The Point Is Not To Write Great Music

Jun 04, 2020
It would have been my dad's 85th birthday last week. I inherited my share of traits from him, including, as far as I can tell, a certain desire to get stuff done and keep learning, ideally at the same time. I once asked him why he had changed jobs every eight or ten years instead of working at one place his whole life like some other neighborhood dads. "Well," he said, "after about eight years in a job you've kind of done everything there is to do."

When we went on quarantine schedule in March, one of my first instincts was to try and make a positive out of spending less time at the studio. It seemed pretty straightforward: be more efficient when I'm there, and be more present during my expanded time on the home front. Keen-eyed observers will note that this strategy amounts to taking an already newly-stressful situation and raising the stakes just when it might have been a good idea to consider lowering them instead. But then, to quote my pal Kim Perlak, "that is not the way of our people," and I've got the shelves of old scheme-filled journals in the closet to prove it.

As a teacher, I've had to think a lot about the questions "What should I practice?" and "How should I practice?" I want to know for myself, too, and I've kind of got it down to this. You have to be able to simultaneously hold two things in your head: what you want to be able to do a year from now, and what you're going to get up and do today to make that happen. It's the prospect of being able to ultimately do X that motivates you to sit down and do small, incremental work today – play those exercises, hone those mental reflexes, do that muscle memory work. That bigger goal is the motivation, but if you're too aware of the distance between that goal and your current chops, a single day's practicing can feel silly and futile.

In nearly every harmony and counterpoint lesson I've taken online from composer Allain Mayrand, there's moment where he emphasizes, "The point right now is not to write great music. Develop your skills, your understanding, your control of the materials. Don't try and write great music!" "Yeah yeah," I always think; "Who's gonna know if I do try and make this four-bar assignment as great as I can?" But it totally makes a difference. When I focus on technique, and just try and write those four bars, it's fun, and interesting, and I get it done in twenty or thirty minutes. The moment I start thinking "this would make a cool piece of real music if it was just a little longer" or "this technique could work for that kind of film cue I heard last week," it's over. I sit there for an hour or two, trying, and wind up with something complicated and disappointing, because – guess what? – I don't really have the chops for that yet. That's why I'm doing the exercises.

So I'm thinking of lowering the stakes all around. Filing three months of old papers in one morning? Writing the perfect newsletter before the end of the day? Reorganizing the entire kitchen before leaving for the studio? Nope, nope and nope. The point right now is not to write great music. File for ten minutes, write the first paragraph, help with the next step of the duct-tape, foam and PVC broadsword. Just practice. And then show up and do it again tomorrow.

More soon,