How many times have I found myself asking the same question? I swear it must be the hundredth time, though it feels like the millionth!
“Should this note be an A# or a G#?”
“Should this measure be in 4/4 or 5/4?”
Sometimes I feel plagued by the tiniest details of a piece. Even though I know they’re small – seemingly insignificant – they feel so giant, overwhelming. How has it already been thirty minutes, and I’m still asking this question? Am I crazy or just incompetent? Maybe I simply can’t make up my mind today, but this also happened yesterday! Could there be a simple answer I’m missing? Maybe…
My solution these past few months has been to try making more decisions, minus the overthinking. I’m finding some success, but if that’s an illusion, at least I feel like I can create more easily.
What I’ve been thinking about more is something a past teacher told me. When I was studying horn at IU (Indiana University), my professor went on sabbatical my freshman year. Filling his position was an alternating flow of teachers from across the country, a multitude of horn players. Among them, one made a lasting impression on me, and I am so thankful to have met him, Thomas Jöstlein.
In lessons, Jöstlein would say something like, “Make statements. Don’t ask questions.” He could tell that I was second-guessing myself while playing the horn. Instead of focusing on the music, specifically the pitches, my brain was busy asking many questions: “Will I play the right notes and rhythms? Will my tone or articulation be good enough? Will this sound in tune?” My insecurities of playing the horn, like the plague of details, were preventing me from sounding my best. What I needed to do was focus on my target, making a statement with the music and not hesitating or questioning in the process.
Focusing on my target, the music, allowed me to let go of distractions and better commit to performing. With me, Jöstlein emphasized letting go just as much as he emphasized commitment to high-quality music making. I can still see him, sitting in the chair beside me, speaking seriously, but with the compassion and understanding of any great teacher: “You will need to learn to let go.” Years later, I think I’m finally starting to “let it go” more regularly.
To be clear, letting go doesn’t mean allowing quality to slip. It’s absolutely necessary for any musician to work towards high standards of musical excellence. The most details of music are absolutely important to any meaningful performance. Bringing them out is what makes great music possible! Letting go isn’t about ignoring details. It’s about approaching them differently. Details should be there to enrich the bigger picture (concept, idea, etc.), not to project insecurities.
The more I let go, the easier it becomes to make decisions about the details. I can work towards the bigger picture of a piece without fretting and halting my creative process. Once some of the bigger aspects (form, keys, etc.) are in place, I can spend more time refining details because I have a better understanding of the whole piece.
In a moment of composing, it doesn’t even matter sometimes if I make the right decision. I just have to make a decision! Inevitably, I know I will change my mind later, (I’m a voracious reviser!) but before I can even begin to make changes, I need something to work with. I tell myself to make a decision, take a risk, and create. If I’m going to write some wrong notes, why not compose them first and get them out of the way!
In part 2, I'll discuss some of my tips and tricks for deciding the details of a piece. To be continued...!