Sunday, May 13, 2018

Can Artists Ever Really be Happy?

This post is going to be either very personal, or very self indulgent, or uplifting, or very depressing.

I'll know which when I am done.

I have a memory of watching an interview with Paul Schrader, the brilliant screenwriter best known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese.  He stated proudly, through a big happy smile, "I don't want to ever be so miserable or suicidal that I could write Taxi Driver again.  It's just not worth it!"  He had just been nominated for a Golden Globe for the screenplay.

I have another memory from one of my UCLA musicology classes where my outstanding music history professor, who got a thrill out of telling us which giant of music history was buggering which other giant of music history, tried to explain the misconception between sadness in the art and in the artist.  We were studying the adagio theme from Tchaikovsky's Pathétique, one of the saddest themes ever written.  My professor gleefully explained (his words, not mine):
"The blue hairs in the audience think that when Tchaikovsky was writing this piece, he was sitting at the piano, tears running down his cheeks as he agonized over every note.  They see him drying the tears from the page so they don't smear the ink. 
That's not what I know of Tchaikovsky.  I picture him sipping sherry, laughing hysterically, stating:  'This is really going to slay the old biddies!'"
Not to say Tchaikovsky escaped his own demons unscathed, he just seemed to have a handle on them.  In one letter he reportedly wrote:

"There are days, hours, weeks, aye, and months, in which everything looks black, when I am tormented by the thought that I am forsaken, that no one cares for me. …[still,] I assert that life is beautiful in spite of everything!"
Two great artists.   Two diverse reactions to the artistic spirit.  Where do I fit in?  Where do you?

There is this cruel irony that those who are sensitive enough to be artists, that can tap those deepest darkest emotions in order to create, are also those least able to cope with that sensitivity.  So how do we make sure we are more like Tchaikovsky and less like Schrader?

Sanity Equals Managing Expectations - Especially for Sensitive Artists.

By the way, We are all artists, but that's another blog posting.

When I lectured, I would share with my students my own experiences as a young artist trying to find his way.  I explained how much I used to tortured myself over my art - only realizing later how stupid that was; how much I regretted doing so.   Sharing my experience was all in an effort to save my students from what I went through.  By way of explanation, here's one story:

As a sophomore at Indiana University, with the help of one of my teachers, I was able to secure 15 minutes with the orchestra - unheard of for an undergrad.

I had written a 7.5 minute movement from a symphony which I had been agonizing over for 6 months.  I was so thrilled!  I was finally getting the opportunity to hear the work performed and get a recording of it!

I went days without sleep to finish the score and hand copy the parts.  I was living on coffee, cigarettes, and youthful ignorance.

10 minutes before the session was to begin, I realized one of the flutists was missing.  I panicked - as there was a massive solo in the part.  I went running around the building, looking for a flutist in a rehearsal room.  I found one!  Disaster averted - or so I thought.

I exhaled.  I sat down and waited to hear my every sculpted note executed to perfection.


Do you know the scene at the end of the musical, The Music Man?  The moment when the kids all raise their instruments and it turns out Henry Hill hasn't taught them a thing about music - he's a fraud?  The kids can't play and the cacophony is deafening....  The session was almost that bad.

Young Craig was crestfallen.

From the age of 10, all he's wanted to do was write for orchestras.  He wanted to write music for films.  He wanted to be the next John Williams.  First chance he had with a real orchestra, he failed miserably.  His whole life was over....

Present day self wants to scream at young Craig (imagine an Irish Accent):
"You feckin' igit ya!  Do the math!  7.5 minutes of music!  15 minutes with a college orchestra!   
There's no way you were going to get anything but a really rough read through that you'll never want to hear again.  Don't be so disappointed - you still got a read through.   
Study that recording, ignoring the mistakes.   Learn what you can and move on.  Your career is not over (before it's even started)."
Young Craig wasn't so smart.  I hate to admit this, but young Craig was so upset and stressed out that he contracted shingles and had to leave school early that semester.

WTF!!!!!!!  All that emotional self destruction over a bad read through!?  Get over yourself!

Flash forward to my teaching days and our recording sessions.  For many of my students, even at the masters level, this might be the first time they experienced an orchestra playing their work.

I would always tell this tragic personal story of my first orchestral recording session, just before my students had their first session, joking, "Don't worry.  The first 100 recording sessions you produce are the hardest - but you'll get there."

Each student would get their fifteen minutes to record their (at most) two minute cue, and when the clock ran out, that was it.

And even with seasoned professionals in the ensemble, the safety net I would supply them with great engineers and proof reading, things still went wrong; A transposition error, a wrong note in a part, a note out of range - time get's eaten and the student doesn't get the recording they planned.

In my students, I saw so many "Young Craigs" chastising themselves for the mistakes they inevitably would make.  I would tell them,
"Make your mistakes now, when they don't matter.  Be glad that this happened here, in my class, and not with an entire room filled with studio executives, while working on a package deal where every minute you go into overtime comes out of your rent money.  Learn the lesson and move on."
By managing their expectations, I hoped my students wouldn't go down the emotional rabbit hole that swallowed me if, and when, the session doesn't go exactly as planned.

Of course, the recording session is just a metaphor for life...

A final note:

One of my passions is long distance open ocean sailboat racing - mostly ones with more than one hull.  At the top of the page there's a picture of the model I used to race.

You were probably wondering why that picture was there, at the top of a music blog with the heading, "Can Artists Ever Really be Happy?"  There are two reasons.

First, I love racing sailboats because it forces me to get out of my own head.   When I am racing, it's like playing chess where the board is constantly moving in three dimensions.  Mistakes can cost a lot in broken gear, broken bones, and even in extreme cases, lives.  I've been in some really hairy situations on the open ocean!

The second reason?  My old college sailing coach used to say:
"Races are won by the team that makes the fewest mistakes."  
I love this statement.  The assumption is that in life, mistakes are going to be made, and winning doesn't mean being perfect.  For someone who is programmed to agonize over every note, giving myself permission to make the occasional misstep actually frees the creativity.

Remember?  At the top of the page where I said by the time I finished this post I would know if it was uplifting or depressing?  Well, I guess that was a lie.

And somewhere in a parallel universe, Tchaikovsky is laughing.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Samuel Beckett

Four Must Have Books for the Aspiring Composer.

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