Dale Trumbore's Staying Composed

Staying Composed is just out and it’s a humdinger of a book. It’s rare to find an artist so open and generous about her own creative process. The book, from composer Dale Trumbore, offers how to get past self-doubt and envy. And more: distractions, disappointments, dry spells, and the career frustrations that go along with a life in the arts.

Dale writes candidly about the challenges she’s faced and what she found works. Staying Composed is a treasure trove of practical strategies for moving your artistic career forward.

All this coming from an accomplished composer — one who supports herself entirely through commissions and sales of her scores. It’s a rare find indeed. I recommend Staying Composed not only for composers, but for performers, writers, and any other creatives.

The book is made up of short chapters, each a compact essay on a particular stumbling block. Dale’s completely transparent and uses her own life stories to illustrate each challenge and the strategy she uses to address it.

But she’s not prescriptive: Dale always acknowledges that what’s worked for her may not be the answer for others. She makes it a point to include a range of terrific suggestions.

To give you a sense of Staying Composed, here’s a favorite section on getting past a familiar ego trap. This is from pgs. 35-36, in the chapter titled . . .

Ask helpful questions about your work

Sometimes I catch myself wondering, as I’m composing, whether the piece will win any awards, sell lots of copies, or be widely performed. But just like asking whether a first draft of my music is good or bad, this is largely unhelpful for my music and my mental well-being.

There are plenty of questions to ask yourself that are much more productive than considering whether or not your newest piece is brilliant. Here are some questions I ask myself before and during the writing process . . .

  • Why am I writing this piece at this moment in time?
  • How am I incorporating elements of myself—my ideas, my ideals, my perspective, my worldview—into this piece?
  • How does this piece reflect what’s happening around me in the world right now?
  • What does this piece offer to those who hear it?
  • How do I want my audience to feel when they leave this performance?

Dale is not talking about wanting her audience to feel simply “good” or “happy.” She asks . . .

Does this piece try to leave my audience in better shape, mentally or emotionally, than they were before they encountered the work?

Dale Trumbore’s book explains

. . . asking this question forces me to consider how my music might move a listener through a series of emotions that—hopefully—delivers them safely to an insight or emotional state that they may not have felt at the beginning of the piece.

Some artists prefer not to consider the audience at all in their creative process. Here are questions to ask in that case:

  • How do I want to feel in the process of creating this work?
  • What emotions am I making available in this work?
  • What emotional journey does the work take?

Center your attention on what matters most

Of course, when we’re in flow working on a project, there’s no reason to delve into these philosophical questions. They might seem intrusive or self-indulgent.

But when we’re plagued with self-doubt or envy, these kinds of questions can be tremendously helpful.

Why? Because they challenge us to look past our own egos, beyond the fear and judgment that can often inhibit our best work.

Such questions can help us renew and recharge our motivation. And get us out of the maze of comparing our careers to those of others.

These re-orienting questions can help us stay in our own lane, focused on our own work, and on our larger missions as artists.

Here’s one more favorite quote (pg. 134) from the chapter titled  . . .

Plan for the long term rather than the big break

Instead of wasting time feeling resentful towards artists who have experienced a major win in their careers or wondering what you’d do if that win happened for you, you can ask yourself how you might craft a career that doesn’t need a lucky break in order to bring you the kind of long-term success that you seek.

Too many of us harbor fantasies of a short cut to “making it,” instead of building our own career success, step by step, from where we are right now. Thank you, Dale, for writing this book to help us on the journey.

I hope this piques your curiosity—here’s a book well-worth adding to your library. And bumping up to the top of the pile for summer reading!

Here’s an earlier post on Dale’s article Sustainable Careers.

And for more tips on musicians’ mindset, see handling rejections and the motivation matrix.

Have a question about a music career issue you’re facing? Hit me up in our exclusive Musicians Making It Facebook group—happy to have you join the conversation!

Looking forward,

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well

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