Tuesday, September 11, 2012

When your reach exceeds your grasp

Have you ever heard it said that someone's reach exceeded their grasp?  It is a metaphor referring to a desire for something that is, currently at least, unattainable.  You reach for something, but are unable to grasp it.

I have heard this said in a disparaging way, as if it is foolish to aspire to goals beyond one's current limitations, or, put another way, as if one should not aspire to rise above one's station in life.  According to an article in The Telegraph (U.K.; 2004), Britain's Prince Charles apparently claimed that "the modern education system went against natural selection and wrongly encouraged people to think they could rise 'above their station.'"

Maintaining the status quo is a pretty sweet deal for those who sit comfortably atop the class hierarchy, but it's not a particularly good deal for everyone else.  It also goes against democratic or meritocratic ideals that many societies (including Britain's) espouse, so, no offence to the prince, but I would suggest that aspiring to rise above one's current station in life is natural, and should be encouraged.

Another Englishman, the poet and playwright Robert Browning (1812-1889) perhaps felt similarly when he wrote, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp” (line 97, Andrea del Sarto; 1855) in a remarkably long-winded dramatic monologue about a Florentine renaissance artist whose technique was said to be flawless, but who, according to Vasari,  "lacked ambition and that divine fire of inspiration which animated the works of his more famous contemporaries, like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael." (Wikipedia)

Self-portrait of Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) 
His grasp apparently exceeded his reach; this may be why you have not heard of him.

David, by Michelangelo (1475-1564)
Sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer; 
Michelangelo's reach and grasp were huge. Like David's hands.

So, to summarize, Andrea del Sarto was a gifted painter with flawless technique, at least according to Vasari (and to be fair, not everyone agrees with his assessment), but history has not accorded him the exalted status of his renaissance contemporaries such as Michelangelo, perhaps because del Sarto lacked the desire to grasp the unattainable, whereas Michelangelo, like all great artists, had this desire in spades, as well as the technique to make it attainable.

Which brings us to composition.

If you have spent years learning to sing or play an instrument, you probably have a pretty good sense of what great music sounds like.  You may also have an opinion of what bad music sounds like; the ability to make these kinds of judgement calls is something we all have, and it is called discernment.  Not everyone agrees with our opinions regarding the relative merits of different artistic creations, but the point is that we make these judgements frequently.

One of the potential frustrations for university-age composition students is that, at the beginning of our composition studies, there is often a significant gap between the quality of the music we perform and study, and the quality of the music we write.  This is to be expected, of course — the music we perform and study is often written by some of the greatest composers that ever lived, whereas music students are often relative novices and just learning the craft of composition — but it can be frustrating nonetheless.

I will call this the Skill-Taste Disparity.  We have developed a sense of artistic taste that allows us to recognize great music when we encounter it, but our compositional skills are not yet sufficiently developed to allow us to create great music.

One solution would be to lower your expectations; if you don't expect to write high-quality music, then you probably won't be disappointed if your compositions are mediocre!

However, I don't suggest you do that…

Instead, I will reference Ralph Waldo Emerson — "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm" — and suggest that you approach all your compositional work with enthusiasm and intelligence, but understand that it takes time and dedication to eliminate any disparity that may exist between your musical taste and compositional skills.

Lowering your expectations may reduce your frustration levels, but I suggest that reaching beyond your current grasp is essential in order to become an excellent composer, and I encourage any aspiring composer to do this with enthusiasm!

Sure, there is a cost to this — I have done many things in life with tremendous enthusiasm, only to be figuratively have the wind taken out of my sails (or, to use a more visceral metaphor, to be kicked in the head by a mule with remarkably-powerful hind quarters) on numerous painful and doubt-ridden occasions (before the premiere: "This is going to be GREAT!!!" After the premiere: "OUCH! That SUCKED!!! Why did I ever think I could be a competent composer?) — but I don't know how to approach it any differently.

And I truly believe that if you stick with it, you will write very good, perhaps even great, music.


Vanessa Carroll said...

Great post!
I hope that you're right... I sometimes feel like even though I'm trying and trying, my pieces just aren't getting any better. Your Skill-Taste Disparity idea makes sense! I think that's what makes it hard for people to pick up some staff paper and start writing... when you're used to hearing 'the greats' you're set against a pretty high bar!

Timothy Brennan said...

I really enjoyed reading this post Dr. Ross! I think you're right in saying that as composers we should strive for greatness and constantly try to achieve better results with each piece that we write! I also feel that your metaphor of how the "grasp" sometimes exceeds the "reach" is an important concept to keep in mind. To keep progessing and developing as a composer, I think we need to, using Vanessa's metaphor, consistently set the bar higher for ourselves and try to push the boundaries of what we know we are capable of doing!

Evan Smith said...

What a motivational blog. So great to hear. As soon as I sit here, sniffing with my intensely flu-encumbered nose, I am inspired.

Because it's music (and we think we know music so well by now), we think our compositions should be great. But the thing is, we don't expect to pick up a new instrument and play it great just because we know music.

