I’ve been watching NBC’s short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a show about comedy writers at a late-night sketch show. In one episode, the producers are trying to get two newly-hired writers more involved, even though they’re not really experienced enough to contribute yet. One producer says to the other: “Toss them in the river… give their sketch a spot at the dress tonight. Let them hear what 300 people not laughing sounds like.”

This line really resonated with me because this is an experience composers need. Not so much the reaction of an audience (although that can be useful), but the composer’s own reaction to hearing the music presented in its final form.

I tell my students “you will learn more in 1 minute of hearing human musicians play what you wrote than you will in hours of composition lessons with me.” There is no feedback more valuable than hearing something not work when you thought the MIDI playback sounded pretty good. Or, more happily, when music you didn’t like while you were writing it turns out to be surprisingly great when a real player picks it up.

Young composers: every time you hear your music performed, you are honing your understanding of the connection between the notes you put on the page, and the sounds that result when musicians realize those notes. Get your music played, early and often, by humans. MIDI playback will lie to you. Composition teachers might lie to you. Your ears will never lie.