Author: Ed Windels

Embracing Being a 5-to-9 Artist

Maybe you’re coming to composition through a full-time formal education, an informal or part time one or you’re self-taught and just curious. Maybe you aspire to be a composer full time, part time, off hours, or just for your drawer. Maybe you hope to eventually make your entire income from music, and look on a non-music or day job as a short term, long term, or permanent measure. Whatever the case, I hope this series of posts has helped give you some ideas on how to make that happen, and remind you that not being a “full” time musician—however you want to define that—does not diminish you or your work, nor should it hinder you from putting yourself out there.  Because you never know: Todd Brison’s empowering piece makes this case much more vividly than I could, but in a nutshell: you’d be surprised who will respond to and connect with your art—but you’ll never know if you don’t let the world see it!

Having a day job, related or not to your vocation, shouldn’t be viewed as a matter of shame or a setback.

In the meantime, making a living off your music, solely or otherwise, may take some time to achieve. And among the many interim options available, having a day job, related or not to your vocation, shouldn’t be viewed as a matter of shame or a setback.

Yes, there remains some skepticism—one might even say prejudice—amongst some members of the concert music community towards composers who aren’t involved full time in that community. (Interestingly I don’t find this same attitude in the theatrical world, where this situation is largely a given amongst many different ranks.) You may face some perceptional hurdles. For instance, in the last few years I’ve had two instances of fee negotiation discussions where the parties suggested that because I didn’t need the income from the fees, I didn’t need to be paid what I was asking—or possibly at all. This makes no sense to me. If you’ve sought me out, saying you admire my work and want more of it, the result of my blood, sweat, tears and soul searching, how is that work (and the time it takes me to create it) worth any less because I may have subsidiary income?

Don’t let such perceptions discourage you. Prove those people wrong. Take pride in your art, whose worth is not based on the number of hours you spend making a living. Encourage similar composers to do the same. As Steven Pressfield has said, “The best and only thing that one artist can do for another is to serve as an example and an inspiration.”

And to those of you in the Inner Sanctums, encourage and support your 5-to-9 friends. You may have been a day jobber yourself once, or admire someone who was. The next Ives or Feldman may be the barista at your favorite coffee bar, on the other end of a customer service line, driving the cab you’re in, or could be your real estate agent.

The limited amount of time I typically have for a commission requires me to concentrate my thoughts.

In my own case, having a day job has proved to have a number of benefits. Sure, it’s limited the quantity of my writing.  But I’ve traveled around the world thanks to it and gotten experiences I undoubtedly couldn’t have afforded otherwise. And my various corporate roles have forced me to hone my time management skills which is vital for any musician (in case I didn’t harp on this subject sufficiently in the previous posts).  That includes just composing: the limited amount of time I typically have for a commission requires me to concentrate my thoughts. On the flip side, as I mentioned previously, if a project is brought to me that I truly don’t feel I’m sympathetic to, I have the “luxury” of declining it—though this arguably has its pros and cons as well.

I’ve also had my horizons broadened in ways I don’t think would have happened were I exclusively immersed in the new music world. Given my personal stylistic predilections, it’s been an advantage not to be in some of the sweeping aesthetic discussions many people in the new music community are often engaged in. The time I spend outside of the music world, absorbing perspectives and influences from non-full time musicians, has unquestionably beneficially impacted my interaction with the concert world and my own creative product.

This article from Hyperallergic about an exhibition of art by workers at a New York City gallery speaks to this point:

It is a common crisis in the 21st century, learning to dissociate ourselves and others from jobs. Especially in the arts, comments like “But what do you really do?” function as withering insults to a person’s artistic purity. As the artists in People Who Work Here demonstrate, artistic purity is a romanticized, if arcane notion. In actuality, it is the ability to be impure that creates a great artist, the ability to soak in one’s life experience in order to draft an artistic commentary on life.

Lastly, let me add my own voice those already encouraging artists not to let outside qualifiers define success for you, a topic on which NewMusicBox has contributed. Don’t let the fact that you have a day job and aren’t involved “full time” in music convince you you’re not a success, a term with endless definitions. In the context of the band / pop world, Russell Sheffield on MusicThinkTank makes the same case:

[A]void the notion of “success” because it denotes that there is an end goal to making music. No matter how big or small of an act you are, there is no end. Music making, financial growth, public attention and notoriety are a process of development and growth not a destination point. Love what you do and work on your music alongside the business of your music, always keeping in mind where you came from and why you began in the first place. Always expect variable change, the ups and downs of the market, and continue to redefine and reimagine your band alongside your brand.

So go forth, fellow 5-to-9 composers and artists, and fly your day jobbing flag with pride.

A pen sits atop a blank page of music notation paper on a table outside, the sun setting in the background.

