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Advice that mattered to a student composer, a retrospective

Over the course of my composition instruction I was given an abundance of good advice. If I were to list all of it I'd have to dig into my nine years of course notes, but some of them have stuck with me more than others. To ring in the new year, I've listed my ten favorite pieces of advice below. Some are an exact quote, some are paraphrased. All are worth remembering.

10. Start Over
Carlyle Sharpe

For the most part, Carlyle was happy with the music I brought to lessons every week. However, on occasion I would bring in something terrible, and he would call me on it. Knowing that I had to start over was always awful, but I'm at a loss to remember a time he was wrong. Marvin later told me the same thing once or twice, but I eventually figured out how to judge when to start over by myself.

Takeaway: Know when to give up, know when to press on.

9. You're writing too fast/You're writing too slow
Marvin Lamb/Konstantinos Karathanasis

When I first started studying with Marvin, for the first month or so he kept telling me that I was writing too fast, and I should slow down. When I started studying with Kostas, he kept telling me that I was writing too slow, at least for the first few months. The fact that in both cases Marvin and I and Kostas and I figured out how each other worked taught me a valuable lesson in terms of how to teach composition.

Takeaway: Composers have different processes. Respect them.

8. “It doesn't have to be hard”
Tristan Kasten-Krauss via Steven Eiler

When Steven was writing an acousmatic piece for his master's recital, I think his challenge was to create something that sounded difficult but wasn't actually (at least for him, the guy's like a Pro Tools wizard). Tristan's advice to Steven was that difficulty in creating a work was not a requisite for quality.

Takeaway: Have fun.

7. “The subtle gesture is the lost gesture”
Marvin Lamb

This excellent quote from Marvin must be good, because I've been thinking about it since 2010. I believe the original context implies that ideas which are subtly obvious to the composer are rarely noticeable by the audience. I've expanded the meaning to include a multitude of actions. For example, the act of creating implies that the creator will release the creation into the world, and that takes a certain amount of confidence in which subtlety will not do.

Takeaway: Mean it.

6. “We both have baccalaureate degrees in music.”
Marvin Lamb

Marvin's quotes show up here multiple times because my first year at OU was my first real time outside of the Drury bubble, and I had yet to discover if I was as good as I thought I was, or as I hoped I was. I've been blessed with fantastic composition teachers who have known the right thing to say, and this quote was one of the things I needed to hear. At a time when I was unsure of my talent, Marvin's reminder that we both held baccalaureate degrees in music and that we were academically both qualified in the same way–we had both convinced someone to give us a bachelor's degree.

Takeaway: Don't be afraid of your own power and knowledge.

5. “There is a thin, bright line between being eclectic and being a whore”
Marvin Lamb

This is another Marvinism that I am still trying to wrap my head around. As best as I've unpacked it, it talks to personal style. It is one thing to learn techniques and integrate them into works or my personal style, it is another thing entirely to have no real style, being an amorphous composer with no interest in originality or individuality. Despite my nebulous understanding of it, I get the distinct impression that one is not supposed to cross that line.

Takeaway: Be yourself.

4. “A Composer without a deadline is a …janitor”
Carlyle Sharpe

I think “Janitor” is the first thing that popped into Carlyle's mind while he delivered this gem to a group of us after the premiere of his An American Postcard. He had just finished a large orchestral work, due in large part to the fact that it was recently due to the commissioners. I like to think that part of his point is that unchecked (and unscheduled) ambition doesn't produce good music, or maybe more accurately, doesn't produce finished music.

Takeaway: Finish the job and move to the next.

3. “You don't want to be an Education major”
Jayne White

I was a music education major for one year, and at the end of that year I was nearly a nervous wreck (long story). Up until my first day of class at Drury the only real music professionals I knew were all band or choir directors, and so I thought that was what you did. And then after a year of studying with Drury faculty, my interest in education waned. I wasn't quite aware of this until Dr. White, one of my education professors, let me know. “Maybe someday you will return to education” she mused, “But for right now, your heart's in music. Follow that.” She wasn't wrong.

Takeaway: The best advice can come from unexpected places.

2. “Yeah, that's going to be pretty hard.”
Roland Barrett

In 2013 I was working on a saxophone piece that eventually became Caffeination. I had a great groove, I had this fantastic melody at the climax, and I couldn't figure out how to get from A to B. I brought it to a composition lesson thinking that Roland would give me some advice on how to write that transition. I thought wrong. Instead he left me with “I'll be interested to see what you come up with.” The next week I brought in a transition, one that neither of us expected. The fact that he had the confidence that I would come up with the answer on my own motivated me to find the answer.

Takeaway: Trust yourself 1.

“You just don't get to not know anymore”
Christopher Koch

The original context for this quote was regarding conducting. What Christopher meant was that if one were conducting, and a performer asked about a certain note or passage, the conductor could not say “I don't know.” What's beautiful about this quote is that it's vague enough to work in almost any situation. I thought about it a great deal when I applied for masters and doctoral programs. I think about it often when reading new works with ensembles. It's a call against inaction.

Takeaway: Decide.

There is, of course, a lot more out there, including other non-compositional inspirational quotes (the perfect is the enemy of the good, done is the engine of more), but these make up the major life-altering phrases that stuck with me through the many good times and the occasional bad ones.