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.

What Goes into Making a Piano Album… And an Official Release Announcement!

With my first year of grad school behind me, and six months since my last post, you can say there’s a lot to catch up on—both on this blog and in life, I suppose.  But I’m going to cut to the chase with what’s going on right now:

I’m recording my second solo piano album, Hematite!  It will be released on July 26th.

I know I’ve had six years to do this (my first one Airborne came out in 2013), but to be honest, I’m somehow scrambling to finish this by the deadline.  How can this be?

I’ve worked on this second album off and on since 2014, but I got sidetracked with other composition and engineering projects for college.  You can’t just write for solo piano if you want a degree in composition—nor can you just engineer your own single album if you want an audio degree.  You have to branch out and get out of your comfort zone.

Audio school and music school were “distracting” in the best way

Since releasing Airborne at the end of high school, those four and a half years of college have made me a better composer, pianist, and audio engineer.  Obviously, this is a good thing, but there’s an unintended consequence: when I went back recently to listen to the pieces I’d already recorded for Hematite, I realized they were no longer representative of my abilities.

By getting better at what I do (and being a perfectionist), I unwittingly made more work for myself, prolonged the album process, and have put myself into a bind to try to meet this July 26th release.

Before I say any more, I’m going to back up because you may be wondering what hematite is.  And why did I call my album that?  Well, hematite is a mineral that’s an iridescent dark gray with streaks of red—hence the “-hema,” which means blood.  It carries a lot of symbolic meanings in folklore, such as strength, courage, and healing.

Actual hematite stones

I don’t want to say too much else right now, but I’ll just say that the obscure title is a subtle acknowledgment of a turning point in my life and an invitation for listeners to assign their own meanings—everyone has their own difficulties and could use those things that hematite can symbolize.

Okay, this all sounds nice, but if you’re still reading this, then perhaps some of you are still wondering:

What exactly goes into making an album and why am I so concerned about finishing or not?

What does it take to go from a musical idea, to a finished composition, to a recorded track, to a cohesive collection?  What does it take to make a professional quality product?

For a more classical-type album like this, the process is a little different than, say, a pop record where you’d want a team of musicians, songwriters, engineers, a producer, and a marketing group if you’re a big enough artist.  You’d also usually have a pre-production phase before getting to the studio where you work with a producer to iron out any kinks, but that doesn’t apply for me.  I could still have assembled a team in my genre if time and budget allowed, but…

No, I’m the entire team for this project—I’m doing all of my own composing, performing, producing, marketing, and even graphic design.  I’m entirely responsible for every single aspect of the process from writing strong pieces, to making recordings that sound good, to managing everything that has to do with the business side.

If it sounds like a lot, well—it is.  And frankly, I’m overwhelmed and wondering if I can really finish in this timeframe.  I’ve only recorded four of the nine or ten tracks, and four tracks are still in various parts of the composing phase.  I haven’t even started the tenth track, so as much as I’d like to have an even ten, it may not happen.

  1. So first, I have to get the remaining tracks recorded within a few days of the piano getting tuned.  This way, I can avoid slight pitch problems.  I’m very picky about my recordings being in-tune. 🤷‍♀️ I now have just under two weeks to finish composing those four or five tracks to stay on schedule because tuning is on June 10th.  I’ll give myself until the end of the week to finish tracking, but hopefully I’ll finish sooner.If the composing isn’t good, the whole album won’t be good.

  2. Next, I have to edit everything because recording is just the beginning.  I try to get my pieces recorded in one take, but often there are one or two (or ten) spots that bother me enough that I want to cut them out and then replace them with a different take.  Of course, it’s always a fine line between making a “perfect” performance and a natural-sounding one with emotion.
    One likes to hope they won’t need this much editing for one track…

  3. Once I’ve recorded all of my tracks and pieced together the best performances,  I still won’t be done.  Next, I’ll have to master the album.  This is where you add EQ and gentle compression (in the case of classical piano) to smooth out the sound and bring up the volume of the tracks to a level comparable to other commercial recordings.  Mastering is also the stage where you set how long of a break there is between each track and encode metadata for a CD.  June 30th is the latest I can submit the final master to the disc manufacturer to get the CDs printed in time for the July 26th album release concert.
    Sometimes letting go and uploading the project is the hardest part…

  4. Lastly, I have to drive up to the plant in New Jersey (actually, I’m tagging along with family to see relatives conveniently near the company) to pick up the disks in-person to cut out shipping costs and avoid using more-expensive expedited production time.  It’s $400 versus $800, so with my almost non-existent budget that’s well worth it—and it’s great to see family while I’m at it.
    What a feeling when the album is done and you can hold it in your hands!

So can you see why finishing this second album in less than two months is a bit overwhelming?

Nevertheless, I’m confident I can pull it off.  If I can do it as a high-schooler in 2013 with almost no formal training, than I can do it now with six more years of experience, two degrees behind me, and half of a master’s… Right?  It won’t be easy to meet the deadlines, but somehow, someway, I’m going to show up to my album release party with something in hand.

So friends, I hope you’ll buckle up and come along for the journey.  I could still fail fantastically, in which case you’ll have a good laugh, or I could pass with flying colors—or maybe it’ll be something in-between.

I’m going to be posting every week giving you an inside look at every step of this adventure.  Get ready for a wild ride…

Nashville After 3 Months in Chicago: Here’s What Happened

A few weeks ago, I was thrilled to learn that my latest piece “Internal Combustion” was going to premiere in Nashville with the Nashville Composer Collective.  Not only did this mean a performance (something we composers are always looking for), but it was also an excuse to go back to my old stomping ground for a few days.

However, my excitement was soon outweighed by apprehension.  Would spending time in Nashville and remembering the life I once had make me regret the whole decision to move to Chicago?  Or would Nashville just seem like a boring, quant town after three months of life in the big city?

But perhaps the biggest question was, why was I so concerned about my perspective on Nashville when I have all of these great opportunities in Chicago right now? Continue reading “Nashville After 3 Months in Chicago: Here’s What Happened”