Author: Dale Trumbore

The End of the World? We’ll Compose It.

We can’t consider what new music will look like in ten years without asking, first, what the world will look like. As I write this, here in the United States, current events are trending towards the bleak. Maybe I check the news too often, but it feels like the last few years have been little else but bleak. Mass shootings continue on, unchecked, and the legacy of our country’s racist history remains deeply entrenched in, well, everything. Here in California, we face another season of fires and drought, and a statewide housing crisis. Worldwide, our climate continues to change and degrade with increasingly deadly consequences.

I’m not a political analyst or a climatologist; I don’t hold a doctorate, just a master’s degree in Music Composition. Far be it from me, then, to forecast what the next ten years will hold. But as I consider the best and worst possible outcomes for our trajectory and the role music might play, anxiety clouds my vision. Trying to make sense of an abstract future, I imagine a steep drop off. A cliff. A black hole.

What role does music play in all of it, now and in the future? And, on a more optimistic note, what about the music being written now? How is it already helping?

In normal times (Have we ever lived in normal times? Has anyone?) I want music that surprises and delights me. I want music that uses notes and rhythm and lyrics and form and texture and timing to challenge and reframe my perspective. I want to leave every concert altered in some alchemical way.

And even in the worst of times—if, say, climate change brings us temperatures better suited to Death Valley than Los Angeles, or if my country halts its slow progress towards equity and equality and instead regresses to the oppressive value systems of the 1950s—I imagine I’d want the same. Music that surprises and delights, still, but with an accurate, biting fierceness. Music that functions as an emotional tool and a rally for action and a safe haven—not all at once, but in different pieces by different artists. Music that is sometimes an escape, other times a mirror. Now and in ten years, I want to hear this music performed live as often as possible. I want to bask in it until it lives in the very marrow of me, reshaping me, readying me for whatever comes next.

This summer, I taught on faculty at Choral Arts Initiative’s Premiere Project Institute, which brings composers together for world premieres and a week of discussing the business and creative practicalities of composing for chorus. In many of the fifteen works premiered there, I found my own anxieties reflected back to me: music as mirror. Patricia Wallinga’s The Danger set government warnings about long-term radiation: instructions for future generations, telling them to avoid permanent nuclear waste sites. David Walters’s Paradise recognized the devastating effects of the Paradise Fire in Northern California, setting a former resident’s account of visiting the aftermath of the fire. Cooper Baldwin’s Libera Me (as embers singe the tide) wove Baldwin’s own words with a traditional Latin Requiem Mass text and excerpts from 2022 IPCC Report on Climate Change. The resulting piece pleads for a better future than the one we’re facing.

Other recurring themes echoed throughout the concert: staggering responses to personal and collective grief, as well as the desire for a reciprocated love. These were just as welcome as the works about climate change. After all, if we linger in despair for too long—or if we listen to nothing but one musical panic attack after another—we’ll burn out, too exhausted and stressed to accomplish much of anything, let alone create more art.

But when daily horrors are unavoidable, a well-crafted piece about anxiety or grief isn’t a source of exhaustion but a voice that whispers or shouts: You’re not alone. In Los Angeles, whenever I wake up to my blinds shaking and windows rattling, I turn to Twitter first and search “earthquake.” I want to validate my experience and make sure I wasn’t the only one who felt the trembling. There’s comfort in the knowledge that we’re collectively moving through the same fears.

In the next ten years, I believe we’ll need this communal recognition more than ever. We’ll need a musical community that offers reassurances and comforts, however small. I think of partnered grief—how a small, strange advantage to grieving with someone else is that you can trade off who is emotionally incapacitated and who is merely numb. One person reheats dinner while the other sobs on the couch. The next day, maybe, you switch roles. It may be naïve of me to think that music can hold space in a similar same way: a container for sorrow. A vessel to hold our despair, so we don’t have to carry all of it at once. But even if music can’t provide this emotional support, a community of musicians can.

My spouse and I recently decided not to have children, in part because of so many unknowns about our shifting climate—what it will look like in ten, twenty, fifty years. But whenever I’m around younger composers, at a conference or on faculty for a festival or guest-teaching at a university, I feel hopeful. I see so many of us searching for meaning and hope and accuracy and evolution. I see so many distinct ways to create our musical safe havens, our pointed critiques, our unclouded mirrors.

In an ideal world, of course, we’ll reverse the effects of climate change in the next ten years. We’ll all agree on basic human rights. We won’t ever have to carve a path through our worst fears in order to make music.

But even in the bleakest possible outcome, I’d still want to feel recognized and known. So much of the music being written today already provides that solace and recognition. I may not have faith in our world’s ability to fix what is broken, but I have faith in artists. I have faith in those who see what’s crumbling and write about it instead of turning away. I have faith in musicians, period. I don’t anticipate that changing any time in the next ten years.

  • In normal times (Have we ever lived in normal times? Has anyone?) I want music that surprises and delights me. ... I want to leave every concert altered in some alchemical way. 

    Dale Trumbore
    Dale Trumbore
  • If we linger in despair for too long—or if we listen to nothing but one musical panic attack after another—we’ll burn out, too exhausted and stressed to accomplish much of anything, let alone create more art.

    Dale Trumbore
    Dale Trumbore
  • A well-crafted piece about anxiety or grief isn’t a source of exhaustion but a voice that whispers or shouts: You’re not alone.

    Dale Trumbore
    Dale Trumbore
  • Whenever I’m around younger composers, at a conference or on faculty for a festival or guest-teaching at a university, I feel hopeful. I see so many of us searching for meaning and hope and accuracy and evolution.

    Dale Trumbore
    Dale Trumbore
  • I may not have faith in our world’s ability to fix what is broken, but I have faith in artists. I have faith in those who see what’s crumbling and write about it instead of turning away.

    Dale Trumbore
    Dale Trumbore

Don’t Wait Until You Hear Sirens

Staying Composed

I think of chaotic events like an illness or a death in the family as an ambulance cutting a path through my life. No matter how congested a street is, there is always room for an ambulance; there is always room for everyone on a road to work together, move over, and create space for the ambulance to pass.

Last week, I canceled a trip to a premiere because I’d been grappling for a few weeks with the kind of anxiety that makes just leaving the house a challenge. The premiere was a multi-movement work where each composer had written a different movement; my movement was four minutes long. I figured the ensemble wouldn’t miss one composer out of many.

Still, I agonized over that decision. My flight and hotel were booked and had been booked for months. How unprofessional does it look to back out of attending your own premiere? I used to long for the day I’d be traveling around the country often, with my flight and hotel paid for by whomever was commissioning me. It was built into my definition of success: being paid to create the kind of work I wanted to create, and traveling often to go hear it. And here I was, about to cancel exactly the kind of trip I’ve worked so hard to make a part of my life.

If you’ve reached a breaking point but still feel as if you can’t prioritize your health over your work, imagine the path that a family emergency or a physical ailment would create for you.

