Good Advice is Extremely Hard to Find

My mentors have all provided me with invaluable words of wisdom, both practical and artistic. But they have never been a 26-year-old female composer trying to build a career in the United States in 2017.

Written By

Hilary Purrington

At the Minnesota Composer Institute, composers Daniel Schlosberg, Saad Haddad, Peter Shin, Charles Peck, Daniel Schlosberg, Nina Young, Andrew Hsu, and I listened to and participated in a number of presentations and workshops related to professional development.

Professional development is a strange but very necessary topic for composers. Our industry changes so quickly and, as a result, very few elements remain consistent over time. Career paths for musicians are no longer defined (and perhaps I’m naive to think that there ever was a somewhat clear-cut path to “success,” whatever that even means). To complicate things further, our mentors are often the luckiest people in the industry. This isn’t to say that they haven’t faced struggles or haven’t worked hard; several of my mentors didn’t become successful composers until later in life. But, as many of us have discovered, something as simple as being in the right place at the right time can change the course of a career.

I’ve also realized that good advice is extremely hard to find. This isn’t meant to insult any of my wonderful mentors; they have all provided me with invaluable words of wisdom, both practical and artistic. But they have never been a 26-year-old female composer trying to build a career in the United States in 2017. In a somewhat volatile industry, it is important to remember this.

And then there’s the question of “success.” What does that even mean? Of course, every composer has a different definition of success. But, unlike many other industries, we don’t have a general universal concept of what this means.

Unlike many other industries, we don’t have a general universal concept of what success means.

I tend to find career development workshops puzzling or even frustrating because definitive answers don’t really exist. We’re just reminded that there isn’t a clear way of attaining an undefinable thing.

But, obviously, we need career development workshops. We need to discuss these problems and fears—we don’t address them enough. Focusing on technique and artistry is important, but it will be difficult to develop your craft outside of school if you don’t know how to find and create opportunities.

During our first day at the Institute, we met with Steven Lankenau, Senior Director of Promotion at Boosey & Hawkes. He discussed the benefits of signing with a publisher and what publishers do for composers. At some point in a composer’s career, explained Mr. Lankenau, a composer will find that he or she needs help in some area of work. In addition to providing editing and marketing services, publishers can connect composers with ensembles, coordinate co-commissions, negotiate fees, and help a composer plan long-term writing schedules.

Mr. Lankenau also discussed what publishing companies look for in composers. They look for artists who have already built strong momentum. In addition to a sense of excitement surrounding the composer, publishers value a strong and consistent artistic voice, solid technique, and marketability. Style and aesthetics are usually less important.

Publishers value a strong and consistent artistic voice, solid technique, and marketability.

But, Mr. Lankenau also reminded us that there is no such thing as a perfect all-around composer—a very important thing to remember. It is rare that a composer is knowledgeable and proficient across all genres and styles. Publishers, fortunately, are not searching for this mythical composer.

On the same day, the composers met with Bill Holab. When I heard him speak at the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings in June, Mr. Holab focused on issues specific to music engraving. At the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, Mr. Holab mainly discussed the advantages of self-publishing.

Mr. Holab provides services to composers, including music engraving and editing, production, and representation. As with Mr. Lankenau, Mr. Holab explained that successful composers eventually need advocates, or some kind of assistance. Rather than signing with a publisher, Mr. Holab recommends hiring people to help with specific needs. For example, for help with marketing, one could hire a publicist.

Signing with a publisher might not be the best business decision.

He also discussed why signing with a publisher might not be the best business decision. The most significant issue is the loss of one’s copyright. Another important issue to consider is that situations within companies can change very quickly. A company can be bought, policies can change, and suddenly an individual composer is no longer a priority.

Mr. Holab pointed out that all successful contemporary composers, whether working with publishers or self-publishing, know how to successfully market and promote themselves. They have learned how to connect with performers and potential collaborators and effectively market their music to presenters and audiences.

This theme of networking and self-promotion returned throughout the week. On the second day of the Institute, we traveled to St. Paul to visit the American Composers Forum offices. Over lunch with the ACF staff, we discussed the kinds of opportunities that are the most helpful and rewarding for us. Several composers brought up the importance of collaborations. Many competitions ask us to submit an already-written piece, and the prize might be a performance and (hopefully) some money. Opportunities that offer collaborative experiences, however, are more valuable. Rather than winning a one-time performance by an ensemble, it’s far more helpful and educational if we’re able to collaborate with the performers and, in the process, form long-lasting relationships. These kinds of connections can lead to future collaborations and professional opportunities.

In a similar vein, networking opportunities are vital. Several composers expressed the desire to connect with artists in other disciplines—dancers, video artists, etc. Many of our professional relationships developed during our formal education, and this can result in a fairly narrow professional circle. When we’re no longer in school, we have to work much harder to cultivate and maintain our professional circles. This requires resolution and effort. Occasionally, we might even have to interact with non-musicians!

We also had the opportunity to improve our public speaking skills with Diane Odash, a senior teaching specialist in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. As composers, we are often expected to stand up in front of an audience and speak coherently about our own music. Although many schools’ composition programs require composition majors to speak before performances, we rarely receive any formal training in this area. Any strengths that I have come from my background as a singer and knowledge of performance and audition etiquette.

Each composer stood up in front of the group and spoke for two minutes about our music. Prof. Odash timed us, and then provided feedback. She also addressed nervousness, stressing that anxiety and its symptoms are part of our natural fight-or-flight response. In this case, rather than “fighting a tiger,” we’re just talking about ourselves in front of an audience for a very brief period of time.

Legal mistakes can be time-consuming and expensive to fix.

We also listened to a presentation given by Katie Baron, an attorney who focuses on music and copyright law. She discussed copyright basics, fair use, and what commissioning agreements should cover. This is an extremely important area for composers, and it is imperative that we have a thorough knowledge of our and others’ rights. It’s also valuable to be able to recognize where your knowledge of copyright law is limited. You then know when it is appropriate to seek legal counsel. I’ve heard composers unknowingly misuse terms, and that’s concerning, as legal mistakes can be time-consuming and expensive to fix.

Finally, we met with Kari Marshall, Director of Artistic Planning for the Minnesota Orchestra, and Frank J. Oteri, composer advocate at New Music USA and co-editor of NewMusicBox. We discussed how to effectively promote our own music. Websites and social media have made it so simple to make our music accessible; however, every other musician also has access to these resources. How we differentiate ourselves from the larger crowd then becomes the issue. Again — we must be proactive when it comes to forming and maintaining genuine relationships with artists and presenters.

Kari Marshall discussed how programming decisions occur and why the Minnesota Orchestra might decide to program a contemporary work or commission a new one. Again, she emphasized the importance of relationships. Many composers of these programmed works have formed connections with the orchestra’s musicians or with the larger organization. An example: a composer appearing on next season’s programming actually participated in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute several years back!

Self-promotion and networking skills aren’t formally taught in school, unfortunately; it’s rare that I’ve ever discussed these topics in a private lesson, for example. The most helpful classes I took were actually outside of music schools. We naturally form connections with other artists while in pursuing academic degrees; however, after we graduate, developing and maintaining relationships requires a high amount of proactivity. We have to leave our studios, see some sunlight, and connect with other artists and professionals.