I used to draw a lot when I was younger, and dad, being an exceptional artist, was my primary instructor. Occasionally he would take a look at my work and ask me if I thought I was “plateauing.” What he meant by this is “have you reached a position in your skill where you always make the same errors and are not getting any better?” This question usually made me uncomfortable because I knew it meant something in my art habits had to be shaken up– I’d need to leave my comfort zone of cartoon characters to climb above that plateau. At the time, I didn’t mind dwelling on the rolling hills of sub-mediocrity (which is where I was), I just wanted to draw for fun and nothing else.
Looking back, I wish I had relished my father’s input more… maybe I wouldn’t have let my artistic abilities coast and eventually slide like they did when I hit my teens. Now that I’m working as a professional composer in the field of music, I’ve come to view his reminder as something to heed and treasure.
I wanted to encourage some of you younger musicians (I’m pretty young, so that’s a narrow field) to not grow weary nor fainthearted in your quest for excellence, so I thought I’d play you an excerpt of something I wrote when I was sixteen compared with a clip of something I wrote last month for the Navigating History series. If this doesn’t make you feel better about your music, I don’t know what will. : )
By God’s grace, I believe I’ve grown in my musical ability and skill a lot over the last five years–far beyond what I can take credit for. I see areas where I’ve slacked and ways I could have invested the years in a more disciplined fashion, but thankfully God has brought in a lot of influences and trials over that time to bring me to where I am today. To continue that growth over the next 5 years, here is a list of 10 pointers I need to follow better. (By the way, whenever I say “you” in the following list, I actually mean “me”.)
TEN WAYS TO AVOID PLATEAUING
1 – Acknowledge the Creator
Having an honest perspective on your lowly state and God’s exalted one is the best remedy for blind arrogance, closed-minded professionalism, and selfish ambition. Realize that (a) you’re not actually that great, and (b) If you are (you’re not), it’s due to God’s blessings on you–not your own merit.
Pray without ceasing. If God is the Creator of music, and if he will not give His son a stone when he asks for a fish, then beseech God for specific talents and skills… only make sure you ask with the right motives.
2 – Love correction and input
In a multitude of counselors there is victory–this means getting input from a lot of people is good. I know, you think you know way more about music than the plethora of people with musical opinions, but people with fresh ears and different tastes can often see your blind sides when you can’t. I guess that’s why they’re called blind sides.
3 – Identify and acknowledge your weaknesses
You always have them. If you can’t see what they are, that shows you’re gauging personal success with a broken barometer, and it’s probably pride.
4 – Never compare yourself to your peers
This will only produce, at best, a product percentage points above the accepted, and often, mediocre norm. Don’t ever think “I’m pretty good for my age” or “I’m pretty good considering my circumstances,” think… “How can I be better than the best?” Compare yourself to the greats, and you will always see something to improve on. If you don’t reach for the stars, you’ll never get past the clouds. (I should note that if your peers are actually your superiors, you would do well to acknowledge that fact.)
5 – Learn to imitate
Intentionally study and copy great composers’ music as an exercise (I don’t recommend trying to pass this music off as your own). Put yourself in the shoes of the greats and maybe you can learn how they walked. The more music you are familiar with, the more you can understand what creativity is.
6 – Get out of your comfort zone
Stretch your ear, your musical retention skills, your musical tastes, your technique, your knowledge–whatever you can think of. If you always play or write by ear, use sheet music. If you always compose at the piano, compose away from the piano. If you only ever write pop ballads, write a string quartet. If you only ever write symphonies, write something for big-band ensemble. Increase your knowledge in whatever ways you’re lacking.
7 – Study and learn things outside your chosen “field”
This sounds counter-intuitive at first, but a greater knowledge of theology, history, science, mathematics, biology, culinary arts, architecture or like disciplines can give you insights and perspective on your area of expertise you would never have realized being entrenched in that field alone.
8 – Write with clear objectives in mind
Don’t be a perpetual improviser or a wandering romantic. Have both long term goals with your music and short-term, piece-specific goals. “What mood do I need to communicate? What should the audience leave the theater feeling?”
(By the way, just blindly following that fuzzy “feeling” you get when you’re composing usually means you’re reverting to the things that automatically touch you in some way, i.e the things you’ve already decided you enjoy, i.e. the content of your ipod’s “most played” category.)
9 – Write music to please people other than yourself.
Isn’t this one of the goals, anyway? The opinions of people besides you are a much better barometer of how good you actually are. Musicians who exist merely to “express themselves” or “discover themselves” in music end up being the most unoriginal and unreasonable individuals.
10 – Do the work
Now that you know what you need to do to improve, do it… realizing that worthy goals aren’t reached without a boatload of effort. Self-improvement is an exercise and a discipline not devoid of enjoyment, but it’s hardly a bed of roses. Well, maybe if you include the thorns.