The Role of Doubt
As I’ve been preparing to head back to NYC this weekend for a three-day slog of composer interviews, sofa-surfing, and a concert that’s giving me the excuse to take this field trip, I’ve been taking care of some of the non-artistic duties that come with heading up a composition program, including preparing graduating seniors for their recitals, cajoling last-minute holdouts for next year’s freshman class, and meeting with prospective students who will be auditioning to be freshmen in 2013(!). One issue that often connects all three groups is the subtle sense of doubt that they all have to deal with in one form or another. Those who are graduating in a couple of weeks are forced to stare into an future rife with obstacles and starving for details, the incoming students know they’ll be studying somewhere, but with whom and where is still a mystery, and the early prospectives (and their parents) are just beginning to ask the big questions for the very first time.
Doubt, as an integral ingredient in the lives of most creative artists, is rarely discussed openly. From very early on, we as a society either assume or are led to believe that the successful composer brings forth their art with little effort or worry—it is only the physical limitations of time and the process of putting thought to paper that gets in their way. As I’ve been interviewing these many composers, I have posed the question of whether or not they deal or have dealt with self-doubt and, if so, in what ways have they faced that challenge effectively.
The answers have so far been relatively consistent. There are a few for whom self-doubt has never reared its ugly head, but those tend to be composers who started very young (pre-teens). Some have run into severe bouts, to the point where they quit for a time, only to be brought back by the need to create. Most, however, deal with doubt on a consistent and localized level and primarily for either creative or career-based reasons. Those who doubt about their creativity (internal doubters, if you will) seem to face the challenge at the outset of every new project, and only through the combination of force of will and hard-earned technique can they get past the hump of beginning a piece to the point where the doubt disappears. Those who doubt about their careers as composers (external doubters) find their challenges in both the day-to-day hurdles of getting grants, securing commissions, enticing conductors and performers, etc., as well as questioning how they are doing compared to their colleagues. To a person, they have all found their own way of navigating their own doubts to the point where they can not only continue, but thrive.
At this time, when there are so many instances where life can generate doubt, it seems important to face the demon and put it into perspective. If one is aware that even the most successful artists still have to deal with such things on a regular basis, facing and controlling self-doubt might be a bit more attainable. I’m curious to see if others have stories about how doubt has affected them—the comments box is yours for the taking.