Tag: career advice

Preparing for Takeoff

Boeing B-47B

Public domain, from commons.wikimedia.org

Since I’ve been writing for NewMusicBox, each year around the beginning of school I’ve tried to share some words of perspective with composers just beginning their college education, including one post suggesting reasons not to enroll in a composition degree program. But today I want to address my back-to-school post not to the dewy-eyed incoming fresh people, but to those students embarking on their final year(s) of academic study.

For many music students, there’s a sense of shock and, occasionally, panic at the thought of reaching the end of the road following years of musical study—a journey that likely began long before college, ending in a black hole of uncertainty as many musicians begin to confront the first years of their not being students that they can remember. This is one of the frequently disconcerting parts of careers in music, and making the successful transition from student to young professional can be the single most difficult period of any musician’s life.
While the road of student life does end, it’s only as a runway does: as a necessary path to greater things above and beyond. After spending a great deal of time talking over this particular issue with participants in this summer’s Fresh Inc Festival, I want to share some thoughts on the most important things to keep in mind while transitioning out of student life:

    • Presentation matters. It’s not an afterthought or some kind of fancy icing distinct from substance. Presentation is intimately connected to the way you and your music will be perceived and evaluated—from clean, well laid out parts that help you get the most out of rehearsals, to an articulate and human preconcert talk, to a website that’s clear and easy to navigate. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the substance of your work will carry itself, as it takes work to project that substance to others and help it come across.


    • Music is only one small part of the big picture. You’ll also need writing skills if you want to blog or express your vision to a grant panel; math and software skills if you want to run an ensemble’s finances; knowledge of electronic equipment for your shows; and development skills if you want to be able to raise money for your projects. Try reading through any staff directory for an orchestra or opera company, taking note of all the different roles and tasks to be accomplished. It’s not a bad template for planning out one’s own first projects. It’s also a reminder of how much takes place behind the scenes in order to bring music to new audiences. Develop a broad skillset, and you’ll always have plenty of options for achieving your goals, as well as making yourself useful to others.


    • Engagement is key. Whether it’s through posters at a local venue, posts on social media, or outreach activities at a local library, engaging your fans and potential audience members is a must. Finding (and better, creating) your own networks of followers and collaborators is crucial for long-term development and sustainability. Music is one of the most social professions, and you need to start engaging the larger musical community early and often if you want to have your finger on the pulse.


  • Cultivate a definition of success that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Everyone’s idea of success is obviously different, and it’s more likely than not that your own criteria for success will shift subtly or dramatically throughout a life in music. Be ready for and open to everything; things don’t usually happen the way we expect them to, and we make the most of opportunity when we throw out the script and open up to what’s going on around us. Most of all, avoid the types of success that come at the expense of others in favor of success that uplifts everyone it touches—the kind of success that comes from having given rather than having taken. When you are able to take pride in the achievements of others rather than treating all colleagues as competition, there’s a lot more to be gained and absolutely nothing to lose.


Judged By Its Cover

An album of music begins at track one, but you start setting the scene long before this. People see the cover before they hear a single note, before they read the track listing, and sometimes before they even find out who the artists are. Most musicians have some sort of a plan in mind for their next album. That plan should already include the cover. In this article, I’ll tell you why it matters and how to avoid screwing it up.

As a buyer for a large music retailer, I quickly learned that you could tell almost everything you needed to know about the commercial potential of an album by looking at its packaging. This seems wrong. I was taught from an early age not to judge a book by its cover. It seems like a useful lesson until you find yourself standing in a bookshop, trying to figure out which book to buy.

It would be very wrong for a music critic to review an album s/he hasn’t heard, but as the buyer for a store, you’re not really concerned with whether or not you think an album is any good. You’re concerned with whether or not lots of other people will buy it. At the point at which they make their purchase, a great many customers will not have listened to the album either. There’s something to be said for taking a walk in their shoes.

