Tag: career advice

Do you need a doctorate in composition?

A person taking notes, with a white mug in the background
Do you need a doctorate in composition? No, you don’t. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value.

In the nearly twenty years that I have been teaching composition at universities and conservatories, the most common question I am asked by students not already in doctoral programs is which ones they should apply to. The assumption of these young composers is that the next logical or expected step in the progression of their musical development is to seek an advanced degree in a field where the degree itself is becoming both more ubiquitous and less powerful.

When I ask young composers why they want to earn a doctorate, the almost inevitable response is, “Because I want to teach.” That is indeed an admirable reason to do so. Additional issues such as performance and networking opportunities and some abstract sense of the recognition and approval that a doctorate will bestow are also often mentioned. While there is some merit to these expectations, I believe they are mostly misguided.

For decades, the availability of full-time, tenure-track composition jobs has been dwindling, with the decrease greatly exacerbated by the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. During this time, administrators in higher education facing smaller budgets due to reduced state funding, shrinking endowments, and less generous alumni donors sought to make up the difference. They did so by employing larger pools of part-time adjunct faculty who could be paid far less than their full-time counterparts with few or no benefits and no job security. As the financial markets later soared to record levels of growth, the number of full-time professorships did not follow. Consequently, the majority of my colleagues who teach composition or related music courses do so in the precarious conditions described above. These teachers are extremely qualified and dedicated; their students are lucky to work with them. But for anyone trying to eek out a living on the wages earned as an adjunct or short-term contract instructor (particularly in an expensive metropolitan area where new music activity is concentrated) struggles significantly. These exploitative teaching positions are often spread out over multiple campuses requiring travel and the time spent counseling students, correcting homework and papers, and dealing with university bureaucracy steals precious time needed to compose. Anyone considering a doctorate for the reason that they want to teach should be aware of these realities and that the competition for the few stable jobs that are offered is extremely fierce.


Image: Vlad Kutepov

A more immediate financial consideration for young composers seeking a doctorate is the cost of the degree and the means needed to live during the years that it takes to complete the classwork, exams, and dissertation. While many universities and conservatories offer composer fellowships that waive tuition and offer a modest stipend, usually in exchange for teaching, these are limited, often to just a couple a year. Of course, these cannot accommodate the hundreds of qualified students who apply for composition doctorates every year and many students are faced with the possibility of large debts after completing their studies. No student should be put in this position and I strongly advise against paying for these degrees. While it is not uncommon for young professionals to leave graduate school with substantial debt, the fields outside the humanities more consistently offer starting salaries beyond living wages in addition to health and retirement benefits. Because there are very few such opportunities available to recent composition graduates, it makes no sense to accrue a large debt that may take decades to repay.

There are also some young composers who feel that they have not received sufficient preparation in order to enter the field. They believe that an advanced degree will provide the training and knowledge that they lack. A graduate program in composition would serve these students well but not at the expense of crushing debt that would be shouldered if the student needed to pay for tuition. In these cases, I recommend that students seek out individuals for private lessons. Because there are so many highly-qualified musicians that do not have full-time academic jobs, many are willing to teach privately. The cost of these lessons is a fraction of graduate tuition and offers much more flexibility with regard to teachers and scheduling.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community.

In my experience, no ensemble, soloist, or presenter has ever reconsidered a commission or programming opportunity for a composer due to a lack of academic credentials. It seems true that certain prizes and fellowships give some limited weight to one’s academic background, but it is always subsidiary to the music under consideration.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community. By interacting and collaborating with fellow musicians, pooled talents and resources sum to much more than individual parts. I always encourage young composers to attend as many concerts as possible and politely and humbly engage the performers and audience members during and after the show. Chance and sought out connections can yield deep, meaningful, and even lifetime relationships that can have profound creative and intellectual impact.

I understand that for many the access to such communities may be limited due to geographical or financial constraints. Additionally, it can be socially and professionally daunting for some to join circles to which they do not already belong. In these circumstances the communities may be created from within, as has often been the case in the past. Some examples include the artists that formed Der Blaue Reiter, the Scratch Orchestra, and the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

There are positive attributes of academic programs, to be sure. Especially when coming from a place where interactions with like-minded musicians are limited, enrolling in a music program can provide incredible stimulation and camaraderie with peers and mentors. Opportunities to work with fellow students and guests in performances and presentations are extremely valuable, as is the teaching experience that comes with fellowships. The positive impact that access to a dedicated music library can have on a developing composer is undeniable. And hopefully the courses and private instruction will enlighten and expand one’s own musical outlook.

So while there is value in attending a graduate program in composition, it is not a panacea for career advancement and future job security. It is wise to consider what one wants and realistically what a composition doctorate can offer before assuming that it is the only path forward.

