Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year’s Resolutions for Composers

In a recent posting on the wonderful blog of Orthodox Christian theology, Mystagogy, author John Sanidopoulos presents, without comment, a short quotation attributed to the 12th Century Church Father, St. Peter of Damascus. On the topic of resolution, St. Peter writes, "If you want to do something good, do it; and if you cannot do it, then resolve to do it, and you will have achieved the resolution even if you do not fulfill the action itself. Thus a habit, whether good or bad, can gradually and spontaneously be overcome. If this were not the case, no criminals would ever be saved, whereas in fact not only have they been saved, but many have become conspicuous for their excellence. Think what a great gulf separates the criminal from the saint; yet resolution finally overcame habit." It’s that final line, "…resolution finally overcame habit" that I find so compelling. Perhaps, we all know this deep inside and this is the reason we dutifully make our resolutions over and over again, year after year. As I am apparently not immune to this desire, here are the top five New Year’s resolutions I have made for my own professional career:

1. Write Everyday

This is a mantra my students hear continually from my lips. It’s a notion that I heard from both of my principal teachers, Roger Hannay and Donald Erb. I remember Roger once asking what I was writing. Having just completed a piece (a Herculean task for an undergraduate and one that I thought merited high accolades), I off-handedly replied that I was “in-between” pieces at the moment. “Then you are not a composer right now” was his quick response. For some reason, this comment stuck with me. It was further bolstered by Donald Erb who continually asked me what I was working on, even long after I had graduated. Both of these great composers expected that I would be constantly writing, constantly embarking on new projects and constantly growing as a creative artist. For the most part, I practice what they preached in this area. I don’t literally, physically, sit in my studio each day without interruption – 365 days in succession – writing music. But I do come pretty close. And on those days that I am not actively writing – I am usually noodling in my head; rolling ideas around until they begin to take on an urgency that compels me to commit them to manuscript. My resolution in 2012 is to maintain this one good habit instilled in me by my teachers.

2. Feed the Aural Imagination

A good diet for composers!
One of the best ways to maintain an ambitious writing schedule is to have a deep reservoir of ideas. To create music that goes beyond mere craft, a composer must have a well-developed aural imagination. I’m a firm believer that for a composer – someone responsible for creating something literally out of nothing – this aural imagination is fed and maintained by active engagement in thought-provoking and inspiring activities. Of course, the first activity is that of music itself. It’s important to listen to recordings and, preferably, attend live performances of as much music as possible. However, feeding the aural imagination goes well beyond just music. I believe a composer needs to be exposed to great visual art, to dance, to theatre and great literature. Composers should grapple with great ideas – secular and sacred. Engaging in and thinking about art, philosophy, politics, literature, religion among other disciplines feeds the creative spirit. This is an area where I have lagged in recent years. I’ve read too few books, attended too few art galleries and far too few concerts. My resolution in 2012 is to correct this undesirable trait.

3. Take Advantage of Opportunities

The idea that a composer would not take advantage of an opportunity seems ridiculous. Yet, how often I have let deadlines for score calls and similar opportunities pass me by. How many times I have not immediately followed up with a performer or ensemble that I met in some professional or social setting. I could fall back upon the well-worn excuse of not having the time. For me, this is no excuse. Rather, it is a cop-out. In 2012, I need to do a much better job of following leads, applying for grants, fellowships and commissions and submitting to as many eligible (and affordable) score calls and competitions as I can. I need to continually remind myself of something I stress to my students: composing music is my work. I have many other important obligations, but it is critical for the composer to distinguish between professional obligations and true work. I should not compose after my "work” is completed. I need to fulfill my obligations to the best of my ability so I can get back to my work; to writing music and taking advantage of all opportunities to write more music. 

4. Use Social Media

In 2011, I finally launched a new professional website. I also began to participate more fully in several social media outlets including the ubiquitous Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the new kid on the block, Google+. I was diligent about maintaining this blog and also set up pages on ReverbNation and SoundCloud where my music can be streamed. Furthermore, I got my 2007 chamber music recording, Aegean Counterpoint, up on iTunes and Amazon.mp3. And still, I am way behind in the new frontier of social media and Internet marketing. I’m a firm believer that composers must promote themselves. We don’t often have professional representation and print publishing opportunities are vanishing faster than smoke in a wind tunnel. In 2011, I realized that sites like Facebook were not just about posting pictures of pets and alerting the world to scores in online games. Social media is a serious force that can be used to do what publishers and agents used to do for composers: get composers noticed, commissioned and performed. Good examples of rethinking about social media and online marketing can be found in two recently posted articles. The first, written by Gerrit Hall on the technology site, Mashable, is entitled “Facebook Timeline Is Basically Your Digital Resume.” The second article, written by Michael Wolf on the technology site, GigaOM, is entitled “Why 2012 Will Be the Year of the Artist-Entrepreneur.” Both are fascinating articles and speak to my point that composers need to begin to harness the great potential the Internet offers. However, to do so takes diligence and some sacrifice of time. I believe it is time well spent and resolve in 2012 to make even better use of this tremendous resource.

5. Give Back

Yours truly with the Fall 2011 GSU Student Composers.
In addition to writing everyday, feeding my aural imagination, taking advantage of all opportunities and effectively using social media, it is important for me to remember to give back to my profession as much as I can. First and foremost, this means being a good composition teacher. This is no small task – especially given the fact that I stand in the overwhelming shadow of truly great composers and teachers. I am indebted in ways that cannot be expressed in mere words to these teachers. The only way I know to properly pay them back for all they have given me is to try, as best I can, to do the same for my students. My 2012 resolution is to be more patient and understanding and to be more engaged in my pupils’ work and careers. I resolve to remember that it’s a tough business we’re in and everyone needs as much help as they can get. Moreover, I resolve to be a better colleague to my fellow “professional” composers and performers. After all, if we don’t look out for each other, who will?

So there is my list. Hopefully one or two of these resolutions will take root and will overcome some undesirable habits. What’s on your list for 2012? Leave me a comment and let’s talk!