Eight Easy Steps to Becoming a Successful 5-to-9 Composer

So how can you too hold down a glamorous, innervating office/day job and still find time to fulfill your artistic dreams, musical or otherwise? Here are some suggestions (some of which I’m sure apply to “full-time” composers as well):

1. Find a job that will accommodate your creativity.

Part-time or reliable freelance is great. If not, something with flexible hours is a big help. If full-time/five days a week, avoid areas of the business world that require you to be constantly available (e.g. finance). During the many interviews I’ve had over the years, I am always candid about my music life and that I’m not available 24/7. The jobs where I’ve thrived have been the ones that not only respected my outside life, but realized the value it brought to them.

Some recommended areas: arts administration, especially an organization in your field. The pay may not match the corporate, for-profit world, but the empathy and camaraderie will do much to compensate: most such institutions are heavily staffed with people juggling additional creative careers. If, like me, teaching is not your thing, other academic or university jobs can be very conducive. I have a number of acquaintances who’ve found the legal world very accommodating to off-hour artists; they realize that the rigors of the profession need some kind of compensatory outlet.

2. Be rigorously disciplined.

Like a minimalist refrain, this bears repeating. If you’ve pursued an artistic career to any extent, especially going so far as to earn a degree, you’ve probably already had this instilled in you. My schedule is planned weeks—and frequently months—in advance to ensure steady writing time, and it’s incredibly rare that I deviate from it.

3. Find your optimal working times and method.

What time of the day have you found to be your most creatively productive? Whatever that is—and it may take some trial and error to find it—block it off. My own best writing hours are the mid-morning and late afternoon—especially if I’ve been able to close my eyes for even a few seconds around lunch.

My best results come when I can immerse myself in my work across consecutive days.

Also, my best results come when I can immerse myself in my work across consecutive days, which in the case of my day/office jobs has usually meant weekends. That doesn’t mean I’m not rolling new ideas or revisions and developments around in my head the rest of the week.

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey (himself a day jobber for many years) is a fascinating compendium of the working habits of legendary artists across all genres and great inspiration for empowering your own habits. Maybe you’re a really early morning person, or maybe you’re a night owl. Maybe you do best a few hours at the same time every day, or in bits and pieces when you can find them. Find your optimal routine and then…

4. Guard your working time.

Clear everything else off your plate; leave no excuses for distraction (unless you happen to work best with a lot of distraction). As I said above, I work best in long, uninterrupted blocks. So by Friday night every non-writing demand—housekeeping, errands, medical appointments, socializing, administrative—is dispatched and there is nothing to divert me from writing for the next 48 hours.

5. Treat your body right.

To be at my creative best I have to be at my physical best, and that means treating my body as I imagine an athlete in training does. I envy those legions of artists past and present who could produce in a haze of alcohol, cigarettes, opium, laudanum, absinthe, and other romantic sounding stimulants, but I am not made of such stuff. That means keeping myself in a state of reliable health through regular exercise. Some of my best writing comes right afterwards and some of my best ideas have come to me during it. I’m also a big believer in lots of sleep and moderate caffeine and alcohol. When you are younger, we know that there are plenty of fake id makers out there but it’s best to stay away from that. They do indeed pass advanced scanners other known as “scannable fake ids”, this is what we did to get our fix. I don’t mean none: some of my best revisions and orchestral ideas happen somewhere around the end of the first glass of wine in the evening, and I frequently plot out my work agenda to take advantage of that.

A wine bottle and a glass filled with white wine next to some page of music score paper and a few pencils.

6. Treat your brain right.

Don’t let all the preceding lead you to believe that you have to be a non-stop workaholic, creatively or otherwise. I’m not, nor do I recommend it. All artists need down time to stare into space, to imagine, to daydream, to let your brain wander or go numb. Using the aforementioned methods to get all of life’s mundanities and necessities out of the way actually gives me more time for this, and the stability of a reliable income certainly facilitates it for me. The mental energy I might be expending wondering how the next electric bill will be paid can be put to creative use. Or, just as beneficially, not at all! The increasing number of composers I know who swear by meditation is a high recommendation for that last point.

7. Do a little bit every day.

Devote at least 20 minutes every day—including your “office” days—to tackling something administrative for your musical life: send out emails or score submissions, check up on discussions or negotiations, arrange catch-ups or networking opportunities. Schedule this stuff on your calendar as actual timed appointments: e.g., website updates on Monday, score submissions on Tuesday, etc. You’d be amazed the results that can be produced by spreading and cultivating a seed or two every day.

8. Stay in the mix.

The demands of your schedule may not permit you to participate as much as you’d like to, but it’s vital to be involved in some capacity.

