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2018 October 94 min read

I've been back in classes for a month now, and the reinstatement of my regular school schedule has coincided, oddly enough, with my once regular sleep schedule now being thrown completely out of whack. But that's not what this post is about.

I'm in a cozy little upper-level composition course this year that I've been really excited for. Five students including me, meeting every Friday with a wide variety of contemporary musicians, getting hands-on exposure to different facets of the music world. For our first project, we had the privilege to meet with a prestigious piano quartet, and three of us got to volunteer to compose pieces for them. They would go home, learn the music, and then perform it live for us, with video recording that we could keep afterwards.

I eagerly threw my hat in the ring, and in the span of about three days I whipped up a soothing six-minute piece called Insomnia. I submitted it to the quartet a week in advance, days before the other submissions, to ensure they had as much practice time as possible. The performances were scheduled for September 28, a date that would mark a huge milestone in my career: the first ever performance of my music - live, recorded, or otherwise - by professional musicians.

I've collaborated with other musicians many times over the years, and suffice it to say I've learned to keep my expectations low. Insomnia has one of the easiest piano parts I've ever written, and I was even more generous to the strings. The piece has a slow, constant tempo, with a four-note ostinato that repeats without alteration throughout its entirety. It has almost no sixteenth notes, no fast arpeggios, no pizzicati, no glissandi, and the very few double-stops are nothing but fourths, fifths, and sixths.

I mention all of these things because none of this can be said for the other two pieces that were submitted, which were almost obnoxiously difficult by comparison. But to my surprise, the quartet played them superbly, almost without a hitch. After each performance, there was a ten-minute discussion period, where feedback was traded back and forth. The performers would go over certain sections of the pieces, apologizing repeatedly for the few parts they messed up and often asking for confirmation or clarification about minute details of the performance, right down to whether certain notes should be up-bowed or down-bowed. It was a sight to behold, and every minute of it made me more eager to see how such a dedicated, conscientious group of performers would tackle my piece.

You remember that part of the movie Space Jam when the "monstars" magically steal the talents of NBA players, and you see the footage of them suddenly becoming complete klutzes in real time? It was as if this had happened to the performers when they began their rendition of Insomnia. I remember during the first 15 seconds, after the opening three bars of solo piano, when the cello and viola came in, off-beat and out of sync, and I visibly recoiled in my chair in what would be many such moments throughout the excruciating six minutes. It was completely involuntary, but everyone was noticing, and eventually all I could do was just stop listening and go into a noise coma.

The ensuing existential crisis - where I realized how much of my mental energy I had been investing into my music over the past four months, and how fruitless it had all been, and how empty my life was without it - began happening around halfway through the performance. All my bitternesses from past experiences in the music world were now flooding back into my head, and more immediate than ever. When the song ended, the room broke out into enthusiastic applause, and I broke down crying.

The events that followed are a blur to me right now. In no specific order, I remember the performers trying their best to console me, explaning that they had only had about two hours to practice my piece; I remember the teacher urgently assuring me that my piece was beautiful and the performers had done a great job; I remember, through tears, profusely apologizing to the performers for my egregious display of ingratitude as it was happening right before their eyes. I remember them offering to try the piece again for the recording, and most of all, I remember the outraged looks I got when I meekly requested to play the piano part the second time around.

I left the room in cascades of tears, knowing that it would be a long time before I ever had the motivation to write a note of music again. Feeling as I always have: like whatever I do, however hard I try, performers will botch it, audiences will lap it up, and nothing of value will come of it.

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