I first read what has come to be known as "The Serenity Prayer" in the winter of 1992. At the time I was living in Cuenca, Ecuador as part of a two-year mission. During that experience I spent hundreds of hours in a lot of homes and met people who seemed to represent the vast array of human experience. In December, my mission companion and I (we always traveled in pairs) found ourselves in Nestor's living room. Nestor was a one-time seminarian studying to be a priest, and had subsequently taken an interest in these two American teenagers, starkly out of place in this traditional Andean city with its cobblestone streets, colonial cathedrals, and braided women wearing the traditional bright skirts, shawls, and white fedoras. Having invited us into his home, Nestor gestured toward a short poem, framed and set neatly on the coffee table.
"Have you ever read this before?" he asked.
"No. What is it?"
"It is called the "Serenity Prayer," and it is well known to those who are striving to overcome addiction--and particularly those participating in the Alcoholics Anonymous program."
Upon reading it, I was struck with its theological thesis conflating human imperfection and divine mercy. Although I had been raised in a largely affluent, religious household where a drop of liquor never once touched the bottom of a crystal glass, I was intimately aware of my own seething array of inadequacies and private demons. In a few short words, the "Serenity Prayer" preached of a god that could dirty his hands in the messy business of human intervention, and yet emerge unsullied. It acknowledged a god that acknowledged my condition--and could help divide the wheat of what I could change, with the tares I could not. A happy life, I would learn, depends in no small part on our ability to discern those things that lie within our power to change from those things that lie beyond that power.
Accepting The Things I Cannot Change
As composers, we comprise one part of a two part, symbiotic relationship with performers. Our product--the summation of our gifts, dedication, and hard work--is consigned to silence without forming an essential partnership with a performer. Therein lies the limit of our power: the broadcast of our music into the physical world relies upon a performer choosing to play it. Moreover, while the performer must also rely upon a composer's work in order to have something to play, the predicament of dependence between composer and performer is hardly equal. Living as we do in an era in which hundreds of years of published music is available, the performer possesses an infinite array of options--many more so than we as composers realistically do. In this way, performers enjoy a greater advantage as the power differential skews heavily in their favor. Many of us will protest at this realization, others will rationalize that their importance as composers is such that their music is more desirable at any given moment than that millennia of other repertoire. Perhaps. It is just as likely though that if Prominent Composer X fails to deliver a suitable work, or simply expires, one can be sure that another suitable work will be easily found. Although this 'delivery failure' is documented here in extremes, that failure could simply be an observed, undesirable variable such as an excessive commissioning or rental fee, excessive technical difficulty, something too easy or boring. The failure could simply come as a consequence of a personality quirk or a reputation of being difficult to work with. The power differential is an insuperable fact in a composer's professional life. The sooner we acknowledge this, the better. Why? Because knowledge is power.
Composers Who Know
It would be easy as a composer to assume the victim mentality. We've all met these victim composers with their respective taglines:
"There are too many composers"
"They only program the music of (add university name here) composers"
"They only got that commission because their teacher was__________"
"There are no jobs"
"She/he is a careerist"
"I'm too old"
"I'm too young"
"They only play experimental music"
"They only play tonal music"
...and on and on drone the common refrains. Such a composer understands well one half of the equation: that there are circumstances beyond one's control (however misunderstood those circumstance might be). Nevertheless, that composer fails to comprehend the power that remains in their own hands. Far from being an acquiescence to failure, acknowledging the agency of others to make choices about our music is liberating on two fronts:
- It teaches us to no longer worry about the disposition of competitions, calls for scores, grant making committees, etc. Why? Because those decisions rest entirely with other people. No matter how much we persuade or sell, somebody else will make the decision. Worrying and wringing our hands over whether we'll win the Rome Prize, get the grant, or be offered that residency is absolutely useless and has no bearing on the outcome. It should also eradicate any animosity we--heaven forbid--might feel toward another composer that was the recipient of a favorable decision.
- It gives us a perspective on those aspects of our career over which we DO have power and control. Why is this important? We have finite amounts of energy. Evolutionary biologists understand better than ever the significance that preserved energy bears on our survival. It is why we often opt to take the escalator instead of the stairs, prefer walking to running, etc. Far from being a loathsome weakness, our desire to sleep-in instead of go to the gym is likely an evolutionary survival instinct. We need to preserve as much energy as possible in order to flourish and use it where we really need it. When we get lost in worry and expend our strength over matters beyond our control, what do we have left to give to our work? What remains for those critical hours of pondering, sketching, writing and re-writing? What space is there left for playing with and manipulating sounds? What room remains for great dreams that precede great work? Composing is fulfilling, but it is also exhausting, and its craft deserves all the strength we can spare.
Learn to embrace the notion that some things we cannot change, and you will find abundant new stores of energy to create and dedicate to those aspects of your career entirely within your control.
