Sprint vs Marathon

This week I have had to make a tough decision - to pull out of submitting my latest composition for consideration for an upcoming music festival. It is not a decision I have taken lightly, given how much effort I have already put into it and how much I want to be able to do this. However there are too many holes in the music with a little over a week to go before the deadline, which means that it would take a miracle or many late nights (and possibly an all-nighter) to finish. And there's little guarantee that it would be to a standard I can be proud of.

So how did I get myself into this?

I am a member of CANZ - the Composer's Association of New Zealand, which I first heard about when submitting an earlier work for a competition involving the NZSO National Youth Orchestra for their 2008 season. Members receive a regular newsletter which contains details of upcoming competitions, commissions and calls for scores. Most of these tend to have deadlines within 1-3 months from when the newsletter is received, which in reality is quite short for those in my situation who aren't professional composers or musicians, and can only develop pieces at nights or in weekends.

As I previously mentioned, I composed a score for my team's short film for the 48 Hours film competition. When I did the maths, it worked out that I composed a little over two minutes of music in one long day - and that doesn't count the mental development of the ideas on the Friday night once I had understood the genre, storyline and mood of the film. This was effectively a sprint, in that I had to be at full throttle getting the score developed with little respite. Much like the rest of the team doing filming, etc.

So when I received the latest newsletter, one call for scores took my interest. The downside: a short deadline of less than two months away, and none of my past pieces or works in various stages of development (conceptual or otherwise) fit into the combination of length (up to 15 minutes - the longer, the better) or instrumentation (chamber ensemble or subsets of). Therefore a new piece it was to be.

Here's where my naivete set in. (Well actually I subconsciously knew it, but underestimated it.)

Spurred on by two minutes of music in one day, I reasoned that it was possible to do 14 minutes in seven days. Well, weekends, to stretch it out and be fair on myself, and allow time for fixes and improvements. Besides, I also had the odd weeknight I could do when I had the energy. This was, after all, a marathon - but it was possible. Each weekend I had to be able to say, "I've achieved another two minutes" at the end of it.

But here's the lesson: A sprint does not scale to a marathon.

As much as I wanted to do another two minutes, I could only do about 40 seconds at a time, e.g. on a Saturday, then struggle to develop things further the next day. Ideas were short, it was hard translating them into reality and I was tired. So I had to rest, though with anxiety of the looming deadline - meaning that it was just as hard to develop the ideas. More rest was needed, so I'd do that and struggle to get back into the flow. A devil's advocate would call it procrastination.

Yes, attempting to sprint for extended periods of time causes burnout. You cannot complete a marathon by sprinting all the way non-stop.

The best way to last the distance is to reduce the pace to what is comfortable, while still achieving what needs to be done. Music will develop in it's own time - you cannot force it to go faster, despite how much you'd like to be able to.

Incidentally, this lesson doesn't just apply to creating music, but anything that requires concentration and/or creativity - like software development. To be really productive you need to be in the right environment with enough energy and little stress sustained over time. Make small and steady achievements. Step back and celebrate these achivements, because they give the fresh energy and motivation to last the distance.