Hey Jealousy: Social Media’s Envy Effect

How many times have you posted a pic like the one above on social media, or seen one and rolled your eyes? Guilty as charged on both sides of the coin. So what’s that about, and why is it important?

Sometimes I can’t take your perfect life anymore. Logging into Facebook makes me want to vomit. Your exciting new job, the beautiful kids, the throwback Thursday photos of your beach wedding that I wasn’t invited to.

By Tamar Charney

It’s no secret that social media is basically just a highlight reel. In my case, yes, I’m playing great concerts at prestigious venues here and there, and I’m grateful. But that’s not my day-to-day reality. I’m also changing blow out diapers, dealing with toddler tantrums, making budgets, writing grants, and practicing scales. Also in reality, someone has hit my car twice in the last two months, and I have only a handful of gigs scheduled for this summer. That can be scary. Would I put that on social media? Not in a normal situation. Too scary, right? But I’m probably gonna share this article on social media, so I’ll let you know how that feels after the fact.

Here’s the deal. I’m creative, so I just started a record label and production company called Bright Shiny Things. It’s fun! I only have a few performance gigs this summer, but that means more time having fun with Bright Shiny Things. I will also have time to attend awesome stuff like Mark Rabideau’s 21cm Institute entrepreneurship program and the mind-blowingly good Silkroad Global Musician’s Workshop run by the undeniable multi-genre cellist Mike Block. Also, in reality, less gigs means more time with the family and wife. (Maybe I can learn to prevent blowout diapers?) Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy parenthood and business building as much anyone, but I don’t post that on social media because I feel like I need people to focus on what would be considered the “successes.” Social media is all about good news—a filtered view of how we want others to perceive us and how we want to be seen.

But back to the eye roll…what’s that mean? Sometimes it means we’re jealous.

I don’t think jealousy within an ensemble is something people are comfortable admitting to or talking about.

Why is that important to talk about in our art? I don’t think jealousy within an ensemble is something people are comfortable admitting to or talking about, but I’ve experienced this first hand, as have so many of us.

My colleagues in Sybarite5 are all great musicians, and they are also entrepreneurs. They have a lot of super legit performances and projects going on at all times, and rightfully so.

Violinist Sami Merdinian is in demand as a concert soloist in South America, performs often with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and founded the New Docta International Music Festival in Argentina.

Sarah Whitney is no slouch either. She plays violin with the Seeing Double Duo, as well as in a trio project with fellow Sybarite5ers Angela and Laura called Trifecta, and she launched an interactive concert series called Beyond the Notes in the Boston area.

Angela Pickett, in addition to playing viola with Sybarite5 and the above-mentioned Trifecta, is in demand as a solo fiddle player in Broadway’s Tony award-winning Come From Away. She also posts beautifully curated vegan food pics on Instagram.

Laura Metcalf, our cellist, is also a soloist, as well as having a duet called Boyd Meets Girl with her husband and classical guitarist Rupert Boyd. She is a long-time member of the cello/percussion ensemble Break of Reality and just launched a pretty kick-ass concert series called Gather NYC.

The list goes on and on.

I have to be honest, when I found out about some of my colleagues’ projects on social media my initial reaction was probably tinged with some…jealousy! How dare they? Would this mess up Sybarite5? #JELLY #JELLY #JELLY. But now I’m just proud of their accomplishments. How did I get there?

First, I had to figure out what jealousy is about.

Jealousy is based in fear, not in love. A little bit of jealousy can indicate a little sense of threat or fear is occurring. A lot of jealousy means there is a lot of fear. … With jealousy often comes possessiveness, suspicion, anger, controlling acts and a lot of other negative behaviors.

YUCK, right? So, jealousy is based in fear, but if you read my first NewMusicBox post, you know that I’m not interested in having more fear in my life. So let’s unpack this a little.

It’s pretty obvious to me why I’d be jealous of the outside gigs the people in my own ensemble take on. It’s the fear of losing these great colleagues to other (better?) projects and the risk of damage to Sybarite5, something I’ve worked so long to create. Then how will I feed my kids? Any parent knows this is real and powerful fear.

But there is a solution to this: you have to confront your fear. For me that happened recently. We had our first sub with Sybarite5 in nine years. You know what? It was fine. The concert was fine. The residency was fine. It was more than fine! We had a great week, and I’m not afraid of it anymore. Poof. My fear is gone, and my jealousy along with it.