First Impressions

It’s not just the retailers and the customers who will unwittingly let their prejudices make judgments for them. There’s significant evidence that trained professionals hear quite a bit of what they’re expecting to hear, too,[1] so when it comes to ensuring your record gets the best possible reception, it’s worth thinking about the signals your packaging is sending.
effort vs. effect
The outside of a CD is intentionally informative. It will almost always list the artists, the repertoire, and the name of the label. The track record of each of these will tell you a lot, especially if you’ve never heard of them. Movie posters use that weird narrow contractual obligation typeface, so everybody can have their name printed in letters X inches high. This is almost never the case with guest artists, so the relative size of their names will give you some insight into the priorities (or power) behind the enterprise.
The type of packaging will tell you a lot, too: a plastic jewel case is the standard choice. A cardboard Digipak is more expensive to make, and indicates a higher expected retail price. A Super Audio CD is expensive to produce, so the SACD logo tells you something about aesthetic and commercial priorities, while a record that comes in the even more expensive SACD case wears its old-school audiophile priorities on its sleeve. An o-card (a cardboard sleeve that wraps around the jewel case) is another little extra expense. If the label doesn’t normally use them, an o-card is an indicator that this was an unusually expensive record, a high priority, probably assigned a larger marketing budget. These are all the standard types of packaging: the types that are easy to order. If a CD is packaged in something else fancy, somebody made a real effort to make that happen.

A CD without a barcode isn’t for commercial release. One without a catalog number is probably not from an established label. The convention is for the text on the spine to read from top to bottom, so that when it’s on the shelf, you tilt your head to the right to read it. If you have to tilt your head to the left, the packaging is the work of a beginner or maverick. If there’s something vitally important on the left-hand quarter of the cover, the record will struggle in Japanese stores, where it’s common to wrap this side of an imported CD with a piece of paper carrying a Japanese translation.

All of this, and we’ve barely started on the actual design.

Value Proposition

The design itself carries a lot of value cues. Expensive records tend to use photography on the cover. They tend to have images that go right to the edges (“full bleed” as the designers say), and they place the logos and names right on the image, without a solid background behind them. This is difficult to make work—you end up throwing out a lot of otherwise perfectly good images because there’s nowhere to put the text, and you can spend a lot of time in Photoshop gently blurring, darkening, or lightening the details behind the words. Cheap records use stock photos, put the images in boxes, and put the text on solid backgrounds, because it’s easy and you can bang them out quickly.

Batman: comic sans

Typography is a minefield. The rest you can do yourself without too much risk, but typography is the bit that sends me running to a real designer, every time. Decades spent fiddling with Microsoft Word has given most of us an intuitive sense of the basics of desktop publishing, but Word is bad at typesetting: it gives us too many of the wrong sort of choices (lots of fonts and gimmicky effects) and not enough of the important ones (little tweaks to the one font we’re using). Word teaches us that all typefaces are available in normal or bold. In truth, most good typefaces are available in lots of different weights (thin, ultra light, light, medium, book, bold, black and ultra black). Most text takes on a certain designer air if you just pick a typeface and use several different weights to indicate the information hierarchy—especially if you avoid the “default” looking normal/bold ones in the middle.
The other thing a real designer will do is fiddle with the spaces between the letters. You can make them all bigger (or smaller) to expand (or condense) the type to make it more readable (or to make the layout work without distorting the shape of the letters). This is called tracking. There’s also kerning, which is where you adjust the spaces between individual pairs of letters. If you don’t know how to do this, avoid all-caps, especially if your album has the word Stravinsky on the front. If you ever wondered why the copy just looks better when the designer does it, it’s because they know how to do this and they know when to leave it alone.

A Question of Image

Perhaps here, 1,000 words into this article, is a good time to admit that I’m not even going to try to tell you what kind of image makes an effective album cover. You can Google this question and find lots of people rationalizing the things they like. I read a lot of these types of posts before I started writing this piece, and I learned nothing very useful. That’s not to say there’s no space for creativity here—just that I can no more tell you what it should look like than I can tell you which notes you should write or how you should play them.

