Know yourself, know your music

I’ve been batting this idea around in my head for a few weeks and I think I can blog about it now. I’ve really gotten into Buddhist and Zen thought over the last few years and it has really changed how I approach everything: parenting, composing, teaching, you name it. I listen to a few Buddhist podcasts each week and I find a lot of what is said in those talks very enlightening to who I am and where I am right now.

One thought that came up in a podcast a few weeks ago was that the reason meditation is so hard is because we are afraid of being still and really getting to know ourselves. This struck me instantly as something that impedes my composition students: they don’t know who they are yet. Often they spend a lot of time and energy writing music that they might think they are supposed to write but they haven’t really found their own voice. Maybe they are mimicking stuff they like, or what was successful for them in the past, but they are really just starting their path of self discovery. They aren’t sure who they are yet so their music can be muddled and problematic.

Assume whatever qualifiers you need to in all accounts, of course.

Over the last few months, I’ve had some real struggles writing certain pieces. In my opinion, that is a sure-fire sign that I’m “doing it wrong.” My attention was going towards what people WANTED me to write instead of writing what I actually write and being who I am. My energies were outside of myself and not focusing on what was genuine to me. Once I attended to who I really was, the music came easily. I was simply in the way.

None of this means I advocate mindless adherence to a schtick or voice, of course (and that is a great article). I expect my voice to change and worry when I get fixated on too narrow of a view. What it means is I need to listen to myself and write that music.

It gets easier when I really attend to the Buddhist sense of “no self.” Since there really isn’t an “I” that can be found, all that is left is the music. Without the self, it flows pretty freely and usually sounds pretty good, too.

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  1. Posted January 25, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    How do you get students to discover themselves? And how do you discover when they have found themselves? I found my instructors spent more time focus on having me trying new things rather than letting me explore what I wanted to learn about me… Not an easy task for either strident or teacher.

  2. Jay C. Batzner
    Posted January 25, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    I think a lot of it is more about me accepting students where they are. I have to learn who they are right now and try to phrase my comments and suggestions in ways that they will hear. I’ll point them in directions to try things, hear things, and such, and I’ll certainly suggest that they step outside their comfort zones!
    The other thing I try to do is de-stress the situation. Tell the students to just focus on writing the music that matters to them right now and not worry about anything else. They aren’t writing for The Ages, they are only writing for Now.
    I find a lot of students take this whole composition thing WAY too seriously. It cripples them.

  3. Eudebous
    Posted January 25, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m not certain that I don’t find just the reverse — a lot of musicians do not take themselves seriously enough. They are so consumed with composing, or with music that they may not notice (we may not notice!) that we’re making art here. We are or want to be artists. Giving voice to the spirit or the thought or the ideas or beauties of this moment in time — never to be repeated just the same way ever again…

  4. Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I don’t mean that we shouldn’t take our art seriously and live in a world of pure whimsy. I do want my students to attend to their work and really think and consider their choices. There are times, though, when seriousness diminishes a student’s capacity to produce. They worry that every piece that write, every move that they make, must create a masterwork. Worrying about doing well can really stop folks from doing anything. I want to encourage my students to create first, deal with quality second (edit the creation).

  5. Posted January 27, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    I think part of being a student is finding your voice. And it may have as much to do with mastering the craft of composition as it does listening to inner voices.

    What, I wonder, is a reasonable expectation for the time and effort required to find a voice in composition? I suppose it varies with the individual – but can it be done in the span of years given to one’s education?

  6. Posted January 31, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Not too sure how to answer that question, Paul. It seems a valid enough question but I think the idea of “voice” is a bit of a moving target. It seems to point to something unchanging when we are beings of constant change. True, you can look at the output of composers and find “through lines” and threads that make the music their own but while we are in the trenches it is harder to figure out what makes music “mine.”

    When I look back over the last 5 years there has been a major shift in my musical language. I think it still sounds like me and, when I put my theory hat on, I think I can find out why. When I’m writing, though, I don’t think “I must do x y and z in order for this piece to sound like me.”

    Can a voice emerge over the 3-4 years of undergraduate study? I think so. Hopefully students are writing enough music that they can look back and identify their leanings. A lot of learning to compose, I think, is trying things you wouldn’t normally do and seeing how you respond as an artist. That can throw a lot of extra variables into distilling someone’s voice.

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