So now I’m happy to say that I’m not afraid to lose the above because of what someone else is doing. I will still be able to do my own thing, with Sybarite5 or otherwise. I have to have confidence in this. I created Sybarite5, and I can continue to create new things. It’s part of who I am. It’s never gonna stop. I like making stuff! So I don’t stress anymore if I see those posts on social media celebrating success because the jealousy is so unhelpful to the creative process.

So when you see this #thrilled2announce stuff posted, know a few things:

1. Objects in the mirror are not as large as they may appear.
2. While that person is probably mostly excited about whatever they are posting about, that person is probably also struggling with things in one way or another, perhaps just as much as you are.
3. You may be jealous, but you don’t have to be once you let go of your fear.

This is post four of four, so I want to give NewMusicBox a real thanks for allowing me to write. It’s been a great experience, and I think I learned a lot about what makes me tick. It’s my sincere hope that these articles help others find their own path a little quicker than I did.

So You Want To Host A Composition Competition

Picture it: you are at the precipice of your arts organization and hosting a competition for composers. Before you pat yourself on the back for not going with a “feats of strength” model, let’s consider this journey you’re embarking on with a generous helping of a composer’s perspective.

It’s inevitable that a composer will at some point consider entering their music in a competition. For those who have, once you start preparing submissions you begin to develop a familiarity with some of the common guidelines. Having the duration of the work as well as its year of composition in the vicinity of the title page is more-or-less accepted as common practice, for example, but competitions often specifically ask for this information.

Composers also develop a familiarity with guidelines that can seem ambiguous in their utility. This article gets into some specifics below, but overall it makes me wonder: For those who host them, what are you actually trying to accomplish with this competition? Are you trying to foster young talent by creating an opportunity for it? Are you trying to encourage people to write for a particularly esoteric ensemble? Are you after the fire and brimstone of spectacle where artists beat each other into bloody pulps using their haphazardly bound manuscripts? In the end, we all want to serve the act of making music, but I sometimes wonder if an organization might not be aware of how their competition’s guidelines might inhibit what they’re setting out to do.

Age Limits

Many competitions have an age limit that can range from 18 to 30 years young. Unless the competition is billed as a “Young Composers Competition,” it strains credulity to see how this requirement is pertinent. Composition as a career isn’t arrived at in the same way that performance is. We often start much later in life. It’s a unique parental combo that pushes their pre-schooler into composition lessons, dreaming of the day when their protégé can barely scrape together an income from sitting in a dark room, scribbling incomprehensibly on staff paper. Many of us come to it by chance. Sometimes it’s our discovery of improvisation, the encouragement of a teacher, or even just simple curiosity. These humble beginnings have the potential to start a cycle that can last a lifetime. A model doesn’t really exist for the active nurturing of composers from early childhood in the same way we nurture instrumentalists. As such, composers can declare themselves at any stage of life and an age limit is often unnecessary and arbitrary.

On The Acceptance of Previously Performed Works

It’s understandable that part of the draw of a competition, in terms of getting butts into seats, is the spectacle of it. Spectacle, so the thinking goes, can be fostered by mirroring the performance aspect of sport. That’s not to say that composers are judged by how far they can heave their manuscript down the pitch, but there’s a definite emphasis on a performance within the frame of the present competition. For instance, we haven’t been handing gold medals to long jumper Bob Beaman for forty years just because he still holds the record for the longest jump (8.9 meters, for those measuring). We evaluate the athletes who show up and base our evaluation on what they do that day. The value is placed on performing in the present competition. Transmogrifying this idea over to the art world, the idea is that if a piece has already been performed, then its moment has more or less passed. If the previously performed work were allowed into the competition, it would be the equivalent of one of Bob Beaman’s mythical forty years of gold medals.

However, this reading breaks a little under thoughtful pressure. A composition competition isn’t really about evaluating the present performance, as there is none. The act of composing can be divorced completely from performing to the point where it’s about the deliverable—the composition itself. What disallowing previously performed works really amounts to is a back-of-the-napkin way of making sure that all the works submitted are new and the spectacle is just a bonus to help promote the event. A guideline requiring compositions needing to be recently composed will create a problem, as the history of each submission will need to be checked; it would be a bit of an upset if the winning piece was revealed to violate guidelines.

If your ensemble’s instrumentation is even slightly esoteric, you might also want to consider how disqualifying previously performed works is akin to shooting yourself in the foot. If your goal is simply to get great new music, then what if someone out there has an excellent piece for you that you disqualify because it was performed during the second year of their undergrad studies? You could be missing out on something stupendous and not even realize it.

