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.


Margaret C Barrett said...

Hello! I'm a composer in Texas who has been at it for about 10 years. I have a bachelor's and masters in the field, but I still wake up and often wonder what I'm doing and whether it's worth it, or wonder if the fact that I struggle so much while composing means it's really for me, etc.... the pain aspect of the craft has been consuming my mind with doubts for a while. This was a needed read today, and I so appreciate hearing someone say it happens to them too. Thank you for the encouraging post!

Margaret Barrett

Joe said...

I think that, as an aspiring composer, it's good to be reminded of the context of one's feelings. Brahms spent 17 or so years writing his first symphony, so he obviously wasn't happy with the music for a great deal of time! Yet he persevered, because he perceived something of value that could be chiseled and refined. Chopin apparently loathed his own Fantasie Impromptu and wished it burned. Debussy never cared much for Reflection in the Water. I'm no Brahms, Chopin, or Debussy, but it's comforting to know that the greats were often not happy with what they created. It lowers the pressure I place on myself for making something that I love every_single_time. That's just realistically not going to happen.

Elliott Butt said...

I've had the experience of getting myself down due to my "lack of ability" to compose exactly what it is that I want to hear. But no matter how down I get, a little later down the road, perhaps even a few days, I get the urge to try all over again despite my previous insufficiency.

I do believe that this is due to what you said in this blog: that the return, this finished piece of music conceived and written by you, is well worth all of the hardships involved in trying to get there.

Vanessa Carroll said...

Great post, Dr. Ross!

How many times this year have I found myself saying "I'm done with this... I just can't do it" . After talking to other students in the same boat, it seems like a lot of people feel like this at one point or another. I find that a little time away from a piece can help give me some perspective and sometimes, little breakthroughs make it all worth it.

In the end, there's not much better than a completed piece!

Aislinn Dicks said...

I really hadn't made many attempts at composing before this semester, taking your Intro to Composition course. So far I haven't encountered many pains while trying to compose. I think it's perhaps partially due to the fact that my expectations of what I am composing are always low. I always tell myself "well, I've never really done this, and I never thought I'd be able to, so if I can get anything down on paper then great!"

I would say that the greatest frustration I've had so far is hearing something very distinct in my head but not being able to replicate it on paper. Almost every night my dreams have a full musical score to them. I can't even guess the number of times I've tried to recreate that when I wake up in the morning to no avail. This frustrates me a good deal, because I have this sense and recollection of something great that I would love to make a reality.

I think a positive attitude is essential for being a successful composer. With my experience so far, I haven't always loved what I've composed but I've liked it enough. I'm often able to identify at least portions of what I've written that I really like. It's very reassuring now to read this, because it seems inevitable that my frustration level will grow at some point with something I'm writing. I feel like reading this has better prepared me for when that happens. It never hurts to know that you're not the only one who feels the way you do.

Jennifer Hatcher said...

I honestly never thought during this semester that composing could be compared to being as painful as childbirth. But now that I think about it...
Actually, I completely agree with what Aislinn said in the first part of her post. All semester I have been reminding myself that I have never done this before, never thought about doing this before, and never thought I would ever write music. As a result, when I begin to compose and I find little ideas that I like, I tend to stick with it even if it is the first thing that comes into my head, because I have had the mindset that I may never be creative enough to think of another idea that's a bit better.
With all that being said, I have met several frustrations. The most frustrating nights are those where I have planned to work on a project, sat down to do so, and my mind is completely blank. I often asked myself what I was doing in the course if I couldn't come up with a simple line of music within a few minutes. I've tried to get the ball rolling many different ways:
i) listening to a bunch of random music (hoping to get inspired, somehow..)
ii) sitting in silence (maybe my brain will just start wandering and ideas will be born?)
iii) muting my computer and throwing notes into finale, then listening and hoping it sounds decent (failed each time)
iv) making a "game plan" of sorts, and structuring a piece around the initial idea (but I always seemed to change the original idea)
v) complain to anybody who is willing to listen about how bad I am at composing music
vi) waiting until tomorrow (tomorrow will be a better day?)
Ultimately, I have yet to come up with a sure fire way to sit down and start composing. Blank minds are hard to overcome! Then there are the days that I have sat down feeling great, thinking I would get some really good ideas on paper, but alas, nothing amazing happens and I end up being discouraged by the whole idea of writing music.
I particularly liked the point that you made about finding something within the piece that is good, and try to identify any positive aspects instead of focusing on the negative. I will admit I still become rather embarrassed when it comes time to share my music, and I compare myself to other students who I think are much better composers. Maybe if I start finding the positives I will eventually learn to like what I am attempting a little bit more.

Evan Smith said...