O.K., you’ve got a steady income. And you’ve carved out the time around that to produce creatively. Now you need to get that product out there (unless you’re just writing for yourself and your drawer, which is fine). Be involved in your local music scene and, where appropriate, in the larger national and global scene via your digital presence. Contribute to it, advocate for it, support it. The demands of your schedule may not permit you to participate as much as you’d like to, but it’s vital to be involved in some capacity. And as any musician in any genre will agree, being out and visible and involved is imperative.

In my last post, I’ll offer musings on what impact being a day jobber has had on my life and music, with the hopes it will inspire or at least provoke thought on your own situation.


Do You Have What It Takes to be a 5-to-9 Composer?

Juggling a creative life with an often rigid office schedule isn’t suited to everyone: it means being extra dexterous at carving out as much creative time as possible and making the most of that. Though, as Daniel Ott pointed out a few years ago, that’s true for the majority of composers, day jobbers or not.

From personal experience—and much reading up from similar minds and situations—here are some of the qualities that I think best suit this method:

  • You function best with a minimum of uncertainty. Do you thrive creatively under largely predictable, dull, stable circumstances? Not knowing when or if my next paycheck is arriving, whether my financial situation will force me to change residences, whether I can afford to have this or that health issue addressed if necessary: this does not set my creative juices flowing. The less uncertainty in my life, the more creatively productive I am. I think most artists feel this way. Some of us just prefer to take measures to secure it.
  • You’re an inveterate multi-tasker. Assuming you don’t have minions to handle the minutiae of life, you can create the most time for your art by getting multiple other things done simultaneously. When doing what I call “grunt work”—engraving, website updates, social media curation, etc.—I always try to have at least one, if not several, other things under way at the same time. That ranges from printing scores or editing audio files to all the mundanities of housekeeping. But there are countless opportunities! In between sets at the gym is a great time to work on blog posts. (That’s exactly where I’m writing this very article.) Stationary bike workouts are great for catching up on reading or proofreading material. Public transportation commutes are excellent for catching up on pieces you’ve wanted to hear. You’d be amazed at how many things you can accomplish simultaneously, and how often.
  • Discipline and rigorous scheduling are two of your favorite things. Because of my personal work habits and office schedule, weekends are when I write, and in order to maximize that time I get everything possible out of the way during the week to make sure that time is clear and uninterrupted. That means scheduling all the non-writing stuff just as concretely as my writing time.
When your writing time arrives, you embrace it and WRITE

And when your writing time arrives, you embrace it and WRITE. Turn off all the devices (mobile or otherwise). No posting to social media. In fact, no internet at all. The re-organizing of your sock drawer can wait as well.

  • Sacrifice is not something you shy away from. All the above may leave you with the impression that there’s little flexible “free” time in this life. That’s pretty accurate. What time I have away from the office is almost entirely spent either writing or preparing the conditions to write. As Cory Huff writes on his blog The Abundant Artist: “What can you cut out of your life to achieve your dreams? TV? A recreational soccer league? Can you cut down work hours?” For me this means prioritizing my free non-writing time. The performances and events I attend are generally tied to my concert and theatrical careers, as well as to providing creative inspiration and empowerment. My socializing time is confined almost exclusively to the week, meaning I don’t get to hang out with as many people as I’d like. But the people who know me and value what I’m doing understand and accommodate this draconian lifestyle. And it’s just part of the territory. As John Assaraf says:

“When you are interested, you do what’s convenient: when you are committed, you do whatever it takes.”

  • You can identify and focus on the projects and goals that matter most. I find the new music world to be brimming with experts who will tell you of endless imperatives you need to be doing to have any hope of getting yourself or your work noticed: blogging, podcasting, fronting your own ensemble (preferably also performing in it in multiple capacities), having a presence on every social media platform, attending as many industry conferences and seminars as your time and budget will allow—and all of this while maintaining steady creative output. I think this holds more weight if you’re following the “traditional” route or trying to make the majority of your living from your work: your potential income is tied to the widest possible visibility. Not following the “traditional” route, I have to balance the time I devote to non-writing activities with actually writing. That includes being particularly selective about how to maximize my digital presence. The boundless opportunities offered by the internet are a boon to self-promoting artists, but they can also be a curse if you feel you have to be involved in all of them. Thomas Deneuville and Dennis Tobenski’s discussion of these possibilities on the latter’s Music Publishing Podcast offers much food for thought on this subject.

That selectiveness applies towards choosing the music opportunities I’m offered. Yes, I’ve had to weigh some of those in terms of what I think is the best use of my writing time. A cello sonata may not be the most original idea, but it has the potential for greater distribution than a piece for, say, kazoo and theremin, though the latter might well generate more interest and notice. This sort of thing is obviously a very personal issue.

