Under Pressure

For those of us who work with composition students, we are now squarely in that time of year when project deadlines begin to coincide with exams and the mid-term demands of other courses to the point that the pressure to complete a musical work can seem insurmountable. It’s not a question of if, but just a matter of when most students will stop me in the halls or peek glumly into my office to inform me that they are currently in “freak-out” mode and have no idea how they’re ever going to finish this project that they’ve restarted five times. As this annual occurrence is as dependable as the cherry blossoms on the National Mall, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reflect and explore whether or not this situation is necessary and beneficial to the students, and I have come to the conclusion that it is.

There are several different types of pressure that creative artists can find themselves dealing with at any given time, and often when under the influence of one type, they can find themselves easily susceptible to allowing others to join in the party. Some of the more common ones are externally direct (“My teacher/commissioner expects this piece by April 1″) or internally direct (“I’m sick of this piece, but I’m not going to let myself quit”) as well indirect pressure from other colleagues (“Damn, everyone else seems to be having performances these days!”) or the converging of several project deadlines at once (“Why did I decide to finish this piece the same week that my midterms/grant application are due?”).

What is noticeable about these different types of pressure is that they’re always going to be there. How we deal with that pressure can vary from project to project or person to person, but it is the knowledge that the pressure is there in the first place which is important for any of us to adequately fight its effects—basically, if we know it’s there and we understand that we’ve been through the process before and come out through the other side successfully, we’ll have a better chance at not allowing the external and internal pressures to effect our creative process.

The question of how to gain such self-knowledge brings me back to my own reflections on my students and their epic battles against the many external and internal pressures in which they find themselves. It would be easy for me to lighten their load and arrange their projects so that their composing deadlines would not run headlong against the expectations of my colleagues in other courses, but that would be doing them a disservice (in my own eyes, at least). Each student will still “freak out,” of course, and sleepless nights and discarded ideas will be commonplace, but by placing them in stressful situations in a controlled environment and surrounding them with encouraging colleagues and instructors, each student will have the opportunity to learn about themselves and find their own methods to fight the pressures that they’ll have to face for the rest of their lives.

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