Entry Fees

This might be my most foolish moment, coming out in favor of entry fees, as I am forever going to be the one paying them. But if I’m totally honest and sigh resignedly, then I have to acknowledge they are often a necessity. It does take time to evaluate scores. Time is money. If you’re hosting a competition you’ll see a higher volume of scores than you’re used to. This means more of either your own or your jury’s time to evaluate submissions and that time is worth something. It also has the added benefit of filtering out some of the fence sitters who are sending in a work just because it’s a competition and not because they think they have a great piece for you.

And to be clear, many other composers and New Music USA come down against entry fees but acknowledge it’s a complex topic.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment (or even more dastardly in this case: composer’s advocate), part of the reason that so many of us grumble about entry fees is because rather than see the product in action, we see what has the vague outlines of a bait-and-switch. In other words, you provide us with a wonderful product: spending the time to get to know our music. This is something we all cherish. But in the vast majority of cases, all we see from our end is a form letter thanking us for our interest in your competition, and it’s rare that the name of our piece is even mentioned. To contrast, I once participated in a competition that circulated a form to its judges—identified on the form only by number to preserve anonymity—which was filled out with comments on each piece. These forms were returned to the entrants and made our participation a richer experience.

Are You Really Sure You Want It To Be A Composition Competition?

Honing in on a purpose for your competition rather than simply hosting a bloodbath and handing out towels will result in an event that makes far better use of everybody’s artistic energy.

Before you stoke the fierce rivalries between stacks of paper, you might consider other options. A commissioning competition is ideal for a group that has the funds and desire to commission a new work but lacks the personal contact with a composer upon whom to bestow the terms of the commission. Instead of asking composers to write a new piece for your ensemble, ask them to send in a CV, scores and recordings of a handful of representative works, and a project proposal for what they would like to write. The organization can then decide, based on a composer’s past work and their proposal, what would be the best fit.

Also, don’t discount the utility and practicality of an open call for scores. If your desire is to see as much new music for your ensemble as possible, a press release calling for creative individuals to send in their best work will yield a mountain of PDFs and bound volumes for you to wade through.

It’s easy to polarize the issue of competitive art making, and the fuzziness of art metrics are a big reason for this. That are certain aspects of craftsmanship that come in to play, but at some point—and likely sooner than you think—judges are going to be picking pieces because they like them and their reasoning will be nebulous. That isn’t to say they won’t be able to justify their reasoning, but that reasoning is going to have more to do with their personality and preferences than anything you can measure.

There’s also a misplaced lament for the loss of the commissioning model of supporting artists whenever competition is brought up. But both have always existed side-by-side. (See Beethoven rising to prominence in competitive piano duels, for instance.) However, there is some ethical grey area around being asked to write specifically for a competition. “You didn’t place but at least now you have a great piece for your catalogue!” doesn’t really address the problem of asking artists to work for free. Writing a great piece takes a great amount of work and composers already have lots of great pieces in their catalogues. Their time is often best spent promoting those and writing new ones that are destined to be performed.

Honing in on a purpose for your competition with these considerations in mind rather than simply hosting a bloodbath and handing out towels will result in an event that makes far better use of everybody’s artistic energy. Composers won’t feel like they’re participating in some kind of cattle call, your performers will be more likely to be playing something fabulous, and your audience will be more likely to be excited by something that expands their horizons. Who knows how many great pieces are out there, desperately craving your attention, that could be shut down for rulebook reasons as mediocre as they are miscellaneous? If your primary goal is great music, then make some space in your mail room and brew a pot of coffee. Because it’s out there—and it is legion.

Chris Sivak

Chris Sivak is a multi–instrumentalist and composer residing in Vancouver, BC. His output covers a wide variety of ground ranging from the soberly serious to the seriously absurd; all lush and lasciviousness, hunting for the perfect musical moment, to manic chamber opera featuring casts of characters out to tickle your funny bone. Chris studied music at UBC with Stephen Chatman and Dorothy Chang. He subsequently moved on to become the composer in residence with the Laudate Singers Of North Vancouver from 2014 to 2016 and is an associate composer with the Canadian Music Centre.

On Being a “Choral Composer”

female chorus

When I finished graduate school for composing nearly six years ago, I decided to structure my life and livelihood around the pursuit of a full-time composing career. I took stock of where I’d had the most success with composing, and at that time, I was selling the most scores and hearing the most performances of my choral music. Maybe assessing the commercial viability of my music sounds crass, but my motives weren’t purely financial. Writing vocal music comes fluidly and enjoyably to me, for the most part, more so than writing for (non-vocal) instruments. Given how much I love working with language in music, too, I often find vocal music the best medium for what I hope to express through my composing. I find an easy grace in writing for the voice—and by “easy,” I mean this: all composing is still work, of course, but this is the work I most love to do.

