out of your head
The Art of Doubting Myself

The Art of Doubting Myself

out of your head

Image by siamonumeri, via Flickr.

I’m a terrible composer. I have almost no idea what I’m doing when it comes to music, my ideas aren’t very original or interesting, and, furthermore, I’m probably too lazy to actually do anything about it. Oh, that one quadruple stop I wrote isn’t possible on viola? I should have known that. But why should I be worrying about quadruple stops when I don’t even have the Well-Tempered Clavier memorized? My friends say they like my stuff, but they’re my friends. But I am getting a lot of performances. That can’t only be because I’m friendly and pretty good at networking, can it? CAN IT?

The previous paragraph is brought to you—as it is brought to me at least once a day—by my brain. Sometimes we don’t have the best relationship. I mean, it allows me to perceive and often enjoy the world around me, and that’s pretty cool, but it’s also been through depression, and sometimes gets into paranoid spirals of self-doubt and rather intense feelings of worthlessness. Disclaimer to the previous sentence: I’m fine, therapy plus SSRIs plus friends with good taste in beer have worked for me, don’t worry. I’m not really interested in delving into my own emotional health here, but what I am interested in is how both emotional health and perceived social or career status affects music making. Please do write comments on this one—I’d love to hear what other artists deal with in this regard. Maybe to give myself a bit more assurance that everyone else deals with this, too.

The thing that usually triggers the opening paragraph in my head is artistic struggle. When a hole in my knowledge gets exposed (for instance, “what do you mean you don’t know Mozart Piano Concerto K. 2,714,530?” or, conversely, “what do you mean you don’t know early Animal Collective?”), when I hit something like writer’s block, or when something I feel strongly about fails to elicit any reaction from anyone, it can often translate to feelings of inadequacy as a composer.

I figure this is something that everyone deals with to some extent. I recently asked a friend whose career star has risen rapidly over the last few years if the constant praise and unsolicited invitations to make music have allayed any of these anxieties, and his response was a basic “hell no,” and that he didn’t think they’d ever go away. Even Bernstein, at the height of his career, constantly sought reassurance about his music.

For me, the solution is to focus on myself instead of others. Not in a self-aggrandizing way, but in a positive and productive way. Focus on your strengths. Sure, work on your weaknesses, but realize that there are strengths there that have gotten you this far and use them. Here’s an example from outside of music that might make this approach clearer: my mom used to beat herself up over not being a better singles tennis player. She was, at the same time, a really phenomenal doubles player. It took a particularly stressful singles loss to make her realize it, but when a friend said, “yeah you lost, but it’s not what you’re best at,” it kicked off a new focus on doubles, and way, way, way more wins.

How does this translate to music? In my own practice, when I start to write incredibly complex music or very rich post-Romantic chorale textures, I feel like it often comes up short. I’m not saying I don’t push myself to improve those skills, but that when my perceived lack of ability starts to get me down, I focus on things I know I’m good at to get back on track. I think I’ve got a knack for syncopated, hooky rhythms, color/texture, counterpoint, and form. The other holes might or might not be real, and sometimes they get overblown when comparing myself to others, but spending all day worrying about them isn’t very helpful.

There’s an upside anyway: it means there’s always something to learn, explore, or improve. And we do have to be practical: if I’m recording something for commercial release, I’m going to hire a producer and recording engineer, because they have skills that I don’t. Those people aren’t the composer that I am. We both put in our best, we get something better than any of us could have made alone. That’s not something to get down about.

That said, the writer’s block issue sometimes triggers a deeper emotional response, similar to what I believe is called imposter syndrome. At the moment I’ve got a great beginning to a piece for orchestra, a climax and ending I feel awesome about, and no idea how to connect them. The formal tricks (invert this, expand that) all feel forced and trite, or—worse—boring. Nothing I’ve improvised, be it based on earlier material or free, seems to fit. At the moment, every failed attempt to fill in the gap is making me feel inadequate as a composer. After all, if I can’t be convinced by something I’ve written, how can I expect anyone else to be? Writing music is literally my job, and right now I’d fire myself.

My normal solution for writing in those situations is to take a break from the piece for a while and let it percolate in my subconscious. I’ll do something—anything—else, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few weeks, and come back to it when I get struck by an idea while driving. If that never happens, maybe I can use those things I wrote and feel good about in a future piece.

My normal solution for feeling like a capable composer in those situations has more to do with considering how differently people can react to the same music. A few years ago I put on a concert of some of my piano music in New York. I’d call the show a success—the performance was good, and the audience seemed into the music. A friend from college, a photographer who also DJs, came out to listen. He had had no experience with modernist/post-modern concert music and admitted that, while he was glad to come out and support me, the music did nothing for him. He didn’t feel connected to it or moved in any way. This bothered me at the time. Not because one person didn’t like it, but because I’d poured a lot of myself into writing something meaningful, and it had completely failed to connect. The semi-logical conclusion my brain leapt to was that I must not be a worthwhile musician, and am therefore not a worthwhile person.

