I am in week three of my Masters’ of Fine Arts degree in composition with the University of Birmingham’s distance learning program. I just finished my third Skype lesson with composer Dr. Michael Zev Gordon.
In the course of the past 2.5 weeks, I have studied half a dozen or more works by Chopin, Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Berio – a somewhat varied collection of composers that only promises to grow more eclectic and modern as we move through the program. I also have written three short pieces totaling somewhere between 7 and 8 minutes in length. Even though these works will be revised, and they each are for solo instruments, the productivity is very good when I consider that I am working in new territory, and I usually write at most 30 minutes of music in a year.
So, I was surprised when, in the middle of last week, I experienced some quiet echoes of the self-doubt that had paralyzed me as a composer more than 15 years ago.
At that time, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I was studying composition and musicianship with Marianne Ploger, who now teaches at Vanderbilt University. Not only did we work on musical fluency and composition craft (including focussed studies in counterpoint, analysis, and figured bass realization), Marianne shared with me her unique theories of music perception. I credit her with teaching me the majority of what I find useful to know as a composer.
It was sometime in the middle of the six to seven years I was studying with Marianne that I entered a real composition funk. I was writing works with a fair amount of sophistication in a mostly mid-Romantic style, somewhere between Mendelssohn and Brahms. Under Marianne’s tutelage, I was gaining increasing understanding and experience with the craft of composition, and I was sensing my potential as a composer. But I also was sensing how far I was from being able to write as well as the master composers who filled up my music and CD shelves.
And that is when the self-doubt took hold. My taste in music, which had been honed by years of listening to great classical music, outreached my ability as a composer. This had not mattered when I wasn’t expecting to be a composer, but now that I saw myself as a composer, it was a real issue. All of a sudden, nothing I wrote was good enough when compared to the composers I revered. I threw away anything I wrote, and I completed nothing. Not only did my productivity stop, my learning to compose stopped. I was in a negative feedback loop that moved from disappointment in my abilities to significant depression. I do not remember how long it lasted (6 months? A year?), but I do remember Marianne’s stern words to pull out of it and to start writing again.
And I did pull out of it, but only by consciously adjusting my perspective. Instead of focussing on how far I had to go to attain my goals, I needed to focus on how far I had come as a composer. My daily question became, “What have I learned since yesterday?” As long as I sat down with pencil and paper, or computer and headphones, I could honestly find something that I had learned since the day before. “What have I learned since yesterday?” became an affirmation of growth, and that was what enabled me to keep writing and learning.
This different perspective eventually grew into my philosophy on being an artist: If we stop growing, then we stop being artists. Perhaps growth is the only mark of an artist that truly matters.
I coach my students on the subject of self-doubt and the need to focus on growth. High schoolers are notorious for reaching a stage in composition when all of a sudden nothing is good enough. Less common, but still occasionally, I see the same kind of self-doubt in piano students who want to play music beyond their ability.
Ira Glass from This American Life has a great monologue on this phase in a creative life, where there is a gap between one’s good taste and one’s ability. Ira Glass coaches his audience to expect this gap and to push through it by continuing to write, and to write a lot. To generalize his point, push through the gap by continuing to create, and create a lot. The message from this monologue is important to share with all artists, as is the message that we can push through this phase if we focus on what we have learned each day.
Last week, when I began to experience the once familiar dissatisfaction with the gap between my taste and my ability, I was surprised. I thought I had been through all of this and was beyond being unnerved by this gap. At the same time, I realized that I should have expected this. One of the reasons I chose this particular master’s program was that I wanted to explore unfamiliar territory, and I knew the process would at times be uncomfortable. I knew going in that I was going to be writing pieces that would be very rough and that I had a lot to learn.
So, this past week, as I reflected upon the weaknesses of my most recent pieces, I asked myself, “What have I learned since yesterday?” My list included a few new ideas on harmonic relationships within the octatonic scale, writing effective melodies within a Siguerilla compás, and texture. Perhaps more importantly, by comparing my taste to my ability, I learned more of where lie my weaknesses as a composer in a post-tonal genre.
And from that I can focus my studies a bit more and have new answers for tomorrow’s question, “What have I learned since yesterday?”