Structuring my life post-grad school, then, it made sense creatively and financially to focus on writing for voice, and more specifically on writing for chorus. I knew I’d eventually return to writing for instruments; I just didn’t know when or exactly how it would happen.

In the years since I decided to pursue writing for chorus, I’ve been asked if I consider myself a “choral composer.” I do, and I don’t. I’m happy to use that label if I’m in a situation—say, a choral conference—where I’m pursuing more opportunities to write for chorus. Other times, I find myself resisting the term, defensively reminding someone that I write for other instruments, too. Sometimes I get the impression that contemporary choral music is perceived as “lesser” than new instrumental works, at least within the new music community. When asked what kind of music I write, I usually mention my instrumental writing first and add that I compose often for voice, almost as if there’s something shameful in being defined primarily by my choral writing.

Over the last six years, I’ve written more than twenty-five works for choral ensembles, ten or so art songs, two pieces for voice with chamber ensemble, one piece for speaking chamber ensemble—there’s text, yes, but not singing—and five pieces purely for instruments, with no vocal element whatsoever. I wrote three of these non-vocal works within the last six months, in an effort to return to writing chamber music, and the transition has been a bit rough. Writing instrumental music doesn’t come quite as easily to me as writing art songs and choral works. My chamber music is not as well-known as my choral writing, and to be perfectly honest, sometimes I wonder if it’s not as good. To be fair, at some point in the process of writing every one of my compositions, I’ve been convinced that the piece in question is absolute garbage—it’s an unfortunate part of my process, not a reflection on the music itself.

All of that said, do I regret structuring my last six years around writing almost exclusively for chorus? Not a bit. I’ve accomplished the goals I set for myself when I graduated: several of my choral pieces have been accepted by and are now available from major publishing companies, and I’ve found viable ways to self-publish my other works as well. I’ve worked with several professional choruses and excellent conductors and released an album of my choral works. I know how to negotiate a choral commission, and I feel confident in my rate and the value of what I write. All of this feels like success.

I’d urge any other composer contemplating a full-time composing career to ask the same questions I considered six years ago: What work do you most enjoy doing? What work of yours have others already recognized as excellent? What medium or mediums stand out as the best fit for the ideas you feel compelled to express in your music?

For me, the answer to each of these questions is still choral music. It’s only when I find myself working on several pieces with a similar instrumentation in a row—say, three pieces for high school-level a cappella SATB chorus, all four to six minutes long—that I start to question my decision to focus so intently on choral composing. I’m sure I’d have the same feeling writing two works of similar length and style in a row for orchestra or for string quartet. Worrying that I might be repeating myself within my work and running low on innovation is what feels tiring, not the genre itself in which I’m composing.

As a result, I’ve found “niching down”—composing in one specialized field for a number of years, in order to build up a reputation and career in that field—to be a solid career choice, yes, but also a complex one. The question of whether to settle in one genre for a year, for a few years, or for an entire career comes down to this, I think: There’s only so much room to grow in your art if you’re not continually pushing yourself.

To avoid burning out and for my work to evolve, I need to seek out projects that don’t conform to what I already feel most comfortable creating. It’s good to stay a little uncomfortable when it comes to creativity. I need to look for variety in the projects that I take on, staggering similar projects across a wide span of time. And as long as I feel compelled to write vocal and instrumental music, I need to do both.

I’ve been considering all of this as I set long-term goals for the next few years, too. I very likely can’t continue to build a career as a “choral composer,” write and record an album’s worth of solo piano music, and compose two new works for orchestra at the same time, or even during the same year. Over the span of a few years, or a decade, or even a whole life spent writing music, though, there’s more than enough room for all of these goals to co-exist. We can focus on one field of music, then branch out to another. We can “niche down,” and we can embrace one identity (“choral composer,” “band composer,” “film composer,” etc.) for however many seasons that identity serves us, as long as we remain open to whatever music—in any genre—calls us to write it next.

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.


What Are You Trying to Decide in Your Career?

Composer-musician speed dating.

Composer-musician speed dating at the 2015 New Music Gathering in San Francisco. Photo by Shaya Lyon.

I’m giving a talk at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore this January, and I need your help. More specifically, I need your problems. I want to hear about a big decision you’re trying to make in your career as a musician. My talk is on how understanding a few economic principles, specifically Baumol’s Cost Disease, can help us make decisions in our careers as artists. I’d like to use real world examples if I can, which is where you come in.

If you’re on board and have a decision to make, please drop me a line and include a brief description of the issue you’re facing: [email protected].

If you’re curious about what on earth I’m talking about, then read on.

