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  • Carter Crosby

Beyond the Page: Reflections on My First Semester in Grad School

This past semester, for the first time in my compositional career, I was asked to submit a written reflection outlining my strengths, weaknesses, and goals as an artist. At the beginning of the semester, this came easily. I was just starting graduate school and was full of excitement and motivation to push my composing to the next level. I felt generally self-aware of my own weaknesses and had an easy time articulating what I wanted to work on, but mostly was eager to prove myself in a new environment.  


This December, I put off writing my end-of semester reflection as long as I possibly could. When I went to look back at the past few months, I felt like I had nothing to show for it. While I knew on some level this wasn’t accurate, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t productive “enough”; that I didn’t measure up. Since August, almost none of my work has been translated into a definitive final product. I have no finished recordings for friends and colleagues to listen to, I had a technical error in my only premiere this semester, and I only finished a single score. These felt like failures, and I was frustrated with and disappointed in myself. I had made it all this way but felt I didn’t have tangible progress to prove that I belonged here. 


I think it’s essential as a creative in any medium (or perhaps for anyone with a true passion) to have an internal drive to do better, to constantly outdo yourself. But for me personally, this sentiment unchecked can quickly turn into a cycle of constantly downplaying my achievements, because hitting that milestone only moves the target to a loftier goal that I must reach next. I was ripping apart music that I was so proud of just months ago because I was holding both my present and past self to a much higher standard, simply because I was in a new position. I felt pressured to achieve an incredible amount in a very tight timeframe, and when I didn’t live up to that expectation (that was almost entirely self-imposed), I was defeated.  


My initial assessment of my grad school debut was, of course, patently untrue. It seems safe to assume I am not the first artist to have self-doubt; the term “imposter syndrome” is thrown around constantly and largely for good reason. Even on paper, I have a lot to be proud of! Since the beginning of 2023, I finished my undergraduate composition degree and started graduate school, which is in and of itself a huge accomplishment. I put on my first multimedia installation. I had a piece accepted into a major electronic music festival. These are all things that deserved celebrating.  


But beyond general insecurity, I still felt laying out these “measurable” achievements wasn’t telling the whole story. Much of my growth this semester was much less tangible. When I really looked at it, these were some of the things I’m most proud of:

 

  • I gained an immense amount of confidence in my improvising; 


  • I totally redefined my relationship with text in a musical context and started writing poetry again (something I haven’t done seriously since I was in high school); 


  • And I found new tools that allowed me to express my musical ideas in more organic ways.  


When I initially reflected on my first semester at grad school, none of the above growth came to mind. It was so intangible that I felt it didn’t “count”, these things weren’t tied to any award or academic prestige. I felt defeated because I had nothing to show, or more accurately, nothing to show that I felt would be impressive to others. But these intangible achievements were essential to my artistic growth, and polished pieces and exciting premieres do not get organized overnight. I have lots of exciting projects lined up for the spring that I have already dedicated many hours to, but I won’t see the fruits of that labor until many months from when they started. And even if I didn’t have these opportunities to look forward to, the “intangible” growth that I had this past semester has made me a better composer, artist, and person. The difference in the quality of my music IS tangible, I just couldn’t see it.  


What I’ve realized is that my initial method of self-assessment translates into constantly fighting the urge to stretch myself thin. I can’t hit EVERY milestone in one year. I can’t explore EVERY avenue of performance opportunities, piece ideas, software, or new skillsets. Furthermore, my access to many opportunities is partially or completely out of my control. While calls for scores and festivals are exciting and fruitful opportunities, there is no one-to-one correlation between the amount of effort I put in and the rewards I will reap from my efforts. My worth and the worth of my music is not tied to how many competitions or commissions I win, and working strictly in that mindset only leads to soulless, shallow work.

As a perfectionist and someone whose whole academic life was fueled through external validation, this is an easy lesson to learn but a very difficult one to truly internalize.  

In an effort to reframe these comparative and “product-driven” thought patterns, I wanted to focus on making resolutions in the new year that were: a. largely attainable through my own actions, and b. focused less on a quantitative metric and more on my artistic and personal values. These are a few I’ve come up with:  


  • Engaging in mutual aid and getting more involved in the communities I am a part of, artistic and otherwise;


  • Listening to more new music and listening to music more intentionally (if you have recommendations, send them my way!);


  • Spending intentional time exploring the programs I use to make electronic music (primarily Max) with no end product in mind.


While these goals could easily be tied to some kind of numeric scale or “checkbox”, I’ve found that attaching these qualifiers makes it more difficult for me personally to follow through with these plans. For example, I could say that I want to listen to a new album every week, but the moment I have a week where I forget or am not as engaged with musical listening, I would chalk it up as a failure to meet this goal, discounting all of the new music I may seek out before and after.  


The idea here is for me to reframe how I am defining success for myself. Tying my interests to an arbitrary metric to prove productivity makes it less appealing and turns activities that would normally bring me joy into more chores and homework on top of all my existing obligations. At such a transitional time in my life and the very beginning of what I hope is a long and multifaceted career, I want to leave room for my values to change and develop organically. My overall mission is to keep my focus in my very limited personal time on what I actually value as a musician and as a person.  


I hope this was helpful, relatable, or thought-provoking in some way for you. I wanted to share this on a public forum to keep myself accountable, so that I actually articulated these thoughts and goals for myself in a meaningful way. While I still have competitions I hope to win, summer programs I hope to attend, and projects I plan to complete, my hope is that having resolutions that are strictly tied to making myself happier and more self-actualized will result in just that :) 


Thank you for reading, and Happy New Year friends! 

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1 Comment


thefaithlopez01
Dec 30, 2023

Very well thought out. As a friend a supporter of your career I can not express how proud I am to hear about your professional and personal growth. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing the realizations you’ve had - many of us feel the very same way when reflecting on our own goals. It is refreshing to see and hear that it is in fact okay and normal to not achieve everything in one moment. You are doing amazing things and creating not only beautiful work but also community as well. I am so proud, keep up the good work my friend!

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