Lessons from Fearless Composers

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

The One Thing

The Voice in my Head has been telling me this for as long as I can remember: “You must specialize over a lifetime at one thing. Become an expert at that thing. Use your authority in that area of expertise to support yourself financially and make the impact you want to see in the world.” That is a lot of pressure for one skill set. I followed that advice though, and stuck with my One Thing until I could call myself a Master of Music in Classical Flute Performance. I was proud of my achievement and the skills I had learned, and my flute playing in particular, but even to my ears the degree sounded dangerously narrow. After graduate school, I stepped into the working world in an oasis of creativity: the growing Austin, Texas of 2013. I was relieved to find that people my age were breaking the rules: rather than working in the field that they had specialized in, many were learning new skills outside of their formal specialization and starting businesses with them, or applying to join companies unrelated to their university major, or using a few of the skills from their education to supplement some other creative business venture. My peers were working part time jobs and building their careers from the ground up. It started to become clear at that time that my expertise in Classical Flute Performance wasn’t actually as narrowly focused as I’d feared. I may have I thought I was spending all that time on how to play the softest high A on the piccolo, or the most effortless-sounding Firebird, but beneath that I was honing many additional superpowers, including:

  • A mindset and techniques for collaborating well with others (“orchestral playing”)

  • How to function as a single organism with a group of people (“chamber playing”)

  • Working alone in an extremely detailed and efficient manner, daily, for hours at a time (“practicing”)

  • thinking critically about choices made by myself and others (“musicality”)

  • Diligent and comprehensive research techniques (“score study”)

  • Communication skills for all personality types

  • Interacting professionally and respectfully with authority figures

So in my twenties, I used those strengths on a series of adventures, feeding off of the energy and sense of limitless possibility around me. I wrote about twenty original songs for flute, had a period of arranging pop tunes for flute loops, made some of my own dance choreography to my original songs and joined a couple of local bands.

The Missing Piece

I enjoyed it all, but I never got the same spark of excitement that I had experienced the few times in my life when I had written music for other instruments. The flute has a very specific range of sounds and pitches it can produce. In my writing and playing, regularly pushed the limits of the instrument: one of the most common comments I get after playing a show is, “I didn’t know a flute could sound like that!” That kind of experimentation led me to a natural hunger for more colors. It was like I was painting in ten colors when I knew there were hundreds available in the spectrum. There were so many more sounds and feelings I wanted to weave together, and so many narrative arcs that I felt I could not convey unless I had three or four-note chords at my disposal! Despite this yearning, I couldn’t bring myself to write for any instrumentalist other than myself. Why was it that the kind of classical composition I dreamed of doing - notating music for instruments that I don’t play - felt out of reach?

I surrounded myself with composer friends, trying to bridge the psychological gap that kept me from pursuing the kind of composition I wanted to do. I collaborated with composers to write new works for flute and electronics, and traveled to perform them at composition conferences. The composers didn’t play my instrument - how did they have the courage to write for me? Somehow they were fearless about striking out into an unknown instrumental realm. I remember the first time I had a writing session with a composer (Eli) who was writing me a piece. He had notated a bunch of pitches and dynamics and basically asked me to produce all the sounds I could think of. As he worked on the piece, he’d come back with some sheet music and I’d say, “Here’s how this could be more idiomatic for the flute,” or “that’s bordering on impossible,” or "I don't have notes that low," or I’d gush about how a specific passage was just right. I was inspired by Eli's willingness to start something, know it wouldn't be perfect, and then learn from it, but I couldn’t make the leap to following his example. I felt strongly that I didn’t know enough to do a good job, and was too afraid to just scribble some things for a cellist, for example, and then go show a cellist and find out what’s possible. I also felt like I had forgotten too much of my theory to create chord progressions that sounded good.

The Golden Hornet Showcase

A couple of weeks ago, I performed in a concert that flipped the script in my brain completely. I was attending in a role I in which I felt comfortable: as part of the professional chamber ensemble premiering 15 new classical works. It was a packed house, and an extremely well-organized production. The range of musical styles was diverse, with influences ranging from 19th century Russia to 20th century France to ragtime to film scores of the last 10 years or so. The music was challenging to play, and the pieces were compelling to listen to. Composers were interviewed about their pieces as we played each one, and it was fascinating to learn about the process and writing mindset in each mini-interview.

