Wasted Potential

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This is written entirely from my perspective, but I suspect it applies to others too. Please forgive the self-centredness this article seems to imply – it’s simply a product of telling this from my point of view.

Wasted Potential

By Daniel Barkley:

Despite being a composer, writing music is something I often find rather difficult. It’s not the technical aspect of being able to write a melody, a bass line, or being able to stitch together several strands in a canonic web (puzzles like this tend to be a fun challenge). The problem lies with the subconscious preoccupation with potential.

I’ve often found myself starting a new piece, with a shiny new idea ready to go, being filled with dread rather than excitement. Surely this must be wrong? With all the millions of possible different paths lying open for my new material to venture down, I still feel uncomfortable? Actually, this is the exact reason for the discomfort. It was never very clear to me until recently, but the reason why I procrastinate heavily when a composition is not going well, or when beginning a new piece, is the thought of these millions of directions where the piece might head.

Confrontation with this multitude of possibilities leads to thoughts that, whatever path is taken, no matter how good the end result, there was potential to be better … or at least to be different. Thus, every choice made when composing – especially “where to next” choices – feels like a nail in the coffin of your alternate dimension masterpiece, and progress becomes extremely laborious.. This explains the deep down (subconscious) unease I feel, possibly many others feel, when in such a situation. This also explains the sometimes insane lengths to which I, and others, go to avoid another confrontation with the infinity of possibilities, knowing that you’re somehow coming off worse against potential.

It’s not always the case – some pieces practically write themselves, and even the hardest-to-write pieces begin to move smoothly once some momentum has built up. However, the wasted potential itself is not really a bad thing. It seems to be most obvious when improvising at the piano: ideas come and go, some of them good, worth using … but you can’t remember or write down all of them (though recording improvisations can help). When working at a new piece, it’s the same thing: your brain imagines hundreds of different potential uses, developments, guises, disguises, transformations of the thematic material, but you just cannot use them all. There absolutely must be some wasted potential in composing any piece. In some respects, then, this is separating the wheat from the chaff. The other side to this tends to be a case of stumbling upon something that works well, and rolling with it.

A piece is what it is, not what it could have been. Hopefully, with as thoughtful and careful a use of the thematic material as possible, it will be musically satisfying. You can’t hope for more, except that you manage to keep stumbling across solutions that work. (Again, most of my musical ‘stumbling’ is done at the piano.) Another good thing about unused potential is that any good ideas you come up with but don’t use, you can save for a future piece

If you can accept that some ideas will be wasted and never come to fruition, and try to make the best of the ideas you settle on or remember, then you will be better able to face up to the blank page.

Hopefully this has been interesting to read, and perhaps might help some of those (if such people exist) who find themselves paralysed by a preoccupation with potential.

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