Taking the Long View

Taking the Long View

Since music is such a temporal art, it’s rare when composers aren’t talking about time in one way or another; whether the topic is metric modulation or missing deadlines, the ever-present clock is never far from our thoughts. More often than not, when we schedule our lives, for instance, we tend to organize time in terms of what is near to us: today, this week, this month, and maybe two to three months down the road. It isn’t until one’s career reaches a certain momentum that the thought of months and years in advance becomes not only necessary but also crucial.

I recently got to see first-hand some choice reactions when my students were alerted to this special aspect of time at our Composers Forum this week, and their reactions resonated with me for many reasons. As my colleagues and I were discussing the topic of graduate schools and what went into the application process for composers, I started talking about the list of deadlines that next year’s seniors needed to keep in mind. I try hard to instill in my students a healthy respect for their deadlines, so we started by nailing down the typical date for graduate applications, which for most schools is December 1st.

As we talked through the various time constraints that exist before that deadline occurs–proofing, editing, and binding scores, editing recordings, proofing and editing curriculum vitae, confirming letters of recommendation, Thanksgiving vacation, etc.–they began to realize that their portfolio scores needed to be performed by mid-October, which meant that anything they were going to send out needed to be composed by early to mid-September at the latest. It was then that eyebrows began to creep upwards at the same rate as jaws were being lowered–the seniors were now coming to the realization that they had a mere six months left to compose anything that might help them move on to the graduate school of their choice.

Now I had their attention.

It had been quite some time since I first began needing to think of projects in terms of months and years as opposed to days or weeks, but I recognized the reactions well enough. Between my own composing projects and my duties as advisor to our student-run new music presenting organization, I’ve slowly grown accustomed to thinking of 12-16 months from now as if it were happening next week and sympathize with anyone who has a hard time with the idea. The ease of succumbing to the lure of procrastination can be even more pronounced when one’s deadline or due date is months or years away–just think of how much work and other projects can be accomplished in that time! And then reality starts to set in–one dimly remembers how fast those weeks and months slide by, with barely familiar resolutions about improving one’s own work habits echoing faintly in the distance. Increased heart rate, shallow breathing, irritability, and a proclivity for sudden outbursts of epithets are not far off.

Luckily, many of my students have been dealing with these long-range time concepts for a while now, which, in my humble opinion, is the only way to learn how to survive them. By reverse-engineering timelines backwards from their deadlines, they’re pretty comfortable with the idea of how to tackle such projects. Hopefully that past experience will keep them from freaking out too much and allow them to realize not only how much time they really do have to create some quality work, but also how much they’ve already accomplished and how to balance the two together.

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