Big Picture

Holding a Picture Frame

As someone who both creates and teaches for a living, I find myself in a continual and simultaneous state of reflection on the past and projection towards the future. It is, of course, only natural to focus on one or the other at different times in our lives, especially when we reach a major personal or professional crossroads, and to look only in one direction without the other for a prolonged period would most undoubtedly be a mistake. But this bi-directional perspective can also be paralyzing, especially if there are no overarching goals to act as signposts on the road that lays before us, and it is at this point that I have found myself this summer.

Before I began my six-week teaching stint at the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp at the end of June, I had been on a bit of a roller coaster. The end of the school year provided a wild ride of good news (I had been recommended for tenure and promotion at SUNY Fredonia after six years of teaching there) and bad news (I was notified that there was some dissension within my composition studio) and good news (several opportunities to write large-scale works for orchestra, band, and choir over the next two years). Add to that list the fire near my home a few weeks ago, and you can hopefully understand why I would not list this as one of my more serene summers.

The issues I’m facing both with my studio and my composing are in some ways quite similar. Both were unexpected and, while I’ll admit that I was more pleased to hear about my composing opportunities than strife within my studio, both will require a large amount of time, effort, and focused attention to ensure successful outcomes. In the big picture, however, these are things that anyone who teaches or creates has to address from time to time. Obviously the fact that the house next door burnt down is a pretty big deal and my wife and I will be getting used to our new environment over the next few months, but in the grand scheme of things that too falls under the category of a temporary adventure.

The whole tenure thing is a bit different. Setting aside the typical knee-jerk conversations about job security, teacher apathy, and other topics that tend to crop up when tenure is mentioned, what really resonated with me when I received my letter was that I had reached the last “marker” that had been placed before me. From the time we begin to attend school as a child, we have markers or signposts in our lives that we work toward, and those of us who decide to go into higher education have quite a few. When I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a film scoring career, I enjoyed the fact that I didn’t have a “finish line” to work toward–I was young enough that the vast chasm of my future was both challenging and exhilarating. When I decided to go back to grad school a few years later, I could see the next few markers laid out in front of me–master’s degree, DMA, unknown number of teaching gigs, and hopefully tenure at a rewarding institution. I didn’t have a clue how long it would take me to get to the end of that particular path, or even if I’d make it to the end, but at least I was able to parse out and plan what direction I was going in and what projects I could and should take on from year to year.

Fifteen years since I began that long trek by embarking on my grad studies, I find myself back where I was in L.A., with that same vast chasm in front of me. Over the years I have discovered several different topics of interest that I want to continue with, including exploring our community of composers, working with young composers and encouraging educators to understand what composing is, and advocating for new music and living composers in various media. (I thoroughly enjoy writing for NMBx and hope to get back into radio and delve into video or television at some point.) That’s all in addition to improving my composing and teaching careers along the way, but all of these projects spark my interest in a way that I cannot help but pursue. However, without those life “markers” I mentioned earlier, balancing them all into a rich and rewarding big picture will be a challenge.

I’m curious: How do you “stay the course” in your own career and life?

3 thoughts on “Big Picture

  1. Nickitas Demos

    I think a lot of composers – especially in academia – wrestle with this issue. I was tenured back in ’06. (By the way, there is actually one last marker as I found out when I was promoted to full professor back in ’10.) For me, I try to “stay the course” by waking up every morning and making sure I have an answer to one simple question; “Why do I compose?”

    I’ve thought a lot about this lately and have touched upon it off and on in my own blog. So often, we get caught up in “What” and “How” questions that the fundamental premise of our creative life can be obscured. A career in academia only exacerbates the problem. By trying to continually focus on “Why” I want to write music, I find it easier to align my priorities. I get a better sense of when to pay more attention to my students and when to properly devote more time to my personal creative work. At all times, answering the “Why” question puts bureaucratic academic work and petty office politics in perspective.

    By answering the “Why” question, markers such as tenure melt away and are replaced with markers devoted to the progress and development of my students as well as my growth as a creative artist.

    Thanks for another thought provoking article! Best wishes in the upcoming academic year and congratulations on tenure!

    Reply
  2. Mark Winges

    It’s certainly engaging to think about “where have we been? where are we going?”, but is

         a rich and rewarding big picture

    all that important? Maybe my thoughts on that are colored by never having been an academic, so my “markers” have always been less defined. Or rather, defined by what my interests are and how they change from decade to decade.

    Or maybe our true “markers” are those relationships we have with our fellow-artists, especially our performer partners / colleagues. Sometimes also our fellow-artists in other disciplines. Their ideas and enthusiasms can certainly contribute to our own riches and rewards. And maybe that’s most of what we need.

      — Mark Winges

    Reply
  3. David

    This is such a large conversation, and one that is quite personal. It quickly dwindles into a million pointless details, none of which are as important as the music. The only thing I think I’ll add is that the older I get, the more I understand just how important it is to maintain the musical friendships that matter most. It’s quite a challenge just to keep in touch, but it’s really rewarding to write that longer email, or to spend some time on the phone or in person.

    Reply

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