I gave an early version of this talk at last year’s New Music Gathering at the San Francisco Conservatory, and it was a big hit. We talked about some of Baumol’s original work from the 1960s, his updated book from the debate over healthcare reform, and positioning the performing arts alongside healthcare and education as part of advocating for new music. We talked about building a community as an artist, and how to think about the relationship between fans of your work and your bank account.

But the core of our discussion was about time and productivity. Baumol’s key insight was that some work gets more productive over time as a result of technology, and has done so at a fairly consistent rate since the industrial revolution. That would be things like manufacturing, etc. Some other work, like playing an instrument, doesn’t. It takes just as much time for a string quartet to play a piece as it did 200 years ago. Since making art doesn’t get more productive, in the context of the whole economy it gets more expensive over time.

This has all kinds of neat implications that economists have studied for big businesses, but almost nobody has thought about what it means for individual working artists, much less about how understanding this corner of economics can help us to thrive.

That’s what I’m trying to do with this talk at the next New Music Gathering. Right now the music industry is changing so much, and so fast, that nobody has “the answer”. Nobody’s business model seems appropriate to anyone else. But I don’t want us all to have to stumble around in the dark. And the economics of cost disease makes some fairly reliable predictions about how our art making and the business stuff we all have to do these days will relate to each other in the future.

In an arts ecosystem that’s changing as much as ours, I’ll cling to anything with as much predictive power as cost disease seems to offer. And I’m trying to use it to help artists feel confident making big decisions.

Should I get on Spotify? Should I work with a publisher? How much time should I devote to teaching? How much should I work on contest submissions? How many LPs should I press? How much should I charge for my work?

If you’ve got a big decision about this or any other question, I want to hear about it. I want to understand how you’re thinking about it, and try to help. If you’re willing, I might share a version of your story in my talk next month.

I love helping artists (this is part of why I work at New Music USA in the first place), and hopefully our conversation will be useful for you. After the New Music Gathering, I’ll report back on what I learned.

Thanks in advance for your stories and your help! I look forward to hearing from you: [email protected].

How to be While in Rehearsals

Musicians in an orchestra rehearsing with a conductor

The American Composers Orchestra in rehearsal, photo courtesy ASO

There’s nothing quite like sitting through a rehearsal of your new work. Many readers of this site will know this feeling. You are simultaneously evaluating the piece, assessing the performance, and keeping a mental tally of things you need to tell the musicians. I know people who have purposely worn dark colors to rehearsals because of the secret world of sweating that happens with a new work.

From the other side, as a conductor, I’ve learned over the years that each composer’s demeanor in rehearsals is unique. In the same way that everyone writes music differently, each composer has his or her own style of collaborating. Some want to play a very active role and some like to sit at the back and give an occasional thumbs up. Many of you are black belts at this, but for those composers just starting out here are some tips for having excellent collaborative skills in rehearsal.

I’m sure that you do this anyway, but when in doubt about how to behave in the rehearsal room (or in meetings or when drafting emails, for that matter), always default to professionalism.

Your score and parts will represent you a hundred times more than anything you do in rehearsal. Make sure that your score and parts correspond in all aspects to this MOLA document. It’s a compilation of what orchestra librarians across North America have agreed is the best way to present your music. Following these guidelines is how you will avoid glimpsing voodoo dolls of yourself with pins in them on the musicians’ stands.

Speak the language of music when providing feedback. I’ve found that many composers want to poetically convey the feeling of a passage when it would be better to give musical details. For example: “pianissimo instead of mezzo piano at measure forty eight.” Talk in terms of dynamics, articulations, tempos, sul pont vs sul tasto, accidentals, and so on. Speaking poetically about the piece as a whole is a great inspirational strategy, but in fixing individual moments, try to offer the musical specifics.

Don’t be embarrassed about changing dynamics. There have been premieres where we changed nearly every dynamic in the piece during rehearsals. If you need to fix things because you are hearing it in the hall for the first time, don’t be afraid to do it either on the spot or by providing a concise list by the next rehearsal.

Be authentic. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s O.K. to say you need to think about it.

Keep an eye on the clock when providing feedback. Your conductor has calculated the rehearsal time down to the nanosecond. Listen for cues from him or her as to how long you have to talk. It’s rarely enough time to say everything you would like to, so you often need to prioritize on the spot.

Roll with it. Sometimes musicians joke around a bit in rehearsals, especially if it’s been a tough week. Don’t take it as an affront to your music. I promise they are taking it seriously. They know it’s their responsibility to play every premiere as though it’s the greatest piece ever written. Based on my experience, on the night of the show, they’ll knock it out of the park.

