Half the Battle vs. Half the Bottle

Last night at around 10 p.m. I felt like I was totally out of steam and was starting to get ready for bed when I thought, “No. You didn’t sit down with this composition at all today—spend at least a few minutes with it before turning in and you’ll feel better.” Well, I more than felt better; a few minutes turned into two hours, and while two hours is generally not a lot of time for me (I tend to compose slowly and it takes me a while to “warm up” when I start each day), it was probably the best two hours I’ve had in…several months? That little bit of time revealed the breakthrough from “I’m pretty sure I know where this is going…?” To “I definitely know where this is going!” So, with a clear picture of what needs to happen next, I got a decent—if slightly shorter—night’s sleep.

The whole idea of “showing up” even when you think you don’t have the ideas, or don’t have the energy, is so important. Because you never know what might happen. Last night I was so tired that I didn’t bother analyzing, critiquing, or second-guessing a single thing—I was simply “doing” without regard to the results, and what do you know? The results were really surprising and are taking the work in a slightly different but far more interesting direction! It’s a lot like exercising, in that the days when you least feel like dealing with it often turn out the best workouts. If you don’t show up, you start to lose your chops—all the muscles, including the composing muscles, start to wither.

In a recent presentation to a university composition seminar, a younger composer asked about the role of discipline in the life of a freelance composer. It’s such a difficult, open-ended question to answer because it is so particular to the individual, yet it is something we all have to deal with. I don’t think that the need for discipline is really any different for a freelance composer than for a composer with a non-composing job or, for that matter, a composer who is a parent. We all have events that we have to schedule our creative existence around, whether they are classes (giving or taking), concerts (presenting or attending), a 9-to-5 job, or childcare. All I know regarding discipline is that you need a lot of it, and that as time passes you need even more of it! The nature of the discipline may change though—what used to be leaving the drinking buddies after one or two beers to go home and compose turns into staying up “late” after a long day of rehearsals, meetings about town, or chores around the house.

A long time ago a composer I was studying with shared that she had not been to a movie theater for over ten years. At the time I found this utterly appalling! After all, seeing movies is part of living! Now I completely understand that mindset. I still like to go to the movies, and drink cocktails with my friends (both at once is really great, not to mention efficient), but not at the expense of showing up to make music.

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