Friday, January 23, 2009

Tchaikovsky and Discipline

"Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy."
--Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The more I learn about Tchaikovsky, the more I see him as one of the most inspiring composers in all of classical music.

Here was a man who suffered throughout his life. His mother died when he was an adolescent. He was mentally unstable during much of his adulthood, suffering from depression at best and derangement at worst. And he was a gay man living in a society that considered homosexuality to be criminal.

As if these enormous hardships weren't enough, he had just as many barriers blocking him from his dreams to become a composer: he had almost no background in the subject, having chosen a more "respectable" career in law. He had little musical training and less compositional training. He knew nothing of harmony, counterpoint or music theory. Worst of all, his first attempts at composition have been charitably described as "feeble."

In short, he had a long, long list of potential excuses to quit. He could have easily given up and settled for being just another frustrated and depressed lawyer, rather than rising up to become one of history's best known classical music composers.

Moreover, Tchaikovsky chose to build some exceptional habits that drove his outstanding creative output and productivity. He studied zealously, stayed humble and remained "skeptical of his own aptitude." And he composed in every spare moment. Tchaikovsky didn't sit around and wait for inspiration to come to him:

"I sit down to the piano regularly at nine-o'clock in the morning and Mesdames les Muses have learned to be on time for that rendezvous."

And, in a trait so rarely found in our relentlessly results-based society which seems to be increasingly focused on immediate success (or worse, success just for the sake of success): he placed process before product in his art. In a letter to his sister dating from in the early days of his musical education, he wrote:

"Do not imagine I dream of being a great artist. I only feel I must do the work for which I have a vocation. Whether I become a celebrated composer or only a struggling teacher--'tis all the same."

I've spend years confusing process with product in many areas of my life, particularly in my musical life years ago, when I was a young, perfectionist musician held back by the fear of making mistakes and looking foolish as a result. Only in the past few years, since I've begun writing, have I been able to (at times) get out from under my own perfectionism and concentrate on enjoying the creative process.

Once again, I thank this blog for introducing me to a new source of inspiration.

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