Fear, Pride, Discourse, and the Emerging Composer: Some Thoughts on Mark Applebaum’s “Existential Crises”

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by Sarah Perske

A few months ago I read an article by Mark Applebaum called “Existential Crises in Composition Mentorship and the Creation of Creative Agency.” In addition to exploring many other topics, Applebaum suggests that faulty self-perception – a lack or excess of self-confidence – can negatively impact a composer’s development and the quality of the music he or she writes.[1] These claims caught my attention because some of my own teachers in both composition and performance have made similar comments; I have often heard professors remark that a timid individual would achieve more if they had greater self-confidence, or that an overly-confident person needs to develop some healthy self-doubt in order to improve. Applebaum’s article provided me with an opportunity to reflect more deeply on this subject, and to question how such problems should be addressed.

Applebaum suggests that fearful and prideful attitudes both have the potential to thwart an emerging composer’s development and cause the writing process to founder. He claims that individuals who are “too self-confident have a tendency to accept their first idea, they are unwilling to revise, and they stunt their growth potential by complacent satisfaction with their current outlook…”[2] Furthermore, this “hubris…enables a garrulousness that, in a community context, threatens to overcome the communal discourse and silence alternative voices.”[3] Individuals who are plagued by fear, on the other hand, suffer from what the author calls “masterpiece syndrome,” a state of bring excessively “self-critical” to the extent that “fear and self-loathing replace joy and agency.”[4] Both modes seem very dangerous to me. The proud, self-satisfied composer is less willing to question his/her decisions, to listen to criticism, or even to take notice of different approaches. The fearful, self-hating composer, on the other hand, may self-question to the point of being unable to make decisions, and be either too willing to listen to all sorts of advice (which may lead them in directions that are contrary to their true interests), unwilling to implement advice because of fear of failure, or simply unable to listen at all because of the stifling, stupefying effect of fear.

Applebaum generally treats fear and pride as opposites that demand different pedagogical approaches, explaining that he strives to bolster the under-confident student by “ lower[ing] the stakes of the enterprise” and “cheerleading,” while he works to “push back on ideas” and “purposefully destabilize…the artistic comfort zone” of the over-confident student.[5] This corresponds with the way most of us view fear and pride and their respective treatments; in daily life, the most commonly suggested “cure” for either malady often involves a good dose of the opposite attitude. In my own experience, however, elements of the two modes can alternate with one another quite rapidly or even exist simultaneously, making this approach problematic. For example, one aspect of a piece I’m writing may stagnate because of fear (anxiety about making a change, or uncertainty about whether a change should be made), while another may suffer because of pride (inability to notice or admit that a change ought to be made). For this reason, I’m beginning to think that fear and pride are actually symptoms of the same disease: an excessive preoccupation with self at the expense of the music.

Interestingly, although Applebaum seems to take the traditional view that fear and pride are opposites that need to be brought “into balance,”[6] he hints at a common cure for both ailments in interactions with others, emphasizing the importance of “communal discourse” and the need for conversations with peers as well as mentors.[8] On the subject of community and interaction, Applebaum believes “that the most puissant source of inspiration comes not from formal teachers but from student colleagues,”[9] in part because students can learn from their interactions with one another what it means to be a mentor, and this in turn helps the student to become a self-mentor, able “to reflect questions internally.”[10] I would add to the author’s discussion of community the importance of having a sense of real camaraderie in the interactions of the community members; this is implicit in a number of Applebaum’s comments, but not explicitly stated.[11] I’m hopeful that camaraderie within “communal discourse” is the antidote to the self-preoccupied attitude that leads to fear and pride: if one can learn to fully appreciate one’s colleagues, hold them in high regard, feel “safe” expressing one’s difficulties and listening to their input, and see one’s individual efforts as part of a common effort, then the stakes are not so high. There is less to fear, less to feel puffed up about, and there are more reasons to simply enjoy doing the work and sharing it.

[1] Mark Applebaum, “Existential Crises in Composition Mentorship and the Creation of Creative Agency,” Contemporary Music Review, 31, no. 4 (August 2012): 259-60, accessed May 5, 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07494467.2012.725809.

[2] Ibid, 259.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 260.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 259.

[7] Ibid, 260-262.

[8] Ibid, 261.

[9] Ibid, 261-262.

[10] Applebaum’s descriptions of his seminars on collaborative composition are suggestive of a community that includes real camaraderie as well as competitiveness.

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