The Infamous ‘Composer’s Voice’; Self-doubt is a costly mistress

When people talk about composing, especially when composers talk about composing, ideas like ‘talent’, ‘craft’, and ‘voice’ are particularly prominent.

The issue of talent is something I might talk about in another post, but from the research I did in 2013 involving questionnaire’s and some of Australia’s best composer, many pros feel it is a significant factor in “making it”. Craft, on the other hand, is something that the same composers attribute to study and hard work.

As for the idea of having a ‘unique voice’ it seems to be something that is quite commonly tied up with innate talent, and is almost always seen as separate to craft or technique. It’s the originality, flair and distinctive over-all sound that makes a composer’s music sound like them. Mozart sounds like Mozart; Haydn like Haydn; and Rachmaninoff like Rachmaninoff.

After years of show-n-telling my works-in-progress to composition teachers, the problem I most often find arising when composing nowadays is actually quite severe self-consciousness and self-doubt. I think letting go of control is one of the biggest hurdles for developing excellence at anything. When I’m improvising or just playing with ideas, life is good, and I’m not inhibited but when I have to write – and finish! – a piece, the second-guessing starts. “Maybe I shouldn’t start the piece like this” or “Is that the best idea? Maybe there is a better piece you could write?” etc.

The more you care, the more you try, and the more you try, the more control you attempt to exert over a process – even if it’s something you have effortless proficiency at – the more likely you are to stumble.

Here’s some examples of what I’m talking about:
Have you ever paid too much attention to your feet or legs while walking and started to feel awkward or clumsy?
Is your hand steady as a rock until you try to thread a needle?
People who suffer from stutters often find they get worse if they pay attention to the stutter.

Those who are effected physically by this type of thing are suffering from what is know as an ‘Intention Tremor’. A similar sort of thing also effects people psychologically. The term ‘paralysing self-consciousness’ isn’t metaphorical. If you become too self-aware, the most common response is to become self-critical, which leads to trying to control the outcome. Unfortunately, the attempt to consciously control complex tasks tends to have a  negative effect, which gives you more to be self critical about, which in turn leads to you trying to control even more. Eventually either your brain will implode, you’ll make like Abra and teleport the heck out of there, or you’ll give up.

In the book “Psycho-cybernetics” by Maxwell Maltz (highly recommend reading the new version which is more readable), this issue is discussed to some length. On page 181 is a section titled “Self-Expression Is Not a Moral Issue” which I think is worth a read for any composer. In fact, the entire chapter “Unlocking your Real Personality” is almost certainly worth the read, doubly so if you are the sort of person who tends to be overly self-critical (like me).

I’ve excerpted some bits and pieces which, while not specifically talking about composing, raise some very applicable parallels:

UNLOCKING YOUR REAL PERSONALITY 177
“What Others Think?” Creates Inhibition.
When you become too consciously concerned about”what others think”; when you become too careful to consciously try to please other people; when you become too sensitive to the real or fancied disapproval of other people—then you have excessive negative feedback, inhibition, and poor performance. Whenever you constantly and consciously monitor yourevery act, word, or manner, again you become inhibited and self-conscious. You become too careful to make a good impression, and in so doing choke off, restrain, inhibit your creative self and end up making a rather poor impression.
The way to make a good impression on other peopleis: Never consciously “try” to make a good impression on them. Never act, or fail to act purely for consciously con-trived effect.
Never “wonder” consciously what the other person is thinking of you, how he is judging you.

Self-Expression Is Not a Moral Issue
Much mischief results from our taking a “moral” position on matters which are not basically moral matters at
all.
For example, self-expression, or lack of it, is not basi-cally an ethical question, aside from the fact that it is our”duty” to use the talents which our Creator gave us. Yet, self-expression may become morally “wrong” asfar as your conscience is concerned, if you were squelched,shut-up, shamed, humiliated, or perhaps punished as achild for speaking up, expressing your ideas, “showingoff.” Such a child “learns” that it is “wrong” to expresshimself, to hold himself out as having any worthwhileideas, or perhaps to speak at all.

