“Wake up early in the morning and work all day. That’s the only rule.”

by Nathan on July 29, 2011

Glass: a Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts is a documentary about the life of composer Philip Glass.  One of the most prominent composers in the minimalist school of composing, which uses only very few instruments to repetitively play a limited number of notes throughout a piece, Glass is probably most famous for his Academy Award-nominated scores in films such as The Hours and Kundun, as well as in the documentary The Fog of War.  In fact, I first heard his music in The Fog of War.  The almost mathematical rhythm of the film’s score completely enhanced the telling of the life story of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who was very methodical and analytical in everything he did.

Anyway, on the whole, I felt the documentary was actually kind of boring.  It spent a lot of time showing the normal quirkiness of Glass’s life – making homemade pizza for his family and friends, playing with his kids, touring his seemingly disorganized workspace, performing Buddhist exercises.  Those scenes were neat and all, but it was that one line – the title of this entry – that profoundly altered the tone and meaning of the entire documentary.  In fact, if he wouldn’t have said that line – in complete adlib nonetheless – the entire documentary would have been rather bland, full of quirky, somewhat interesting everyday moments.

(Source: http://www.glassthemovie.com/Home.html)

That line has stuck with me ever since I watched this film.  Before he spoke it, Glass was at a loss on what his secret to success was.  There really wasn’t one, he said.  The real secret was that he wrote music and played the piano all day every day.  In other words, he practiced every day and put in his 10,000 hours.  Sure, he started playing at an early age and had some excellent, and very strict, tutors growing up, but the sustained day-in and day-out practice was what made him one of the most innovative and prolific composers in American history.

But that doesn’t mean that creativity is a piece of cake.  He said that the creative process for writing a score was a struggle each and every time.  He sits down to write and is never really sure where he’s going with a piece until the very end.  Then eventually everything clicks.

Historian Robert Caro said the same thing.  In the first part in a series of three lectures on the shapers of New York given to the New York Historical Society in early 2009 (you can find them on iTunes), Caro was discussing the writing of The Power Broker.  He said that each time he begins a new project he’s not quite sure what direction he’s going in, or if what he’s writing is going to be any good.  But after sticking through the mountains of research and long hours of writing, eventually something comes to light and clicks.

It is that click moment that fascinates me: the moment when all of your dogged hard work materializes into something worthwhile.  I remember in high school wrestling practice I would get beat every single day as a freshman.  And then, what seemed like out of the blue, I started winning junior varsity matches.  As I moved up to varsity, I would get beat again day-in and day-out.  But then, again what seemed like out of the blue, I started winning varsity matches.  In every one of those up and down cycles, I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.  I felt hopeless.

The documentary on Glass illustrated to me that Glass wasn’t born talented with the innate gift  to create masterpieces.  He couldn’t instantly produce music the first time he ever looked at the piano.  He practiced day-in and day-out, and persevered through the desperate moments of hopelessness until eventually it clicked.

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