Courage To Change The Things I Can
If the first half of the equation is acknowledging the conditions beyond our control, we sell ourselves short if we don't then discover the wealth of aspects well within our control. A few years ago I realized that I needed a lot of help in learning to share the work I labored so long to create. Having become something of a junkie for the self-help genre, I started reading Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In his book, Covey describes two metaphorical circles in which we can divide our time and effort. The first, the "circle of concern," I have described above (those conditions we cannot control). The second, the "circle of influence," demonstrates those things that we can. As a composer working to negotiate performances of my music I learned that the two circles are significantly interconnected. In other words, if someone chose not to award a grant application or program a piece, I shouldn't simply dismiss the rejection outright as some kind of irrelevant or pesky affront to my impenetrable ego, but rather at the very least, utilize the opportunity to refine my discipline at not worrying, and sometimes, view it as a beckoning for improvement.
Learning To Recast Rejection
One of the most important things we can do is view our rejections critically--scanning them for clues that we can take back to our work. A few years ago I had an orchestra piece selected for a prestigious reading program. Over the course of the weekend, four composers received two extended rehearsals and readings of their work, followed by a long session of critique by the composer-in-residence. After the final rehearsal and reading, it was my turn to receive this critique. With some confidence that the ensemble enjoyed my work, I was ready for the inevitable accolades that were my due. Something very different, disastrously different, happened. After one very brief, very modest compliment, the composer-in-residence began to dismantle my work section by section. In fact, the dismantling was so thorough as to blossom into a full-blown excoriation. I was livid. I was convinced that I was being used as fodder in some indecipherable political card-playing match between this composer and the other professional staff present. I had been in a tenure-track position teaching composition at a university for nearly four years--I was the one who levied criticism on others, not the other way around. The whole weekend felt like a waste. I was angry for going, angry for the seemingly wasted time, angry that I had to be away from my wife and two young children and subject myself to the stress of travel just so I could have my you-know-what handed to me in a sling. Far from the triumph I had expected, the whole thing seemed an abject, miserable failure in a prominent setting. The mantra "I will never work again" played over and over in my mind. My poor wife was more than a bit surprised at my grave martyr's countenance when she picked me up at the airport shuttle.
After a few weeks, this hot, emotional experience began to simmer into something miraculous. For several days I couldn't bear to even look at the score of the work, symbolically shredded as it was. I began to convert my resentment into curiosity and started to peek back through several pages. There they were, for all the world to see: clear and significant problems with balance, dovetailing, texture, narrative, etc. I recalled how I wrote the piece in a rush, bypassing much of the important sketching time that precedes even a rough draft. Sure the work had its moments, but the sum total was a shadow of what it could have been with careful planning, sketching, and revision. While the memory of the critique still stung, I was grateful for the incisive, direct criticism. What's more, I was motivated. I began to exercise MY power to study other pieces more carefully, to plan adequate time to compose, to scrutinize down to the level of small technical details. Two years later I wrote another orchestra piece. A much, much better piece. Today, I am grateful for that painful tutorial as it gave me a path forward and taught me that I could do something about my work.
Recasting rejection is an important way to translate 'circle of concern' issues into 'circle of influence' ones. In fact, there are often multiple ways to recast 'circle of concern' statements. For example:
Circle of Concern: Quartet X isn't programming my piece/responding to my inquiry, etc.
Circle of Influence Response #1: There are dozens upon dozens of quartets I can still contact. What other contacts do I have, even tangentially, to the quartet community?
Circle of Influence Response #2: Did I ask Quartet X if they know anyone I could contact that might be interested?
Circle of Influence Response #3: While I am waiting for Quartet X to respond to my inquiry, I have created a spreadsheet naming a dozen other pieces for different forces that I am going to send out. I will start by sending these pieces to people I know, or who are friends of friends.
Circle of Influence Response #4: I am going to look at recent programming by Quartet X so I can honestly assess how my work fits their style and reputation. Is my work at the same level of other works they are programming? If not, I am going to study additional works and make improvements to my own. If so, I am going to research other Quartets (you know, A-W and Y-Z) to see whose brand and programming shares greater resonance with my work.
Inside of a few moments, an unanswered email (or unsuccessful inquiry) can turn into an entire morning's worth (at least!) of work we can do that will vastly improve our chances of finding others with whom to collaborate. Once we grasp the second half of this equation, we realize that there is so much that we CAN do. We can study, write, go to concerts, meet people, make new friends and contacts, revise, promote, etc. We can even choose to perceive rejection in a new way, one that preserves our energy and saves it from useless exhaustion within that black hole of the 'circle of concern.'
Wisdom To Know The Difference
Finally, sometimes knowing the difference between what we can and can't do or control simply comes with experience. There are rejections that will still sting, and entire work sessions where we feel utterly powerless to write anything of consequence. In fact, there may even be moments where a rejection or unfavorable decision comes due to truly unfair circumstances that have nothing at all to do with our work. Life is inherently unfair. Yet, in all of its unfairness, you and I reserve the right to declare where we spend our efforts and our energy. It takes courage to dust ourselves off and get back to work when life momentarily tells us "no." Accept, we must, those things we cannot change, but embrace wholeheartedly the things we can.