You certainly have a way with words (and analogies). Never thought of it that way, but very insightful. I completely agree with your point about excessive optimism. This tends to help me through. Even if I haven't been overly pleased with an assignment, I tend to try and focus on the 5 bars I really liked, or "If I had another couple weeks, that theme really could have developed in a cool way. So I often use the potential of things being great to convince myself its okay if they're not haha!

Chris Morrison said...

This is an excellent post to read, especially after having encountered “composer’s block” this semester. The block was very discouraging and even led to a composition completely restarted several times. After hearing opinions from classmates on this composition I was encouraged by the positive feedback I received. Certainly identifying positive elements can be a great motivational tool for an inexperienced composer.
I also agree with Aislinn’s point about hearing music in your head but having difficulty transcribing it. I often wake up with compositional ideas (maybe not as great as Paul McCartney writing “Yesterday” in his sleep) I am unable to document quickly and accurately before they are forgotten. At least I know my mind is being creative and hopefully with more compositional experience, transcribing my thoughts will become easier!

Luke said...

One of the most effective ways I overcome "The Hill" as I like to think of it is to prepare a game plan, a route around the obstacle of "OMG this piece sucks". It is bound to happen in any piece that I write where there comes a time when I need to stop and do something else, take some time away from the music. I find this particularly the case when writing electronic music, sitting at my desk with headphones on in the dark and a gleaming computer screen filled with blips and blops of music. After hearing a loop for the 500th time, I think it is essential to get away from the music - take a nap, get a coffee, or watch some distracting reality television show. The perseverance and positive attitude it takes to write good music is quite a feat, and as young composers, I think it is a challenge we all face, but eventually, we all overcome it.

Siobhan said...

Interesting post.

I think succeeding in composition is similar to succeeding in many other fields: it will take effort, it won't always be enjoyable, but the end result will generally be worth it. For example, getting a university degree would also be considered masochistic or unpleasant by some, but people knowingly venture into post-secondary education anyway. Sure, there are definitely some moments which are painful (i.e. all-nighters, sight-singing exams, watching yourself conduct, etc.), but these moments are brief and rarely something that a summer vacation cannot fix.

While identifying the positive aspects of compositions is useful for self-motivation and esteem, I think another useful technique could be to reflect on improvements. I've done this with my horn playing. While this could also be considered painful, I think it is extremely uplifting to be able to laugh at a past recording as this usually demonstrates that you've since made advancements. Conversely, it could also be beneficial to listen to a recent recording that you're proud of.

Michelle said...

I think that pain (that is emotional pain, with regard to creation and artistry) can be the best motivator, because from out of it is born a desire to improve and strive for something better than your last attempt. The thoughts you present here echo many of my own sentiments about writing (words, essays, and prose rather than music). I think that being discouraged and having some sense of humility are a couple of the best, most valuable qualities a writer (of music or of words) can have; these attitudes will always leave you striving for something better. I remember talking to a music student once who told me that she thought her compositions were always the best in the class. My reaction wasn't what she expected, which I believe was "oh wow that's so great, I wish I felt that way!" but was rather "that's a very dangerous attitude to have." If you always think your compositions are the best, what room are you leaving yourself for improvement?

Shawn Bennett said...

I think everyone can relate to the frustration and pain of composer's block. It took me all semester to pen something I liked on our Assignment 3 - and even now I want to make more revision. Why must we put ourselves through these deep internal struggles?

Similar to what Aislinn said, but not quite - I often find that I get the greatest ideas in my head at the most inopportune times - in the shower, walking home from schoo... you get the idea. There's just never enough manuscript paper readily available. Its the most painful to me, thinking about what could have been had I remembered that melody I thought of earlier.

Everyone has their own issues, but as you say, the most important thing is to maintain that positive attitude. You're not alone!

Andrew Gale said...

I can certainly relate to this blog post. In this composition course I have taken, I have really learned to be optimistic in many cases when it appeared difficult to do so. Many times before presenting my work in class, I have been unsettled about my work. Most often, I told myself to come to class with what I have completed anyway. At least I will have the opportunity to discuss some possible options with my professor and classmates for further progress on my composition. Being optimistic about my work has helped me through this semester. This is also a better option to choose, rather than showing up to class without anything completed because I didn't like what I had composed. This can certainly apply outside the classroom and to any situation of composing.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

Some days, music flows from my mind as though I'm unwinding it off a spool of thread. Other days, I'm beating my head against the keyboard until it bleeds notes. But for me, it isn't even a question of whether the pain is worthwhile. I compose because I have that creative desire, and I don't think I could turn it off even if I wanted to; it would simply start to gnaw, and longing is far more painful to me than frustration of disappointment. Although not all have been enjoyable, I have never once regretted a session of composition. I have never come away from composing worse off than when I began. There is pleasure in the creative process, in the result (usually!), in the sharing of ideas, in seeing your skills improve at something in which you invest your heart and time. And even when the process is challenging, there is pleasure in the intellectual acrobatics of problem-solving. I think a composer needs to remember that "hard", "frustrating", or even "unenjoyable" are by no means synonyms for "bad"; they're simply a part of anything worthwhile. For me, there's no trade off between frustration and satisfaction in composition; the difficulties along the way only make the result that much better, whether the piece turns out well or is a stepping stone to a greater success down the road.

