It’s taken some time, but I’m finally at a point where almost everything I work on during my daily practice routine is original material. This transition has been difficult, but not for the ways you’d expect. I have several years’ worth of material (and continue to add more), so that’s not the issue. I’m comfortable editing an older work if I feel it should have more fanfare or if it should be simplified, so not that either. The issue has been in overcoming an entire lifetime of dedicated studies of other composers’ material and becoming comfortable as a musician/composer, rather than being one or the other.
When I started formal lessons, everything I played was under the control of my instructor. If it wasn’t in my staff paper book as an assignment, it wasn’t to be done. And since I averaged about twelve assignments a week, there wasn’t enough room to fit in additional things anyway. Yes, twelve. It usually consisted of one classical piece, one jazz song out of the Real Book to be arranged, a second jazz song to practice improvising over, a written solo (think the Charlie Parker Omnibook), a solo I had to transcribe by ear, a written jazz lick to be played in all twelve keys, a blues lick to be played over a twelve bar, etc. And this was just from my jazz teacher! I often had three to four major classical works under a different instructor at the same time, but subtract one because I usually played one of my four classical works for the jazz instructor simultaneously so he’d be happy on that end, but I wouldn’t get as overworked.
Let’s not count that I was also studying jazz bass while taking two piano lessons a week, and playing as a soloist and in a big band. Oh, and I was also writing my senior thesis for my history degree at Fitchburg State University.
Just reading that back to myself, and I’m amazed I was able to accomplish anything during that time period! But this is the point; I spent so much time, and so many years playing the works of Chopin, Mendelssohn, Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, etc. that whenever I had enough time to work on an original piece, I felt... dirty. Playing other people’s music had become so engrained in my training that I felt as though I was doing something wrong when I started to put aside my Chopin ballads and Liszt etudes in exchange for classical pieces I had written myself, or when I started to improvise over a jazz lead sheet I had created instead of opening the Real Book once more.
It’s still something I’m adjusting to.
In the classical world, there is a well-established air of snobbery that has emerged over the past century. Many musicians in this style are more or less forced into studying signature pieces for their instrument because it’s what’s expected of them to play as a soloist, or for auditions at the world’s leading conservatories or orchestras. A pianist who walks on stage and starts playing two sonata’s she wrote herself is a great risk compared to Beethoven being regurgitated for the billionth time. Critics may not like seeing that sort of innovation as they came to the performance wanting to hear what’s already been done before, and it’s a financial risk to promoters and managers alike if people are going to a concert where the music is all new over the reliable, existing repertoire.
This is a toxic environment for a musician/composer. On one hand, you are expected to play dozens of virtuosic pieces that everybody knows, and then you’re also expected to be writing new, equally virtuosic material. But if you dare combine those schools and play your own work in the concert hall? Damnation! Well, not really. But it’s not encouraged as much as premiering your works in the middle of a set that largely consists of existing dances, tone poems and sonatas that have been done to death. To go on stage and play an entire concert of your own material is something that is sadly not seen as much today in the classical school. I’m thinking it has more to do with composers focusing on large orchestral works over solo and small group pieces for their own instrument(s), probably in an attempt to break into the film and game scoring world that pays a lot better than writing music for the sake of art in the 21st century.
In the jazz world, the opposite seems to be true in my experience. The soloists or bands that get up and play a whole set of new material get a much better following than those that play out of the Real Book. Granted, in the world of wedding bands with small combos or (especially) big bands, the standards like “Satin Doll”, “Girl From Ipanema” and “April in Paris” are a must. Everyone knows these songs, and jazz, at the end of the day, is dance music. People at these functions want to dance to something they know doesn’t have an 11/16 time change in the bridge.
But when studying jazz in my lessons, it was all focused on cover songs. What songs are best to play at restaurants, which ones for weddings, etc. and playing all of the big standards. And just when you think you have enough, you find more that you need to know to survive any future gigs!
So when the time came to start focusing on my work, you can start to see why I was a little timid to approach my own creations. But you have to think of it like this; Chopin would probably be a footnote in history if he hadn’t been a writer (without using Google, name me a major concert pianist from the mid 1800s), Miles Davis became famous for the pieces he and his bandmates wrote, Rush became the prog heroes they are today by writing about space fascists, sentient trees and cars. None of them were strictly cover bands.
Sure, you put out a few covers here and there, and when you’re starting out, that’s the best thing for you until you’re comfortable on your instrument and in your settings. It allows for learning and experimentation. I spent many, many years studying what are essentially “covers” to the point that the repertoire I was creating had to be put on the back burner until recently.
I’m becoming more and more comfortable with my identity as a classical, jazz, electronic and whatever else I want composer and performer of that same music, as both a pianist and bassist. Some may be perfectly fine only playing Debussy and Bach for the rest of their lives, and while I love those works, I want to write my own in that spirit, or in a style that’s entirely myself that doesn’t fit into any existing school or though process at the moment.
That’s how boundaries fall and how you can find your own voice.