I’m the youngest of eight in my family. It’s an unusual position, but certainly not unique. Oddly, I just recently realized that I’ve never knowingly met anyone else who falls into that slot. In the composer world, I do know of one who has two-upped me: Augusta Read Thomas is the youngest of ten.

There are benefits and drawbacks to holding this spot in the queue. Growing up, I had an extensive staircase of human development models ascending before me, whose teachings I think served me well. And as a composer it’s easy for me to imagine my ideal audience – people who are not professional musicians, but whose cultural interests, curiosity and intelligence overlap with mine.

On the other hand, there are disadvantages to being the tail end of a large household. For example, I was in my teens before I really figured out how to brush my teeth – obviously, somebody must have shown me earlier on, but maybe they assumed I was catching on before I really had the hang of it.

It’s also recently struck me that my disinterest in composers who focus on originality may have something to do with my birth order – certainly, growing up, I had frequent reminders that everything I did had been done before. In that situation, there was no competitive advantage in doing things first. Accomplishment had to be measured in some other way, and for me it has always been measured by my ability to improve on what’s already been done.

Obviously, both of these pursuits – firstness and bestness — are praiseworthy. A balanced boat has both bow and stern, and a balanced culture has to have people who are forging ahead to counterpoise the people who are fine-tuning the rudder.

Of course, my whole argument could be stood on its head: why wouldn’t coming last in a large family make me even more obsessed with being the first to do things?

And that’s another skill I learned from my birth order: if you can’t improve on what’s been said before, just stand it on its head.

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