I have a friend who is a visual artist. Occasionally, she posts her work on Facebook when she starts a new watercolor. As she goes along, we can see the progress she makes in her painting. First, the sketch, then some colors. Later, more colors, more detail. Finally, we see the finished product. I am both amused and a little envious that she posts her “progress pictures” on Facebook. Some people really get into following her process. It is easy for them to SEE the progress that she is making. It is almost “proof” that she is working on a project, not that she needs to provide it.
As a composer, I have no such opportunity. The best I could do is take a picture of light pencil on music paper with a background of things scratched out or the remains of something once written now erased. I would provide one here, but you wouldn’t be able to see anything but some squiggles, dots, and smudges. Even if I provided a photo of my composition sketches every few hours or days as I made progress, it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone besides myself. It wouldn’t even mean anything to another musician, not even to another composer, unless we were having an actual conversation about it. My husband studied classical guitar performance in college, and even he can’t follow along with me anymore. I tell him all about my ideas, and he says, “I need to hear it.”
He is absolutely right. The only one who knows how the piece sounds before it comes to fruition is me. As much as I can excitedly explain how the horns will come in here or how I will use this altered chord in such a fashion there, no one can follow along with what I say because it is all in my head. No one else can hear the orchestra. Not many can imagine that the piano is actually a choral group. Even a MIDI mock-up of the piece does no justice to it because the computer plays back so rigidly. (Yes, I know there are some who can make a computerized version of an orchestra sound like the real thing, but those skills go beyond composition.) Neither would I want to share a MIDI version of my partially-finished piece with the world. While I am working, some things are out of place or missing and it just sounds BAD. I really don’t want to create distaste for my work before it is done. If someone doesn’t like my piece, I’d rather they decide that after it is finished. Besides, I write with pencil and paper, and taking time away from composition to enter it into my computer software program is not worth it before I am at the “completed rough draft” stage of my process, which is pretty far along.
Even when my score is complete, I can’t present it as a finished product. Sure, I can show it to people, and I do have preview scores up on my website. But, a piece is not really finished until it is performed. Not until then are the abstract ideas in my head put into a concrete form with which the listener can interact. How many hours are spent translating my imagination into that special code of dots and squiggles called music notation which will explain to performers how to play the piece in such a way that will bring to life the sounds which have existed only in my mind! Yet, unperformed, the piece lays lifeless like a dormant volcano, giving no indication of the energy held within.
Day after day, I spend time in the back room, my tiny office crammed with my digital piano, my computer, and several bookshelves of sheet music, theory books, and biographies of composers, and I sit with my pencil, my paper, and my eraser (white ones are the best, by the way!) After a while I come out, and my husband asks me, “how’s it going?” I usually answer according to my level of feeling pleased or frustrated, or I will state that I finished a certain section of my piece. I always get *something* done. Trust me, I made progress. See?