When I’ve reached a mental or physical breaking point but no emergency is carving out a clear path for me, I remind myself that an ambulance makes its own path. If you’ve reached a breaking point but still feel as if you can’t prioritize your health over your work, imagine the path that a family emergency or a physical ailment would create for you. In any of those scenarios, you’d be forced to readjust your schedule.

On a trip to New York several weeks ago for a different premiere, I found myself in Grand Central Station on the verge of a panic attack, feeling unable to breathe and like I had little idea where I was. The year so far had felt like nothing but travel: to Boston, to Kansas City, to Minneapolis, all in the span of a month. To Portland and New York City back-to-back. And then, last week, another flight ahead of me, the fourth weekend in a row where I’d be out of town.

This year has been abundantly full of wonderful things. I’m getting married in two months. I’m releasing a book I’ve been writing for more than a year. I’ve had career-defining performances with some of the ensembles I admire most. And yet it’s this same season that has been slowly building up to where I found myself last week: with an amount of anxiety that I described, in the email I sent decisively canceling my trip, as debilitating. That’s what it had become.

In a few weeks, I’m publishing a book about anxiety in the creative process, with lessons learned from composing. It’s called Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety and Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life. I’m releasing a book about anxiety, and yet, ironically, this was the most anxious I’d felt in ten years: vice-grip chest pain matched by racing, runaway thoughts I suddenly found myself unable to control.

In the book, I’d outlined coping strategies for nearly every mental hurdle you face in a creative career, and yet I didn’t have one for this feeling: wanting to step outside of your life, just for a moment, to breathe.

I’m not talking here about an occasional day or even week where you put in long, sleepless hours or order take-out for several meals in a row in order to meet a deadline. I’m talking about how you build mental and physical well-being into your day-to-day creative life. Your mental health, your sanity, and your life are worth more than any performance, any piece, or any networking opportunity.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had a panic attack driving down the freeway. It was practically a cliché: heading down the 110 in traffic, merging over four lanes, I felt my chest constrict painfully, had trouble breathing, and went straight to the health center thinking I was having heart problems. I was sent home with a prescription for Ativan. I’d slice up the pills into tiny pieces, because taking a whole one made me too sleepy to do much of anything. Eventually, I abandoned them and aggressively pursued other tactics instead: yoga, walking, meditation, and a resignation to the fact that I was an anxious person; I would always be a bit anxious.

Having experienced both the frantic, sleepless, anxious variety of composing and the kind where I prioritize my health above all else, I can report: the second way of living is vastly preferable in every way. I am happier with the work I make. I am not happy all the time, but I take so much more pleasure in the life I’m living.

In the decade since, I’ve designed my life to look, for the most part, the way I want it to look. I am phasing out teaching piano; I am composing full-time, which has been my career goal since I was seventeen. I take on the kind of work that lights me up, that prompts a swift and gut-reaction yes. I’ve worked various part-time jobs (arranger, editor, nanny, teacher); now I’m here. I can meet friends for mid-morning coffees and work long into the evening. I can fly across the country to an artist residency for a month without worrying that I’m missing my job; my job comes with me. I can schedule premieres and school visits and a life spent driving to and from the airport. I thought I wanted that life. When I first started to get it, I thought I wanted even more of it: this life, but bigger premieres and even more travel. This is a tremendous privilege, I know, to complain about too much travel.

I don’t know about you, but on days where my anxiety is at its peak, the act of sitting down to work feels impossible and insurmountable. My daily routine priori­tizes my mental health, because without it, I put myself and my art at risk.

This year, I could feel anxiety slowly compounding into something beyond my rational control. I was using every tool I had in my arsenal to counteract it, but I was also crying on the kitchen floor in front of my baffled partner. For the first time, exercise wasn’t helping; neither were yoga or meditation or any of the other usually helpful reframing techniques I use so often. I knew everything was ultimately going to be okay—These were all good things! I was so lucky to have this career! This was all what I wanted!—and that still wasn’t enough.

If you need help for anxiety or depression, seek it out. If you need to ask a friend for advice or a collaborator for an extension on your deadline, ask them. Your collaborators—fellow humans—will understand, and if they don’t, they haven’t yet realized the simple truth that it’s hard to make art at all when your health desperately needs your attention.

This idea is sprinkled throughout Staying Composed: if you need help beyond these coping strategies, seek it out. At my most anxious, it was thinking about this chapter I’d already written, the one that’s quoted in italics above, that made me finally book an appointment with my doctor. If I was going to tell other people to imagine the path an ambulance would carve through their life when they most needed a break, I’d better imagine that ambulance’s path through my own suddenly unmanageable life.

Now, I’m finally trying medication for anxiety. Three weeks out before the launch of a book that—in its very subtitle—promises to offer tips on overcoming anxiety, I am trying an SSRI for the first time. I call my mother to catch up over the weekend, tell her that I’m trying anxiety medication, and she says that the book will need an extra chapter, implying that it would be something like: Ignore All This Advice and Just Take Drugs. “But it’s not like that—” I start to protest, and she says, gently, that she was joking. Still, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. A dear friend reminded me recently that the book is about “overcoming anxiety,” not “not having anxiety in the first place,” and I think of this often.

Your present situation might not feel like a true emergency, but you can still carve out time to prioritize your well-being. You can always cancel an event. You can always ask for an extended deadline; you might not be granted one, but you can ask. No artistic project is worth sacrificing your mental and physical health.

Several days into the new medication and finally having sought help outside of myself, the ping-ponging between things to worry about (deadline, other deadline, other deadline, wedding, house is a mess, forgot to mail out scores, forgot to book a flight, forgot to plan crucial element of wedding, when am I going to write music?!…) is already less of a spin cycle on endless repeat. Now, it’s more like a list of worries that float to the surface but can once again be rationally dismissed or silenced until a later date. I still have all of the anxious thoughts, and I’m still using the coping strategies I talk about in the book, but right now, my anxieties aren’t growing roots and taking hold in an unmanageable way.

Taking that medication isn’t a failure to “stay composed”; it’s a direct result of listening to my body and doing what was best for my mind. Canceling that trip to a premiere was crucial to regaining control over my mental health. It was the result of asking what an ambulance clearing a path through my life would look like and carving out that time as soon as I realized I needed help.

So what does it mean to stay composed within a creative life? I’ve done my best to articulate every answer I have, and I’m still discovering new answers. But above all, I am positive that sometimes staying composed means making the difficult decision to put yourself before your career—to put life before creative as you live your creative life.

Staying Composed, new book by Dale Trumbore about overcoming anxiety and self-doubt within a creative life, will be available digitally and in print on June 4, 2019. Pre-order and sign up to receive additional updates here.