Batman: You can't fix ugly with more

A substantial portion of the posts on my blog have fun with the photos people put on their album covers. I see people tweet links to these saying things like “Album covers that miss the mark” or “More terrible album art” and it makes me rather sad. I don’t create these posts to call attention to bad work. I do it because it’s fun to do. I look at a photo of a person either doing something or just standing there trying not to look awkward. We’re supposed to think this person is either making music or thinking about making music, but these little square photos are like individual cells from a cartoon strip, just waiting for somebody to impose a new narrative on them.
Cartoon covers
I don’t pick them because they’re bad. I’d like to be able to tell you that I pick the good ones, but the truth is I just go through the new releases on iTunes and pick the first ten albums with photos of people on them. Nothing interesting is safe from ridicule. If there’s anything funny about this, it’s the captions, not the covers. Otherwise I could just collect together all the covers and invite people to laugh at them. Besides, if you’re going to care about what people on the Internet think, you’ll never get anything done.
The choice of what (if any) image to put on the cover is personal and individual to the specific artists and repertoire. If you can find a picture that says something about the concept behind the album, that’s great. If the connection isn’t obvious, you might find some space to explain it in the booklet or, better still, on the back cover. Almost nobody does this, even though it’s an obvious opportunity to draw the listener into your world.

Here’s the thing: whatever you put on the front of your album is going to be partly aspirational. Whatever else it tells people, it’ll tell them which albums you’d like yours to be associated with. It’s very much like the clothes you wear: you’re unique and you’re an individual, but people are going to put you in a pigeonhole because it’s the way their brains work. There’s nothing you can do about that, but you do get to choose what sort of pigeon you’re going to be. The choice itself is not unimportant, but what matters most is that you execute it well. If you’re going to wear a suit, make sure it fits. If you’re going to dress your album like a hipster, do it in a way that doesn’t make people cringe.

You can go with a photo or a painting or a drawing or a collage or an abstract pattern. Whatever you choose, remember this is like a passport photo. It’ll be on the discography page of your website forever. Sometimes we’re happy that a product is very much of its time, but if you don’t want it to age conspicuously, it’s safer to aim for something that looks like it could have been done at any point in the last 40 years. Whether we’re talking clothes or graphics, modern fashions fall out of date far more obviously than classic styles.
Cartoon approach 2
Size Matters

A lot of customers will first experience an album cover as one of those little thumbnail images on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or some other website. Getting them to click on it is the first step in the process of getting them to buy it, so the cover should make them want to see it bigger.

When I commission album art from a designer, I frequently ask them to deliver the first set of concepts not as glorious big high resolution images, but as little tiny thumbnails. Once you’ve seen it big, the experience of looking at it small will be totally different: you only get one chance to learn something important from this exercise. [2]

All About Assets

To print an album with a “full bleed” cover, you’ll need the background to extend at least 3mm past the edge. Your manufacturers or distributors should be able to give you a template or specification for all this.

When you come to make the real thing, you want it really, really big. To print the picture on the front of the CD booklet, you need an image about 1600 pixels square, but if this is the biggest version you have, you can’t blow it up for a full page ad or limited edition vinyl, let alone a poster or one of those giant album covers we hang up at signings and in the few remaining record shop windows.

More importantly, if your cover image is made up of lots of different elements (text, logo, image, etc.) you want all of these assets individually. If any of them (like the background image) were cropped to fit on the cover, you’ll want the whole thing so you can expand it to make adverts, flyers, posters, and other promotional materials.
Don’t forget to ask for all this when you brief the designer. If you don’t ask for it until they’ve finished, they’ll have to do at least some of the work twice.