Peyton Morrissey said...

I find that these kinds of pains are relevant throughout all music making, whether it be writing it or playing it. I once read a quote that said "working hard for something we don't care about is called stress. Working hard for something we do love is called passion". I think this is very applicable in this situation. If we didn't love composing, or truly care about it, then all it would be is meeting another deadline, something else to cross off the list. Hitting a patch of writers block can sometimes make it feel this way. Digging deep for some optimism is vital to the successful overcoming of this pain. I think that if we continue on the path of "why would I write this, it sounds awful"' or "what if I can't actually compose and just thought I could" we will turn into machines who are just cranking out music for the sake of it rather than actually committing to writing pieces we are going to be proud of and be happy with for the rest of our lives, which will come with looking for the positives.

Flutiano said...

"Every composer must discover and own their motivation for writing music"

I really appreciate this sentiment. For myself I think that I need to focus on the aspects of the creative process that I appreciate. If I allow myself to live for the outcomes of my compositions, I will likely give up composition. I do not (yet) create compositions that are comparable in quality to the works that I hear and perform. Also, that is very hard to quantify, it is hard (if not impossible) to track progress in quality of compositions, and sometimes one completed composition will be less satisfying than the one that came before it. Winning awards, getting commissions, and being accepted to prestigious schools are likely highly motivating for some people, but it seems a bit precarious relying on gratification from without for our own internal motivation. Maybe that's me; I have received an award, which was exciting when it happened and gave me a temporary feeling of possibility, but even more often I have received rejections from competitions, and from master's programs, and I do not want these to discourage me from continuing to compose.

For myself, I must find value in the process no matter how hard it can be. I don't want to spend my time looking at scores that I have already written, or listening to the recordings of them. I want keep going, and develop new ideas into new pieces. Some of them will be flops. Some of them will be successful. Maybe eventually I'll be able to make money writing music. However, I can't let that be the most important thing about writing music. I need to experience the ups and downs of generating ideas and weaving them into music. I will likely always have specific goals that I am working towards, like my next composition lesson or putting music in to x number of competitions a year, and these will help motivate me through the sticky patches. However, I also strive to find motivation in the process of weaving musical lines together and manipulating musical ideas into musical compositions.

Jordan Mills said...

I would agree that we have to find our own motivation for writing music. And I add, that anything that seems worth doing sometimes requires a fair bit of endurance. Nothing is easy, and 9/10 chances whatever you have decided to do requires work, dedication, and commitment. I believe composing is much the same as the other areas of music, it requires tedious attention to detail and technique, extensive hours of preparation and practice, and an endurance of impatience, failure, and dissatisfaction. I believe these things come with composing, and with anything that we put our hearts into, or are determined to achieve. Life is not hunky-dorey, bad things/feelings will happen. Moving past a failed composition, or a bad review, is what keeps us moving forward. The key to success is overcoming them, not avoiding them.

Pallas A said...

I like the thought of being delusionally optimistic when beginning to compose. Returning to the comparison between composition and having children, (I would hope that) one does not deem an infant to be a disgrace who will amount to nothing after a few months of existence. Any small achievement of the child is celebrated, and the tantrums/struggles are brushed off by the parents. This is probably not for the sake of the child, who will not remember these milestones when they reach maturity. However, the parent will probably remember the first years of their child's life indefinitely as this period was the foundation of a life-long relationship. Having a positive attitude while composing is essential during these formative years, where discouragement can snuff out any future motivation to compose.

Alison Petten said...

The compositional process, for me, can be very easy and also very difficult in a very short time span. What I struggle most with in composing is being confident that my compositions are good enough to present to other people. I find it very easy to focus on the things that I don't like, even though I know that we are all our own toughest critic. I wish that whenever inspiration hit that I was available to drop everything and compose, but that isn't always an option. I find that usually the time that I set aside to compose just happens to be the times when I am the least inspired! However, as hard as the compositional process may be at times, I think that I do it because when I have a finished product in my hands I am able to appreciate it, and I usually like listening to my own finished compositions.