When Everything Utterly Sucks

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

Somewhere in the homestretch of writing a new composition, I inevitably become convinced that the entire piece is garbage. By now, when I start a new piece, I know that this Day of Utter Suckitude is coming; it happens no matter how much I’m loving the piece, or how smoothly the writing has gone thus far. I become convinced—temporarily, falsely—that not only is there nothing redeemable about this awful piece, but that composing itself is meaningless, I’ve committed myself to a worthless career, and I’m a bad composer. I become briefly convinced that perhaps I should seek out another job, one where at least I’d be getting free health insurance.

I know exactly how ridiculous this all sounds written out, but that doesn’t help me reason it away in the moment. This feeling usually lasts 24 hours, or at most a couple of days. Each time, it feels like I’ll never escape

The Day of Utter Suckitude is different from the small, nagging instinct that a section of music would be better if I re-wrote it. That voice can be trusted. You can recognize the Day of Utter Suckitude because it encompasses an entire piece, finds nothing good about any of your work, and sends you into an anxious tailspin. Sometimes the Day of Utter Suckitude manifests so suddenly it gives you composing whiplash; you’ll wonder how a piece that seemed brilliant a week ago has become something you’re now certain you should destroy as quickly as possible.

“I’m pretty sure this piece is my last commission ever, because who would ask me to write anything else after hearing this garbage?”

During the Day(s) of Utter Suckitude, someone you know will ask how your writing is going. Because you have chosen this career—you got yourself into this mess—you may not respond truthfully. You’ll want to say: “Terribly! It’s going terribly. The piece sucks, and I’m pretty sure that everything I do is devoid of meaning.” You’ll want to say: “I’m pretty sure this piece is my last commission ever, because who would ask me to write anything else after hearing this garbage?” You’ll wonder if this is the curse that comes with having your dream career: that for a few days during the creation of each new piece, you’ll loathe everything about your work. You don’t feel as if you can confess any of this to another person, however, unless you’re talking to another composer who is also a very good friend, so you grit your teeth in response. You say something like, “It’s… going. It’s fine.”

Even writing this essay, I can feel it coming; tomorrow, when I re-read the current draft, I will decide that it, too, is the worst thing I’ve ever written. I know that later, by draft four, I’ll have moved past that feeling; I’ll have revised a great deal, and it’ll feel like it belongs to me again. This particular brand of panic always passes, and the piece pulls through every time. When I’m done, it may not be my favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I’ll have fallen back in love with it.

Sometimes when I’m stuck in the worst part of my composing process, I think about the start of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride. You enter a dark room and a door slides shut behind you. As the room lowers—it’s secretly an elevator—a narrator explains that the room has no windows or doors, which “offers you this chilling challenge: to find a way out!” Of course, he says, “there’s always my way.” You look up to discover that the ghostly narrator has hanged himself from the ceiling rafters—dark for a children’s ride, no?—but then a hidden side door opens, and you’re free to move onto the actual ride itself.

Give yourself a moment and then search for a solution, and that door you couldn’t see at first, a way back into the piece, a way to move forward, appears every time.

This is the goal when we’re stuck: to find a way out. Even if I’ve convinced myself that I write bad music and no matter how much I temporarily loathe whatever I’m working on, that hidden door always opens. You don’t need extreme measures, either. You give yourself a moment and then search for a solution, and that door you couldn’t see at first, a way back into the piece, a way to move forward, appears every time.

Each Day of Utter Suckitude is like anxiety: it mimics the feelings of actual physical pain and actual disaster, but it isn’t any of these. It can’t be solved, at least not immediately, by pushing yourself harder. Like anxiety, it may not have a permanent antidote and there may be no quick-fix solution. The only way out is, usually, to acknowledge the feeling, to greet it like an old acquaintance you don’t particularly like—“Hello, good to see you, but now I have to excuse myself”—and then to step away.

Step away from the desk

Step away from the desk
Photo by Taduuda

Right now, I’m in the thick of this with a piece I’m writing. I have the sensation that what I’m working on is not very good, is in fact maybe the worst thing I’ve ever written. I know that after I’ve fleshed it out and revised the orchestration, after I’ve edited it multiple times, I’ll have changed my mind. The first rehearsal I attend will be like greeting an old friend I actually like: I’ll see all of its flaws, sure, but I’ll also love it in a way that can’t be erased.

But here, right now, I hate this piece with all of my being, and as usual, that makes me wonder if perhaps I’m very bad at writing music. I have to remind myself that this is the process. In my non-composing life, too, I experience anxiety, but I’ve learned to remind myself that I am in anxiety when it happens. It is temporary; it will pass. Here, writing this piece, I am not the process; I am in the process, I am passing through it, and it is passing through me.

I am not the process; I am in the process, I am passing through it, and it is passing through me.

Instead of letting “bad” days derail the composing process altogether, I’m learning to recognize when to push through and when to be gentle with myself and let the piece rest. Whether I push myself to keep composing or decide to take a break, my process is not disrupted. One bad day won’t derail the process; it is the process, and a single bad day or even a bad week of composing doesn’t ultimately have any bearing on how good a finished piece will be.

Embracing a routine where you hate your own work seems a little ridiculous. You may want a book on getting rid of the doubt entirely, a list of “10 Ways to Be Productive” that leaves no room for days where you loathe what you’re writing. You may reason that if you just optimize your time, determine an ideal morning schedule, and make a really effective to-do list, you should be able to skip over the stage where it feels like everything you write is wrong.

But composing, or any artistic pursuit, is a practice. In this kind of practice, as any musician knows, there is a stage where you’re confronted with your own inadequacy, followed by a stage where you meet your own faults without resistance. That’s the sweet spot, and that’s where you begin to improve. In the practice of composing, that brief, late-game feeling that everything we’ve written is garbage might have a purpose after all. It can lead us to finish the piece strong, to shore up its weak spots and make our way confidently to the double bar.

So much of our instinct when we’re stuck is to want to push through, to work through the doubt as fast as possible, to try to outrun it. But once you’ve learned your process, you’ll know what’s coming. You’ll know when to push through and when to give a piece 12 to 24 hours to marinate on its own before you return to it. I can’t drag you out of the really bad days with good advice. I can only tell you to trust your process, even—especially—when the process feels like doubt, like failure. This, too, is part of the process, but you know what comes next. You know what follows feels like falling back in love. You know that if you wait here just a moment longer, you’ll always find a way out.

Self-Plagiarism and the Evolution of Style

I recently set a poem for SATB a cappella chorus that ended in the word “sun.” This music should have come easily to me, but I’d already set another SATB a cappella piece that ended in the word “sun” just a few months ago. Both sentences used the word to end their respective poems in an uplifting, redemptive gesture. They called for similar music, but I didn’t want to write the exact same music twice.

To what extent, as a composer, are you allowed to plagiarize your own music? Sometimes, of course, we do this unconsciously, realizing only belatedly that we’re repeating ourselves. How do we know when this is a terrible idea, and when it’s a great one? After all, there’s a long history of composers ripping off their own music, borrowing ideas and recycling whole measures—or sometimes whole movements. Even Bach did it. But given that repeating our past ideas can read as flat-out laziness, when, if ever, should we self-plagiarize?

