Good composers are good by virtue of the fact that they work hard; mediocre composers are not as good because they do not work as hard. If a composition is not considered to be very good, it probably indicates more about the composer's laziness than it does about talent or inspiration.Do I believe this? Not exactly... Here is what I do believe (stated in a less-provocative way!):
In order to become a good composer, it is necessary to work very hard at it for an extended period, and one must constantly challenge oneself to improve. Hard work is not the only factor that leads to becoming a good composer, but it is arguably the most essential ingredient; a person with oodles of talent but a poor work ethic will not become a good composer; a person with average talent and a strong work ethic can become a good composer.There is something attractively democratic about this, because it suggests that any musically-skilled person is capable of becoming a good composer if they work hard enough.
If this is true, then the argument could be made that one reason that some composers do not write better music is that they have not put sufficient work into becoming better composers, which is essentially the point that my "provocative statement" attempted to make (but if you state things too reasonably, people tend not to feel provoked into responding!).
Is Bill a lazy composer? If Sarah has invested significantly more hours in compositional training than Bill, and, by virtue of that fact, Sarah is the more skilled composer, this in no way suggests that Bill is lazier than Sarah. However, if Bill wishes to become a better composer but is not interested in committing the time necessary to achieve this improvement, then perhaps Bill can be said to be lazy... or just naive.
But let us stop all this talk of laziness and move on to ask what specific things can one work on in order to become a more skilled composer? Below is a list of some of them; as always, feel free to disagree, agree, or add to the list!
- Write more music (or, the 10,000 hour rule) . Try to write every day, if you can, or try to devote at least a couple of hours a day, four to five days a week, to composition. In order to become better performers, all musicians understand that you need to practice on a regular basis — daily, preferably. Well, the same is true for improvement in any skill, such as writing, sports, surgery, acting, etc., and, of course, composition.
You may have heard of the "10,000 hour rule," a concept mentioned numerous times in "Outliers: The Story of Success" by Malcolm Gladwell, who suggests that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Using this "rule," you would have to practice composition for four hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, for ten years in order to become an expert composer!
Before you throw up your hands in despair (what? You don't have four hours a day for the next ten years to spend on composition???), I will suggest that a lot of the time you have already spent training to be a musician should count in the calculation of the number of hours required to become an expert composer. Your training on an instrument, in aural skills, in music theory, your time spent jamming with friends, your time spent listening actively to music — I would suggest that they all help make you a better composer, so you may be closer to that 10,000 hour goal than you think!
• The basic principle here is practice makes perfect. Or, if not perfect (is there any such thing in art?), then at least better.
• Finding the time on a daily basis for anything beyond what we are currently doing is a challenge.
• Doing something on a daily basis can lead to ruts; it may be necessary to vary one's routine occasionally, and/or to take breaks from the routine.
- Find ways to gain perspective on your music. I wrote about this in my 2009-02-05 blog, "Running into a brick wall" (in which I quoted Richard Bach: "Perspective; use it or lose it"), but the basic idea is that we can easily get so wrapped up in our creations that we lose perspective on them, and the numerous ways to gain perspective include taking a break (and possibly engaging in something else for a while, including exercise), which allows us to return to our work with a refreshed mindset, and asking for honest feedback from others (including performers).
I suspect most composers have had the experience of going to bed feeling quite pleased with the musical idea on which they had been working, only to awaken the next day to discover that they really don't like that idea very much at all! Clearly, when this happens to us, our perspective has changed, but which is right? Is it a great idea, a terrible idea, or somewhere in between? The only way to make a good judgement on the merits of a musical idea is to examine it from different perspectives, and ways of doing this are listed in my above-mentioned blog.
• Getting different perspectives on your work during the composition process will make it more likely that you will be satisfied with the finished product, no matter what your perspective or frame of mind.
• Inviting honest feedback from others can lead to improvements you might otherwise not have considered.
• Feedback from performers can help you to write more idiomatically, and notate your musical ideas more clearly.
• If one is in a highly-stressed or depressed frame of mind, finding ways to alter our perspective can be extremely challenging. Also, this frame of mind can cloud one's judgement to the point where one is unable to make good decisions about the merit of our musical ideas.
• Soliciting honest feedback from others can result in suggestions that do not actually help your music in any way (and they may even make it worse); you have to be able to sort out the good suggestions from the less good ones.
- Develop good musical judgment (i.e., good musical instincts). This relates to the previous point, the basic idea being that while all composers probably experience times when their judgement about their own music is clouded, good composers find ways to work through these periods and end up making decisions that lead to good compositions. Or, put another way, even great composers can have terrible musical ideas (e.g., Late at night: This is GREAT! — Next day: Oof! What was I thinking???), but they somehow manage to sort out the bad ideas from the good ones, which helps lead to good music.
• Good judgement leads to good music.
• It's easy to say, "develop good judgement" (yeah, thanks Yoda!), but how do you do this? And what does this word, "good" mean in this context, anyway? Keep reading to find out...
