On Goal-Setting and Flexible Dreams
Which of my dream projects—the “bucket list” pieces that I hope to write, future albums I'd like to record, and places I'd like to travel—will I work toward this year?
What collaborations will I pursue in order to make each dream project happen?
What stories am I going to tell with the music I write?
Near the beginning of each new year, I review past career goals and set new ones, and I ask variations of these same questions each time. As part of this process, I usually flip through my copy of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, which I reread less for its exercises in creativity and more for the six years' worth of notes and goals I've scribbled in the margins. During each pass through the book, I annotate goals I've outgrown and check off ones that have happened. Occasionally I'll use a different book or a PDF workbook to write down new goals, too, and I have a few files on my computer with lists of things I want to achieve before turning a specific age that I revisit annually: 25 goals before I turn 25. 30 before 30.
Looking back over years of goals, I can assess not only which dreams have actually happened, but the kind of goals that come to fruition. Year after year, certain dream projects do become reality, not always exactly as I'd described, but more or less as I'd hoped they'd take shape.
Last year, though, I noticed one big exception. Goals that mentioned very specific people—conductors I'd like to work with, and performers or ensembles I hoped would program or commission my work—were much less likely to pan out.
This makes sense, of course; while composers can promote their music, we ultimately have very little control over precisely who programs our work. We can't will or force a conductor to commission us. Still, for years, I've fixated on certain ensembles. As I made yet another list of dream collaborators, I'd imagine that if these conductors would only commission me, surely I'd feel immensely successful and happy with the spectacular new pieces I'd write for them.
On the rare occasion that my goal to work with one of these ensembles did happen, though, it rarely turned out as I'd hoped. A coveted commission would arrive, but with a text I didn't love, and I'd be ashamed of the resulting piece. I'd idolize a competition—a long-awaited chance to work with a particular ensemble—and finally win, only to receive a premiere that was under tempo and under-rehearsed. Even when an ensemble I longed to work with programmed my music in a gorgeous, near-perfect performance, I'd notice that, listening in the audience, I felt the same anxious, chattering thoughts I feel during every performance of my music: Is this piece any good? Do I even like this piece anymore? Does anyone here like this piece?
Reality can't possibly meet the unreasonably high expectations I've attached to these lists of “dream collaborators.” No matter how talented a performer is, no collaboration will turn me into a different person: someone who is never full of self-doubt, who feels as if every new piece she writes is perfect. I'll probably never feel that way. I don't think I'd want to feel that way.
I do think that considering which collaborations you'd love to pursue in the future can be tremendously valuable, especially when your envisioned collaborators are people with whom you've already established a working relationship. But when your instinct in setting dream goals for your music is to passively make a list of people you'd like to perform your work, it might be more worthwhile to ask yourself why you're drawn to these particular performers. Is there a piece that you think you could only write for one particular ensemble? Would working with any one of these collaborators contribute something to your career that you truly couldn't achieve any other way, or with anyone else?
Now, as each new year approaches and I consider how I'd like my musical future to proceed, I remind myself to set goals for dream projects rather than dream collaborators. I build flexibility into each dream, accepting that I can't know precisely how each project will take shape until it becomes reality.
Take How to Go On, the title piece on Choral Arts Initiative's album of my choral music: I knew I wanted to write a secular requiem for close to a decade, long before I'd met CAI's conductor, and before CAI even existed. For years, I also dreamed of making a first album of my choral works, but when I imagined those two distinct goals, I never could have guessed that they'd overlap.
If I'd written a secular requiem for a different chorus, maybe it would have been simpler. Maybe there would have been less divisi and fewer movements; maybe it would have set different texts. Maybe my secular requiem would have been written, as I'd initially imagined it, as an concert-length work for chorus and orchestra. With another collaborator, I could have fulfilled the same dream with an entirely different piece.
But now, going back through the margins of The Artist's Way yet again, I place a check mark or scribble in “How to Go On” wherever I've mentioned recording an album of my choral works or composing a secular requiem. Those two dream projects have been realized in a uniquely wonderful reality; I can no longer imagine wanting them to exist any other way.
Now, I set new goals. I imagine future albums, and while I have a loose concept for what each will hold, the ensembles recording those albums are undefined. When I find the right collaborators, they will inevitably shape these recordings. I imagine writing a piece for chorus and orchestra within the next year or so; the dream and intent are perfectly clear, but here, too, that new piece will depend on which ensemble commissions it. I'll continue to hone my vision for these projects until I find the right collaborators for each particular dream, and then I'll open them up to reality. At least in my universe, that's the way that dream projects come true.