We composers love to hate deadlines. Is there anyone who feels more gloriously sorry for themselves than a composer faced with an impending due date? Finishing the piece is just the beginning; now I have to make the score look good too? And transpose the stupid French horn? And make parts? With good page turns?? All by Monday??? Life is so unfair!
This blog post was prompted by Ann Moss, an excellent singer and new music advocate based in San Francisco, who recently posted the following question on facebook: “Composers and other friends in the new music scene – I am interested in a frank, open, and non-judgmental conversation about deadlines. What is your relationship with deadlines? What challenges do they bring up for you? How do they help you? When you are not able to meet them, how do you handle it, and how do you communicate your situation to collaborators. It’s a broad topic I realize, but I’m interested in any thoughts or impressions or questions you may wish to air here.”
In contemplating a post in response, I realized that I have a lot to say about this. And why say it only to Ann’s facebook friends when I could bother the entire world with my thoughts? Hence, this blog post.
My main advice to composers faced with this heart-breaking dilemma of how to Distill the Infinite by a tyrannically imposed, arbitrary date set months ago in a collaborative fit of carefully thought-out reasonableness is: suck it up! You get to spend your time being creative and doing what you love, and somebody’s actually asked you (maybe even paid you!) to share this creativity with the world by creating a brand new piece of music that will be performed in public, you’ve known about it for months, and now you’re complaining that you don’t have enough time? Get a grip!
That’s my main advice. As a composer myself, I’m all too aware of the kinds of excuses we tend to make to justify missing deadlines. But I do recognize that it’s not quite that simple. Composing music isn’t like writing an Ikea manual. (Pro tip: if faced with an impending deadline and no music composed yet, try submitting an Ikea manual as a “graphic score.”) There are real issues of writer’s block and of the artistic imperative to create the best work you can, not merely “get the job done,” which can come into conflict with meeting a deadline.
I’ve dealt with deadlines from the perspectives of both composer and performer, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, so I think I have a good sense of the issues and concerns on both sides. The best situation, of course, is one in which a reasonable deadline is set and the composer meets it. This should always be the default and any composer who wants to be considered a professional ought to find themselves in this position most of the time. But there are situations when deadlines can and should be legitimately re-considered. And other situations when they have to be re-considered, whether it’s legitimate or not. What’s the best way to handle these situations? Here’s some tips for both composers and performers:
The most important thing composers can do in regard to deadlines is just meet them, for God’s sakes! Just pull yourself together and do it! Think very carefully before you agree to a deadline about what else you have on your plate, and especially its timing. Having a lot of open time and then a bunch of deadlines clumped together often sounds like it should be manageable, but in fact is not. You’d like to think that you can set your own personal schedule and deadlines and stick to them, but the psychological weight of “real” deadlines is extremely powerful. You’re much better off intentionally setting some of those deadlines earlier or later, forcing yourself to have a reasonable gap between due dates.
If, however, you truly cannot write a piece you are satisfied with by the date it is due, here are some tips on how to proceed:
1. If the deadline is approaching and you think you need more time, ask for it as far in advance as you can. I was once part of a project where several composers were writing new pieces for us, and the deadline came and went with no score submissions and not a peep from any of the composers. No apologies, no requests for an extension, nothing. Don’t do this!! You really should know by at least 2 or 3 weeks out if it looks like you might not make it. If you’re only realizing the night before the deadline that you’re behind, you have much larger workload management issues that you need to address before taking on any more commitments.
2. Genuinely ask for an extension. Don’t expect it or demand it. It’s going to go over much better if you can say, genuinely, “I could have the piece to you by the deadline, but I think I could significantly improve it if you gave me one more week.” In almost every situation, I think a performer will be receptive to this and grant the extension. But remember, they have every right to say “no,” and you should still be able to deliver.
3. Don’t keep on requesting more extensions. Don’t ask for one day, then two, then three, then a week, then a month. Continued extension requests just make it seem like you don’t have your shit together. Just ask for a week right off the bat, and then pleasantly surprise them by getting it in “only” four days late.
4. Don’t “meet” the deadline by turning in a half-finished score, and then send a new version a week later, and then another one two weeks after that. I’ve had this happen to me as a performer and it’s very annoying. If I’ve already started practicing, then I have to re-print the part, re-write whatever notes I’ve made to myself, and potentially discover that I’ve wasted my time practicing material which is no longer in the piece. One or two changes based on further post-deadline reflection are understandable, but don’t use it as an excuse to turn in unfinished work.
