My high school AP Calculus teacher was a great teacher and a very nice person. She even had my small class over for dinner at the end of the year to celebrate all the hard work we did together. But, when it came to tests, she was a bit of a sadist. You see, she didn’t give us the regular tests in the math book. She thought they were too easy because they only tested what we had been taught. She preferred to make up her own tests which required us to make inferences from what we learned and apply them to problems we weren’t so familiar with. She also graded us on a bell curve. We weren’t just trying to beat the test; we were forced into a competition against each other. I thought she was crazy. A nice crazy lady, but nuts all the same.
But I understood why she pushed us so hard.
The truth is, we don’t know what we can do until we are pushed to our limits. If we don’t reach beyond our comfort zones, we don’t know our capacity. Competitive athletes know this very well. They are always trying to beat their scores, run faster, or lift more. Records are broken, and figure skaters and gymnasts are always showing us moves that no one has ever been able to do before. They don’t say, “it can’t be done.” They ask themselves, “Can I do it?” And then they try. Again and again.
But it’s hard. And it’s painful.
Life often brings us hardships we don’t choose. They are also painful, often exceedingly so. But, even though we might not like those trials, they do show us what we are made of. That’s important information. We might learn we are stronger than we think; we might learn that our faith is not on a solid foundation; we might find we have reached our limit and need help.
Sought out or not, hardship gives us an assessment of our abilities which is necessary for making adjustments. Do we push harder or slow down? Do we keep going or take a break? (Sometimes this assessment comes from someone else speaking into our life.)
In my composing, I’ve had to create my own hardships. I don’t have many demands on my compositional output in the form of commissions or requirements for professional output like a professor might. I could easily mosey along committing to composing most days, but maybe not pushing myself and putting in as much time or writing as much material as I could. The question is: what can I do? I can only find out by testing my limits.
I am trying to find the edge of failure. I don’t want to fail, but there’s a risk.
Can I do it? I don’t know. Let me try.
Right now, I am pushing myself to write faster. I induce hardship on myself as a composer by creating deadlines for myself. Sometimes these come in the form of competitions I want to enter; sometimes they are arbitrary. These are not hard deadlines because they are self-imposed, and not meeting them only results in some disappointment. Yet, the accountability is very useful and tells me how fast I can work. I will need this information later on when I do start getting more commissions. I need an idea of how long it will take me to write a piece of a certain length for a certain sized ensemble so that I can meet a deadline when it counts. It will also help me to know how much time to allot to commissions and estimate how many I can commit to within a certain time period.
Just about two weeks ago I decided I wanted to write a piece for saxophone and marimba. I had been encouraged to play more (in life, not necessarily in music and composition), and I decided to look at competitions and calls for scores that I thought were just plain fun. Unfortunately, this particular call for scores had a deadline of March 7, which meant I had two weeks to get a piece completed, from start to finish. I had just bought a new notation and publishing software, Dorico, and this would be the first piece I would complete using this program. I had to get acquainted with it fast! I also had never written for marimba before. So, new instrument, new software, two weeks. Go!
(I don’t think pushing myself to work super hard to get a fun piece finished under a tight deadline was what was meant by encouraging me to “play”, but it is what it is.)
Coming from Finale, the notation software I was previously using, the learning curve using Dorico is pretty steep. While everything I needed is extremely easy to access on-screen, if I didn’t hit the key commands in the correct order, chaos ensued. At one point, for user errors unknown to me, I lost the entire first movement, albeit a very short one. That day, I just about cried and gave up. But, thankfully, I had printed out a draft and was able to salvage it. I woke up the next day feeling more hopeful and determined to try. I completed the piece on time, formatted correctly and all, and submitted it.
While I did accomplish what I set out to do, I think I have reached my current limit. I did nothing but compose this week. The house didn’t get cleaned. I barely got meals prepared. Voicemails were left unanswered. I talked to no one outside my family except for an online class, a previously-scheduled board meeting I couldn’t miss, and two piano lessons. I skipped weekly meetings I normally attend. I didn’t sleep well and I ended the week with some heartburn and a headache. My body literally hurt from not moving enough. This level of work might be OK for a stretch of a week or two, but it is not sustainable.
That said, my self-induced hardship reaped benefits. Diving into the deep end forced me to learn to use Dorico much faster than I thought I could. I also learned some about my work habits and how much time I can expect to productively compose each day. There are more calls for scores and competitions I want to enter, so I am better able to plan out my time for entering them. The process of composing always teaches me something, in the way I think about the timbre of the instruments or the interaction of the lines of music. I will bring those insights with me into the next project.
One of my composer friends, Frank Felice, teaches at Butler University where they periodically do a 24-hour concert. Each composer gets teamed up with an ensemble and spends about eighteen hours composing a piece. The ensembles rehearse the pieces for about two hours, then put on a concert. The thought of that absolutely boggles my mind. I cannot imagine writing a piece in just eighteen hours! But maybe, with enough practice and pushing my limits, I’ll get there.
I guess it’s time to take a break now and clean the house.
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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.