I like pithy statements, like to trot them out when I am trying to encourage choirs to give of their best, recite them when discussing life and careers with people who are interested and interesting, and repeat them in my head when things are not going particularly well. Among my favourites are that you only truly learn from failure rather than success and that if the horse throws you off, you get back on. Many, many are the times I have had to remind myself of those last two in this line of life and work, and in some other lines as well, for composing is a heady mixture of crushing disappointment and giddy success, often moving at the most glacial of speeds.
It appears to be generally accepted that, given equal amounts of success and defeat, pleasure and displeasure, our brains will react more to the negative than to the positive. In other words, we need to succeed more than we fail in order to feel good about something. That can be a tough thing to achieve in many walks of life, and, unless one is proactive about the way one thinks, it can be easy to get into some kind of hole, keep digging and have no real objective sense of what one’s abilities might be.
There have been several occasions in my composing life when I have thought about throwing in the towel, normally after horrific performances (now, thankfully, pretty much excised from my experience) and rugs being pulled out from under one’s feet. As an example, once upon a time I won a competition and then part of the prize did not materialise, but that is for another blog post. I have come, though, to realise that a key component of success in whatever field is not giving up, that those who do stop automatically take themselves out of the running. So many pieces feel that they are going nowhere, that they have no life, and then suddenly click into place, so many performances assemble into being on the back of a single email, so many commissions arrive out of the blue. It’s there in sport, too. Look, for example, where Jenson Button was on lap 40 of the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix and where he was on lap 70, the one that mattered. Or, again, where the same Mr. Button was at the end of 2008 and at the beginning of 2009. Or Goran Ivanisevic, Wimbledon, 2001. Your honour, I rest my case.
So why all of this navel gazing? Well, in the past couple of weeks there have been significant steps forward in one area, and a rather disheartening step back in another. It has caused me to take a few deep breaths, a little time away from the composing table, and to gather my thoughts…and today I have spent the morning catching up on things and getting – I hope – through a small barrier with my latest setting of the Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis text. I love the story of Elgar, asked what it was like being a composer, replying “it’s damned hard work, my boy!”, and I bear that always in mind, alongside the more motivational stuff. Onwards and upwards, as they say and I have written here before. Maybe I should just cheer myself up by watching something like the wonderful Galaxy Quest, seeing Alan Rickman steal the show (again..!) and chiming along with “Never give up, never surrender!”