- Analyze music. It would be good if at least some of this were in a formal sense, involving comprehensive structural analyses of compositions, but it could also occur in a less-structured way, involving active listening to music while taking note of anything at all that interests you, such as the structure, process, colours, orchestration, the way the composer writes for particular instruments, mood, and how it is achieved, etc. What aspects of the music would you like to try in your own compositions?
• Analysis helps us to find out how music works, and the knowledge we have on that subject, the better able we are to create the kind of music we would like to hear.
• Finding time to engage in analysis can be a challenge, but beyond that, the only potential pitfall might be that a person enjoys analysis so much that they become less interested in composing music than they are in analyzing it. As pitfalls go, that's not such a bad one, however...
- Be curious. This is basically an extension or reinforcement of the previous point; when you play music, or hear it, or look at scores, ask yourself questions: What makes this work, or not work? How does it work? What makes audiences respond (positively or negatively) to this music? How do you respond to the music, and what is it about the music that elicits that response? How is a particular sonic colour created? How detailed is the score? What notation conventions are used, and are there any there that you could use, or even be inspired by?
• Perhaps the most famous adage about curiosity, sadly, is that it "killed the cat," but nothing could be farther from the truth, at least for composers (and I'm pretty sure for cats too). The benefits are, I think, self-evident, so rather than pedantically listing them all, I thought I would provide a few quotes on the topic that you might find interesting:
• It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. (Albert Einstein)
• The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards. (Anatole France)
• It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. (Aristotle)
• The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. (Ellen Parr, also attributed to Dorothy Parker)
• Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly. (Arnold Edinborough)
• Seize the moment of excited curiosity on any subject to solve your doubts; for if you let it pass, the desire may never return, and you may remain in ignorance. (William Wirt)
• Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul. (Mark Twain)
• It's easy to fall into ruts where we don't question things very much, so the challenge is to avoid doing so.
• I suppose that the reason the adage about curiosity and the cat came about is that there can be such a thing as too much curiosity (although perhaps it is more a case of too much foolishness), and this may lead a person or beloved house pet (for I am a cat lover) to do nutty things, such as, Hmm... What would happen if I put my finger in that electrical socket? or They say it is not wise to stroll in a leisurely fashion across eight lanes of the Trans-Canada Highway during rush hour close to a major urban center, but is it really true? I am going to find out for myself, thank you very much! But for the most part, curiosity, combined with a dash of common sense, is a good thing.
- Be open. This is related to curiosity, but being open isn't quite the same as being curious. Being willing to try new approaches to writing music, even when you're pretty sure you're not going to like them, is a bit like trying on new clothes that you're pretty sure you won't like; sometimes you will be surprised to discover that you do like them! Ditto for food, which is the basis for "Green Eggs and Ham," by Dr. Seuss, Sam-I-Am.
• Some times, when we try something (food, clothes, a musical technique) that we do not expect to like, we surprise ourselves by discovering that we do like it! If we remain closed to these possibilities, we never make these new and often rewarding discoveries.
• Again, as with the unfortunate cat who met his/her untimely demise, some judgement must be shown. There are many more things to try than there is time in one's lifetime to try them, so at a certain point you have to move forward with the task at hand, which in our case, is composing.
- Be decisive. Being curious and open are great attributes, but when it comes to actually composing your piece, you need to be able to make decisions. Is this idea/section too short, or too long? Does this idea need more development? Should I have an introduction? Should the music have a climax? Something about this is not working; what is it? etc. Clearly, some decisions are better than others, but just as clearly, the inability to make decisions will lead to an inability to complete the composition; sometimes, even a bad decision is better than no decision at all, if it helps complete the the work. Besides, you can always go back later and change it. It's not like being a surgeon or an air traffic controller, where bad decisions can lead to loss of life!
• Being decisive helps the composition process go more smoothly.
• Being decisive doesn't necessarily mean you make good decisions, but even here hard work helps; the more experienced you are as a composer, the more likely you are to make better decisions.
- Have the courage of your convictions. Again related to the previous point: Remember that nothing catastrophic can happen if you try something new as a composer and it proves to be unsuccessful. Schoenberg was reviled and ridiculed by many for coming up with his "Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which are Related Only with One Another," but if he had lost his confidence in the method and decided to scrap it before it was published, or decided against writing any music using this method, it seems unlikely that he would have achieved his position in history as arguably the most influential composer of the twentieth century.
• Having the courage of your convictions can lead to greatness.
• Having the courage of your convictions can also lead to being ostracized, if your convictions are radically out of step with prevailing norms.
• Belief in one's own convictions may actually be a case of hubris, and I'm not sure hubris actually helps make you a better composer...
- Strive to improve. The opposite to a desire to improve is complacency, and complacency is never to be a good thing for an artist.