Hitchcock once said, while defending the repeated use of certain filming techniques within his work, that “self-plagiarism is style,” and I think his philosophy holds the answer to when and how we should imitate our past compositions.

Some composers write in a style so recognizable, we need only hear a minute—or even a measure—of their music to know exactly who wrote it. Musicians occasionally criticize these composers for writing music that “all sounds the same,” but it takes skill to settle on a style that works consistently. A composer’s style becomes distinctive not only because certain ideas are present in many of their compositions, but because that composer has made compelling artistic choices deliberately and repeatedly across their body of work.

A composer’s style becomes distinctive not only because certain ideas are present in many of their compositions, but because that composer has made compelling artistic choices deliberately and repeatedly across their body of work.

In the evolution of artistic style, there’s a crucial distinction between “self-plagiarism” and “plagiarism.” Replicating the specific elements of gesture and orchestration that define another composer’s style is a tricky matter; do it without identifying your source material, and your work may be written off as derivative. Perhaps it’s best to avoid the most distinctive indicators—unless expressly doing so in homage—and to seek out whatever will come to define our own work.

There’s a difference between realizing you’re organically writing music similar to what you’ve done in the past versus purposefully trying to recapture the style of your previous work, too. The few times I’ve tried to write a piece similar to one of my older pieces, I’ve found it absolutely maddening; it’s impossible to recapture who you were and what mindset you were in when you wrote an older piece. Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s nearly always easier to forge ahead with a new work rather than intentionally re-create the style of an older one.

Are we responsible for creating our own “style” or should we simply write the music we want to write, let it evolve naturally over time, and allow others to decide what defining factors unite our complete body of work? On some level, our own style may always remain unknowable to us, recognizable only after we’ve written everything we’re ever going to write. We are, though, in charge of how we choose to imbue our music with meaning. Here’s where I think “self-plagiarism” does define style: rather than imitating old ideas or forcefully repurposing them into new pieces, we can view a creative lifetime as a chance to create our own musical vocabulary.

Consider a few moments in Thomas Newman’s film scores that sound similar. In several films Newman has scored—including American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, and White Oleander—Newman favors a sparse orchestral texture, with sustained strings and a simple melody in the piano. He uses this approach in so many different films that the repeated use of this texture must be deliberate. Often, these similar themes highlight moments in each movie when the presence of beauty creates a stark contrast to darkness or death. By writing similar themes for each of these different films, Newman strengthens the purpose and value of each individual theme. This music is recognizably written in his “style,” yes, but beyond that, it functions as a sort of life-long leitmotif within his work.

Even outside of film scoring, it makes sense for composers to use similar music to underscore parallel moments within different compositions. I considered this as I wondered how to set a second poem ending in “sun.” I’d already solved this musical problem once; if I solved it the same way again—with a different approach, but the same harmonic progression leading up to the final “sun” chordthat moment could effectively link both pieces together.

Applied to a life of composing, this intentional repetition could create a library of motives, gestures, and orchestration that defines our work. As we encounter words and dramatic moments similar to ones we’ve scored in a previous piece, we can purposefully link these pieces with the same vocabulary—adapted so that it will reflect whatever surrounds it—so that anyone who encounters both pieces will hear these pieces linked across time. For listeners who take the time to know our body of work, these moments will feel almost like an inside joke: a reward for speaking our language.

On Being a “Choral Composer”

female chorus

When I finished graduate school for composing nearly six years ago, I decided to structure my life and livelihood around the pursuit of a full-time composing career. I took stock of where I’d had the most success with composing, and at that time, I was selling the most scores and hearing the most performances of my choral music. Maybe assessing the commercial viability of my music sounds crass, but my motives weren’t purely financial. Writing vocal music comes fluidly and enjoyably to me, for the most part, more so than writing for (non-vocal) instruments. Given how much I love working with language in music, too, I often find vocal music the best medium for what I hope to express through my composing. I find an easy grace in writing for the voice—and by “easy,” I mean this: all composing is still work, of course, but this is the work I most love to do.

Structuring my life post-grad school, then, it made sense creatively and financially to focus on writing for voice, and more specifically on writing for chorus. I knew I’d eventually return to writing for instruments; I just didn’t know when or exactly how it would happen.

In the years since I decided to pursue writing for chorus, I’ve been asked if I consider myself a “choral composer.” I do, and I don’t. I’m happy to use that label if I’m in a situation—say, a choral conference—where I’m pursuing more opportunities to write for chorus. Other times, I find myself resisting the term, defensively reminding someone that I write for other instruments, too. Sometimes I get the impression that contemporary choral music is perceived as “lesser” than new instrumental works, at least within the new music community. When asked what kind of music I write, I usually mention my instrumental writing first and add that I compose often for voice, almost as if there’s something shameful in being defined primarily by my choral writing.

Over the last six years, I’ve written more than twenty-five works for choral ensembles, ten or so art songs, two pieces for voice with chamber ensemble, one piece for speaking chamber ensemble—there’s text, yes, but not singing—and five pieces purely for instruments, with no vocal element whatsoever. I wrote three of these non-vocal works within the last six months, in an effort to return to writing chamber music, and the transition has been a bit rough. Writing instrumental music doesn’t come quite as easily to me as writing art songs and choral works. My chamber music is not as well-known as my choral writing, and to be perfectly honest, sometimes I wonder if it’s not as good. To be fair, at some point in the process of writing every one of my compositions, I’ve been convinced that the piece in question is absolute garbage—it’s an unfortunate part of my process, not a reflection on the music itself.

All of that said, do I regret structuring my last six years around writing almost exclusively for chorus? Not a bit. I’ve accomplished the goals I set for myself when I graduated: several of my choral pieces have been accepted by and are now available from major publishing companies, and I’ve found viable ways to self-publish my other works as well. I’ve worked with several professional choruses and excellent conductors and released an album of my choral works. I know how to negotiate a choral commission, and I feel confident in my rate and the value of what I write. All of this feels like success.

I’d urge any other composer contemplating a full-time composing career to ask the same questions I considered six years ago: What work do you most enjoy doing? What work of yours have others already recognized as excellent? What medium or mediums stand out as the best fit for the ideas you feel compelled to express in your music?

For me, the answer to each of these questions is still choral music. It’s only when I find myself working on several pieces with a similar instrumentation in a row—say, three pieces for high school-level a cappella SATB chorus, all four to six minutes long—that I start to question my decision to focus so intently on choral composing. I’m sure I’d have the same feeling writing two works of similar length and style in a row for orchestra or for string quartet. Worrying that I might be repeating myself within my work and running low on innovation is what feels tiring, not the genre itself in which I’m composing.

As a result, I’ve found “niching down”—composing in one specialized field for a number of years, in order to build up a reputation and career in that field—to be a solid career choice, yes, but also a complex one. The question of whether to settle in one genre for a year, for a few years, or for an entire career comes down to this, I think: There’s only so much room to grow in your art if you’re not continually pushing yourself.

