Discovering One’s Own Life
Last week I mentioned that there had been three different answers to the question “Why do you compose?” in my interviews with composers so far. I need, however, to state a caveat (which will also serve as a handy segue): when I first posed this question to most of the composers, usually they would begin talking about the first time they discovered composing before I had them go back and answer the original question. I thought this was a fluke until the fifth or sixth time it happened in a row, after which I had to specify “Why do you compose now?” and mention that I’d follow up with the “discovery” question. I have found it interesting that so many of us equate “why we compose” with “why we started composing,” and hope that once this project is complete we can all have a clearer picture as to how and why composers get started (and obliquely, how to introduce composition to younger students effectively).
Even though the interviews aren’t finished yet (still have a little more than 20 to go), several trends have already shown themselves as far as how these composers got their introduction to creating music. Most started in their teens, some as early as 10 or 12, but most were in high school when they first began pushing dots around on the page. Several just decided they’d start writing (usually after seeing someone else do it), while many others were recognized by others as having ability and were introduced to instructors who would guide their studies and nudge them in one way or the other. This recognition almost always came from their parents or a piano or band teacher who would notice a proclivity for improvisation (many times to the detriment to their assigned works—I can’t tell you how many composers said they started out by making stuff up because they were bored with the music they had to play for lessons). This combination of improvising children/teens who haven’t yet been overcome with the fear of rejection and insightful adults who take the initiative to find a conduit for their creative urges is an important one to be aware of.
I will admit that finding out how each of the composers got started was a question of great personal interest to me, since my own beginnings in composition were so convoluted. I more or less backed into composing through jazz arranging and film scoring, and it took a very long time for me to feel like I had any amount of legitimacy as a composer (and some days I still wonder about that). I had grown up with my own version of the “Mozart Effect”—the fact that I hadn’t already written anything at a young age made me assume that I had already missed the boat. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that anyone can learn how to compose at a basic level, and that fact has had a huge impact on my own teaching; to see the faces of undergraduate music education majors hear their first creations for the first time is a mighty awesome experience.
Back to y’all: how did you get started?