When I was 15 I learned what would end up being one of the most valuable lessons of my composing career from of all people my high school art teacher.
I knew him as my high school art teacher but John Alexopoulos was also a prolific freelance artist whose design work included the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. I think about him every time I see those snake columns at the entrance. He was a quiet man but even at a young age I sensed that his freelance career had taken its toll on him over the years.
It was the start of the semester in my 10th grade art class and John took out a large canvas and quietly began painting. Each day while we worked on our assignments he would paint a little more. With each passing week the painting would begin to come into focus and we marveled at the detail he put into it. It was at first a lesson in patience and dedication to craft but that wasn’t all John wanted to teach us.
Months went by and we had witnessed a piece of canvas and some paint become a vivid image of a workshop full of wooden toys, full of personality and masterful detail.
On the last day of the semester as we sat waiting for our final lesson, John looked at us, took the painting and violently smashed it against the table until it was a shredded pile on the floor. Everyone’s jaw dropped and we stared in disbelief.
“If you want to be an artist, you have to learn how to let go of your art”, John said. “Creativity is infinite and I could paint a million more of these. You have to be prepared to put your heart and soul into something, have it ripped out of your hands and smashed to pieces and then smile and move on to the next one.”
While the point of this dramatic lesson might have been lost on most of the other students it was for me a profound look into the reality of a creative career, or perhaps a cautionary tale. John probably learned this lesson the hard way as was evidenced in the anger with which he destroyed the painting.
It was years before I would become a composer but I took that lesson with me. Over the years I have written plenty of music that I have fallen in love with only to see it revised into something unrecognizable but I have never taken it to heart or allowed myself to be bitter about it. I’ve also done my best not to lose my soul in the process and have stood up for ideas when I believed strongly in them. I’ve had my share of battle scars but they only cut as deep as you let them.
Ultimately this is a collaborative process and our job is to serve the picture and help the director realize his or her creative vision, not simply to create a work of art for our own enjoyment. So learn to let go of your art because creativity is infinite.