Learn to conduct. I often hear from older composers (older than I!) that one of the things they regret is not learning how to conduct when they were younger. If you are in a composition program and there is a conducting program at your school, try to take some of those classes. It’s difficult to find conducting opportunities once you are out of school. The thing about conducting is that you have to want to do it and to make it happen on your own. And like anything really hard, it takes about ten years to learn how to do it properly, so starting early is a good thing. However, once you have a reputation for being able to competently conduct your own pieces, it’s a great way to eliminate the middle man and give feedback about your music directly to the players.

And last but not least, remember that your reputation will precede you. Always speak well of your colleagues, even when they are not there. When one composer is celebrated, don’t let jealousy cloud the accomplishment. It’s good for everyone as it brings more attention and opportunities to the community as a whole. New music is the little guy and we are all in this together, so be sure to support your colleagues whenever you can.

Great Expectations: The Composer’s Progress


Photo courtesy of Calsidyrose on Flickr.

I turned 40 last year.  This transition made me think a lot about career trajectories for composers.  It doesn’t feel like a particularly old age, especially in a career that often involves schooling well into adulthood.  So I began to think of what, exactly, the career expectations for composers are at various stages in our lives.

Composers are always being reminded of their age.  Early on, it’s all about opportunities.  Many (too many, perhaps) opportunities for composers focus on that golden developmental period of ages 18-ca. 35 known as “emerging career” (with the occasional variant for “young composers,” which can mean the same as the “emerging” demographic, or may refer to a younger age group, typically high school aged or earlier).  This is so common a distinction that its unfairness is something of a cause célèbre in our field.  Beyond age restrictions on opportunities, the emerging demographic—when narrowed to the group of composers finishing graduate school—is also primed for entry into the academic job market.  As we age, we transition into what is known as “mid career,” although it feels strange to suggest that we enter this at the tender age of 35.

When I began my schooling, I fully expected to spend around ten years in the academy, through the completion of a DMA or Ph.D. program.  Upon finishing my training, my plan was to find a relatively comfortable teaching position and settle down into the life of an academic composer.  This is a fine, noble career choice, and an attractive one given the relative security and the perquisites of research assistance by way of grants, fellowships, and sabbaticals.  Yet this has become an increasingly tough path to follow, and the door to academic job security remains closed to many.  I myself, regardless of my original expectations, never found my way onto the tenure-track academic path (at least, not yet).  Because of this, however, I’ve had to be resourceful and instead found a path that has often been fulfilling, sometimes rocky, and always surprising.

Beyond mid-career, there is the fabled world of the “elder states(wo)man” further down the road.  This may mean emeritus status at a university or having the kind of career that allows one to charge large fees simply for attending a rehearsal.  This stage also brings with it a level of recognition that comes with a responsibility to mentor younger and less famous composers but also the perks of portrait concerts, retrospective boxed sets, and the occasional festival celebrating your work during an important birthday.
For each of these stages, however, there are a number of composers who don’t conform to the model, and the truth is that there really is no typical career trajectory for a composer.  My expectations for my own career were typical of a certain, mid-to-late 20th-century attitude towards music composition and don’t seem to jibe as well with the expectations of young composers coming of age today (although I’m often surprised by how many still expect to re-enter the academy, as professors, upon exiting it as students).  With the myriad ways to network and disseminate our music available today, many young composers are developing important careers even while still working on their degrees, at times going as far as winning significant prizes once held for only a long-established elite.

The only way to navigate a career as a composer, I have found, is to be prepared for anything.  Developing strong contacts, nurturing the “mutual benefit balance,” and being a good musical citizen are all ways to guarantee, if not a long career as a composer—I’m not sure I can speak to that at the moment, frankly.  Ask me again in another 40 years…—at least the ability to weather the storms that any life transition may throw your way.  Flexibility, savvy, and a strong network are the only ways to truly guarantee a fulfilling life in the arts.

And, if you watch out for others in the process, they’ll watch out for you when you need it.

Wonder and Magic

Earlier this week, for a few brief moments, I got to play the role of Santa Claus. The receiver of gifts was not a young child but a colleague several years my senior to whom I was delivering a short new work for wind band, hot off the presses. It was a gift of sorts, written as a congratulatory gesture for the 30th anniversary of the local community band that he conducts up near Buffalo, but his reaction still caught me off guard. I’ve seen performers react with trepidation, “roll up our sleeves” enthusiasm, or even a quiet relief that their commission was a success or that the work was not too difficult, but his was a combination of excitement that he was sure his band was going to feel about the new piece along with a sense of wonder about the very fact that this music had not existed a week before.
misty forest
It was this sense of wonder that resonated with me long after I left him with his new piece. A cynic would have labeled it as naiveté, but that wasn’t it; this was an experienced performer and educator who still enjoyed music making at a foundational level with his friends for his community in an environment where newly composed works are quite rare, save for the occasional new march or Broadway medley. It reminded me that, outside of the established and growing circles of performers and ensembles that specialize in contemporary concert music, there is still a vast, untapped population that not only is able to enjoy listening to new music but that enjoys playing it as well.

