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How I Became a Composer in the 21st Century


When I was attending the University of Louisville back in the first few years of the millennium, the world looked very different. September 11th was still very much fresh on people's mind. Smartphones, ipads, and twitter didn't exist. Friends was still airing new episodes, while How I Met Your Mother hadn't yet seen its pilot. Windows XP was still the newest operating system. There was no Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. Google was merely a popular search engine. Circuit City and Blockbuster still existed. And digital photography had just surfaced in the commercial market. The digital world that made its way into society in the 90's did not eliminate photography as an art, as some may say, rather it changed the art and made it more accessible. This heightened the competition drastically over the next several years, and the ability to take virtually an unlimited amount of photos and pick out the right shot from the collection made the art easier, and much more cost efficient. Advanced photo-editing software was marketed as a way to make imperfect photos beautiful. These changes have sparked a world-wide interest in photography - one that we hadn't yet seen, and that was ultimately the drive behind putting cameras in phones in 2007. The rise in accessibility of photography has proved to be very convenient for the consumer, but what has it done for the professional? Has this growing supply of career-seeking photographers made the artists of photo imagery less important? How do they manage to maintain the essence of their craft and still generate continuous interest in their works?

I use photography as an example for this entry because it is universally relate-able (we have smartphones to thank for that), but these questions came to me while discussing the growing accessibility of music in one of my graduate courses at Michigan State University. They have since resurfaced on facebook groups targeting composers of all ages and career levels, and have inspired me to share my own experiences on battling the ever growing field of music composition and how I have managed to have a voice, albeit a somewhat quiet one, within my own music community. The anxiety that is hitting many composers churns from an overwhelming amount of new music that has been written and a somewhat limited amount of people who find interest in listening to it all and providing feedback on what they hear. The world has grown drastically in complexity, and getting your music out there has become a very daunting task. So how does a young composer find a place in the multiplex highway that is the music industry? Or more importantly, what did I do to help myself become a composer in the 21st century? The following were lessons that were taught to me by various musicians over the past ten years that have helped me as a composer. I have since then expanded on these and have a desire to share what I have learned with other young composers in similar situations.

LISTEN, LEARN AND LISTEN SOME MORE - How does the mind work? The brain is only as good as the information it receives, correct? And the more information it receives, the more developed it becomes. This fundamental principal of cognitive psychology can be attributed to anyone who has ever been successful at anything. Some of the greatest people have built empires off of what they have learned from others. I learned this valuable lesson in full-force when it was applied to how I sounded on my instrument. I had 'learned' to play the euphonium without ever knowing what it was actually supposed to sound like. My band director at the time noticed this, and encouraged me to seek out albums by Euphonium players such as Steven Mead, Robert Childs, and Brian Bowman. I took this seriously, listened to these albums over and over again - often times using them to help me fall asleep in the evening. Eventually, my tone never fully sounded like them however it helped me to develop my own tone that I have been told stands on its own. So think about this as it applies to composition. Listen to as much as you can. Get spotify, soundcloud, pandora or whatever and listen to EVERYTHING. Pick out what you like - what you don't like. And never be afraid to take ideas from music and experiment with how you can apply it to your music. As the great Igor Stravinsky once said - "Good composers borrow; great composers steal!"

COMPOSE AS MUCH AS YOU BREATH - I am saying this as someone who is married, has bills to pay, lives in a small two bedroom apartment, and works full-time in a non-musical environment. I still find time to compose. Think about everything you do during your day. Is there an hour you are watching netflix? Could that go towards composing? Do you usually sleep in on your days off? Could you get up just an hour or two earlier and write? You will never develop your craft unless you make it a commitment in your life. At the end of the day, you need to put food on the table - but use the times you AREN'T making money or immediately needing to care for your family to compose. You may have to sacrifice a little bit of rest and relaxation, but if this is really what you want to do - won't that be worth it?