That thought, have it though I may, is outright wrong. My friend pulled in an analogy from photography that I found quite meaningful to explain his take on such an idea. Basically, there are about a billion photographers making art out there. No one is going to connect with everyone. The only approach is to shoot what works for you. If it resonates with someone else, that’s great. If it resonates with a lot of someone elses, that’s great too. If not, it’s not because of you, it’s because their taste and vision and ideas and artistic needs don’t match yours.

Viewing our art like this makes the whole question of success in connecting with others a non-issue. After all, saying that everyone’s taste and ideas should match yours isn’t that far off from the thinking behind fascism, racism, and all kinds of other rather negative –isms.

Thinking about this is what actually gives me some measure of comfort that I don’t suck. If I throw people’s reactions out the window and write music that both satisfies and excites me, and is music that I want to hear, and I’m being honest about all of that, then I’m good. Much like I argued in my earlier article on musical experience, what works for me is right for me. Anything beyond that is a lucky perk, and anything less than that can be worked on until it’s up to snuff in my musical worldview.

I’m not sure that’ll make anxieties go away, but one thing therapists seem to agree on is that having something tangible to focus on instead of your own doubts is very helpful. Shutting up about all the other stuff and paying attention to what note comes next often does the trick for me.

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9 thoughts on “The Art of Doubting Myself

  1. Dan Gawthrop

    All of this sounded (comfortingly) familiar to me, especially the apt phrase “imposter syndrome” which I have developed to a high art. Even after fifteen years of making a living entirely from commissions and publication, I find that sitting down in front of the blank page is every bit as frightening and intimidating as it was the very first time I did it. And yes, even though I have been blessed to reach a substantial audience with my work, the ones who are untouched by it still haunt me. Surely I could have done better? Okay, I do get it about people’s vision not exactly matching mine, and that’s cool. But the niggling remains. And in darkest night…

  2. Hoseph Holbrooke

    Interesting topic Nick, thanks. I’m happy you have found an approach that works for you. But I am afraid that on some level you are tricking yourself into not really trying. Or put another way, you are choosing emotional stability over exploring the possibility that you actually are extraordinary.

    Of course we could all comfort ourselves with arguments about subjectivity, relativism, and the degraded state of our culture. But wouldn’t you rather try to be exceptional, have a brilliant career, and have a massively positive impact on society? A life spent truly failing to be awesome seems highly preferable to a life spent preemptively flinching.

    Forgive me if I’m missing your point. After rereading I think you might be talking about these issues specifically in the context of depression, where I am completely ignorant.

    1. Nick Norton

      That’s an interesting take on it, and I see where you’re coming. In fact I agree with you, but it misses one thing I didn’t mention in the article, which is that the threshold for music that satisfies and excites me IS extremely high. So yes, ignore the reception and the doubts and focus on what note comes next, but for me, that note has got to be awesome.

      I hope that clarifies that I’m not looking for an easy way out, more for a way of dealing with the emotional baggage sometimes attached to taking the hard way. And when the depression thing is hitting full force – thankfully it doesn’t really anymore for me – getting a single note on a page can be an enormous personal victory, if a rather small musical one.

      Also, some people might be totally cool with just writing whatever they’re happy to hear, regardless of “highest possible artistic standard” or anything like that, and I don’t see any problem with it if that’s what they’re into.

  3. Paul Muller

    It is natural to seek affirmation of one’s work. The trick is not to be distracted by that which is not relevant to the art. My favorite composer never sold or published his music, he never went to university and generally had difficult relations with his employers. The listening audience for his music was, by current standards, very small. He had the distractions of a large family along with a killing schedule. But everyone remembers JS Bach.

    1. Nick Norton

      Cheers Paul. I’m afraid what you’ve said about Bach may be a bit misleading though – he indeed never went to university, but he was raised in a family of musicians who were well known throughout their region, copied out other composers’ scores, and studied with Bohm and Buxtehude. He was, in the large majority of cases, writing music for a paycheck. He also once decked a bassoonist in the face for criticizing his music. None of those things make him any less of a phenomenal composer, though.

      The thing for me that stands out is his attention to detail, and how hard he’d push himself to get a piece up to his standard. You can see that especially in comparing different versions of the keyboard works, like when he changes ONE NOTE thirty years later. That kind of dedication to your work is incredibly inspiring, and the results, in his case, speak for themselves.


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