Showing Up: Finding the Courage to Create

In the fall semester of 2017, I completed two new works. The first was an art song I had started over the summer with text set on a poem by James Joyce (see Rain Has Fallen), and the second was an orchestra piece about Dutch-inspired merriment (see Gezellig). I met my deadlines for each piece, and after months of agonizing over their creation, I thought I would feel secure and maybe even proud in what I had produced.

But for some reason I didn’t. At least, not entirely. In fact, there were too many moments throughout the semester in which I felt hopelessly inadequate as a composer. I felt like what I had composed did not meet the criteria for where I needed and wanted to be as an artist. I did not allow myself to be fulfilled by my work because I had convinced myself that it was strongly lacking, that it was practically worthless. I felt ashamed to show my colleagues and friends what I had written for fear they would question my abilities just as much as I do at times.

I have found myself crippled by an intense fear of failure at multiple points in my life. It is a fear that I know many other people in creative disciplines have experienced at one point or another. I regularly build up this idea in my mind that everything I compose needs to be on the cutting edge, strikingly original, and highly intellectual. It needs to impress my colleagues and my professors. It needs to be rife with emotional content and send the audience away totally mesmerized. It needs to be perfect. And that’s just not possible.

At this stage in my young artistic career, nothing I create needs to be a masterpiece. It simply just needs to be. By just showing up to compose and not worrying about the overall merits of the end result, I can learn how to improve my craft slowly over time. But this is all much simpler said than done, as I have discovered throughout the course of my first three semesters at one of the nation’s leading music schools. Sometimes, while sitting at the piano with manuscript and pencil ready, I would write a few notes on the page, maybe draw some sketches as an outline of the piece or section in mind. But then my mind would go into an anxious frenzy. None of this is good enough, I’d think to myself. This is gonna sound like shit. What will the players think? The audience? Dammit, I have no idea what I’m doing.

It turns out, somewhat unsurprisingly, that composing without fear or doubt is very difficult to do. A few hours later, I would have nearly nothing new written. Frustrated, I would find myself paralyzed to the point in which I could hardly compose anything at all. It became more and more difficult to approach composition with an open and liberated mind.

A lot of these negative self-deprecating thoughts stemmed from a set of unreasonable and lofty expectations I had placed upon myself. I forgot that even though it feels like I’ve been studying composition for an extremely long time, I really only started taking it seriously during my junior year of high school. Essentially, I’m barely a four-year-old composer. Doesn’t it seem a little too much to expect a four-year-old to produce a masterpiece? Of course, it’s absolutely absurd! If I really step back and consider what I’ve written so far, with the perspective that I’m a tadpole in composition and have yet to reach even adolescence in this field, I should be proud. I have learned so much from what I have already accomplished.

Back in October, after brilliant performances of two new chamber pieces by a couple of my close friends, I could feel the familiar feelings of anxiety and inadequacy creeping up on me again. That was sooooo good! I thought. I don’t know if I could write something like that anytime soon…

But then, rather than follow the old path into petrifying self-doubt, I consciously decided not to be intimidated. I adopted a new motto: “inspiration over intimidation.” I was fed up with deceiving myself that I was just not good enough to be a composer, not good enough to be an artist. It took a conscious approach to reclaim that sense of self worth. I had to make a choice. I changed my mindset, and began thinking more ambitiously along the lines of “I can’t wait to compose something like that!” I traded fear for curiosity. Since then, this deliberate outlook has reminded me that I can be successful in music if I want to be.

I have wasted so much energy worrying about what others will think about my work, worrying that even I won’t be satisfied with the outcome. What frustrates me most is that these perceived pressures and fears I have described are mostly just fabrications. In reality, the only thing really holding me back from achieving my dreams as a composer is me. So I have to develop confidence in my work. I have to overcome any barriers to express my creativity. I have to stop worrying what other people will think, and I have to start showing up for myself.

To me, showing up means that an artist perseveres through the creative process even when it is painful. It takes a lot of effort. If I’ve positioned myself at the keyboard with manuscript ready and a pencil in hand, I’ve done the bare minimum of showing up. From there, I have two choices: allow anxiety to prevent any music from being written; or muster the confidence to keep moving forward and continue writing, even if it seems terrible.

It takes courage to show up to one’s craft, to hop on the workbench and put in the time and energy that a project demands. It requires patience, practice, and discipline. All of those fabricated fears I described must be shoved to the side. I do not need to care about what my colleagues think, or where my work falls under the contemporary music umbrella. Showing up concerns no one else except me. I have to show up for myself, first and foremost.

One of my mentors, Dr. Claude Baker, once said: “I don’t think there is anything easy about composing...It’s got to hurt or it can’t be good.” I feel the same way. Every piece I have ever written has taken a toll on me. Creating is an arduous, relentless process. It hurts. A lot. So it makes sense that “showing up” is a daunting task.

When confronting the creative process, it is also easy to keep standards extremely, and perhaps even impossibly, high. Practicing forgiveness is also important. Some days are better than others. Sometimes the creativity flows naturally and other times it sits in the doldrums. Doesn’t matter. One must keep showing up.

With the New Year right around the corner, I have decided that 2018 is the year of showing up, the year of choosing to be inspired instead of intimidated. This is the year of consciously pushing my fear of failure to the side and just doing, creating, and growing. If some of what I write is utter garbage, so be it. Over time, I am confident that my music will evolve to new levels of refinement and individuality, fulfilling my mission as an artist, and, hopefully, speaking to the hearts of others.