Monday, November 6, 2017

Overprotective "Father" Syndrome

A choral director I know likes to refer to my compositions as my “children” or “babies.” When she’s programmed one of my works she’ll often say, “We'll try to do your baby justice.” Sometimes that means she doesn’t have enough time to let me offer comments about interpretation during rehearsal—so what she’s really trying to say is, “It’ll be okay; trust me.” 

On one occasion I got very flustered when I attended a rehearsal of one of my pieces and the conductor gave me no opportunity to say anything at all—and I had stuff to say. I went home mad and just could not seem to get over it. As I fumed about this, I began to realize just how accurate the analogy was: it's as though my compositions were my kids. I care about them in every single detail, I have a huge amount of emotional energy invested in them, and I want other people to care about them too. When they’re performed anywhere I'm there to show my fatherly support, and I attend the rehearsals to try to make sure they are treated fairly. It hurts badly when they are mistreated. One example that sticks out in my mind is when a high school choir performed one of my pieces at about ten BPM slower than what I had specified in the score. It was agony. Afterwards the director volunteered this explanation: “I know that was a lot slower than what you marked, but the students really liked it that way.” I didn’t know what to say to that.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the overprotective father whom prospective boyfriends always hate—as though a given composition were my teenage daughter and the performers were the guys wanting to take her out. Naturally I get really upset if a guy doesn’t treat her well. So far I haven't beaten anyone up, tempting though it has been, because I know performers usually mean well (unlike many teenaged boyfriends) even when they play badly.

Due to the discouragement all this tends to bring, I’ve gone through lengthy phases where I haven’t written any music. I get frustrated when I can’t give all my compositions the exposure I want them to have and they just sit on my shelf and collect dust. I feel like it’s somehow irresponsible to have more kids when I can't provide for the ones I’ve already got.

I know all this sounds silly, especially coming from a guy who’s not a real parent. What do I know, right? But, ignorant though I be, it seems to me that it’s possible to be too protective, to worry and micromanage too much—to the extent that some parents are possessive of their kids. Likewise, I’ve realized that I’m sometimes too possessive of my compositions: This is MY music!

Maybe this is because I’ve been largely self-taught and haven’t often received a lot of input from others about my work. As a teenager I used to show my compositions to my piano teacher, but that was sporadic. My two years at UT Chattanooga were the only time in which I’ve had regular, weekly composition lessons. As much as I loved my professor, I found it frustrating. What I realized in those years was that I much prefer to write at least a first draft of a complete work or movement before I get any feedback on it. I still feel that way. I need the chance to work through and organize the swirling confusion of ideas in my brain. I need to draw my own conclusions and make my own decisions first. Only then do I want to seek input from others. But even when I presented a complete work to my teacher at UT, I was never fully comfortable incorporating his ideas, even when I liked them. I always felt that it would cease to be my work, and that bothered me deeply.

After I graduated in 2014 I simply composed whatever I wanted to and generally didn't bother to ask for input. But another challenge to my way of thinking was on its way, in the form of a guy named Dan Forrest. Dan, in addition to being a well-known composer, works as an editor for Beckenhorst Press. I must confess that during the editing process for my first two publications with Beckenhorst I cam very close to withdrawing both pieces. Dan was asking for some fairly significant changes and, since I was used to having complete control, I was kicking and screaming all the way. But in hindsight I realized that both pieces were significantly better because I listened to Dan’s suggestions.

It's been a long process, but these days I've become less resistant to input from others about my music. Over the past couple of years I've started to view the composition process as less arbitrary and less about “what I want to write.” When I compose, I get this uncanny, almost mystical feeling that, when I come up with a good musical idea, it's future is somehow predetermined—that the completed piece already exists “in the ether” as it were, and it’s up to me not so much to create it as to discover it—to decipher it in all it’s intricate details, bit by bit. It's like putting together a very complex puzzle—as though there were only one “correct” solution.

The little motives that I think of at the beginning of the process—I like to think that they contain within themselves the genetic code that will at length allow a diligent, intuitive composer to construct the entire organism. And since I now view my work less as “my creation” and more as the natural outworking of the fundamental materials, I find that I'm more open to allowing others to help solve the puzzle—at least to help knock off the rough edges that I've missed (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor). That said, I'm very careful that I don't accept suggestions that aren’t in the best interest of the music—and many suggestions that I’ve received aren’t. It takes somebody who is able to get inside of the piece and figure out what it wants to be, irrespective of what I want it to be or what anybody else wants it to be.

Alice Parker often says that you have to understand the implications of what you’re setting in motion when you start writing a piece. Occasionally I find that other people understand the implications of my own musical ideas better than I do. It’s been very hard to accept, but it’s been an extraordinarily valuable realization— it has made me a less selfish person and a less controlling “parent.” Thanks, Dan Forrest!

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