The Role of Doubt

The Role of Doubt

As I’ve been preparing to head back to NYC this weekend for a three-day slog of composer interviews, sofa-surfing, and a concert that’s giving me the excuse to take this field trip, I’ve been taking care of some of the non-artistic duties that come with heading up a composition program, including preparing graduating seniors for their recitals, cajoling last-minute holdouts for next year’s freshman class, and meeting with prospective students who will be auditioning to be freshmen in 2013(!). One issue that often connects all three groups is the subtle sense of doubt that they all have to deal with in one form or another. Those who are graduating in a couple of weeks are forced to stare into an future rife with obstacles and starving for details, the incoming students know they’ll be studying somewhere, but with whom and where is still a mystery, and the early prospectives (and their parents) are just beginning to ask the big questions for the very first time.

Doubt, as an integral ingredient in the lives of most creative artists, is rarely discussed openly. From very early on, we as a society either assume or are led to believe that the successful composer brings forth their art with little effort or worry—it is only the physical limitations of time and the process of putting thought to paper that gets in their way. As I’ve been interviewing these many composers, I have posed the question of whether or not they deal or have dealt with self-doubt and, if so, in what ways have they faced that challenge effectively.

The answers have so far been relatively consistent. There are a few for whom self-doubt has never reared its ugly head, but those tend to be composers who started very young (pre-teens). Some have run into severe bouts, to the point where they quit for a time, only to be brought back by the need to create. Most, however, deal with doubt on a consistent and localized level and primarily for either creative or career-based reasons. Those who doubt about their creativity (internal doubters, if you will) seem to face the challenge at the outset of every new project, and only through the combination of force of will and hard-earned technique can they get past the hump of beginning a piece to the point where the doubt disappears. Those who doubt about their careers as composers (external doubters) find their challenges in both the day-to-day hurdles of getting grants, securing commissions, enticing conductors and performers, etc., as well as questioning how they are doing compared to their colleagues. To a person, they have all found their own way of navigating their own doubts to the point where they can not only continue, but thrive.

At this time, when there are so many instances where life can generate doubt, it seems important to face the demon and put it into perspective. If one is aware that even the most successful artists still have to deal with such things on a regular basis, facing and controlling self-doubt might be a bit more attainable. I’m curious to see if others have stories about how doubt has affected them—the comments box is yours for the taking.

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10 thoughts on “The Role of Doubt

  1. Dan

    Hmm I’m just starting out as a freelance composer / sound designer and my self-doubt is massive at the start of each project. You pretty much summed it up for my case, I get incredibly tense and anxious at the start of a project and it’s only through sheer force of will that I can fight it off and start creating. I also sometimes worry that I’m almost a fraud, ‘cheating’ people with my music in some way, and that it isn’t particularly good. Having said that I might just be a weird case, I’ve thought this kind of stuff for ages but I consistently did rather well at University, and I’m getting paid for work now so something must be going right…

  2. MarkNGrant

    I agree with Alexandra and would direct all self-doubting composers, young and not-so-young, to commiserate with such illustrious self-doubters in the annals as Dukas, who was so self-critical that only a dozen or so works escaped his “cutting room floor”; Boito, who took nearly 50 years to leave his opera Nerone uncomplete; Rachmaninoff, who by modern parlance was clinically depressed at various times during his career (he even dedicated his most famous work, the Piano Concerto No. 2, to Dr. Dahl, the shrink who brought him out of a three-year compositional dry spell); and Varese, who was also depressed for long periods, probably due to a combination of internal and external factors, and thus didn’t write as much music as he might have. There are surely many other examples.

    On the other hand you have a few composers who apparently never, ever suffered a moment’s self-doubt or even entertained the notion of self-doubt as a mere possibility. In this category I would put Wagner and Arnold Schoenberg. If Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill could be depressed and still write great prose, then composers can be self-doubters and still be great composers, pace Wagner and Schoenberg. Mahler is an excellent example of a major composer who continued to suffer significant self-doubt about his measuring up to the act of composition even after he had already created much of his catalog.

    Finally, young composers might do well to read a fascinating book of interviews with recent American composers entitled The Muse That Sings. Many, if not most, of those interviewed speak to the challenges of the creative muse and the constant self-renewing self-doubt born of the process.

    1. evan johnson


      Schoenberg isn’t a terribly good example of self-doubtlessness; he had many prolonged dry spells and artistic crises in the early 1900s, right about when you’d expect, and finished more or less nothing between 1915 and the early 1920s when the quasi-dodecaphonic piano pieces began to come out.