• Striving to improve generally leads to improvement (another statement of Yoda-like profundity, I know), and while we must reach a point of satisfaction with whatever piece we are working on in order to feel it is finished, in order for it to be good we must constantly seek ways to make it better.
• Constantly striving to improve can become an unhealthy obsession. As mentioned above, you can only finish a composition if you reach a point of relative satisfaction with it, but no art is ever perfect, so you could theoretically spend your entire life trying to perfect a single composition because you know it could always be better. That's a pretty extreme example, but a more common example is one kind of writer's block, where a person recognizes (or at least believes) that their work needs to be better, but experiences creative paralysis when they cannot find a way to make it so.
- Develop your people/networking skills. Composers mostly depend on others to perform and programme their music. Some composers perform their own music, and some composers compose electronic music that is not dependent on performers for its realization, but even in both these cases, composers often depend on others to programme their works. Good people skills can help create performance opportunities for your music, and the more opportunities you have, the more you improve as a composer
• You mean, besides untold wealth? The better your people/networking skills, the easier it is for people who can help your career (performers, music programmers) to think of you when they make decisions about the music they want to programme. I believe that all successful composers are good composers, but not all good composers are successful, where "success" is measured by the number and kinds of commissions, performances, and public exposure a composer has. I suspect that the main reason for this difference is the disparity in people/networking skills among good composers.
• One of the things that attracted me to composition was that you could practice it in private, without anyone knowing what you are up to until you actually finish a piece and get it performed. If you are shy by nature, the privacy and solitary nature of composition may be comforting. It is a challenge for naturally shy people develop better social skills (and yes, I speak from my own experience). However, it is possible, with concerted effort.
But even so, I still hate having to make a "cold call" (telephone someone I don't know); it makes me so profoundly uncomfortable that, for the most part, I avoid it altogether.
E-mail is a bit safer, though. Every now and then I will E-mail someone about the possibility of performing my music, and, while I don't enjoy doing this at all, it pains me considerably less than making phone calls, and it actually leads to positive results at times. Sometimes it doesn't result in a performance, but the person is nice enough to respond with complementary comments about my music, and, since we composers often do not receive very much positive feedback about our music (but this is why having the courage of your convictions is important; you have to believe in what you do, and not rely on others to validate our music for us), occasional encouragement is a good thing.
"Talent" is an interesting and difficult-to-pinpoint concept, and, since this is already very possibly my longest blog entry ever, I will answer that question at greater length in a separate blog entry.
But briefly, I never speculate as to the relative talent levels of my students; I think every student I have had has sufficient talent to become a good composer if they are willing to work at it, hence my emphasis on the value of the work ethic.
Finally, in their comments to the deliberately-provocative concluding statement from my Inspiration, Perspiration, and Perspicacity blog post, Kim and Kate both suggested that the subjectivity of the term "good" in connection to composition makes it problematic to label a composer as lazy.
I agree. There are many compositions that some people consider to be "good" and others don't, and given the inherent subjectivity in the evaluation of artistic quality, it is unfair and harsh to classify composers as "lazy" just because they write music you don't like.
But, that said, it strikes me that the best student composers I have taught — and by "best," I mean those that composed works that I thought best demonstrated the values I stress when I teach (cohesiveness, development, imagination, finding the right balance between the expected and unexpected, and many, many more!), AND whose work seemed most highly regarded by classmates (deduced from comments class members make when critiquing each other's work every week), tend, almost without exception, to be the students who are the least complacent about their compositions. Simply put, some students seem to be more easily satisfied with their music than others, but students who strive the most diligently to improve their music generally succeed in doing so.
So, while I agree that it is a unnecessarily harsh to classify anyone as lazy, I will say that complacency stands in the way of our development as artists (point 9 above).
Also — on the point of subjectivity when it comes to evaluating art — I don't believe the evaluation process for art is completely (or even mostly) subjective. The degree to which there is consensus on what constitutes "greatness" in works of art over many centuries would suggest that there is something objective about it too, although it is culture-specific as well (another interesting topic, but for a different day!).
There is indisputably some subjectivity involved in evaluating art; many knowledgeable people agree that Beethoven wrote numerous masterpieces, but some may feel otherwise. I consider the Beatles to be the greatest pop artists ever (and Rolling Stone agrees with me), but some people can't stand them. Greatness in art, like beauty, is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.
Some have even suggested that The Emperor's New Clothes effect — in which disreputable artistic "authorities" attempt to fleece the public into believing that crap is actually art —is in play. A Google search for "emperor's new clothes in art" generated 4.76 million hits for me.
I don't doubt that this effect exists, and I have had this reaction several times in my life while listening to music or looking at art.
However, it seems to me that the evaluation process for musical art is actually more objective than subjective, at least within cultures; this explains the degree to which there is agreement on the "greatness" of particular artworks. It also may explain why, when students perform their compositions-in-progress for one another in our classes, it is common for several people to pick up on the same thing in critiquing each other's work.