A friend of mine who works mainly in commercial photography recently created an iPhone app designed to maximize the mobile device’s potential for taking, editing, and sharing photos. And while he’s accustomed to working with ridiculously expensive equipment for his own commercial projects, the idea behind his app—and likewise, his advice to curious or aspiring photographers—is that the best camera is the one you have with you.
I routinely receive emails (often from younger or beginning composers) asking me what equipment I use for such-and-such, and while some pieces of equipment are more necessary than others I always write back trying to find out what that composer has available, now. Waiting until we have the “right” equipment to start can be a form of procrastination and a missed opportunity to discover our own resourcefulness.
Not having lots of fancy equipment can feel like a nearly insurmountable hurdle to many creative pursuits, from getting into photography to starting a rock band or setting up a home studio. It’s easy to feel held back by a lack of funding and experience, which is a self-stoking cycle since working (and creating work) is exactly what’s most needed to remedy the situation. So I’ve become a big fan of my photographer friend’s freeing and encouraging recommendation to get started creating something. It’s an idea I’ve tried to pass on to my own students, who many times need nothing so much as another voice reassuring their own to “Just go for it,” whatever “it” may be; in this case, “it” is something we have a drive to do but have yet committed to out of fear or perceived distance from our reach.
Sometimes, the finest selection of fancy equipment in the world just gets in the way, forcing us to dance the equipment’s tune even as we reap the supposed benefits of the device; I’ve felt this way about music notation programs in particular, which make it mercifully easier to…enter the kind of music that is easily entered into notation programs! But not knowing one of the leading notation programs is one of the most often cited—if not the most often cited—reason that various people have given to me for not getting into or continuing composing; I’ve seen a lot of bright students with a pop background and interesting, difficult-to-notate musical ideas discouraged by these programs, and have exclaimed (in so many words): No, no! Screw Finale, let’s continue to work on paper or through making recordings in a way that relates to your unique ideas and goals; don’t cram yourself in the notation program’s little box. Later we will work on how to break the program and make it work for you.
In reality, this is no barrier, or as I mentioned the unattainable equipment/skillset may bring along its own hindrances. The solution isn’t to wait until accumulated resources and experience will allow one to do things “the way they should be done”; it’s to discover a way of doing things which may lead to more resources and experience.
Until very recently, I used a piece-of-garbage Casio keyboard with only four-voice polyphony to compose on, which had the inestimable benefit of not tricking me into thinking like I was writing for a piano or anything resembling one. In college, a friend of mine had to sell his equally crappy keyboard (a space issue, as there was little to profit from) and took to recording and eventually layering his own vocals instead. And I had the pleasure of recently meeting an experienced composer who doesn’t (and has never) owned a computer, who perhaps as a result has developed a beautifully-realized notational language for different rates of glissandi.
So young composers with light pockets, take note: there is wonderful music being created all the time with very limited resources, and this might be part of what makes that music so wonderful!