Thanks to our lively mother, my childhood household was full of making things—food, poems, make-believe, sweaters, parties, baskets, candles, music, paintings, dances, costumes. We all participated. It was part of everyday life. It was fun, it was in my bones, and I felt certain I’d grow up to do something creative.
Around the age of ten I took up music and was hooked. Yet, as much as I loved playing the flute or feeling the notes of Bach Preludes under my fingers at the piano, it never, never occurred to me that I could be a composer. I might make up a little ditty or find some particularly luscious chords that my ear loved to linger over, but the idea of composing something more substantial, committing it to paper, was just so mysterious and distant, the province of born-geniuses who were channeling symphonies and operas at the age of 14. Bach. Mozart. Beethoven. Chopin. The names loomed large. They were old, dead, white and male, but more importantly, the way that music came into being was simply mysterious and inaccessible.
I felt less intimidated as a dancer. When asked to choreograph, I plunged in without any training or prior experience, finding inspiration where I could. I loved pouring over big picture books of dance—ABT’s was a particular favorite—and I’d imagine how they got to the moment of the still shot and what happened after that moment, to come up with movement sequences. Why not?
Painting, drawing, sculpting were a free-for-all. I could color something abstract or shape clay however I felt. Why not?
But I could find no parallel in music. Music theory had rigid rules. Parallel fifths were a horror to be avoided. There was a right and wrong way to do it. At the same time, it was all so mysterious. Intimidating.
Yet music drew me most powerfully (maybe because of the mystery?) and in college I declared my major in music, playing flute. Fortunately I had two influential teachers, one who required us to compose in music classes (no avoiding it any longer!), the other who became my first composition teacher—I began writing at the advanced age of 22—who became my cheerleader to go forward and keep going. Within a few years I had some wonderful successes as a composer.
There’s a lot to be said about that intimidation (and mystery). How it dogged at my heels—especially every time I faced the blank page—but also how it kept me going, pursuing it. I learned from what didn’t intimidate me. From my experience making dances, I translated to music composition the sense of freedom and the ability to make up your own way of making things up. I found a career not in the institutions—universities, orchestras—where I assumed there were more rules and where the long shadow of music history surely loomed, but in the experimental world where I felt more freedom. I saw, learned and translated from all the other creative acts—not only the other arts, but teaching, cooking, public speaking… and then, oh my gosh, I saw it—the creative act—everywhere.
(And by the way, I’m pleased to see so many young musicians who are not intimidated as I was, thanks to musical influences far beyond classical lineage, and to garage bands and GarageBand, and teachers who get grade schoolers to compose and improvise.)
Now, after 29 years of writing music, the intimidation has run its course, served its purpose, leaves me alone. But along the way I learned a lot about creativity: How it feeds on everything, even the thing that threatens to shut it down. That mystery is something rich and inviting to delve into, not shy away from. That others are intimidated by the creative act for their own reasons. But that creativity is everywhere, though not always acknowledged.
And when I hear “I don’t know how you do it. What you do is so mysterious!” I have an inkling where that idea comes from. My response is: It’s not mysterious. It’s not difficult. Anyone can do it. Everyone already does.
Composer Mary Ellen Childs composes concert work, often with a strong visual element, for a variety of instrumental ensembles, including solo accordion, string quartets, and chamber groups, and percussion pieces for her ensemble CRASH. She is the recipient of McKnight and Bush Fellowships and was recently named a 2011 USA Friends Fellow.