Composer Christine Donkin on Inspiration & Creative Process

Christine Donkin composes award-winning, critically acclaimed music that appeals to a broad range of listeners and performers. Described as “stunning” (, “highly imaginative” (American Record Guide), and having “enormous impact” (The Washington Post), her work is promoted by several publishers and is performed all over the North American continent and beyond.

Christine Donkin

Christine Donkin


Christine composes music for musicians of all kinds. High calibre concerts at such venues as Carnegie Hall and the Moscow Conservatory are interspersed among frequent performances featuring young soloists, community orchestras, and church choirs. The Toronto Symphony, Symphony New Brunswick, Symphony Nova Scotia, Thirteen Strings, Elektra Women’s Choir, DaCapo Chamber Choir, and the Canadian Guitar Quartet are just a few of the ensembles that have performed her music in Canada.

Christine is frequently called upon to work with music students and teachers as a guest speaker, clinician, and adjudicator.

This summer, guest composer Christine Donkin joins the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s 2018 Summer Academy Theory program for an unforgettable and once in a lifetime Composition Club for all groups of all ages, and shared with us some insights on where she finds her inspiration and how composing is more than just writing music.

VCM: Where do you draw your creative inspiration from? Relatedly, how do you move through those times where the ideas just aren’t flowing?

CD: I’m fascinated by inspiration – it’s vital to the work that I do, and yet as far as I know, nobody has really been able to understand or harness it. For that reason, I can’t really pinpoint a source for my creative inspiration, but I do know that an ingredient in the process involves unexpected experiences – anything that jolts me out of my daily routine or thought patterns.

As for dealing with times when ideas aren’t flowing, I would say that, at least at this point in my life, the problem isn’t that ideas don’t flow; it’s that the energy needed to turn those ideas into musical creations isn’t always there when I need it. It’s unusual for an idea to drop into my life fully formed and ready to go – ideas almost always need refining. As for how to push through this difficulty: as plebeian as it may sound, there’s nothing like an impending deadline to keep things moving. Somehow, the work always gets done.

VCM: What, or who influences your music right now?

CD: I make a point of listening to a wide variety of music, especially when I’m just starting a new composition (as I am now). I need to make sure that I’m not following too closely in the footsteps of any particular composer, and that I’m not relying too heavily on ideas that I’ve used in the past, since each new piece needs its own identity. Right now I’m working on a choral commission, so I’m listening to quite a lot of recently composed works for advanced choirs, as well as some orchestral and chamber music, since there’s a chance that, for example, an orchestral technique or tone colour will spark a choral idea.

VCM: How would you describe yourself as a composer?

CD: I’m a creative person who was born into a musical family. For better or worse, the process of creating music has always held more interest for me than the final product, and this might be why it would be difficult to find any common thread, or unifying element, across all of my works. I’m becoming more and more interested in collaborative projects, particularly cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural ones that challenge me to explore new ways of thinking. While I’m certainly not a writer, I have a fascination for words – their origins, their meanings, their sound combinations, and their rhythmic patterns – which may be why I often compose vocal and choral music.

VCM: Female composers can often be underrepresented in music history – how do you see things changing in the music industry today?

CD: Years ago I read a biography of Felix Mendelssohn and which included excerpts of Fanny Mendelssohn’s childhood compositions alongside those of her more famous brother. Those little pieces showed such great promise, and I reflected on how sad it was that the fate of this very talented, creative person was predetermined by her gender – and she was one of many.  As for the current situation, I really don’t know much about what’s going on beyond my own experiences, and of course there are always obstacles to overcome, but I think I’ve always been given a fair chance. I am extremely happy to be alive here and now, when there are composers of all kinds that I think of as friends and role models both for my generation and for younger generations.

VCM: What advice would you have for anybody interested in composing music as a career?

CD: Keep an open mind, and be ready for anything. The first point just involves remembering that your next flash of inspiration could come from absolutely anywhere. In order to work toward the second point, I recommend spending some time understanding your own creative process so that you can learn to work under pressure. One of the things I love about this career is that I never know what’s around the next corner – in any given week I might be adjudicating; giving a presentation; attending rehearsals and performances of a new work; editing proofs of scores that are being prepared for publication; or staying up all night scrambling to put together a grant application for a new project. In the midst of all this, it’s sometimes difficult to find the time to focus on actual composing, so I have had to analyze and develop my work habits in a way that allows me to compose music as efficiently as possible without churning out work that lacks creativity. Incidentally, this process of self-analysis has had a significant impact on my approach to teaching composition.

VCM: This summer, you’ll be teaching a new and exciting Composition Club for student groups of all ages as part of our VCM Summer Academy – Theory Program.  What can students expect to gain from these classes, and what are you most looking forward to teaching?

CD: The Composition Clubs are designed to help students understand what it is like to be a professional composer – it’s much more than just writing music. When I was young and tried to imagine what it would be like to be a composer, I had a picture in my mind of a solitary, stern-looking individual burning the midnight oil in a messy studio, passionately and prolifically churning out symphonies to be performed by excellent orchestras for cheering crowds. What I didn’t realize is how much social involvement there is in this line of work, and what a joy it is to work with other artists to create new musical experiences. The Clubs will give students an introduction to many aspects of the process. We’ll be working on managing the “inner critic” to allow for open-minded listening and creative problem solving; we’ll be building teamwork skills, with a focus on positive and constructive communication to encourage spontaneous exchange of ideas; and of course we’ll be completing projects (group compositions and, for the Intermediate and Senior Clubs, individual compositions and research projects that will benefit the group as a whole).

Any interested music students are encouraged to join. I’ll be teaching the Junior Composition Club in combination with Sound Advice so that students can build important skills in theory, ear training, and composition together. The Intermediate and Senior Clubs both have theory prerequisites, since so much of the creative work that composers do every day would be impossible without a solid understanding of theoretical concepts. I predict that some participants will already be composing their own music and will want to work on individual compositions as well as on the group projects, while others will be new to composing and will mostly just be curious about the experience of being a professional composer. I would be delighted to work with both of these types of students.

VCM: What projects do you have coming up that you’re excited for?

CD: At the moment I’m working on a commission for the DaCapo Chamber Choir (a JUNO-winning ensemble based in Waterloo ON). DaCapo has commissioned a twenty-minute work for choir and cello in celebration of its twentieth anniversary. The theme for the next three years of DaCapo’s programming centres on “the refugee experience” which is certainly a topic that has relevance in light of recent and current events. To complete this commission, I have further commissioned three Canadian poets, all of whom have a personal connection to the issue: one is herself a refugee, one is the offspring of refugees, and one is the descendant of refugees. By now, the poets have all sent me their contributions – five poems in total, each of which represents a snapshot of the effects of the refugee experience from a different perspective – and I’ve just started setting the poems to music.

Click here to register online for Composition Club.

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