Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Procrastination & Perfectionism: Slaying the Two-Headed Dragon

At first glance, procrastination and perfectionism may seem unrelated, or at least at opposite ends of the spectrum. But I suspect that they’re intricately linked, with each directly feeding the other. At best, procrastination and perfectionism can cause a creator (i.e. composer, writer, or artist) to work in fitful, inconsistent bursts of activity; at worst, they can halt a creator temporarily or permanently. So, how do you slay this two-headed dragon?

First, let me explain how procrastination and perfectionism are related. I’ve had numerous composition students show up for their lessons at Roosevelt University with not much music written. If this happens for one week, there’s nothing yet to worry about, but after two or more weeks, a pattern starts emerging that needs to be addressed. Students cite many reasons for their lack of preparation – an upcoming exam, a term paper to write, extra shifts of work for their out-of-school jobs – all of which are valid. But after a few weeks of this, I start to inquire deeper into what exactly is stopping them from composing. Have they scheduled time into each day for composing? Are they holding to this schedule? Do they make a list of daily/weekly composing goals? Then, I ask if they feel the music has to be perfect, either before they can write it down or as they’re notating their first draft. More often than not, we’ve found the two-headed dragon! Self-doubt and fear of being imperfect leads to procrastination, which in turn contributes to increasing amounts of self-doubt.

To slay the dragon, I suggest a few thoughts for you to ponder:

1. No one is perfect.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, our idiosyncrasies, things we do really well, and things we want to improve. Have you ever met someone who does everything perfectly the first time around and never makes any mistakes, even when they’re learning a new skill? Stop putting unrealistic pressure on yourself.

2. The works we create aren’t perfect either.

How many creators have produced their masterpieces in a single sitting? We have evidence of how many artists have sweated out draft after draft of their works (Ludwig van Beethoven covered manuscript pages with ideas that he then struck out), or even made practice pieces in between projects (Leonardo da Vinci filled up sketchbooks with drawings and observations). So why are we holding ourselves to a much higher level of perfection than the masters could when they were developing their craft? Which leads to…

3. Stop comparing finished pieces to your own works-in-progress!

This sort of comparison doesn’t usually end well, and can really take a toll on your confidence and feelings of self-worth. Instead of poring over every “perfect” aspect of a masterpiece, ask yourself what might the original drafts look like? How many ideas did Beethoven have to brainstorm, toss out, then brainstorm again until he finally arrived at the best idea to fit the needs of the piece? Take this line of questioning one step further and ask yourself - what do the composer’s early pieces sound like? Let’s face it, there are very few Mozarts among us for whom everything is innate. The vast majority of us start from some point of not knowing, and through a long process of trial and error, we hone our skills and craft. I suggest finding early works by composers you admire and study them – you’ll see them grappling with learning the craft and discovering their unique “voice,” just like you.

4. Focus on your craft every day.

For most of us, the only way to improve is by regular and consistent development of our skills. If you compose only every couple of months, your personal development will be disrupted by these infrequent stops and starts. But if you’re used to composing every day, you can regularly hone your skills (you will also have a much easier time getting into “composing mode” if it is a practiced habit). In other words, compose every day so that it is a comfortable, familiar process. Even if you can only schedule 30 minutes per day, do it – don’t let yourself procrastinate! Hold yourself accountable to sticking with your schedule. Use a reward system if you need to; for instance, if you compose every day for a week, you can watch an episode of Game of Thrones, go to a concert, have a beer – whatever works for you.

5. Embrace imperfection in your pursuit of perfection.

This is the most important point of all. Accept the fact that you will not likely be perfect; when you do, you are free to write whatever you want, no matter how imperfect it may be. Once you have a first draft down on paper, you can now start sculpting the material into something stronger and closer to perfect. But without a first draft, there can be no comparison, and no manner for you to assess what makes something strong or weak.

Ultimately, creators need to be confident in their abilities, and not worry what others think of their works. Somewhere along my path to becoming a composer, I stopped caring what others thought my music should be and focused on what I wanted my music to be. For me, this has made all the difference in accepting my imperfections and slaying the two-headed dragon.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Composer Challenges 3.0: Building a Playlist

When I was in college, I spent a good portion of each week in the music library, pouring over scores and listening to recordings. I wanted to study what composers have already experimented with musically, to see what things worked, what things didn’t, and what I can learn from these pieces. Over the years, I’ve maintained this habit for a variety of reasons: to expand my knowledge base, to challenge my own composing process and sonic world, and to prepare for composing a new piece by saturating my brain with music of similar instrumentation or dimensions (this helps me to figure out what kinds of sounds I like and what I don’t, what I might want to experiment with, and so on). In other words, score study gets the creative juices flowing!

So, as another academic year begins, I’ve created Composer Challenges 3.0 for my composition students at Roosevelt University, where I’m serving as artist faculty this year. I’m sharing the challenges here for anyone to try. Ideally, each challenge is to be done in one week (to match an academic semester), but these can be done over any length of time.

This round of challenges is for students to develop a “playlist” of a wide range of works. The goal of this project is to familiarize students with researching works in different genres/idioms, learning a bit about what repertoire has been created within each genre (and by whom), and then studying works (with scores if possible; definitely with audio). These activities will be beneficial not only while the students are in school, but after graduation as well.

As part of the assignment, I have students focus on a 5-7 minute segment of a piece (since some of these will get quite large), doing careful analysis of any music parameters that they find interesting in the excerpt. These music parameters can be anything – melody, harmony, pitch content, counterpoint, orchestration, texture, form, tension/relaxation – basically whatever the student thinks the composer is utilizing in an interesting manner. Students are welcome to study more or all of a piece if they wish, but as lesson time is limited, we will focus our time on a small segment as to not impede too much on the main focus of their lesson (i.e. the pieces they’re composing).

There’s one stipulation in building their playlist: students can choose composers from any century (unless otherwise indicated), but a composer can only be chosen once. This will help diversify their playlist. Here goes:

1. Solo instrument (not piano)
2. Voice with piano
3. Duo or trio (with or without piano)
4. String quartet
5. Woodwind quintet, reed quintet, saxophone quartet, or brass quintet
6. Pierrot ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion)
7. American idiom #1: folk, pop, rap, or rock
8. American idiom #2: jazz, blues, Motown, or R&B
9. A cappella choir
10. Orchestra, post 1920
11. Wind ensemble
12. Opera or musical
13. Anything goes! Choose a piece that somehow relates to what you’re composing now.

Finally, students should choose works that not only bring them much enjoyment, but will also challenge the way they currently perceive music. As composers, we need to get out of our comfort zones every now and then – these are the works that can help our music develop in new and exciting directions.

Enjoy the process of building your playlist!