String Quartet No. 1

It was a Friday night, and I found myself, once again, sitting alone in my dorm room, alternating between staring at my much-too-blank score and at the dusty keys of my keyboard. Making progress on my midterm composition project seemed impossible. I’d never even written a string quartet before. How was I supposed to write my first one in three weeks? And it wasn’t like I could spend the entire day working on it for three weeks—I had fifteen other credit hours of course work to deal with on top of daily two-hour piano practicing.

For two weeks, I tried and tried to make progress on my quartet, but after the first twenty measures, nothing was working. I tried different approaches to composing. I tried sitting outside under the oak trees and just “listening” to whatever came into my head. I tried imagining how the piece should’ve sounded. After those methods failed, I went back to the piano and started improvising off my main theme. I started to make progress that way, but it too failed.

Frustrated, I came back to my final Tuesday composition lesson before the due date bemoaning the unproductiveness and composer’s block I was experiencing.  I told my professor that I wasn’t sure it was possible to finish the piece in another week.

His confident response was, “I’ve seen your portfolio.”

My professor had seen my portfolio, but had I?
My professor had seen my portfolio, but had I?

In that instant, I saw the light, and I realized that my biggest problem wasn’t my method of composition or even a lack of experience––it was that I hadn’t thought I could do it.  I suppose it was a sort of artistic depression—it seemed so hopeless, that even though I was fighting so hard, I was at the same time barely trying anymore.  But then I stepped back and looked at what I’d written, and I realized that my professor was right.  I could finish the quartet.

“Compose” began to take on a whole other meaning for me that week. I may not have been “hearing” anything in my head. I may not have felt any emotion to inspire the piece.  I may not have had a story—but I had my willpower and my mind, and I realized that was enough. I pushed through the walls. It was a revolutionary concept: Why didn’t I just compose?

With three days left until the due date, I simply didn’t have time to think about whether or not what I was writing was any good.  If I caught myself staring blankly at the empty staves, I’d tell myself, I’ve seen my portfolio, and I’d just write something. It was when I stopped trying to make the piece “good enough” that I made some of the most memorable moments––and wrote the most music.

In the end, it only took around fifteen hours to write my string quartet once I stopped getting in my own way.  Until I pushed myself to write the quartet in three days, I don’t think I’d truly seen my own portfolio.  But now I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s better to step back and look through the fading pages of your well-worn book of compositions than to stare hopelessly at an empty score.  It is in your portfolio that you can see how far you’ve come and dream of how much farther you can push yourself to go.

Mission accomplished!
Mission accomplished!

So readers, let’s hear from you: how do you overcome composer’s block?  Have you ever felt like you were your own biggest obstacle?