Why I write music that is beyond my ability level

I was asked this a while back by Erica Sipes of Beyond the Notes, and I fired off a quick answer on Twitter to the effect that I get bored easily.

But I think that this, while true, may have been an oversimplification. I mean, anything can be complicated with enough excess thought, right? 🙂

So anyway, I really started thinking about this, and I suppose what I came up with is that I’m having a hard time imagining a composer who doesn’t push their ability to some extent. The process seems to come with a built-in shove on the back bumper.

The ears and the hands follow one another often, I think. What one can hear in a given piece will probably be influenced by what one can play. If I’m listening to Rachmaninoff, I will probably pay closer attention to the bits that aren’t going too fast for me to follow, and I can detect structure and detail in those bits more easily. It’s an effort for me to hear the very, very fast stuff as more than a smear.

And what I can hear and make sense of, I can write.

So what my ear is capable of resolving in terms of fine detail is probably what my ear will crank out on its own when I’m composing, sitting there noodling at a certain bit over and over and trying to “listen” for where it seems to want to go next.

But I’m also always looking outward. I think a composer can’t avoid that; we’re always peering ahead into the fog looking for what comes next, so we may always be straining and squinting a little just in general. And I think this straining-and-squinting mindset probably extends out into the writing process in other ways, straining and squinting to see outward from what we can do physically as well as what comes next in a given piece.

And because my ear can only strain a little beyond where it is now, that means that I can only hear things that are a titch beyond me. If I could resolve the fine detail in an extended blur of 16th notes, I could probably play it and my technique would be up on that level to start with.

It’s a bit like driving and having your headlights on, but only dimly. You can see far enough ahead to move ahead, but not so far that you are tempted to put a brick on the accelerator and go faster than you can steer safely. My ear wants to hear more than it does, but it can only strain so much, so it’s always about an inch ahead of me.

It works out well, since doing things that are about an inch ahead of where you are as a default setting is a great recipe for steady improvement. Sit where you are, and you stagnate. Try to leap ahead too far and you fail. Pushing things by a comfortably uncomfortable margin seems to work best.

It will be interesting to see how this works out over the future. There’s that quote attributed to Bill Gates that says that everyone overestimates what they can do in one year and underestimates what they can do in ten. Maybe in ten years, I’ll have pushed my ear and hands to the point where a blizzard of squillionth notes can be resolved by me, and I’ll have started to write stuff like that. (I can sense the very, very beginnings of that process now.) I do know that if I’m still here and in good health, I’ll still be writing, so it will be fun to find out where I wind up, should the Fates permit it.