Music, Anxiety, and the Lucky Pencil

David Gregory Byrne

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

—Arthur C. Clarke

To me, music is a bit like the reverse of Clarke's quote. It's basically magic lacking a technology advanced enough to describe it. For instance, in the early stages of writing a piece when I'm improvising ideas at the piano, why does one gesture seduce me but another leave me utterly bored? Could a computer parse the details of these phrases and spit out the answer? I'm sure someone with grant money has tried, but they haven't gotten there yet—and hopefully never will—so for now it's closer to magic than science. Which is unfortunate when you're trying to figure out what does and doesn't work in a piece.

I've always been jealous of the exactitude of science—the boost it must give to scientists' self-confidence. If you combine two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom, you always get water. Not so much with music. And because of that uncertainty, writing music is a bit challenging to the ego. The task of bringing an idea up from the purely creative space—that existential goo filled with passion, fear, self-reproach, beauty, whatever it is that our creative ideas come from—to the real world, can be unnerving. Music is subjective, so there's no guarantee your idea will affect others the way it affects you. Sometimes I think I'm writing a love theme for two characters, but it turns out the director likes it better for the scene where they finalize their divorce or have to bury their pet parakeet. A phrase may stir one emotion in me, but bring to mind something completely different in others. I can only imagine how much more relaxed life would be if there were a scientific way to check music's effectiveness—a beaker full of liquid you could put on the lid of your piano that would change from clear to opaque when you find the right harmony. How freeing it would be, conquering the anxiety of writing with some routine lab work or a few strips of litmus paper. Instead, you're forced to have confidence that the notes will add up to something beyond just a jumble of noises. I'm not sure if I struggle with finding that confidence more or less than other composers, but I know I do struggle with it, especially when I've just turned in a cue and am waiting for notes.

Often, for better or worse, the way I've dealt with creative anxiety is not by getting more scientific, but less. Knocking on wood? Burning sage? A little clichéd, but something like that might just work because even though a ritual might not have any measurable value, it feels like it does. And that's what's so important about rituals. They evoke an abstract feeling just by doing something physical. Maybe it's the feeling of safety I get when I double-check the stove before I leave the house (even though I know I haven't used it all day), or maybe it's the feeling of calm I get when I noodle around on the piano before I start composing. My creative anxiety is usually focused on the pitfalls of bringing something abstract into the real world. Rituals are the other side of the coin; they're about doing something physical and grounded but connecting it to an abstract internal place. In that way, they harmonize perfectly with the musical process, so it's no wonder so many musicians have rituals.

As an example, I used to have this ritual in my college days in that if I had written a section of a piece that was good, and for which maybe my professor had praised me, that I should continue using the same pencil for the next section—the "lucky pencil" ritual. Now, I think even then I knew that was a bit crazy, but I was looking for something physical and repeatable that I could hang my fear of failure on.

You can physically hold onto whatever object you've ritualized, but you can't ever really touch the fear of a piece going wrong, and so many things can go wrong with a piece of music. You can start with a great idea, but by the time you've written variations, contrasting themes, and countermelodies you realize you've smothered the life the original idea had. You can doubt yourself, get bored with the idea, fall too madly in love with the idea, or learn to hate it. No matter how good a composer you are, you can always end up with a dud. Writing music is not the kind of experiment that gets consistent results. In one piece, a sudden key change can be exciting and surprising. In the next piece, the same key change can be clunky and forced. Each new work creates its own rules and expectations, so sometimes your only constant is a "lucky pencil." Granted, the pencil is akin to the "magic feather" Dumbo was tricked into believing gave him the gift of flight. If you can write with the lucky pencil, you can write without it, but I'm certain there was a moment after Dumbo learned he didn't need the feather that he considered hanging onto it, just in case.

A ritual can also be like an anchor keeping your creative mind connected to the real world. I like to have a cup of coffee and check my e-mail before I start writing in the morning. I could probably skip it and just start writing, but I know it'd take me a lot longer to get into a creative flow without that cup of coffee. Sometimes the anxiety of diving into your creative mind is as bad as bringing an idea up from it, and it's nice to have a ritual to ease the process.

But the connection between music making and ritual is still deeper; it isn't only about soothing anxiety. In a world of magic, there's the fear of the unknown, but there's also the surprise and wonder because of it. Ritual and music both celebrate the joy of that unknown inner world. I think it's no coincidence that music is used in rituals throughout the world. Religious rites, coming-of-age ceremonies, marriage rituals, whenever there's a celebration of the private, incorporeal parts of ourselves shared in public, there's almost always some kind of music. I'd like to believe it's because of this parallel. And in both ritualized celebrations and music making, the music itself acts as the chain on that anchor in the real world. A chain you can travel both ways, up or down. You can use music to take a deeply personal feeling such as faith and make it real in the world with a song, or you can use a mundane ritual like having two hard-boiled eggs before every performance to help you connect your music making to the deepest parts of your psyche and spirit.

Maybe I'm more prone to rituals than others, I don't know. I do know that when it comes to composing, I feel both the anxiety and the joy of the unknown acutely. I feel the struggle of writing music, and I feel the connection to something deeper, something transcendent. The excitement from even just a hint of that connection, that's what led me to become a composer. I may always worry about how my music will come across after it's left my brain. I may lose sleep wondering if a love theme is going to be used in the wrong place. But I wouldn't trade the chance to find something there in the unknown and try to bring it up into the world for a hundred times the confidence scientific exactitude has to offer. Although it might be worth investing in some beakers for the top of my piano … just in case it actually works.