      1. MarkNGrant

        Schoenberg’s late 1910s period was not a barren of self-doubt any more than Wagner’s six-year hiatus from composing from the late 1840s to the early 1850s was. In each case the composer had to take a prolonged problem-solving detour to get over the cusp to his next phase of artistic growth. In Wagner’s case this meant abandoning composition in the prime of life for a time to develop his idea of music drama through writing essays and prose librettos. As with Wagner’s long musically fallow period, Schoenberg’s late 1910s was a problem-solving period, not a soul-searching creative paralysis such as Jean Sibelius experienced for the entire last thirty years of his lifetime. That kind of self-doubt never impeded Schoenberg from creation.

        Have you read Schoenberg’s letters and essays extensively? His own writing is the thing upon which I base my statement. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is literature’s paradigm of the intelligent man whose very intelligence sows agonizing doubt in him. Arnold Schoenberg is the least Hamlet-like of all composers (except Wagner). All over Schoenberg’s writings is his truly colossal intellect. If this man wasn’t a genius, I don’t know what a genius is. However, an indissoluble part of his genius seems to have been freedom from the normal human impulse (normal except in psychopaths, and I’m not suggesting he was a psychopath) to question the self and its ideas. Normally, as with Hamlet, the more intelligent the mind, the more multiplicative the doubts. Not so with Arnold Schoenberg. He had absolute faith in his own rectitude in musical and aesthetic matters– and often in other matters– the more the matters multiplied, the less he doubted.

        Typically, Schoenberg, upon being socially introduced to Sigmund Freud, remarked, “Freud is certainly an interesting man, but what does that have to do with me?”

        Schoenberg certainly went through difficult experiences early and late– anti-Semitism and the eventual need to leave his country, his wife’s affair with Gerstl, his adored Richard Strauss’s snub of him, and many other things – but no life experience ever dented his innate “insolence and arrogance,” as his American publisher Dagobert Runes, once a firm friend and advocate, put it in estranged disgust. Schoenberg’s apodictic certainty about his own ideas carried over awkwardly into his social and professional personality, and in America he gratuitously alienated a number of allies, even allowing for the fact that late in life he was ill and knew he was running out of time. Sabine Feisst’s recent book Schoenberg’s New World–The American Years dutifully recounts many of these episodes with scholarly objectivity even though she herself is an extraordinary champion of the man and composer.

        I am endlessly fascinated and awed by Arnold Schoenberg. Yet it is fair to say that self-doubt is a species of humility. Schoenberg lacked intellectual (and sometimes personal) humility.

        1. Colin Holter

          Without questioning any of the above, isn’t it possible that self-doubt might actually be the cause of outward “insolence and arrogance?” For Schoenberg, the stakes of maintaining an ideological consistency – as cultural producer, intellectual, educator, and champion of a new musical epistemology – must have been extraordinarily high. If I were in that situation, I’d probably be entertaining weapons-grade self-doubt; I’d like to think I wouldn’t convert it to insolence or arrogance and vent it on my friends and allies, but who knows? Obviously it’s problematic to psychoanalyze someone who’s long dead, but on a simple empathic level, that’s my two cents.

          1. MarkNGrant

            Very good point, Colin, and very well stated.

            Unfortunately Freud reciprocated Schoenberg’s indifference. Freud, for all his writings on artists (Leonardo et al.), had no interest whatsoever in music and composers. He basically hated music.

  3. Phil Fried

    Schoenberg continues to fascinate, even those who despise him.
    Oddly one legacy of Schoenberg’s arrogance used by many composers, even those who despise him, was his claim that there was a musical enemy that was actively working against him. One sees this in the many straw man augments used by composers that appear even on these very pages.

    A close look at these claims shows that they are false, and self serving, except in the case of Schoenberg’s music.

    In his case the opposition was real.

  4. MarkNGrant

    Oddly one legacy of Schoenberg’s arrogance used by many composers, even those who despise him, was his claim that there was a musical enemy that was actively working against him.

    Actually, Phil, there is already an established term in musicology for this. It’s called the “lachrymose perspective.” I myself find this term to be risible jargon, but it is widely used by musicologists and music historians. Schoenberg was according to them a famous practitioner of the lachrymose perspective, but there are other exemplars.

  5. Phil Fried

    “…Actually, Phil, there is already an established term in musicology for this. It’s called the “lachrymose perspective.”

    Though this “jargon” may be inclusive of my comments Mark, I’m not sure that we mean the same thing here. (Though obviously to have an enemy, and go public with it, would involve some negativity).

    Jargon aside my point this; it’s one thing to have an enemy another thing to pretend to have one.


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