetrating voices. The women were depicting Christ's followers seeing His grief and pain.

The choir was struggling with the performance for some reason. We had projected for them the video so they could see the events unfold and sing with more emotion. This backfired. The choir was so full of emotion that they could not bring their voices to the level necessary to perform the music with the proper delivery.

At last we turned off the video and asked the choir to give it their all one more time. During this performance, as I was conducting, I noticed several of the choir members crying. I thought, how could they cry at this crucial moment. As I thought about the events that were happening, my feelings exploded and tears welled up in my eyes also. My greatest fear now was that I could not read the music and cue the choir in the important parts of the music.

With great restraint and professionalism, we all finished with the final crescendo at the same time and cut off together. It was a marvelous performance. I thought they had sung it perfectly. After what seemed a long time a voice in my head sets announced that the take was good and we were finished.

Afterwards, we hugged and cried together. Many of the choir members apologized to me because of the effects of crying while trying to sing. I assured them the performance was wonderful. I secretly hoped that there were not too many voices that dropped out and we could bring up the over all level of the choir to make it sound bigger than it might have been.

Later the recording engineer came to me an explained why it was such long delay after the recording was finished and the announcement on my headsets that the take was good. He admitted that the recording levels were so much higher he had to make sure the recording was not distorted and unusable.

The engineer said at the end of the recording he had burst into the studio where the choir was to see where the extra people were located that were singing on that particular take. There were no others there.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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