By the time I'm done with a piece, the "blank page" of poetry looks something more like this:
It's a little crazy, with notations on a lot of different ideas ranging from the broad to the specific, but it's more of a sketchpad and less of a clear plan. The clear plan comes later.
Starting to become clear: writing the melody
When I first started to write vocal music, almost ten years ago, everything happened all at once: pitches, rhythms, chords, structure, harmony, motives, all in one big jumble. As I've gotten a bit older and gotten a bit more focused, I've come up with a better order of events. As I mentioned above, the first "musical" step in the process is to sit down with the text and improvise, coming up with the general sketches of sounds that I want. I'm thinking a little about overall structure at this point, but far more about the aesthetic, how I want something to sound and feel.
The first concrete music I write is the melody. I'll print out a piece of blank staff paper (once again, I like working with one-sided 8.5x11 paper and small staves, 14 to a page) and start to work at the piano on the melody itself. This is the point where all of those jumbled ideas from the sketch paper become actual thoughts.
An aside to talk about philosophy for a second: I believe that the singer and the pianist are equal partners in a song, each with different but overlapping roles to play in the delivery and amplification of the text. The singer is delivering the words, and the melody (pitch/dynamics/rhythm/contour/everythingelse) gives them a way to express both the meaning and the emotion. The pianist has the job of providing harmonic and rhythmic support to the singer, sure, but they also have to contribute in delivering the emotion, and they are often providing the subtext. Maybe the singer is saying one thing, but the pianist is playing something that feels very different, or that gives the words a new meaning; that's the best kind of song partnership, when one can't do without the other. This is why I love Samuel Barber's song writing so much, because the piano isn't just pretty filler.
So, that said, as I'm writing out the melody I'm also jotting down notes for the accompaniment. For the portions of music that are sung, I'll make notes on the rhythmic content and tessitura (range, high/low-ness) of the accompaniment, leaving actual notes for later. If there's an interlude, I'll either write down that there are 4 measures of interlude, or I'll actually take the time to write them in.
The first thing that happens is the rhythm, more often than not. I tend not to repeat words, or have long melismas, because the music is a vehicle for the text and not the other way around. Music is communication, and you can't communicate with someone if they don't know what you're saying! More often than not, the rhythm follows pretty closely the natural speech rhythms of the text, which means there are often time signature changes throughout the music to accommodate strong syllables lining up with strong beats.
Once the rhythms are written down (sometimes atop the poetry on the sheet of paper, sometimes in my head), then I'll sing and play at the piano to find just the right melody. It's trial and error, and I'll skip around in the text to write bits and pieces at the time, but by the time I'm done I have a singable melody from the start of the piece to the end. This melody is the "complete piece" in its very earliest form; all of the work after this point simply adds on to the structure that is now complete.
One more aside: starting a piece is easy. You have plenty of ideas, there's inspiration, you can write ten measures in a snap and really have a sense of accomplishment. Finishing any part of a piece, be it the melody, piano part, one section, or the whole piece, is hard. Really hard. Because there will be parts you can't figure out, parts you write and think are great only to look back a week later and realize are awful, parts you work on for hours only to throw away, parts that drive you absolutely nuts. I said above that anyone can write music, and it's true; I didn't say it was easy.
Piano time: digitizing the music
The next step is dropping the melody (and any already-written piano music) into Sibelius. For those of you who aren't musicians, Sibelius is one of the two primary pieces of software that folks use to put music into a computer, the other being Finale (which I've never used).
An aside for music nerds: I'm still working with Sibelius 6, hoping against all hope that the folks who left when it was bought by Avid come out with their new engraving software soon! In the meantime, though, it's tried and tested and I've used it so much that it's second nature to me now.
Once the melody is written, I have a framework for tempos, key signatures, time signatures, and sections of the piece that I must have before I put the music into software; otherwise, the software becomes a hindrance in the freedom of the piece, and I'm more inclined to (for example) not change the time signature because it makes more work, even if the music or the text calls for it. Having something written with pencil and paper lets me do that at will, and keeps the software from holding me back.
That said, I love the facility of having software that I know, because it allows me to work quickly and precisely. Once I have the melody finished from beginning to end, I'll start adding the piano part. As with the melody, I'll do bits at a time, not necessarily start to finish, refining and tweaking each measure both as I'm working on it and later on if I think of something that needs to be changed. Even though there's not a whole lot to describe about this part of the process, this is the part that takes the longest amount of actual time.
Oh, and that aside from the previous section, about it being difficult to finish a piece? Yeah, that applies here too, even more strongly.
Performer-ready: dynamics and polishing
Once the piece is in some sort of completed form, with all the notes and rhythms and tempos on the page, I'll print out a copy and go back to the pencil-and-paper editing method. Funnily enough, I wait to put the dynamics on paper until this step, because even though I have the general idea of them in my head I have to look at the piece as a whole to get the arc, the highest and lowest points. Dynamics are so much more flexible (to me) than rhythms and pitches, and even tempos (for which I always give both an expression and metronome marking), and so they come later. Sometimes I'll even wait to write in really really picky things until after the first performance, leaving some areas "blank" if I have conflicting feelings about them and seeing what the performers do.
This is also the first point where I show anyone else what I've done. My teachers in undergrad and grad school saw every step of the process, but now that I'm working on my own (at least until I decide to go back to get my doctorate!) I don't like to open my music up for editing or comment until it's nearly done. That's not to say that I don't consistently have my teachers in my head, making the suggestions they would have made in their lessons. Your teachers never leave, they just become a part of your process.
That said, once I do have it in a nearly-complete form, I'll ask Hailey Darnell (my extremely talented girlfriend, who also happens to be the pianist accompanying Anna on this recital!) to take a look through, check the music for unplayable parts or mistakes, and give her thoughts on it. I ask her to be picky and dig at it, because I want to be able to justify all the choices I've made, and to her credit she's a great editor. It doesn't do any artist any good to have someone tell them how good they are; we are all made better by focused and pointed (but constructive) criticism.
Out of my hands: to the performer
Some of my friends/collaborators might disagree with me slightly on this one, but once the music is written and given to the performers, I try not to get in the way too much. This is especially true when writing songs for piano and voice, because I'm not conducting, I'm not playing or singing (hopefully!), and I'm usually working with people whose musical instincts and intentions I trust, which is very much the case with the three songs I just finished. Hailey and Anna have been rehearsing them hard, and with the exception of a few small tweaks here and there I've tried to let them take ownership and run with them. And they have!
You can hear these songs (and other works by Wolf, Poulenc, and Rossini) at their recital later this month!