To avoid burning out and for my work to evolve, I need to seek out projects that don’t conform to what I already feel most comfortable creating. It’s good to stay a little uncomfortable when it comes to creativity. I need to look for variety in the projects that I take on, staggering similar projects across a wide span of time. And as long as I feel compelled to write vocal and instrumental music, I need to do both.

I’ve been considering all of this as I set long-term goals for the next few years, too. I very likely can’t continue to build a career as a “choral composer,” write and record an album’s worth of solo piano music, and compose two new works for orchestra at the same time, or even during the same year. Over the span of a few years, or a decade, or even a whole life spent writing music, though, there’s more than enough room for all of these goals to co-exist. We can focus on one field of music, then branch out to another. We can “niche down,” and we can embrace one identity (“choral composer,” “band composer,” “film composer,” etc.) for however many seasons that identity serves us, as long as we remain open to whatever music—in any genre—calls us to write it next.

Bringing a Residency Home

I’ve attended a different artist residency every year for the last four years, and at each one, I’ve learned something new about how to structure my life and my approach to composition.

The time at a residency feels sacred, and for that brief period, your life is centered around the pursuit of creativity. I find myself wondering how to take it all—the feeling of having enough time, ample creativity, and room to establish new routines—with me when I leave. Last year was the first time I felt that maybe I’ve finally answered that question. I found myself utterly homesick at a residency last spring, wondering what I was doing there that I couldn’t be doing at home. I realized that, over the last four years, I’ve created a life that has a lot in common with an artist residency.

Time is abundant at a residency. Because your life is suddenly structured around nothing but composing, you learn to confront any anxieties about the act of writing music or about not being good enough. In this way, a residency can serve as a sort of pressure cooker for any self-doubt or habitual procrastination already present in your everyday life. You’re not going to feel like composing every day, but in a place where life revolves around being creative, what do you do when you’re feeling burnt out?

Day to day, you realize that it’s almost less important what you’ve composed than that you have composed at all.

You learn to keep sitting back down at the piano or the desk, which can seem so difficult in ordinary life, with its many distractions: the computer, the phone, other people. Here you learn to just sit down and write. You learn to stop thinking about whether you’re writing the “best piece of your career,” and you learn to stop weighing your measly string quartet in the context of thousands and thousands of other, better string quartets that have come before. You learn what’s most conducive to getting work done, and you learn to abandon what isn’t. Day to day, you realize that it’s almost less important what you’ve composed than that you have composed at all.

At the residency, you’ll have a new workspace. Often, there’s a proper desk: a sturdy, large wooden desk, with room to spread out scores. There’s a piano, or there should be. It should be better than your piano at home, but if it’s not, you find a way to appreciate this piano because, at least temporarily, it’s yours.

Every day offers a new reminder that this is not your ordinary routine. Maybe you’re eating every meal with the same group of other artists, like you’re back at sleep-away camp. You go for a daily hour-long walk, or take up running again for the first time since high school, or find yourself hiking for eight miles on the residency property. You realize that you need to re-think your relationship to exercise at home; namely, you need to do more of it—walking, running, hiking—because you’re much stronger than you thought.

At a more social residency, you realize you’ve had a drink (or three) with dinner every night for the last two weeks. You compose for nearly six hours straight and skip lunch. Maybe one night, you find yourself singing karaoke in a bar in Wyoming. You seek out new things: new cafes, new hiking trails, the seventh-highest bridge in the United States. Maybe one of the other residents teaches you all how to play poker, and you stay up later than you’ve stayed up in months.

Other than when to eat meals, there’s no implicit structure here. Your new routines may barely resemble the ones you’re used to, or they may incorporate the best of your work habits at home with extra room to get things done. You learn what needs to be done to take care of yourself when there is no one else to take care of, and no one to take care of you.

You learn how to structure your days. Going straight from an undergraduate degree into grad school, I’d mistakenly thought I thrived on deadlines. Residencies have taught me that that’s a lie; in fact, I’m happiest when I build my day around one- to two-hour bursts of productivity interspersed with breaks and when I stretch out writing a piece over months, not weeks. I’m happiest when I’m at least a little bit productive each day and when I finish projects far ahead of schedule, with ample time for editing. This realization has completely altered how I compose back at home; now, I start projects as far in advance as I can, and I try to build in space for doing a little bit of work at a time and letting it unfold slowly, unhurried.

I’d mistakenly thought I thrived on deadlines. Residencies have taught me that that’s a lie.

At a residency, you’re confronted with being either “the most productive you’ve been in your life”—notes flowing freely and abundantly, six movements of a 35-minute piece drafted in just two weeks—or completely uninspired. You’re forced to define productivity to yourself and to accept that sometimes, when you’ve been productive enough, you need to figure out what to do with your free time.

I struggle so much with this at home. Even on a day when I’ve gotten plenty of work done on the business side of composing and taught a few piano students, I’ll catch myself complaining about my “horribly unproductive day” just because I didn’t also compose. This is something I’m clearly still working on: defining which work qualifies as “productive,” and trying to expand that definition to “all of it.”

At my first few residencies, I was the most productive I’d been in my life. I accepted “absurdly productive” as my default state at residencies until I found myself at one where, for two weeks, I had no desire whatsoever to compose. I’d met two big deadlines right before I left for the residency, and it was the wrong time to isolate myself for a month with the pressure to write even more.

That was a useful experience, though; I realized that timing at a residency is crucial. I cancelled a residency that I would have attended this spring, because several months ago, looking at the schedule I’m living right now, I realized the timing—just after several deadlines, a conference, and an album release—would have been wrong again. I’m glad I cancelled when I did. Here I am, months later, in desperate need of a guilt-free composing break and ready to take one.

That brings us back to free time. At a residency, you can’t possibly spend every waking second writing music; you can certainly try, but it’s not sustainable. You suddenly have more free time than you’ve had in years. How do you spend it?

I love to read, and I read fast; when I was younger, I devoured books daily. More recently, aside from reading in bed every evening for 10, maybe 20 minutes at most, reading novels for fun was a habit I’d stopped. It wasn’t until I started attending residencies that I learned to return to books when I needed a little break, or, if I was feeling uncreative, for entire days.

At home now, setting aside an hour or an entire afternoon to read still feels like a luxury. I haven’t yet learned to do it without a small, nagging part of my brain asking whether I shouldn’t be doing something more productive. But at a residency, there’s plenty of time to walk, to listen to podcasts, to watch movies, to listen to music, or to read an entire book in a day. I’m trying to give myself the same permission in my at-home life: to sit still long enough to let myself completely relax, and to spend several hours with a novel without feeling as though I’m neglecting something more important.

At a residency, your relationship with yourself changes. If there are other artists there, you see yourself reflected through your interactions with them. If there’s no one else there, you learn to be alone with yourself. You learn whether you enjoy spending time with yourself. You learn that whatever you don’t like about yourself is with you all the time, not just here; all of it rises to the surface. You learn to live with yourself, and you carry that home with you. If you enjoy spending time alone, you learn to make that a priority when you return home, too.

