Friday, July 29, 2011

Oh, the pain of it all!

Is composition sometimes painful for you?

A former composer-colleague of mine once told me that you have be a masochist to be a composer.  That might be overstating things, but perhaps not... It got me thinking, anyway.

Many things in life are painful, yet we do them anyway.  Perhaps the most extreme example of this is giving birth, which, as I understand it (for alas, I have thus far failed to accomplish this, despite years of trying...), can be profoundly painful.

And yet, despite this, many women knowingly and deliberately give birth, often more than once.

Are they masochists?

I don't think so.  I suspect that the motivation is simple:  Their desire to have children is so strong that they are willing to endure the pain that comes with giving birth, and the further frustrations, stress, and challenges that come with raising children.

I think it is similar with composition.  Sure, you have your good days where you feel you are making progress on the piece, and you like what you have written, but you also have periods where you struggle, perhaps to the point of wanting to give up, and if you struggle a lot with a composition, you might well find yourself wondering why you ever thought it would be a good idea to write music in the first place.  Wouldn't lying on a nice beach in the tropics be preferable?  Or playing video games?

Every composer must discover and own their motivation for writing music, but I suspect for most of us the motivation is similar to the desire to have kids: At the end of an often painful process, you will have in your hands something that came from some mysterious place inside you, about which you can hopefully feel good for the rest of your life.

And, speaking only for myself, there are few experiences in life that can compare to the satisfaction of a completed composition that I like (as opposed to a completed composition that I don't care for very much!), which is why I keep at it.

But still, the pain of it all can be daunting at times.  If you find yourself feeling discouraged, it might be comforting to know that most, and probably all, composers have experienced what you are feeling on a pretty regular basis.  It seems to go with the territory.

I think overcoming discouragement can be particularly challenging during the first few years of composing, since after going through all the labour pains involved in creating a composition, the completed work often does not turn out to be as good as we had hoped.

You almost need to be delusional to persevere beyond these disappointments! Or, if "delusional" is an attribute not held dear to your heart, perhaps "really optimistic" is a better descriptor... The point is, when you begin developing your skills at anything, you tend not to be as good at it as you will become if you persevere doggedly for several years, and it helps if during this early period you can find positive aspects to ensure you are sufficiently motivated to continue.

So, rather than dismissing the results of your compositional efforts ("OMG, my piece sucks!" Or, "how embarrassing!  Won't somebody PLEASE drop an anvil on my head?"), it is useful, even essential, to identify the positives ("I really like the tone colour (or harmony, or texture, etc.) of that section!" Or, "The first thirty bars turned out better than I expected!"), while at the same time recognizing that some aspects of your composition(s) need work.

A positive attitude and a good work ethic may be two of the most essential qualities in becoming a good composer, but, unfortunately, the former can be the greater challenge.  And it is probably something that all composers struggle with.