MAKE YOUR OWN OPPORTUNITIES - You ever heard the phrase 'Get your foot in the door?' That sounds great - but what if you look around and there doesn't appear to be any doors for you to stick your foot in? What if there is no door for opportunity to knock on? Actor Milton Berle's solution is to build your own door. As much as we would all love to be able to just sit around and wait for things to happen, that is the not the reality. There are too many people with too many other people on their agendas and they likely won't find you. Some of the greatest ensembles started out because a group of musicians got together and wanted to do music THEIR way. So be creative - hunt down and set-up your own performance space. Market your shows through your own means and get people to show up. Don't wait for others to do this for you - take the initiative and get yourself out there. DON'T RELY ON NETWORKING -

I made this mistake upon leaving the University of Louisville and well before returning to Indiana University Southeast. As a self-proclaimed introvert and someone who has been diagnosed with ADHD, the internet was a blessing for me. I could communicate without anyone having to see me. I could modify my original thoughts into coherent ideas without having to think of what to say on the spot. There was only one problem - people didn't have to respond to me. E-mail, social networking, instant messaging - they have all made communicate with each other easier, however like the accessibility of music their abundant use has also hindered their effectiveness. When you are a college professor and you receive on average 50 different e-mails a day, the ability to respond to each and every one of them becomes impractical - unless your job was only to respond to e-mails. To put this in perspective from a composers point of view - if you send a score out to a director asking him to give it a shot, he may never even see the e-mail. Directors aren't typically desperate for music to fill performance time, and chances are they've already planned the order for their next three concerts. The best way to propose anything is in person, so you must make every possible attempt to meet with the director. You may have to initialize this WITH an e-mail or a phone call, but you also need to remain persistent. If you truly believe you have a piece worth playing, do everything you can to convince people of that.

GET RECORDINGS OF YOUR MUSIC - Is it better to put a bad recording or a midi realization on the internet? I guess it depends on what you mean by 'bad'. If the quality of the recording itself is bad and you can't really hear the music the way its sound then a midi realization might be a better route to go. However, sometimes we get recordings where the performance itself is less than perfect and there are some errors by musicians here and there. This is going to happen during live performances, and we don't always have the money to have studio recordings done with everything we write. However, performances always show accomplishment. They show that there were musicians who took you seriously enough to give you performances of your music. There will be times where a midi realization is more sufficient to use, however you must accept that no performance will ever be perfect and use the ones who still show your ability to write for various ensembles in a performance setting.

USE YOUR WEBSITE AS A PORTFOLIO - A classic mistake made my new composers is that they will set up a website, post ALL of their music on it and then rely on their exposure in search engines to generate hits. Again - the internet is BIG and there are a lot of composers out there. Unless you are John Mackey, Frank Ticheli, David Gillingham, or John Adams - people won't find your website. So what is the purpose of a website? What it should be used primary as is a portfolio to showcase your music. You will not put sound clips of everything you have written on your website, rather it is best to feature four or five of your best works - pieces that have quality recordings of and that have received multiple performances are advisable. Feature your website address on printed scores and parts for musicians and be ready to hand it out to directors you are proposing performances to. You may also post samples of your scores in pdf format on your website, though I would suggest watermarking them and/or not posting the full score.

And finally -

BE GRITTY - I love the word grit. Normally, I would say be persistent, but I think grittiness resonates better. It is really what gets people places. Persistence means sticking to it, but grittiness is really what will battle adversity. You will get a lot of no's before you get a yes, but you will not get the yes if you quit trying. Be brave in facing challenges and don't let criticism discourage you. Learn from your mistakes, and learn resilience. I can not promise these methods will work for everyone, but they have certainly helped me. These are all things I didn't do before, and it was difficult to find my voice because of it. The most important advice I can give to a young aspiring composer is to not be afraid to sell yourself, even if it is not always comfortable. You have to got to believe you are worth the five minutes before you can convince a director or musician that you are worth it. - PJF


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