Here’s how my life is different, four years after I went to my first artist residency. I try to walk most days, and I try to hike at least once a month. When I accept a commission, I set a deadline with time built in: time to compose slowly, with room for the inevitable day or week when I’m feeling creatively stalled. Usually, though not always, I finish in advance of that deadline.

“It’s a luxury,” Ellen Sussman says, “when daily life is what I yearn for.”

I spend a comfortable amount of time by myself, even living with a partner. I am getting better at spending an entire afternoon doing nothing but reading, although when I do, I still check my email roughly every ten minutes, and then I feel guilty about that. I seek out more new experiences in general; I’ve sung karaoke in front of friends here in Los Angeles, not just strangers in Wyoming. I’m aware of what I’d like to change about myself, but in looking back at who I was before my first residency, I can see that I know myself better now; I like myself more.

Writer Ellen Sussman, whom I met at a residency, said something in an interview that has stuck with me ever since I read it. “It’s a luxury,” Ellen says, “when daily life is what I yearn for.” At my residency last year, I realized that I’d finally structured my life so that I already have at home nearly everything I want from a residency. I longed to be back with my boyfriend, my cat, and my piano.

This summer, I’m going to do a week-long residency about an hour and a half away from where I live in Los Angeles. At that very brief residency, I’ll be seeking what I truly can’t find at home, at least not now: isolated natural surroundings that are almost painfully beautiful; a piano that’s better than my upright at home; a span of time during which I truly don’t have to worry about anything other than writing music.

A residency is as close as we may get to living a life in service of nothing but creativity, and for that reason alone, I’m likely to keep going back. Someday, I dream of having my own private “artist residence”—a small house somewhere remote, with an excellent piano and a massive wooden desk. For now, though, I’m going to embrace what I’ve already created at home: a daily life I yearn for.

Living a Long-Form Life

As a living composer, I’m faced with my birth year in nearly every concert program. Every time I see that number—and usually it’s listed alongside composers with a death date, too—I’m aware that my time, and what I can compose during it, is limited.

I recently finished my longest work yet, a 35-minute piece for chorus made up of several 2- to 4-minute movements and one 8-minute movement. Writing a 35-minute piece could be intimidating, but writing a 3-minute movement is not. That’s largely how I approached the piece; I’d work on one shorter movement, then another. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to apply this strategy on a much broader scale: to break into movements not only compositions, but everything I want to achieve in my life and career, approaching a life in music as one would approach writing a long composition.

A long-form piece is judged as a whole; there’s no need to express what you want from the piece in a single movement. If we apply this to a lifetime, then one composition doesn’t need to contain everything you have to say, sum up your feelings about the current state of new music, or succinctly capture your worldview. Over a life-long body of work, there’s room for subtlety and nuance; we don’t have to demonstrate in 4 minutes, or even 35 minutes, that we know how to write music.

There’s no need to express what you want from the piece in a single movement. If we apply this to a lifetime, then one composition doesn’t need to contain everything you have to say.

Not every piece has to be perfect, either. The music you’re writing now may have flaws that you’ll later want to change, and there’s room for that, too. Not every piece even has to be good; some works may be more like prototypes, allowing you to try something out and potentially fail while honing that idea for a later, better piece. There’s time to let ideas unfold, and there’s room for rest.

A career functions much the same way. We don’t need to imagine that one big performance or one big award will be responsible for making our entire career. Instead, we can ask ourselves what we’ll try to achieve over the course of a life spent composing. If we view our writing as part of a life-long body of work, then when we set goals for what we’d like to accomplish, we can stop aiming for things we have no control over—like, say, a particular ensemble programming our work next season—and instead ask what we’d like to have happen during our lifetime. How will we pace ourselves over thirty, or sixty, or eighty years of writing music? What music do we want to write, and what will we express with that music?

Given the current political climate, most composers I know are asking ourselves whether every piece of work we compose should now express our political views. Moving forward, should every one of our pieces advocate for social justice? Maybe so, but I’m not sure that every piece we write needs to do so in a big, dramatic way in order to make a statement. Think of a longer composition; we’re able to recognize the larger themes in that work even if those themes aren’t present in every single movement. We take the work as a whole.

Bear with me on a brief tangent: I’ve been a vegetarian for fifteen years. On a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t feel like my personal decision is affecting the world in any huge way, or in any way, period. By not ordering chicken for lunch last Wednesday, I know I haven’t directly saved some hypothetical chicken’s life. If I cast my decision over the course of a lifetime, though, my attitude shifts completely. What sort of impact can I make over a lifetime of choosing not to eat meat?

This concept extends to the current need for representation of more composers who are not white and/or male and/or dead in classical music programming, too. A single concert with a non-white or non-male (or non-dead) composer on the program may not initially come across as advocacy, but if an ensemble regularly chooses to program this way, over the course of many seasons they’ll expose thousands of audience members to the concept that not all composers are dead white men. This, I’d argue, would make much more of a lasting impact than any single concert dedicated to this purpose.

In your creative lifetime, what are you going to accomplish with the music you choose to perform, write, or program? Looking back on the work that you’ve created in the past, what patterns are already present? You don’t have to be an activist in every piece, the same way that your 8-minute piece for solo violin doesn’t have to include every possible extended string technique. But if everything you do advocates for even a small aspect of what you believe, what kind of impact will you create over the course of your life?

Why I’m Not Getting a Doctorate

school bus

Photo by Gerry Dincher, via Flickr

I envy those who feel compelled to teach collegiate composition and music theory, who pursue a doctorate with this end goal in mind. Academia offers a stable career option for a composer: a salary, benefits, and possible tenure in a field that’s notorious for instability and little financial reward.

In the field of music, though, so many composers default to pursuing a doctoral degree and a teaching career without 1) considering the musical and general strengths that could augment their composing career outside of academia, or 2) asking themselves whether they excel at teaching or even enjoy it. I’ve witnessed numerous colleagues continuing on to a doctoral degree simply because it’s the next logical step, something to delay having to find a job.

I adored my time at the University of Southern California, where I received my master’s degree. My two years there felt too short in many ways, not because of the classes I’d taken, but rather because of the wonderful professors, abundant performance opportunities, and colleagues who quickly became lifelong friends. I was tempted to continue on to a doctoral degree at USC, but to do so would’ve been ultimately motivated by fear. While there is beauty in pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, my getting a doctorate would have been staying in school only to delay the inevitable, the “real world” that seems so terrifying as a student.

This “real world” is just as full of performance opportunities and outstanding mentors/colleagues as a university, though; it just takes a little more work to discover them. I made a pact with myself when I graduated with my master’s degree that I’d give myself three years to pursue whatever it would take to turn composing into a full-time career, and to evaluate the many forms in which that career could take shape.