Your post reminded me of a quote I love and have on my fridge which can apply to a composition with much of a stretch; "Everything will be alright in the end. If it is not alright, it is not yet the end."

Jennifer Hatcher said...

I won't lie, throughout this semester I haven't had many high expectations for myself when it comes to the assignments we've been doing. I keep reminding myself that I've never done this before, so nothing great will probably come from any of my ideas. Now that I look back, I probably should have aimed for higher-quality music (even if I failed to meet these goals). This post was very motivational (it's just unfortunate that I read it with only one assignment left to finish!).

Chris Morrison said...

Excellent insight and encouragement for a newly beginning composer.

If we do not challenge ourselves how will we improve? Lowering expectations can leave one stuck in a rut. It is important to understand the expertise and experience of the composers whose music we perform to deter discouragement. Setting higher goals provides something to strive for. Even if we are not successful, tools can be developed to increase chances of success next time around. And who knows? You may surprise yourself. As cliché as it is, the phrase “you never know until you try” reflects the experimentation incurred by a new composer to develop their style.

Luke said...

"Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm" I felt this quote really rang with me, I've tried composing at 2 am with a pot of coffee coursing through my veins, half asleep, and nothing productive came from it. I find the most productive time that I compose is over the weekend, when I can't be bothered with all the hustle and bustle of the week. With a clear mind, I find it much more satisfying to write music.

I read a quote by Ira Glass and it reads, “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

I read this passage frequently to remind myself that even though the music I am composing most of the time doesn't sound like those who I aspire to sound like, eventually, with more experimentation and progress my music with develop a personal style and flair.

Michelle said...

This is an interesting entry, and is something that I have grappled with throughout my music school career. As I believe I have said in class (as I am a great proponent of self-deprecation), I am a decidedly mediocre pianist. Before music school, I had no real barometer to measure myself against. However, since hearing performances by some of the amazing pianists at this school, I have come to terms with my mediocrity, though I try to use it as motivation more so than as a crutch. As I attempt to reach beyond my grasp with my playing (i.e. choosing repertoire that is just slightly too difficult to my abilities), so too do I attempt to strive beyond my current compositional capabilities; I often find myself at a point where I know what I want to convey next but I don't know how to achieve it.

Shawn Bennett said...

Just to add to what is an already tremendously uplifting post Dr. Ross, I think it is also important that perhaps as student composers we should also take note of something that we do particularly well and hold on to it! It may sometimes that we are writing a lot of crap, and that we are not "good" composers. Well of course we're not. Yet. We need to remind ourselves that, and to quote Einstein:

"Everybody is a genius. But if we judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing to be stupid."

Take pride in what we do well. Be enthousiastic. Never forget that we've got a long road ahead of us!

Katie Predham said...

As composers it is really important to keep challenging ourselves, in any field, really. In music especially, whether it is in composing, or learning your own instrument, it is important to continually keep challenging ourselves, we would never know what we are capable of unless we do this.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I can definitely understand this. It isn't like with drawing or even playing an instrument, where you know that a lot of what holds you back is physical technique. Composition is from the mind, so it feels like it should just come out naturally. Of course, that isn't the case. My fear is that I'm going to squander good ideas on compositions that ultimately end up being subpar early in my career. I know that good ideas aren't strictly a finite resource, but I still want to do the best possible with every idea I have, and I know that can't be. Nevertheless, I know that the solution is not to shy away and write less, but to write more and improve. I hope to keep this post in mind when I am inevitably disappointed by some of my work, and hope to remember it when I am at last able to match my skill to my taste!

Josh Chancey said...

This was a very interesting post! I believe that in order for us to grow as composers, and as people in any way, we must continually strive to reach beyond our grasps. You cannot grow if you are not challenged, and even though everything you write may not be metaphorical gold, it has value. It may be valuable because it is your best work, or it may be valuable because it demonstrates what you wish to not do anymore, or a direction you wish to avoid in the future. Even if I am disappointed with how many of my pieces turn out, I recognize that I must strive to do better, and that each composition, (disappointing or otherwise) is a building block to success.

Robert Humber said...

I agree completely with this post. I personally look at the music I wrote 1 or 2 years ago and already see much less 'gray area' between what I want to write and what I do write. When we spend all of our time listening to the best examples of music ever written, it is quite easy to think our own music is utter garbage. However we are improving with composition we write and I am seeing some of my classmates creating works that are better and better.

I still definitely have a large 'gray area' in my music which is lost in translation between my brain and the paper, and my music does not possess the 'it factor' that most of the best music possesses in which the music flows so naturally that it almost sounds like it wrote itself. However, it IS getting there and I look at last year's music and see a big improvement, and I can only hope I will see the same improvement next year!

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

Like every other art form it takes a lot of practice to master it. This also goes for experiencing any “low points” or frustrating periods during the journey of becoming one of the greats. “Exceeding your grasp” to me implies that it can’t be that easy. All great composers must have gone through difficult moments and must have spent hours of practice to refine these masterpieces. Being an undergrad is just the beginning and I hope that with practice I’ll eventually match up to one of the great masters. Great inspiring post!