Lessons learned: Stay Involved

I just finished a harrowing 15-ish hours, and I’m dog-tired, but while physically exhausted, I’m actually thinking clearly, so I thought I should jot this down before relaxation washes away the memory of it.

I was up all night writing another piece for the WMPA. I enjoy writing for the group, and I never pass on the opportunity to write for orchestra. For some reason, however, I always end up filling up my lead-time with other things to do, things that have to be done fairly quickly. Ugh, time management…

I was writing yet another overture; no special instructions or crazy stuff, just a couple of minutes of music. Through combination of a surprisingly busy schedule, some bad timing, and – face it – just plain laziness, I basically left it until the last minute. While writing under these circumstances isn’t usually hard for me, this time it proved especially difficult. I sat down at the computer yesterday at about 2:00pm and finished at about 5:00 this morning. Feeling like a sack of jello, I laid down for a few hours before processing the parts. I’d been wracking my brain trying to think of what made it so difficult, or FEEL so difficult is probably more like it, and I think I hit upon something we all should think about as composers.

I’ve been playing in a community orchestra for the past couple of years. It’s a far cry from my days of “show up, sightread Mahler 1, here’s your check+travel”, but it keeps the horn on my face. I’d taken about a month off recently to conduct the premiere of my latest ouevre “Somnambulant”, so while I had my composer hat on for most of the time, I’d also had a substantial break from the horn.

Going through school, I spent more time practicing and performing than I did at the keyboard or writing-desk, even though I was a composition student. There was always the immediate, visceral pleasure of creating sound and “making music”, but I eventually came to recognize that the physical connection of performing music, and the subsequent creation of those mental pathways, was how I seemed to learn to compose. Early on, I was encouraged to write for my own instrument, and in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense when you take into account the fact that you can only really articulate your thoughts as well as you are familiar with the syntax. In other words, you can only speak as well (or specifically, I’d say) as your vocabulary and command of the language allows. The better my trombone playing was, the more facile my writing would be, so the theory went.

My writing of this piece had become a purely technical process, which is odd for me. I tend to write with the most comfort when it resembles a more reflex-driven process, in much the same way that I see notes and shaped on a page of printed music and my body reacts in all the miniscule ways to produce it on the trombone – the perfected balance of body and mind. I feel as though taking so much time away from my primary instrument has led to the atrophy of certain capabilities, or that I’ve become divorced from the vital process of performing to help fuel creativity. Maybe it’s just that they aren’t as automatic.

Ach, maybe what I really need is some REST. Everything’s harder when you’re fatigued. The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding, and in the end it may turn out to be more successful than my very self-critical sensibilities predict. Whatever the case, it certainly won’t hurt to get the horn back on the face.

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