Saturday, December 31, 2011

Composing is Like Knitting Socks: You Don't Always Succeed on First Try

I am at a sort of crossroads, and what better time to write about it than the eve of a new year? I have struggled over the last few years to keep two careers going and have succeeded in my teaching and writing, but not so much in my composing and playing. It is hard to do justice to twin passions and harder still when each field--music and writing--is so ripe with different aspects and possibilities. What I mean is that each of these fields already requires us to be multiple things at once. If you are a writer you are probably also an editor and maybe even a writing teacher or coach. If you are a musician you might simultaneously teach an instrument, play an instrument and compose not to mention writing and publishing words about music. Each of these fields by itself has multiple layers. I have taught writing workshops to women eager to record their lives and piano, theory and composition to five and ten and forty year olds eager to express themselves through music. I have written and published profiles, interviews, essays and the occasional book review. But I have not been composing or playing piano with anything remotely resembling seriousness and I want that to change. I have also not even begun to take advantage of the possibilities of this blog and if I have a new year's resolution it's to do better about posting and composing and explore how these two mediums can feed each other.

I spent the day cramming, skimming and underlining in my Blogging for Dummies book and am consequently inspired and a bit daunted. But I know the best way to begin is to just begin, give yourself permission to experiment without self criticism until you have something you can really work with. I am having the same challenge with my composing. It isn't going well. I have been trying to write a piece for flute and piano off and on (very off and on) for two years mainly because I know someone who plays the flute and therefore have at least a chance of having it performed. But I can't decide what I want to say with this piece or how I should say it--what language to use--and that plus being extremely rusty is making it nearly impossible. I have already started and scrapped several pages of music because it sounded too much like a jazz/pop thing when I want to write something "serious." Then I tried a contrived non-tonal scale which sounded quite reassuringly modern. After weeks of playing with it I have decided I don't like this language at all. It sounds like something I'd write to please some composition professor somewhere but it doesn't sing.  I want to be able to sing what my soul is yearning to sing through this music, but I don't yet quite know how to do it. I've never before written something totally and completely just for me.

Of course the real problem is that I shouldn't be worrying at this point about anything other than putting notes on paper daily, regularly, without fail.  I should be playing and experimenting and not worrying at this stage whether my style is unique, whether the flute can really play what I write or any other of my myriad distracting concerns. The thing is to just do it. It's like learning to knit socks. At first you can't imagine how you're going to get all four needles going at once, or how you'll keep the thread from slipping off the double-pointed needle. But after lots of false starts and bad, misshappen efforts it gets easier. My hope is I can learn to compose again, find my voice again--croaked and even ugly though it might be. I don't know why. It doesn't matter one whit whether there's another piece of music in the world when there is already so much beautifully written by other people. But I can't help myself. Something in me compels me to try, so try I must.