The Biggest Obstacle to Composing Isn’t What You Think It Is

As I trudged down to my basement studio, plopped myself at the piano, and opened my laptop to my notation software, an enormous sigh escaped me as I realized what I had to do that day: I had to finish composing another piece for my upcoming album Hematite.  And even worse, once that one was done, I had to finish three more in the next couple of weeks.

I stared at the piano keys for several minutes, trying to make myself get started.  I didn’t want to be there.  I didn’t want to spend all day alone in that cold room.  But most of all, I didn’t want to fail.

The sense of dread overwhelmed me that morning, and in desperation, I tweeted out into the void about my predicament:

To my amazement, the tweet racked up the most likes I’d ever received, and all sorts of musicians and artists revealed they struggled in the same way.

As it turns out, the biggest enemy of composing, or any other creative endeavor, isn’t writer’s block.  It isn’t deadlines.  It isn’t the distractions of every day life.  It’s yourself.

The reason I sometimes dread composing isn’t that I don’t enjoy it—it’s because I care about it so much.  I want all of my compositions to be good, and sometimes, the fear of writing a bad piece overcomes my willingness to try and then potentially fail.  If I don’t compose anything at all, I can’t fail by writing something bad.

For over a year of my undergrad—the year after my orchestra premiere with the Nashville Philharmonic—I didn’t want to compose anything.  I thought after my first big success that I would’ve felt inspired to write more than ever, but instead, the opposite was true.  Once I knew I was good enough to win an award like that, I felt like everything I wrote from then on had to be just as good.  I ended up paralyzed by my own perfectionism.

The Nashville Philharmonic premiere of my first orchestra piece “Out of Ashes”

In those days, I’d try to compose, but then it would only make me miserable because it never seemed to go as well as I thought I could do.  I wanted to succeed, but every time it seemed like I wasn’t I would beat myself up.

Somehow, I scraped by in my composition lessons, doing what I had to to get a decent grade, but then I wouldn’t write anything at all over school breaks—unless required by one of the summer institutes I attended, where I would wonder the entire time whether I belonged or not.

I began to question if I even wanted to be a composer anymore.  Imposter Syndrome took over, and then I had even more reason to suspect nothing I tried to write would turn out well.  (This burnout is one reason why it’s taken me so long to have enough pieces for another piano album.)

But I finally found the antidote in the middle of rural Maine one summer while at Atlantic Music Festival—a remedy that still helps to this day.

Just like my recent morning in the studio, one afternoon I found myself sitting at the piano, contemplating whether I could write anything or not, as bits of Chopin and Mozart pieces wafted from other practice rooms into mine.  I had a month away from everyday life, and I didn’t want to let it go by without a new composition.

At Atlantic Music Festival in July 2017

But my artistic burnout had followed me to the festival, and I felt anything but inspired at first.  I didn’t think I had any good music left in me anymore.  So in that moment, I decided I would simply write something.

I decided to put aside any expectations that my piece would turn out well.  I realized I could compose something just for fun—just a nice piece that I never intended to win an award or be groundbreaking in any way.

And guess what happened?  By releasing myself from the pressure of perfectionism, I wrote more in three weeks than I’d written in the last three months—and my music did turn out well.  More importantly, it was one of the first times I’d enjoyed the process in a long time.

In these past two weeks leading up to Tracking Week, there have been obstacles I didn’t anticipate, but sometimes the biggest one has been myself.  I get up every morning and have to fight my perfectionism to get anything done.  I have to drown out that critical voice that says I’m not going to succeed and that I shouldn’t bother to try.  And even after all these years, it’s still a battle every day.

Me six years ago trying to finish composing my first album Airborne

I’ve been up against some other challenges lately that make me wonder whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.  Sometimes I question why I’m putting myself through everything that it will take to finish the project.  No one is making me do this album.  I don’t have a record company pressuring me to meet a deadline.  I don’t even get to count it towards my master’s thesis (as far as I know).

But the reason I’m attempting this album in the first place is the same reason I can push past my perfectionism:
I’ve simply decided that I want to compose something

I’m not doing this album to impress anyone or win an award or try to be brilliant—I’m doing it for me.  It’s about the process and expressing what I’ve been burning to say.  And I believe that listeners connect best with authenticity, when we are true to ourselves artistically and not doing something only for our career or reputation.

Today is the first day of Tracking Week, and I have until Sunday to record the rest of the album as well as an unrelated secret project that I’ll reveal soon.  I still have two more pieces to finish for Hematite.  There’s no time left to sabotage myself—now is the time to write whatever I have in me to write, and to write it louder than the yelling from my inner critic.

Whatever I come up with in the next few days, even if it’s not perfect and doesn’t meet an impossible standard, will be better than letting perfectionism ruin my chance at finishing the album at all.

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