This week I’m going to take a brief step away from marketing and self-promotion to talk about….well, another type of marketing and self-promotion, to be completely honest. Though, frankly, everything a composer does is some form of marketing or self-promotion, from the actual music that you write to the ways that you get it out into the world to any appearances you make in public or online.
To that end, I’d like to talk briefly this week about composer behavior in certain situations, and how it can affect the way people view you and your music. This post is largely inspired by a recent experience I had with a composer who behaved particularly poorly in a number of respects, though I’ve seen very similar behavior from a number of other composers throughout my career. I’ll avoid naming names to protect the guilty, and try to generalize as much as possible so that this post doesn’t devolve into a public gripe session.
The ways that we behave in the world greatly affect the trajectories of our careers. A composer who treats performers and audiences and other composers with respect and generosity will in turn receive much better treatment – and probably better opportunities – than one who is selfish and blind to the needs and feelings of others.
The difficulty here is that we spend so much time shaping and crafting our works, and we want so badly for them to be liked and performed well, that we can sometimes be blind to the ways that we behave toward our interpreters and our audiences. Being an artist is in many ways like being a parent – we want the best for our children, and it’s easy to allow that desire to shut out the rest of the world. We can become those Park Slope mommies and daddies who, in the name of wanting the best for their (ridiculously-named) children, become entitled, overbearing, and insufferable.
Case in point:
Not too long ago, I was involved in the premiere of a vocal/chamber work for which the composer was asked to be a member of the pickup ensemble for the performance. With most composers I know, this wouldn’t be a problem, but in this case, it was – and in a very big way. The composer – let’s call them XY – walked into the first rehearsal and, having barely said a word of greeting to any of the performers (none of whom XY had met before), began making changes to the already-confusing (and incredibly poorly-engraved) score. And it was downhill from there. For the remainder of the rehearsal, which ran almost twice as long as scheduled, the ensemble was never allowed to go more than 30 seconds without being stopped and asked to do some new thing that XY had dreamt up that very second, or perform these or those few notes in a way that was not only not notated, but completely inappropriate to a first reading.
Mind you, most of the members of the ensemble had never met one another before, let alone attempted to rehearse this hyper-complex piece, so anything beyond correcting pitches and rhythms seems inappropriate to me. And constant interruptions to make ill-thought-out changes to the score, or exhort the guitarist to play more “digitally” (!?), didn’t help us a) learn the piece, b) have the slightest bit of confidence in the composer’s abilities (or, frankly, sanity), or c) maintain any sort of good will toward the composer.
Despite the fact that XY was very kind and earnest and enthusiastic, they had behaved incredibly poorly. The constant interruptions, and later calls for additional rehearsals, were very disrespectful of the performers’ time, despite the fact that XY didn’t intend any sort of disrespect whatsoever.
[There is much more that was wrong about XY’s behavior, but I’m not really writing this to complain (honest!), but as an example of some recent poor composer behavior.]
Now, this was a fairly extreme example, but I can say with a fair amount of certainty that at some point in all of our careers we’ve behaved poorly to some degree. In some respects, I think it’s part of coming of age as a composer. But there does come a point where such things must be left behind.
This isn’t to chide, but to remind that we must be aware of our behavior.
Because it’s by the good will of our performers, audiences, and composer colleagues that we gain any measure of success.
A composer can’t expect to gain a base of performers if they can’t be relied upon to treat performers with respect and courtesy. XY thought that there was no problem interrupting constantly, and asking for several-hour last-minute rehearsals because they’d mismanaged earlier rehearsal time so badly, because it was their piece – their baby. (Yes, that phraseology is awkward, but I’m hell-bent on avoiding gendered pronouns of any sort.) Like those Park Slope mommies and daddies, XY wanted the best for the piece, even though their behavior burned every (every) bridge in that rehearsal room.
I remember one particular instance of not-so-pristine behavior in my composerly adolescence during a rehearsal of a new piece with the choir that was premiering it. I was a member of the choir, and we had literally just finished a concert. The director thought we should spend a little time preparing for an upcoming tour that would feature my new work, so – still in concert attire – we spent some time running various works, mostly mine.
It was the end of the day, we’d just spent the last hour or so singing difficult music, and we were all nearing exhaustion. In my own tiredness, I wasn’t prepared to hear anything but perfection from the choir, and got a little harsh in my criticisms of the group’s sound. Ultimately, I used a particularly inapt and slightly offensive analogy for what I wanted, and – fortunately – the director stepped in and called an end to the rehearsal. I still cringe when I remember that moment, because I knew immediately that I’d just crossed a line. Since I was a member of the group, the other singers forgave and forgot very quickly, but I know that with a choir that didn’t know me as well, I would have fared poorly indeed.
So we’ve all been there.
I think that we all need to remind ourselves periodically that we’re a part of a community – and a remarkably small one, at that – and that we’re dealing with other people who all have the same goals that we do. We all want to make music as best we can. And it’s much better to have a performance that’s a little lacking but the performer wants to do the piece again – or commission a new one – than to behave poorly and potentially burn a bridge.
Again, it’s so easy to be blindered to others by how close we are to our scores.
We should by all means be enthusiastic and passionate about our music, and strive for perfection in performances, but if we’re a part of a rehearsal, or offering feedback on a performance, we must remember that sensitivity to our performers and respect for their time and craft is important. Good will and respect are very mutual things, and it’s important to know how much and what sort of feedback is appropriate to the performer or ensemble that you’re working with.
Of course we’re all probably going to encounter situations at some point in our careers in which one or more performers are hostile to us or our music for whatever reason, but I think that here good will and respect – including self-respect – are even more important. It’s much better to come away from these situations having it said that, “He handled himself well,” than the alternative.
Remember, we’re building relationships with performers – your piece can be performed again, but once you burn a bridge, it’s difficult to rebuild.
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