5. If you’re really genuinely not “feeling” the project, be honest and up-front about this as early as possible. The artistic process is unpredictable, and sometimes a certain project just isn’t clicking artistically to such an extent that the best solution is to withdraw from it. This can be frustrating for everyone, but it happens. As long as you’re honest and direct about what’s going on, and pull out in plenty of time for the performers to make other plans, no one should hold it against you.
6. Get over yourself! If you haven’t been able to write a masterpiece in six months, you probably won’t be able to write one in six and a half. Part of being a professional is accepting the fact that, by definition, not everything you create is going to be your “best work.” Sometimes, you do have to just “get the job done.” Deadlines always feel like they come up sooner than you want them to. Just suck it up and do the best you can with the time you have!
Dealing with composers and deadlines can be frustrating for performers. The piece has been in the works for months, there haven’t been any surprises about the timeline, you’ve publicized it, put yourself on the line promoting it, possibly even funded it. And now suddenly this composer hasn’t had enough time? What’s their problem? And more importantly, how are you supposed to deal with it? Here’s some tips:
1. Make sure your deadlines are genuinely reasonable. Don’t make a deadline of three months before the concert if you know that nobody will look at the music until two weeks before. I’ve had this happen, where I send off my piece on time, don’t hear a peep for two months, and then suddenly a week before the show get all these questions about it. It’s very frustrating, since I clearly could have spent a lot more time perfecting the piece, and it makes me feel like the very real constraints on my time are not being respected.
2. That said, it’s definitely wise to have a little bit of wiggle room too. As a general rule, I would say one to two weeks is good — that gives you a chance to deal with any legitimate delays a composer may face without making it seem like it’s okay for them to completely ignore the deadline. I actually think just being very straightforward and honest about the reality of deadline wiggle room could be a good move. You could say something like “We would strongly prefer to get the music six weeks before the concert. We start rehearsals five weeks before the concert. The absolute latest we could receive the music and still consider performing it would be four weeks before.” This gives the composer an incentive to meet the earlier deadline — they’ll make you happier, and will get more rehearsal time — but also gives them the opportunity to take a little bit longer if they hit on some brilliant idea at the last minute that they just have to explore. I’ve never actually seen anyone approach it this way, but it seems like it could be effective.
3. Take the composer’s work seriously. The more seriously you take the composer’s piece, the more seriously they’ll take the deadline. The more you make it seem like you’re going to rehearse the piece thoroughly, rather than throw it together at the last minute, the more reason the composer has to respect the legitimacy of your deadline. Paying the composer always helps of course, a lot. But also doing things like publicly posting how excited you are to be working with the composer, listing the program that includes their premiere on your website months in advance, etc. The more the composer’s public image is tied up in the piece they’re writing for you, the more of an incentive they have to meet all of their obligations at the highest level.
4. Check in with the composer. Ask how the piece is going. If you’re in the same city, set up a meeting with them to chat about it and give them an opportunity to share some of it with you. This both makes them feel like you care and are invested, and also lets them know that you’re paying attention and expect that they’ve been working on it.
5. Be flexible when it’s possible and honest when it’s not. Be understanding but firm. If they genuinely can turn in the piece two weeks late and you’ll still be able to learn it, then let them. If that’s not realistic, be honest. If they don’t meet a deadline you need them to meet, you have every right not to perform their piece. You may think it seems like a disaster from a PR perspective if you’ve advertised a premiere that doesn’t happen. But the disaster is primarily the composer’s, not yours. They’re the ones who look bad. Of course, you may have to scramble to pull something else together, or just settle on having a shorter concert, but that’s the inherent risk you run any time you’re working with a creative artist.
What do you think? Are these helpful tips? Any other ideas? Again I want to stress that these should be reserved for exceptional circumstances, and not be considered the norm in composer-performer relations. The norm should be, simply, deadline-meeting.
And just to be completely clear, I’m not on a high horse here, I’ve failed at many of these at various times. In general, I used to not take composition deadlines nearly seriously enough, and had to learn their importance through some negative experiences (both as a composer and a performer). A lot of it is just developing enough self-knowledge about your own working habits to know what you can expect of yourself, and this can take some time for young composers to develop. In the end, as in so much of life, good intentions and open communication are key, so that when problems arise they can be dealt with in as honest and respectful a way as possible.
In other words: composers, just meet those damn deadlines! Come on!!