Working With Designers

If you’re not used to working with a graphic designer, here’s what I suggest: get them to give you a quote for one set of five ideas, one set of three ideas, and two rounds of revisions to the final concept, with an agreed fee for each subsequent revision. If they haven’t done a lot of cover art before, make sure you give them the specs from the plant so they deliver something you can actually use.

Unless you have a very fixed idea of what you want, show them examples of things you like (not necessarily album covers) and ask for ideas in that direction. Collect up all the feedback you want before you ask them to change something, so you’re not running up the bill or driving them crazy with lots of little alterations.

In my experience, good designers respond much better to written briefs than to a drawing of what you want it to look like. Having a go yourself and asking them to fix it up is like humming into a Dictaphone and then asking a composer to turn it into a symphony. It might be what you’re paying them for, but it’s not the way to get their best work.

Getting It Done

If you compress the timeline for producing and releasing an album so that everything gets done the day before its absence starts costing you real money, the album cover gets finished long before the music. Distributors need the cover before they need the audio, so there’s an argument to be made that you should start work on this before you record a single note.
Idea for album
This approach has several advantages. If you’re not in a screaming rush, you’re less likely to make uncomfortable compromises. You’ve got a better chance of including session photography on the cover or in the booklet if you have this in mind before the sessions take place. If the record features a rare collaboration between two busy artists, the session is a rare chance to get a picture of them in the same room. It’s not uncommon for labels to take two headshots and put them side-by-side on the cover, but it sends a terrible message about the extent to which this is a constructive creative partnership.

If I have a single piece of constructive advice for you, it’s that the day you think, “I’m going to make a record,” is the day you should think, “and I’ll need a cover.” If this is at the back of your mind as you go through the creative process, there’s a much better chance you’ll hit upon something fun or something beautiful. That is, after all why we do this, isn’t it?


1. I’m putting this in a footnote because it’s too big a topic to treat properly without going off on the sort of tangent that does not belong in the fourth paragraph. In the ’70s and ’80s, many American orchestras began using screens to anonymize the audition process. This led to a huge increase in the number of women joining those orchestras. It’s possible this discrimination was conscious and deliberate, but there’s reason to believe that a lot of the time, if the panel couldn’t see the gender of the performer, they simply heard something different. The classic paper on this is Goldin & Rouse 1997. Plenty of research has been done into how the visual presentation of a performance or recording affects the way it is judged—so much research, in fact, that Friedrich Platz and Reinhard Kopiez (2011) were able to do a meta-analysis of them all. They concluded that the visual aspect of a performance had a significant effect on its perceived quality. For those interested in exploring the research on this subject, this paper is a good place to start: the authors list not just all the studies they included in their analysis, but also the relevant ones they excluded as being unsuitable for inclusion.

2. This is completely off-topic, but the same is true when you’re developing a new website: the first time you look at the site, you get confused by some neat-but-not-very-intuitive aspect of the user interface. The second time you use it, you know what to do. The third time you look at it, you forget all about whatever it was that confused you, and it doesn’t get fixed. That neat-but-not-very-intuitive thing goes on to confuse everybody who ever visits your website, and nobody ever bothers to tell you about it. You can’t experience a first impression twice, which is why you need a steady supply of fresh virgins [3] when you’re revising your website. If you ever catch yourself asking somebody, “O.K., take another look at this. Is that better?” then you’re doing it wrong. Ask someone else. This is probably the single most valuable piece of advice I’ve ever heard about product design, and I have no idea why it isn’t written down more often.

3. Not literally.

Your 2013-14 Attitude Guide: Four to Cop, Four to Drop for an Amazing Season


September is coming, with all of its promise and terror. Remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll know you have a problem if, in mid-October, someone asks how you’re doing and this is your response.

Most of us carry our email inboxes around in our pockets, which is both a blessing and a curse. Read the research on how addictive, counter-productive, and psychologically damaging the whole “constantly plugged in” thing can be, and make sure The Machines are serving you.

