The Pros and Cons of Being an Autodidact
Autodidact - a fancy word for “self-taught”. As much as I have had teachers, training, and professional apprenticeship, really I am an autodidact. Most of the major discoveries, primary principles, and professional parlance I have learned myself in real time by hard won experience. I had to observe and think my own way through the design and function of wheels, levers, and pulleys, rather than being introduced on day-one with a well-authored primer on the history and practice of engineering. After all these years, now is the time when I can contemplate the expediency and efficiency of the latter.
Had I not been an autodidact, I likely would have learned piano and both clefs on my first day at ten years old along with the bass, logically and directly leading me into the thinking of legit composers and the full vernacular of professional orchestral musicians.
To the extent I was not an autodidact, I was taught technique, scales, basic reading, and basic ear training. Basically enough to form a garage band, or join school music ensembles, but not enough to embark on being a legit composer, conductor, or arranger.
That type of training did and does exist, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And so I puzzled through these issues on my own the best I could, letting my professional experiences also be academic advances for my own qualifications and understanding.
Even if this wasn’t the most efficient and direct route to all the professional knowledge that I have so far obtained and yet would like to obtain, I have accrued enough knowledge to develop my body of work and style as a composer, such as it is. So now I should try to dispassionately evaluate where this journey as a self -taught composer has lead me in terms of being an individual contributor to this field of aesthetics.
For starters, I have never really had any length of time suffering from “creative blocks” that stymie my prolific-ness. Nor have I suffered frustration composers can feel of being derivative or self-consciously critical due to their standards being all wrapped up the masterpieces of all time. This does happen. And often these serious, hardworking all well-trained practitioners find their work process laborious and gritty. The problem with all that is that it shows in the final work.
The ideal would be fully developed individuality enthusiastically and fearlessly moving through the medium coupled with an internalization of all the rigor taken on as early as possible and met with all the intelligence and imagination the individual ever could bring to bear to the subject and endeavor. There are some of these in the world, and they are the ones doing the Big Work. So here I am not talking about instrumental virtuosos, but the true maestros, such as John Williams, Howard Shore, Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, Stephen Sondheim, Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini, etc. and earlier figures like Stravinsky, Mahler, Debussy, Beethoven, etc.
But it doesn’t have to be even that lofty - even just jazz instrumentalists who can also compose and arrange in a way that is both hip to the tradition and vernacular at the same time be personally fresh, authentic, and liberated would pertain here. This need not overlap with any list of famous names, and is still rare and extraordinary indeed. After over thirty years, I feel like I am only now just groping my way even into that category.
Parenthetically there is another dimension which pierces this whole polemic of rigorous knowledge and folksy auto-didactation, and that is the arbitrary “black swan effect”. Sometimes a particular personality at a particular time can be swept into a new niche or new aesthetic value, which usually in retrospect gets grafted into the cannon, the orthodoxy, the liturgy, or whatever you want to call it.
Sometimes the real substance and merit of these figures remains questionable but the phenomenon does reveal a truth, which is simply that we are dealing with art and not science. No one knows or sees it all. No one knows where its all going, and no one can say where it “should” go, or what is right in any ultimate sense. The autodidact, one could argue, has a better chance of hanging on to that sensibility, than the ones who have been trained to the limit for everything they end up doing. This is not to advocate ignorance or throwing out the rules. Because after all, though real artistic accomplishment is rare among the self-taught it is also very rare among those exposed to the best educations.
The fortunate factors for me as an autodidact who has endured as long as I have is that I have persisted long enough to learn jazz repertoire, jazz improvisation, orchestral reading and technique, along with the technical & aesthetic issues in contemporary composition, and I have a considerable track record in all of the above in the “real world”. For our generation, the real world applications of all of the above have dwindled, and so to be active with the real practitioners of all this is still the best way to really learn and internalize, as well as being a good if not the best barometer for one’s legitimate qualifications.
I only wish I had been a more serious apprentice at an earlier age, but its not too late. As for my own composition portfolio, its hard for me to comment on it. I suppose I should just attach a couple audio samples to this essay and let the reader / listener decide.