When I was working towards my master’s degree, one of my composition teachers loved helping me start new pieces. As I was coming up with ideas for the next project, our lessons would be excitingly animated. He would ask me to question all of my basic assumptions and would direct me towards possibilities that I never could have seen myself. He would encourage me to listen to many previous works and we would discuss these compositions at great length. We would think about the practicality of the instrumentation and develop a plan for premiering the works. With his encouragement, I would learn to joyfully anticipate the journey that lay ahead and would overcome my fear of beginnings in order to produce finished pieces at what was (at least for me) an unprecedented rate.
At some point after the initial sketches, as the new work would begin to move from the ephemeral to the real, he would step away from the process. He was afraid of putting too much of himself into his students’ compositions; therefore, at this point he would loathe to offer advice. Instead he would look through my handwritten pages while thinking to himself, and—if there were no true errors in scoring or clearly wrong-headed deviations from our masterplan—he would remain quiet. Then, he would make a walking motion with his fingers on the lid of the piano while saying, “Well, it looks like you’re crossing the prairie.” Those would be his final words on my music for the week.
At the time, I found this process frustrating. I knew that I had a lot to learn, and I wanted help. I wanted my teacher to pore over every note. I dreamed of debates about the relative merits of eighth-note staccatos vs. sixteenth-note tenutos, and all the other arcana that I was only beginning to understand. Instead, I was forced to discover things on my own, to learn by doing. The music eventually got written and performed. I failed so often that I began to learn how to fail better.
My teacher’s westward migration metaphor worked well because the prairie crossing is something that presents relatively little danger and yet must be accomplished by the settlers and their wagons a single step at a time. The departure and destination towns and cities are interesting and need to be envisioned prior to beginning the journey. The mountain passes and river fords are dangerous and might require the assistance of a skilled guide. The vast prairie must be crossed. Step by step.
Over time, I learned to be patient during this journey, to tread methodically towards the distant horizon. The beauty of the prairie is a subtle beauty. It’s the wind blowing the grasses and the calls of birds. It’s the distant hills and the gurgling stream. It’s a comforting landscape. I’ve come to greatly appreciate the time I spend crossing the prairie, working the initial sketches into the shape of a piece of music. I learned to keep the larger goal in mind and to enjoy these middle stages. And with every new piece, I see my teacher’s fingers walking across the piano lid, and take a little comfort in knowing that I’m not the first person to cross this landscape and that others will surely follow as well.