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Role Models

Young composers, like me, seem particularly drawn to comparing themselves to the generations that have preceded us, which probably why my first collegiate composition lesson began with my professor telling me: “You can’t be Beethoven.” I will start pursuing my Masters degree at the University Michigan in September, and in the four years since I heard those words I’ve learned composers of all ages spend a lot of time and thought on how they relate to the lives and works of their contemporaries and predecessors.

I know it is commonplace to open a discussion about the composers whom we revere and by whom we are influenced, but I am curious if any of the composers in the Sequenza 21 community have powerful non-musical role models. As scatterbrained as it may seem, I often draw connections between my compositional work ethic and that of professional athletes. For example, I aspire to be as well-rounded and versatile a composer as Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant is a scorer in basketball, and when I am really focused on a piece I compare myself to a baseball pitcher who is locating his fastball with consistent precision. Do any of you have uncommon influences like these and, if so, how do choose to reconcile them with your musical pursuits?

Comments

Comment from David
Time: August 11, 2010, 12:42 am

I think that’s great that a person like yourself can find inspiration with professional athletes. A good work ethic similar to those of athletes is needed to achieve all the things composers need to achieve. We have to push ourselves just like they do. So why can’t you be like Beethoven? Did you teacher give you a reason? Of course you can’t be exactly like Beethoven, but you can attempt to master the skills Beethoven had. Do not, I repeat do not listen to anyone even if they are your teacher tell you things that you “cannot be” If a composer wants to find connections with whomever they should be allowed to do so. They should find what they can from all the masters, including Beethoven and just like athletes. They should practice, practice, practice, and follow their intuition and instincts.

Comment from Peter Amsel (@CrazyComposer)
Time: August 11, 2010, 1:19 am

I think the best way to look at the statement ‘You can’t be Beethoven’ is not as a comment to discourage but rather to state that there was ONE Ludwig van Beethoven. There is one you. Be the best you, as a composer – as a human – that you can be. That’s what being a composer – or creative individual – is all about.

When I was working on my Master’s in composition I was confronted by one of Canada’s most influential composers – John Rea – who cornered me in the McGill library after one of my seminars. He looked me in the eye and said, “my colleagues and I have been discussing you and I think we know what your problem is.” Wow, I thought, I’m going to get everything straightened out … “your problem,” he continued, “is that you are TOO MUCH your own person.”

“Thank you,” I replied. I had been working for years to cultivate an original ‘persona’ – to be as unique as I could (without being crude or gauche in any way).

Unfortunately, that wasn’t meant to be a compliment. I did not bend with the reeds as the other McGill students did, I viewed composition from a different perspective (and still do) and believed that music has to have a connection to the people rather than being an esoteric creation that contributes something to life. Apparently that wasn’t an approach that was held by the academics where I’d found myself. I did not remain.

We cannot create in a vacuum, we must have some form of external stimulation that serves to inspire and spur us on to create new things. Most of all, however, is that we must always remember that we never stop being students of our art; every composition is, in effect, a study, a work upon which we build our skills and grow from where we had been previously. If we ever arrive at a place where we believe we ‘know it all’ we have arrived at a place where we know nothing.

Good luck with your studies and with your composing. Banish the silence with a sculpture of sound, fill the night with the light of music.

Comment from Garrett Schumann
Time: August 11, 2010, 1:21 am

David,

Thank you for reading my post and posting your comment.

I think my professor would agree with you because his point was that I should focus more on being myself than trying to imitate any other composer, not to mention such a great composer as Beethoven. There are general attributes that many great composers share and don’t think my teacher was trying to drive me away from identifying and, ultimately, imitating them. Rather, my teacher warned me not to “be Beethoven” because he wanted me to avoid a trap I think many younger composers – remember, I was a freshman in college at the time of the remark – fall into, which is getting caught up in a composer’s style instead of looking beneath the notes for the fundamental aspects of a master’s music such as work ethic, pacing, and many, many others.

– Garrett

Comment from Armando Bayolo
Time: August 11, 2010, 4:14 pm

Garrett, before I go any further, I think we need to address a great issue that has been unaddressed so far, and which I will now tackle with two simple, but great words: Go Blue!

I will echo the other posters in saying that you should aim to become your own man. Thankfully, you will be joining a department that is excellent at encouraging composers to find their own, individual voices. You will not be sorry.