I discovered proof of this several weeks ago when I was invited down to the Chautauqua Institution for a special concert that included a band work I had written years ago. Under the auspices of a national organization called the New Horizons International Music Association, the concert was special because the performers were adults, many over retirement age, who had either put down their instruments after high school or who had never played an instrument before. Invited from local New Horizons chapters from all over the country and Canada, they had gathered at Chautauqua for several days of music making for the sheer love of it. After the concert, many of the performers expressed that same wonder that my conductor colleague had about the creation of music and how it affected them.

It is all too easy for those of us who are active in new music to get so focused on the workings of the business–be they awards, commissions, premieres, recordings, scandals, spats, or celebrations–that we lose sight of the simple gifts inherent within our art form. As the comedian Louis C.K. points out regarding our society’s ambivalence towards the miracle of human flight, we take so much of our world for granted that we don’t see the magic around us. For we who are deeply surrounded by the trees, so to speak, it is not only uplifting but also necessary for us to seek out opportunities to be reminded of the forest.


Classes began this week for many college, university, and conservatory programs around the country, and it won’t take long for those who teach composition to begin to offer up sound advice to their students for the year ahead. That advice can range from repertoire listening lists and reminders about deadlines to suggestions pertaining to process, technique, concept, or a hundred different aspects of life as a creative artist. One of the primary reasons why students decide to study at a particular institution or with a specific instructor is because of the nature, tone, and content of that advice.

One suggestion that I give constantly and that I’ve heard over and over from innumerable colleagues and guest composers is a simple one to students of any age or at any level: “Make friends with your fellow classmates—instrumentalists, singers, and conductors—as they will be your collaborators for the rest of your life.” It is easy advice to give because it is absolutely spot on; one would be hard-pressed to find composers whose collaborators do not include at least a few classmates from their undergraduate or graduate studies.

From the viewpoint of a young composer just beginning down the dimly lit path of the creative life, this advice rarely elicits a groundbreaking epiphany. Some may be more outgoing than others, but most students will already have their own circle of friends, so hearing from their mentors that they should go out and “make friends” can easily come across as a “Duh! I’ve already done that” moment. It is also very difficult for college students to see their friends and colleagues as anything but that—to imagine that these same people who are making jokes in the student lounge, dozing off during an early morning theory class, or devouring pizza late at night will be the same professional performers who will be commissioning them years later is a monumental feat.
As I mentioned before, however, many experienced composers would consider the relationships that grew organically during their own formative years to be some of the most consistent and long-lasting of their career. In my case, it was in 2006 when I got a message from Chicago-based trombonist Tom Stark. Tom and I are the same age and we’d played in the same bands and jazz ensembles since the late ’80s. (I’ve heard him say that he’s played more Deemer works than anyone because of how many times we collaborated back in the day.) Tom’s message to me said that his chamber group, the Chicago Trombone Quartet, had been invited to the Eastern Trombone Workshop and he hoped that I could write them a new piece.

I had just finished my doctorate and this opportunity to have a new work performed on a national stage was just what I needed at the time. The fact that it was Tom asking for my first post-grad school commission was totally fitting and, in hindsight, almost inevitable. The result of that collaboration, my trombone quartet Shock & Awe, has borne fruit several times over, with performances by several quartets, a recording by the Chicago Trombone Consort, and several new friendships, collaborations, and new works that all spawned out of that one initial piece between two old school friends.

Minor 4th Trombone Quartet performing Shock & Awe, mvt. 1 ‘Spin Cycles’

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the flip side of these long-standing friendships. It would be easy for an objective observer to note that the new music community is rife with exclusive clubs, cliques, networks—I’ve used the term “tribes” more than once. Whatever you want to call ’em, these relationships can seem, from the outside, foreboding, impermeable, and unfair, and so many of these groups can be traced back to the crucible of graduate school. I myself try to look at the entire situation with open eyes: It’s foolish to begrudge performers for sticking with composers who they’ve worked with before and with whom they’ve cultivated strong friendships, just as it’s folly to expect that friendships alone dictate how opportunities arise.

We as a community have moved past the didactic “schools of thought” concept that shaped so much of the new music scene decades ago, but we haven’t splintered into an “every man/woman for themselves” concept either. Connections and relationships ebb and flow constantly (even more so now, with the help of social media), but underneath the skills and confidence that allow for those new connections to be built is the foundation that comes from our friendships of old.