Watching TV at Copland House
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 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:
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.