You can’t pretend to be surprised anymore when April comes and you owe the government two months’ rent. And it’s getting a little ridiculous how infrequently you change your strings. Get a savings account and put plenty of money in it so that you can invest in your instrument, your career, and yourself when those moments arise. Ally Bank allows you to create multiple online savings accounts so that you can set aside money for different financial goals (like paying taxes, traveling, or buying an important new piece of gear).

I know. Being a musician sometimes feels like 973 hours of emailing, commuting, teaching, and Sleigh Ride and 2 hours of quality practicing. But your relationship with your instrument (or your compositional process) is a primary relationship, and feeling distant from that often means losing touch with your roots. When you stay grounded in the basics, a lot of great stuff will follow.

This fall, you must become a fearless practitioner of The Art of Saying No. We both know that time is the most valuable resource you have, and that you never have enough of it. Approach your life and your Google Calendar like a zealous weed-whacking gardener, ruthlessly clearing space for the things that actually matter. Only one morning available for composing this week? Postpone those advice-giving coffee dates. Super busy performing month? Let friends know ahead of time, so you don’t feel guilty turning down their dinner invitations. And if people don’t like it, they can deal with it.

If you’re a performer or composer, chances are you don’t work alone. You probably rely pretty heavily on tolerant quartet-mates, long-suffering stand partners, and miraculously organized artistic staff. Busy working musicians have a bad habit of not expressing appreciation often enough, heartily enough, or—in the case of Frodo and Sam—homoerotically enough. This fall, practice gratitude for the delicate ecosystem of wonderful people who make your career possible.

You trained all your life for this stuff, and now you get to do it. The best gig is not at some future time; it’s the one you’re playing right now. So stop complaining and texting during rehearsal and take some joy in what you’re doing. (If there’s absolutely no joy in what you’re doing, see Soul-Healing Attitude #1. You know what to do.)

Believe in your unique self. Our classical music training sometimes makes us feel like we’re all striving endlessly towards the same unattainable ideal. But the truth is, it’s your quirks and unique gifts that make you an important contributor to our art form. Have you heard of impostor syndrome? The feeling that you’re not good enough, that you’re going to be found out as a fraud any second? It’s a thing that a lot of people—women especially—suffer from. Confidence is the opposite of that. So put on an amazing outfit and fake it ’til you make it.

Big Picture

Holding a Picture Frame
As someone who both creates and teaches for a living, I find myself in a continual and simultaneous state of reflection on the past and projection towards the future. It is, of course, only natural to focus on one or the other at different times in our lives, especially when we reach a major personal or professional crossroads, and to look only in one direction without the other for a prolonged period would most undoubtedly be a mistake. But this bi-directional perspective can also be paralyzing, especially if there are no overarching goals to act as signposts on the road that lays before us, and it is at this point that I have found myself this summer.

Before I began my six-week teaching stint at the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp at the end of June, I had been on a bit of a roller coaster. The end of the school year provided a wild ride of good news (I had been recommended for tenure and promotion at SUNY Fredonia after six years of teaching there) and bad news (I was notified that there was some dissension within my composition studio) and good news (several opportunities to write large-scale works for orchestra, band, and choir over the next two years). Add to that list the fire near my home a few weeks ago, and you can hopefully understand why I would not list this as one of my more serene summers.

The issues I’m facing both with my studio and my composing are in some ways quite similar. Both were unexpected and, while I’ll admit that I was more pleased to hear about my composing opportunities than strife within my studio, both will require a large amount of time, effort, and focused attention to ensure successful outcomes. In the big picture, however, these are things that anyone who teaches or creates has to address from time to time. Obviously the fact that the house next door burnt down is a pretty big deal and my wife and I will be getting used to our new environment over the next few months, but in the grand scheme of things that too falls under the category of a temporary adventure.

