Tag: deadlines

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.

Taking the Long View

Taking the Long View

Since music is such a temporal art, it’s rare when composers aren’t talking about time in one way or another; whether the topic is metric modulation or missing deadlines, the ever-present clock is never far from our thoughts. More often than not, when we schedule our lives, for instance, we tend to organize time in terms of what is near to us: today, this week, this month, and maybe two to three months down the road. It isn’t until one’s career reaches a certain momentum that the thought of months and years in advance becomes not only necessary but also crucial.

I recently got to see first-hand some choice reactions when my students were alerted to this special aspect of time at our Composers Forum this week, and their reactions resonated with me for many reasons. As my colleagues and I were discussing the topic of graduate schools and what went into the application process for composers, I started talking about the list of deadlines that next year’s seniors needed to keep in mind. I try hard to instill in my students a healthy respect for their deadlines, so we started by nailing down the typical date for graduate applications, which for most schools is December 1st.

As we talked through the various time constraints that exist before that deadline occurs–proofing, editing, and binding scores, editing recordings, proofing and editing curriculum vitae, confirming letters of recommendation, Thanksgiving vacation, etc.–they began to realize that their portfolio scores needed to be performed by mid-October, which meant that anything they were going to send out needed to be composed by early to mid-September at the latest. It was then that eyebrows began to creep upwards at the same rate as jaws were being lowered–the seniors were now coming to the realization that they had a mere six months left to compose anything that might help them move on to the graduate school of their choice.

Now I had their attention.

It had been quite some time since I first began needing to think of projects in terms of months and years as opposed to days or weeks, but I recognized the reactions well enough. Between my own composing projects and my duties as advisor to our student-run new music presenting organization, I’ve slowly grown accustomed to thinking of 12-16 months from now as if it were happening next week and sympathize with anyone who has a hard time with the idea. The ease of succumbing to the lure of procrastination can be even more pronounced when one’s deadline or due date is months or years away–just think of how much work and other projects can be accomplished in that time! And then reality starts to set in–one dimly remembers how fast those weeks and months slide by, with barely familiar resolutions about improving one’s own work habits echoing faintly in the distance. Increased heart rate, shallow breathing, irritability, and a proclivity for sudden outbursts of epithets are not far off.

Luckily, many of my students have been dealing with these long-range time concepts for a while now, which, in my humble opinion, is the only way to learn how to survive them. By reverse-engineering timelines backwards from their deadlines, they’re pretty comfortable with the idea of how to tackle such projects. Hopefully that past experience will keep them from freaking out too much and allow them to realize not only how much time they really do have to create some quality work, but also how much they’ve already accomplished and how to balance the two together.