If the arch of my career started to flatline or decline over the course of those three years, I decided, I’d consider going back to school. If my career continued to ascend at the same rate it had previously—which is to say, each year I had more performances than the previous year, or performances with higher-profile groups; or I made a little more money composing; or I simply felt more confident in my ability to ultimately make a living as a composer—I wouldn’t go back to school. If I could make it through those three years, I reasoned, I could make it through ten, or twenty, or whatever it took until my income matched my aspirations.

It’s been four years since I made the decision not to get a doctorate. I knew I’d have to find other sources beyond composing to support myself initially; I worked part-time as a nanny after graduating with my master’s degree, and more recently I’ve been teaching piano and composition to a small roster of around 15 students.

I do find it slightly ironic that after choosing not to apply for a doctorate—insisting I don’t want to teach for a living—I’m now teaching private piano and composition lessons. But the students I teach now, who range from ages 5 to 15, are passionate about piano and/or composition, and they are—most days—an absolute joy to work with. I run my own teaching studio; I control when and to whom I teach, and I’m on the path to making a living solely from composing by 2017.

I teach Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons/evenings, with one flexible student on Sunday mornings. This leaves mornings and Thursdays, Fridays, and weekends for composing and the business of composing. I continue to do what I’ve been doing since high school: applying to every composing opportunity I can find that excites me and offers the chance to advance my career.

I’m lucky that I love to write music for chorus, one of the few fields where a majority of ensembles actively program new music. Choosing a few years of making $25,000-30,000 a year in favor of ultimately supporting myself through composition has been well worth the trade-off to me: I am the one in control of how I spend my time. Filing taxes is never a fun activity, but this year I was happy to find that close to half of my income in 2014 was from composing. This percentage has been growing steadily every year.

I’ve made the decision to pursue composition as a full-time career, to align myself with this choice daily and pursue it whole-heartedly; so far, it’s working.

Mantras & Filters: Overcoming Composer’s Block

Path blocked

Composing at two different residencies in the span of less than a year brings the problem of “composer’s block” clearly into focus. I experience it not as a block or wall so much as a mental filter through which all ideas must pass, a filter clogged by a steady stream of self-criticism: This sucks. This sounds like second-rate [other, more accomplished composer]. I should only write choral music, because clearly I’m terrible at writing for “real” instruments. Who let me into this residency, anyway? The judges must’ve needed another female composer; maybe I was the only one who applied?

It gets bad. At a residency, when composing is the main—or only—activity on the schedule, the music flows more easily than usual, and when the block hits, that hits harder, too. The beauty of residencies, though, is that they come with a finite amount of time. There’s only so much time before self-pitying and the accompanying doubt—I’m wasting my residency!—become more cumbersome than the act of getting notes down.

I’ve finally figured out how to break through the filter of self-doubt on a fairly reliable basis. For me, what works is a series of mantras—nuggets of wisdom from people smarter than I am that I can repeat until the filter unclogs. Here, in the order in which they are usually deployed, is everything I know and tell myself when composing feels impossible and my brain kicks in:

This music absolutely sucks.

Mantra #1: Wallow.

So you’ve been sitting at the piano/computer/desk for a while, and nothing’s flowing? Take a—brief—moment to wallow in how much it sucks. Everything sucks. The music is terrible. Composing is hard. Life is hard.

Mantra #2: Take a break.

Okay, enough wallowing. Go—briefly—do something else. You’re allowed to take a break. You should take a break. Feeling creatively blocked is the only time when cleaning seems like an appealing activity to me, so I take advantage of it when I can. My house gets cleaner, and I view it as a win-win situation. Wash the dishes. Go for a walk. Read a book. Listen to someone else’s music—music that knows what it’s doing. Change locations. Go for a drive. Take a shower. Watch some trashy television, but only one episode. Do any task where your hands or body are occupied with a banal task, and your mind is free to roam.

I’ve forgotten how to compose.

Mantra #3: Just sit down (at the desk, at the piano, at the computer).

This can be the hardest step, I think, especially when writing hasn’t been going well. At home, my “office”—barely a separate room from the living room—is about ten feet away from where I usually eat breakfast. The hardest part of getting started each day can be walking those ten feet and doing work. So just sit down. Sit at the piano. Sit at the computer. As Jane Yolen and countless other authors have said, “Butt in chair” is the great secret to writing. Tell yourself you can even sit at the piano/desk and not write anything. Just sit down.

Mantra #4: Fix the things you know how to fix. —Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

In case of emergency, first go back and work on what you already have. Edit. Make sure slurs and dynamics are present and in the right place. Make minor fixes. Clean things up. Often just editing an older section of a piece results in re-familiarizing yourself with this material, which suggests another way to approach or rework it later in the piece. Skip ahead to a part of the piece where you know what’s happening. Skip to something you can take care of, something you feel confident about.

This music is utter crap.

Mantra #5: Shitty first drafts.—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Okay, now that you’ve tricked yourself into sitting back down and getting back into the work by any means necessary, it’s time to create. For this, I use writer Anne Lamott’s mantra of “shitty first drafts”: no one’s going to see what you’re writing, so it’s fine to write particularly horrible music. Maybe you know the sound you want, but you’ve forgotten how to notate it, or you can’t remember at this particular moment whether it’s even physically possible to produce that noise on this instrument. You can get stuck in the filter telling yourself that this makes you an ignorant, wretched composer, or you can say—out loud is particularly helpful—“shitty first drafts,” get it down, and remember you can always burn it later. (Or hit the delete key.) But just write something.

What is going on with this section? What is this music even doing?

Mantra #6: Delete, delete, delete.

As you think about the music, play it back, work through it—What feels right? What feels wrong? If it feels wrong, get rid of it. It’s terrifically freeing to delete what just plain doesn’t work. Better yet, save it somewhere else so that you can come back to it if you do miss that material (a tip from Stephen King’s On Writing, where he also quotes Faulkner’s advice to “kill your darlings”). But the chances are, you won’t miss the material, and you’re better off without it. At one point, this essay was at least three paragraphs longer; now that those paragraphs are gone, not only do I not miss them, I can’t even remember what they said.

Mantra #7: Trust yourself.

You’ve composed in the past; you’ll do it again. Trust that whatever you write next will be better than 1) whatever you’ve deleted, and 2) whatever you’ve written in the past. You learn from the music you’ve already written, and you fix whatever didn’t work in those pieces in your next piece, so your music is constantly improving. The knowledge of how to compose doesn’t go away. Trust that knowledge.

Mantra #8: Do what’s easy.

Think “easy” in the artistic sense, not in the “sitting on the couch and watching Netflix” sense. The most elegant solution to a problem is often the simplest one, especially if it emerges from embracing your strengths and choosing what comes naturally over something that feels forced. You’ll never reach this solution if you don’t delete the crap first, though, or if you judge your instincts without trusting them.

This isn’t complex/long/original/good enough.