  • You can keep your eyes on the prize. Making a reliable and possibly comfortable living should be a means to an end, which is your creative output. (And hopefully getting that output heard by as much of the world as possible.) Guard that, protect it, remember that’s your goal. The lure of advance and promotion in your day job, especially if commensurate financial reward is involved, can be a seductive and distracting thing, but more often than not comes at the expense of loss of personal time. This isn’t confined to those juggling non-arts careers with creativity. Many are the aspiring composers, past and present, who’ve found fame as conductors and had to battle back from their podium time to refocus on their writing.

Does all this strike a chord? (Pun intended.) Stay tuned for my next post for some suggestions on how to manage the realities of this situation.

Ed Windels's table in the midst of shelling peas (with bowls of shelled and unshelled peas), writing a string quartet (with manuscript paper, ruler, and writing implements), drinking a glass of wine, and a computer monitor.

Coming Out (as a 5-to-9 Composer)

A table with pages of score manuscript paper, pens, a glass of red wine, a wine bottle, and a bowl of pasta

Hi. My name is Ed. And I’m a 5 to 9 composer. In other words, I also have a day job.

It’s been 25 years since my last stint as a full-time composer.  That was the year I received my master’s degree from the Mannes College of Music in New York.   For most of the interim, I’ve been composing during the hours not occupied by my various corporate jobs, most of them in the legendarily glamorous world of advertising.

Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve never truly been a full-time composer, even during school. I’ve always had to support myself through means other than music, including paying my own way through undergrad and graduate schools.  Since I lack sufficient instrumental ability to support myself as a performer or the temperament for academia, making a salary in various office capacities has provided several advantages to maintaining a life as an artist (which I’ll elaborate on in the upcoming posts), both during my school years and since—even if it is more time consuming than I’d ideally like.

Day jobbing as an artist has been the subject of substantial digital press across all genres.  And we in the concert music world have many illustrious predecessors who supported themselves through additional careers.  Hector Berlioz and Virgil Thomson both spent much of their lives as critics.  Alexander Borodin worked as a chemist. Morton Feldman ran his uncle’s garment factory for years.  Most famously, Charles Ives spent most of his life as an insurance broker while turning out some of the most revolutionary works of the 20th century.

While I’ve never denied my situation, until now I have preferred to keep quiet about it. I let myself be intimidated by a long-standing and short-sighted mindset within the greater concert music world that if you are not a “full-time” composer (I include composers with academic positions in that definition)—and preferably struggling financially—you are somehow less serious, less committed, and less worthy.  For too long I succumbed to this ideology.  If I wasn’t making at least the majority of my income from music or composing, I didn’t deserve to call myself a composer.

So why take up the banner about it now?

A variety of factors led me in 2011 to seriously re-enter and re-engage with the worlds of both concert music (as a composer) and theater music (as an orchestrator and arranger). And despite the many extraordinary developments in the musical world, I found myself still confronted with this same attitude. So not only has it become necessary to embrace my circumstances with self-respect, it’s become a mission of empowerment.

I’m out to dispel this derogatory mindset, not only for my own sake but for the current generation of artists entering the field.  There are thousands of people in the world aspiring to be composers or musicians, of whatever genre in whatever field.  Not making all or even most of your living directly in your vocation shouldn’t prohibit you from identifying yourself in that vocation or make you feel less worthy.

Increasingly when I’m introduced in public or speak at events, I find myself approached by younger composers and performers—in both my concert music and theatrical lives—wondering what their options are to make a financially reliable living while still pursuing their artistic goals. Some of them quail at the amount of competition in every facet of the music world, others at the prospect of years of financial uncertainty.

So on their behalf and my own, I am here to proudly proclaim: yes, I am a composer with a day job, and it’s a viable way of managing your life as an artist—full time or long term or otherwise.  And to dispel the shame and opprobrium still cast on this pathway, I’m publicly adding my voice to the coterie of double-fisting artists. Our method may not be the most creatively ideal or produce the largest body of work—issues I’ll explore in upcoming posts—but it could arguably improve creative output because of the financial security and the overall life stability it provides.

Ed Windels

Ed Windels. Photo by Derek Edward Pfohl.

An omnivore of the fine and performing arts, Ed Windels spent his youth trying his hand at many of them before devoting his studies to classical music. After a year at the Juilliard School, he completed his studies at the Mannes College of Music, earning both bachelors and master’s degrees in composition in just three years. Ed has mostly pursued projects and built his catalogue in private, a course that has continued to bear remarkable fruit since a showcase concert of his works by NewMusicNewYork in February 2010. Recent commissions include a song cycle for Bargemusic’s Here and Now series and a piano solo piece for his alma mater. Currently in the works are his first string quartet, a large-scale piece for tenor and orchestra based on John Hollander’s Summer Day, and a version of Richard Strauss’s Elektra for reduced orchestra. Additionally his admiration for and experience with the musical theater has resulted in a burgeoning additional career as an orchestrator and arranger.