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.

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”

4 Life Lessons I’ve Learned from My First 7 Days in Chicago

As the flat, corn-lined highway stretched in front of me for as far as I could see, months of anticipation and preparation shifted into reality.  After uprooting myself from my beloved Music City eight months ago, I was now trading my Virginia Appalachians for Chicago skyscrapers.

I’d visited the city for just a few hours in the spring, but now I’d committed to an entire two years of graduate school there.  What if I got back to Chicago and ended up hating it this time? Continue reading “4 Life Lessons I’ve Learned from My First 7 Days in Chicago”

I’m a Composer from Charlottesville…

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“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” -Leonard Bernstein

At Atlantic Music Festival this summer, that quote was our motto, though none of us knew how appropriate it would become to current events.  And while I was going to post about the amazing summer I had at Atlantic, I felt that as someone who grew up in Charlottesville, I needed first to express my solidarity with the persecuted and the families of those who lost their lives to violent monsters who invaded my beloved, diverse hometown last weekend.

Continue reading “I’m a Composer from Charlottesville…”

The Next Step

It’s amazing how much can change in a few weeks’ time…  I’ve moved to Nashville and started college.

Up to this point, my posts had running through them the consistent theme of being a teenager and trying to figure out how to make good recordings and compositions on my own—and often getting in over my head with my undertakings.  However, now I have the ability to learn from some of the best of the best; I’m not on my own anymore.  But I don’t know what that will mean for this blog.  For that matter, I’m still figuring out what that means for me. Continue reading “The Next Step”

Airborne is Out!

It’s been a wild ride, but my debut solo piano album Airborne is done and out!

Eleven months ago, I was inspired after returning from two GRAMMY Camps and had a bold idea: I was going to release a thirty-five minute solo piano album by the end of the following summer.

At the time, I only had one piano piece (“Airborne”) that I felt was good enough to record.  I had already committed to producing an EP for singer/songwriter Lily Garay that fall, too.  And there were college music school auditions in February to practice and prepare for.  Suffice it to say that the prospects of releasing a full-length album were not good. Continue reading “Airborne is Out!”

Studio Diaries – Airborne, Part 2: The Rubber Meets the Road

I didn’t want to do this, but I’m pushing back my Airborne album release to July 19.  I’ve changed my plans, but I haven’t changed my mind—I’m still making an album.  I’m going to push through these roadblocks and move forward. Continue reading “Studio Diaries – Airborne, Part 2: The Rubber Meets the Road”

Composer’s Block: Pushing Past the Walls

Too many composers and songwriters just sit around and wait for creativity to happen.  But the truth is that, most of the time, by making yourself write, you inherently have to be more creative to be able to put something on the paper in the first place.

I used to be the kind of composer that just waited around, and I often moved onto new pieces whenever I hit the “barrier.”  I used to think that forcing yourself to be creative stifled creativity, but now I see otherwise. Continue reading “Composer’s Block: Pushing Past the Walls”

Studio Diaries – “My Heart Beats,” Part 1: Long Hours and Little Sleep

I know I said I was going to make posts about everything that happened this summer, but right now, I’m in the middle of something big–I’m producing my first album.  I’m producer, engineer, executive producer, and keyboardist on Singer/Songwriter Lily Garay‘s debut bilingual pop EP “My Heart Beats.”   For the next few weeks, I’m going to be keeping a “Studio Diary” so you can have an insider’s look at the whole thing.  I will also have some mixing and production tips interspersed here, too, to make it even more interesting. Continue reading “Studio Diaries – “My Heart Beats,” Part 1: Long Hours and Little Sleep”

College Choices: Don’t Try to Fit In

There are so many decisions to make when you’re a senior.  It’s hard to know what to do.

College applications are heading my way, and auditions are drawing near.  You might think this wouldn’t be a problem for me since I already know that I want to produce and compose.  But I haven’t been worried about what I’m doing after college.  The question for me has been what to do in college.  I’ve felt really torn between classical composition vs. commercial composition vs. audio engineering.

Continue reading “College Choices: Don’t Try to Fit In”