Mantra #9: Don’t judge. Or: Write first, judge later.

Do you like it? That’s all that matters. I have a few quotes stashed away for whenever the filter goes but this work is terrible. It doesn’t matter that I really want this cadence here; the rest of the world is going to find it horribly clichéd and take away my composer card. Plus, I’m pretty sure this other composer already did this, and they did it better than I’m doing it.

I love this quote from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George: “Stop worrying if your vision is new / Let others make that decision—They usually do.” This quote from Philip Glass helps, too: “The main thing is to love the work that you do, because you may get no other reward.” Write for yourself. Yes, of course, you should keep the musicians for whom you’re writing in mind as you write them a piece. But in the moment of composing, the music itself is for you.

Even when we feel that we don’t know what we’re doing, even when we’re trying to judge everything that comes out of our fingers or our brain—even with all of that, it feels good to have written, and it usually feels good in the process, too, once we finally sit down and start. It’s supposed to feel good; this is why we write. That’s why we’ve chosen to be creators: no matter the pain and frustration of composing, it’s more painful to be stuck in the filter, not composing.

I have one final mantra, derived from one of my favorite quotes about composing—in the moment, and as a career:

I would tell any young composer: Go for it now. Don’t wait. Don’t say, ‘Well, I’m going to do that when I have time.’ Keep the writing going, and let everything be in a mess if it’s in a mess. Just don’t stop.

—Dale Warland, from this interview with Abbie Betinis

Mantra #10: Let everything be in a mess.

I think of this one as “shitty first drafts,” but for life. Composing is what matters. Sometimes I take this phrase very literally: so the dishes are in the sink, and there’s laundry all over the floor, and the area surrounding the piano is covered in sheet music. It doesn’t matter. Let it be in a mess, and if your score is a mess, let that be in a mess, too; you can fix it later, and you can clean later, but you will never get back this time that you have right now to be composing.

Put your butt in the chair. Write a shitty first draft. Everything that’s not working? Delete, delete, delete. Write first, judge later (or don’t judge at all). Trust yourself; you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again. Reward yourself when you’ve done the work. Come back to it the next day, and let everything be in a mess. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Watching TV at Copland House

Copland's desk

The Desk of Copland! The Living Room of Copland!

I don’t know why Copland House has cable. Some residencies don’t even have internet access, let alone 200 channels. But Copland House did, and so while I was there, I watched TV.

At the time, I didn’t know why I was spending my time at this coveted, greatly anticipated residency watching television. I woke up every morning delighted to be there. I read Copland’s autobiography. I spent time studying Copland’s scores in tandem with the ample CD collection at the house, pouring over his work daily. It’s hard to sit at Copland’s desk without thinking: I am sitting at Copland’s Desk! The Desk of Copland! The whole house feels that way: I am in the Living Room of Copland! The Kitchen of Copland! I am doing laundry in Aaron Copland’s Basement!

When I did sit down to compose my own music, though, I got more frustrated than I’ve ever been with my own ability to create—or not create—music. My thoughts churned rapidly into a downward spiral of “Why am I even here?” “I’m wasting Copland House’s time and money.” “I don’t deserve to be here.” “I’m a terrible composer.” “I’m probably the worst composer they’ve ever let into this residency.” More than once, I imagined the scowling ghost of Aaron Copland wondering who’d let me into the house.

I don’t know why these feelings chose this particular time and residency to emerge. It didn’t help, I suppose, that even at the beginning of April, the woods surrounding the house were completely barren; the view from the composing studio was absolutely striking, but also a monotony of brown. One morning—in April—it snowed.

I’d experienced writer’s block at my last residency, but never to this paralyzing degree, where I immediately rejected everything I wrote as trite and terrible. So I walked away from the piano, from Copland’s Desk, to Copland’s Living Room. I walked away from composing, and I watched TV.

I watched the season premiere of Game of Thrones. I watched the series premiere of Silicon Valley. One night, I re-watched Can’t Hardly Wait, which I realized has an irrationally high percentage of actor-overlap with the cast of Six Feet Under. While eating lunch, sometimes I’d watch E!’s noontime reruns of Sex and the City. There may be no greater way to make yourself feel like a bad composer—the worst composer, really—than watching the fluffiest of all fluffy shows in the house of one of the Great American Composers while being paid, essentially, to live there and compose.

I was composing, too, for long stretches of time, but I hated everything I wrote. Somehow, this particular residency and this particular piece brought up every insecurity I’d flirted with in the past. I spent my days careening between total giddiness at my surroundings (Copland’s Desk! Copland’s Porch! Copland’s Basement! Copland’s Music! Copland’s Autobiography!) and the worst composing insecurity I’d ever experienced. Halfway through the residency, something had to change: I couldn’t spend the entire residency rejecting everything I wrote before I even set it to paper. I settled into a routine, and that routine revolved around two things:

1) Compose.

2) Feel good about composing, by any means necessary.

I’d wake up; I’d study two or three Copland scores; I’d eat breakfast; I’d read Copland’s autobiography. I’d compose something, anything, and gradually, I stopped judging what I wrote. I’d go for a walk. Sometimes I’d compose more.

In the evening, if I felt like I’d had a productive day, I’d watch TV. I told myself that Copland, who mostly composed at night and enjoyed having friends over to his house during the day, wouldn’t have minded my taking a break as a reward for getting through the day, for sitting at the piano for hours and getting the notes down. Was the music I was writing good? Maybe, maybe not. But I got something down every day, and that became all that mattered.

Near the end of the residency, I stumbled on a Patti Lupone masterclass on HBO. Patti was teaching several high school students; at one point, she tells one of them, “Failure is the only thing that teaches, success does not. Success limits you because you try to repeat your success.” I wrote it down. I felt like I’d spent the previous two weeks failing at composing.

I’ve established a few things that I do consistently at artist residencies, but not necessarily in my ordinary life: I go for long walks. I read books I’ve been meaning to read for months but have put off, or new books I’ve gotten just for the residency. And yes, if it’s there, I will watch TV. (I recently applied to a residency that doesn’t even allow cell phones, which would obviously offer a very different experience.)

I have to believe that taking breaks helps to feed the art. Everything that’s not composing, everything that offers rest—journaling, reading, a walk, even Game of Thrones—is important, maybe even necessary to the process. One feeds the other. Failure feeds success. Self-doubt makes, sometimes, for a stronger resolution, when one returns to the piano, or to Copland’s Desk, to get the notes down, without judging them in the process.

So at Copland House, I read Copland’s autobiography daily. I worked my way through almost every one of Copland’s scores. I went for long walks. For the first time, since I don’t have cable at home, I watched a Game of Thrones season premiere when it aired. I hit a double bar on the chamber piece, Footnotes to a History of the Jewelry Box—which I’d continue to edit, but only gently, for months afterward—and started three new choral pieces. Right before I left, the multitude of bright yellow tulips planted around the property came up all at once, just in time for me to return home and find my way forward to another routine.