I had talked to composers about their process before, but this concert was special: all the composers were between 10 and 18 years old!

One shared that he had intended to write a very serene piece, but then had a really bad day one day, which is why the final piece sounded so menacing. Another spent half a year analyzing the musical scores of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich, to emulate those writing styles in a trio for violin, cello, and piano - the resemblance was striking but the new piece still felt unmistakably unique and modern! A third composer expressed that he was exploring a new style with his premiere (the minimalist soundscape was so artfully orchestrated that I would have never known). A fourth had recently published a coloring book based on an original story she'd written, and a fifth was working on a novel. A sixth composer hadn't been able to attend the premiere of his work - he was away in Manhattan, playing at Carnegie Hall.

What did these kids know that I didn’t, that they felt comfortable writing for other instruments they didn’t know anything about? How could they fearlessly write in styles with which they had no prior experience? After the first Golden Hornet show rehearsal, I approached Graham Reynolds, one of the co-founders and mentors, to ask what process he used to teach the kids to compose. He told me, "We don't write anything for them." They get mentorship a couple of times, but they have to start by producing something.

"How do they get started?" I asked.

"They just do it," Graham said with a smile and a shrug.

None of those young composers said, "I don't have enough experience," or "I don't have enough skill to do this." They hadn't internalized the perspective that some activities are reserved for experts; or that some specialized skill set was needed to do the thing they wanted to do. They wanted to write some music for six instruments. Knowing how was not a prerequisite in their minds - they just got started, and then learned along the way.

Turns out, that was the revelation I needed. Within the week, I picked up a midi keyboard from my old roommate. The next day, I sat down at the keyboard and plunked out some chords that had been running through my head. I added a bass part. Then I added a flute melody. The next morning, I added a piano countermelody. I was composing for piano, bass, flute, and percussion. Would it be perfectly playable by real instrumentalists? Not likely. Did it matter? Nope. Like the kids, I’ll learn as I go. [Edit: curious how it turned out? Check it out here]

The First Step

As adults, we often hold ourselves back from doing things we dream of based on the limiting belief that we are "not good enough." Witnessing a child do something that scares you as an adult is one way to get back to that mental model of limitless possibility. I recently listened to another instance of this in an amazing TED talk by Scott Dinsmore. The experience and skills that we have accumulated as adults in certain areas can actually can lead us to feel less competent in others - our brains get in our own way. We start to fall back into believing that we must stick to our specialty forever, and that we’re not qualified to do anything else.

I learned from the Young Composers’ Concert that the only prerequisite to learning a new skill is wanting to practice it. For me, that means that to start becoming an expert at composing for other instruments, the first step is, predictably, composing for other instruments! I also learned that my skills in my seemingly narrow specialization of Classical Flute Performance actually lend themselves wonderfully to composing. All the music that I’ve listened to in my life contributes to what comes out when I sit down to compose. That’s a lot more material than 10 or 18-year-old has to work with, and they came up with some pretty fantastic stuff, so I don't need to worry. It turns out that even though I may have forgotten the particulars of my music theory training, I use that theory in practice when I write - similarly to the way your muscle memory can remember things that you don’t consciously know (like a password, or a combination for a lock). It has been rejuvenating and exhilarating to start down this road that I didn’t think I was “qualified” to walk, and I’m looking forward to how my compositional style evolves, as I work at it one week at a time. Is there a skill or profession that you’ve wanted to have, but you feel held back by not have enough experience or knowledge to do it? What do you think it would take for you to get started?

Have you ever gotten really good at something that you thought you weren't qualified for at first? What was it, and what was that like?

To learn more about the Golden Hornet Composer's Laboratory, check out https://www.goldenhornet.org/. It’s an amazing program: students apply with a concept for a piece, and over the course of six months, they write and refine a musical score for two to six instruments with the guidance of adult composition mentors, and learn how to produce and run a musical event at a local venue!

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