Toward a Typology of Juvenilia
An interesting concert last week by a dynamite local syndicate of teen composers reminded me that there are two principal ways of being a beginning composer, roughly speaking. (Yes indeed, if you divide the world into those who divide the world into two categories and those who don't, I'm in the former camp.)
One type is the kid who's bursting with weird, distinctive, half-formed ideas and hasn't yet figured out how to get them under control, or how to organize those thoughts in the most effective or coherent way. The other is more interested in doping out and mastering the technical aspects of the game, with the (perhaps) unspoken assumption that the ideas will come along in due time. Maybe another way of saying this is that the motivation for some young composers is to write stuff nobody's ever written before, and for others it's the desire to join the party by imitating the music they love best.
I'll bet there are plenty of (grown-up) folks with a strong preference for one type or another, but personally I have a soft spot for both — or rather, my feelings of indulgence and impatience settle at about the same equilibrium point in both cases. There's something simultaneously charming and frustrating about the reach-exceeds-his-grasp type of composer, just as the work of the skilled-artisan-in-parvo can feel both impressive and limited.
And it isn't clear to me that either predilection is necessarily a better marker for future success. "Give her time, she'll learn how to channel that imagination" seems just as plausible a proposition as "He's accumulating some useful skills; he'll be something to watch when he figures out what to do with them."
As a relentlessly dualist schematizer, I'd also point out that this dichotomy bears a strong family resemblance to one that applies to adult composers. You know the one I mean, as crude and reductive as it undoubtedly is: Lennon/McCartney, Schumann/Mendelssohn, Mussorgsky/Tchaikovsky, Mahler/Strauss, Flansburgh/Linnell, I'm sure there are jazz ones for those who know their jazz (pas moi, hélas).
What I'd be curious to know is whether composers tend to stay on the same side of that divide as they develop. Mendelssohn certainly did, but he's one of the only composers whose juvenilia we hear much (Mozart of course transcends all of this). Who's got access to funding for a longitudinal study?