Disinhibition — a Long Step in the Opposite Direction
If you are among the millions who suffer unhappiness and failure because of inhibition—you need to deliberately practice
disinhibition.
You need to practice being less careful, less concerned, less conscientious. You need to practice speaking before you think instead of thinking before you speak—acting without thinking, instead of thinking or “considering carefully” before you act. Commonly, when I advise a patient to practice disinhibition (and the most inhibited object the most), I am likely to hear something like this: “But surely you do not think that we need to exercise no care at all, no concern, no worry about results. It seems to me that the world needs a certain amount of inhibition, otherwise we wouldlive like savages and civilized society would collapse. If we express ourselves without any restraint, freely express-ing our feelings, we would go around punching people in the nose who disagreed with us.”
“Yes,” I say, “you are correct The world does need acertain amount of inhibition. But not you. The key wordsare ‘a certain amount.‘ You have such an excessiveamount of inhibition, you are like a patient running atemperature of 108 degrees, who says, ‘But surely heat isnecessary for health. Man is a warm-blooded animal andcould not live without a certain amount of temperature—we all need temperature—yet you are telling me that Ishould concentrate completely and entirely on reducing my temperature, and ignore completely the danger of not having any temperature.'”
The tricky thing about teaching and learning composing is that there is quite a lot of emphasis put on having a “unique voice” or being different, individual, and original. Both student and the teacher are aware of the expectation of individuality; you can’t just be another Beethoven, even if you could Beethoven as well as Beethoven could Beethoven that symphony. What is really being implied, without it perhaps ever being said, is “say something no one has ever said before!”.It reminds me of a skit from the old english T.V. show A Bit of Fry and Laurie where Stephen Fry plays the part of a passionate linguist:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSyIhapMdI8

Stephen: “Imagine a piano keyboard, eighty-eight keys, only eighty-eight and yet, and yet, new tunes, melodies, harmonies are being composed upon hundreds of keyboards every day in Dorset alone. Our language, Tiger, our language, hundreds of thousands of available words, frillions of possible legitimate new ideas, so that I can say this sentence and be confident it has never been uttered before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.” One sentence, common words, but never before placed in that order.”Friendly milk aside, the completely unique sentence that Stephen invents is, in many ways, an example of what can result from “say something no one has ever said before”. The most obvious solution is really to say something that (humour aside) no one probably said before, and for a good reason.

The second situation, which is probably more common, is that the student realises that the musical equivalent of sentences like “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.” probably aren’t going to win you any nobel peace prizes for your contributions to the human spirit. Rather, the smart ones realise that the difference between Beethoven and Mozart wasn’t that they were spinning different genres of gibberish. Something else was going on.

And so the student is stuck. They are expected to say something unsaid. In today’s musical landscape, they’re going to be seriously hard pressed to create something coherent which also doesn’t share similarities with other composers’s music.

Deliberate effort towards individuality is destined to fail. This is why, I suspect, composers insist on the importance of ‘talent’ and the unteachable nature of writing original music. It can’t be taught – there’s nothing to teach. You’re either ‘being yourself’ – or you aren’t.

The problem is that the insistence on originality creates self-consciousness. “Is this too rachmaninoff-y?”; “Does that bit sound too much like Ravel?” etc. As soon as you ask that question, it’s game over. You’re no longer being yourself, you’re trying to be “not-Ravel” and “not-Rachmaninoff” rather than “all-me”, which may happen to include some Ravel, Rachmaninoff et al. 

And this is where you will say hello to the self-consciousness cycle from hell. I think this is why child prodigies do well; they lack the self-consciousness and receive a lot more praise for work that a late-starter would be criticised for even considering to write.

To be clear, deliberately trying to sound like another composer is a problem as well, but for both problems, I think the solution would be similar:

1. Expose the student to a wide variety of music
2. Encourage self-expression
3. Discourage intentional or direct copying, mimicry etc except for when it’s made clear that it’s an exercise only, and not ‘composing’
4. Have a nonchalant or indifferent attitude toward material that is unintentionally similar to other composers’ works

5. Don’t make observations like “This section sounds like Ravel” as this sort of commentary will IMHO, if taken as a positive, encourage copying, and if taken as a negative, make the student self-conscious. Neither is helpful!
6. Encourage students not to be self-conscious, or self-critical during the composing process.Lastly, there is one more thing which I think is very important to a composer developing a unique voice:
Encourage them to solve unique musical problems while being unashamedly themselves in the process. I think musical problem solving is the thing that ultimately distinguishes one composer from another. Genuine, non-derivative problem solving is something which encourages new connections to form in the brain. Two composers writing pieces about the ocean will write completely different pieces, it’s the same object, but each has a different set of experiences and associations that they knit together in unique ways.I haven’t got any proof here, but I suspect that problem solving can only be individual. People’s brains simply will not make the same connections between ideas in the same way, and so identity doesn’t come from studying the works of other composer or ‘exposure’, not alone anyway. Finding ways that make the student solve problems in their own unique way, without feeling self conscious about it, will, over time, result in them developing composing strategies and conceptual frame works which… work.Would Stravinsky have discovered Primitivism if he hadn’t have been commissioned for the Rite of Spring? That commission made him take everything he had learned and think about it in a whole new way. Synapses fired, Stravinsky was inspired and a whole new genre was born.Be less self-conscious. It’s good for your health and your composing.Oh yeah, and live long and prosper! 😉

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