The Benefits of Living Abroad
Since lots people are currently deep in the annual back-to-school frenzy, and there is often a lot of advice to young composers flying about the internet, I thought I would throw in another $0.02 with an extra tidbit that I don’t believe has been covered:
One of the very best, most transformative things one can do for oneself and one’s art is to live abroad.
It has long been customary for composers to travel to Europe for study: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Phillip Glass and many others studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris; Janice Giteck worked with Messiaen; now it seems that composers tend towards Amsterdam, and also Berlin. I know that for many people this seems unrealistic, and perhaps a bit scary, but it is an adventure worth taking, whether it is for study or simply a change of scenery.
I’m not talking about a traveling vacation or blowing through the major European cities with a backpack over two months (although these are excellent things to do as well); I’m talking about immersing oneself in a different culture for a substantial chunk of time. Six months allows for getting comfortable with the very basics of living in a new culture, and it is during the second six months when the Really Good Stuff starts to happen, like making real friends (as opposed to acquaintances), learning more of the “insider details” of the culture, and perhaps getting a handle on the language. More time than that is for digging even deeper into the culture—icing on the cake.
Why is all this important? Some of the benefits include:
- Increased self-confidence
- Mental and emotional flexibility—the ability to tolerate ambiguity
- A new perspective on pretty much everything, including the music you make
- An understanding of one’s own cultural values and biases
- Creating a greater diversity of friends and colleagues
- New skills, such as learning a foreign language
At this time of year in 2002 I moved to Barcelona, Spain, where I intended to spend a year. It turned out to be such a good thing that I ended up staying two! I had received a fellowship that allowed me to focus on composing for a while, and although there was not travel associated with the award, I thought that if I wanted to run off to Europe I had better do it then. I had been in contact with a university that agreed to “sponsor” me (i.e. let me play with their toys), and it was a very relaxed affair. The first couple of months were admittedly difficult, but once I got settled, met some nice people and improved my Spanish enough to converse decently, any initial bumps seemed completely worth the effort. Not only did these two years have a profound effect on my music, but I found a community of enthusiastic, open musicians to play it, audiences interested in listening to it, as well as lifelong friends, an ongoing fascination with Catalan culture, a city that feels like home. . .and a stash of really good stories, like the one about riding in a van with gypsies!!