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the next big thing

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I had a student today ask this question: “What do you do when you’re in the middle of working on a piece, and you get an idea about another cool piece?”

It’s a tough question, and it’s one that I know a lot of composers deal with, though not one we often talk about. I’m a one-thing-at-a-time kind of person. That’s bad, because it means if I get side-tracked by one of these “next projects,” I put off my main project and it loses momentum. There are some people that can successfully work on two pieces at once, but I’m not among them, and I think most of the composers I know would say the same thing. This can cause some problems. One of the most frustrating is that working on large-scale projects means that you can’t take on any new projects for a long time. Right now, I’m working on my dissertation. By the time I finish it, I’ll have been working on it for at least a year and a half. The worst part is when somebody says, “Hey, we should work on a piece. I want you to write something for me.” This doesn’t happen very often, and when it does and I can’t act, it’s pretty maddening. I have to tell them to come back in a year and ask me again.

The good thing about the one-piece-at-a-time policy is the moment I get the new idea. Nothing gets me more excited about finishing the piece I’m working on than the allure of diving into a new one. (Admittedly, the diving in can be painful, but in a hurts-so-good kind of way.) I know some composers that keep a written queue of pieces they want to write. I keep a mental list. Sometimes I bump things up and down the queue. I’ve been meaning to work on a one-act chamber opera for the better part of 5 years. But when things start to stagnate, it always helps me to start thinking of that next big thing.