The whole tenure thing is a bit different. Setting aside the typical knee-jerk conversations about job security, teacher apathy, and other topics that tend to crop up when tenure is mentioned, what really resonated with me when I received my letter was that I had reached the last “marker” that had been placed before me. From the time we begin to attend school as a child, we have markers or signposts in our lives that we work toward, and those of us who decide to go into higher education have quite a few. When I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a film scoring career, I enjoyed the fact that I didn’t have a “finish line” to work toward–I was young enough that the vast chasm of my future was both challenging and exhilarating. When I decided to go back to grad school a few years later, I could see the next few markers laid out in front of me–master’s degree, DMA, unknown number of teaching gigs, and hopefully tenure at a rewarding institution. I didn’t have a clue how long it would take me to get to the end of that particular path, or even if I’d make it to the end, but at least I was able to parse out and plan what direction I was going in and what projects I could and should take on from year to year.

Fifteen years since I began that long trek by embarking on my grad studies, I find myself back where I was in L.A., with that same vast chasm in front of me. Over the years I have discovered several different topics of interest that I want to continue with, including exploring our community of composers, working with young composers and encouraging educators to understand what composing is, and advocating for new music and living composers in various media. (I thoroughly enjoy writing for NMBx and hope to get back into radio and delve into video or television at some point.) That’s all in addition to improving my composing and teaching careers along the way, but all of these projects spark my interest in a way that I cannot help but pursue. However, without those life “markers” I mentioned earlier, balancing them all into a rich and rewarding big picture will be a challenge.
I’m curious: How do you “stay the course” in your own career and life?

Acknowledging the Rhino: Talking Art In a Capitalist World

Commencements and graduations have seasons—we’re just finishing up with one now—and, more and more, I think they have vintages. Year to year, a defining mood emerges out of the web of exhortation and prospect that all that pomp and circumstance lets loose. Some years seem full of inspirational stories; some years seem full of manifestos; some years seem primarily jokey. (All years, of course, have all of these going on to some extent.)

With my antennae more or less permanently oriented toward music and the arts, the defining mood of this year’s commencement season has been realism. This is a year in which, it seems, society is determined not to let students of the arts out into the world without making sure they’re painfully aware of what awaits them, financially and socially. A May 2013 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, showing relatively high unemployment and low median income for graduates in the arts, got a lot of play this spring. On the PBS NewsHour, Paul Solman devoted an entire segment to the dim job prospects facing music graduates.

At the Columbia University School for the Arts, David Byrne not only relayed a host of such statistics to the graduates, he did so, in either a bout of détournement or defeat, via the preferred expressive medium of corporate America: a PowerPoint presentation. (Rachel Arons reported on Byrne’s address for The New Yorker.) The message from the critics to the graduates: the jobs aren’t there; the opportunities aren’t there; the money’s not there. It’s not a new message; I’ve been hearing it for as long as I’ve been in music, one way or another. And I’ve come to find it amazing—amazing that people can be in the grip of a delusion so strong that they don’t even realize it.

I’m referring to the critics, of course. Who did you think I was talking about?


Here’s one of the more sweeping and true things that C. Wright Mills ever wrote:

The first rule for understanding the human condition is that men live in second-hand worlds.

Mills used to be more well-known than he is today. He was a classically trained sociologist who honed his considerable analytical skills in a very specific time and place: Cold-War America. A Texan moved east, he cultivated an outsider image, living hard, riding a motorcycle to and from his Columbia office. Toward the end of his life, a yearning to transform analysis into action led him to become one of the first Castro apologists among the American left—his 1960 “pamphlet” Listen, Yankee! marked the zenith of his celebrity, but its time-capsule nature might well symbolize Mills’s posthumous fade: as many of the assumptions of the Cold War became obsolete, Mills’s analysis of them became ever harder to apply.

This is unfortunate, since, on those occasions when Mills went global with his conclusions, he pinpointed tensions and deep currents that, far from becoming obsolete, have since only metastasized. That previous quote is from one of a series of lectures that Mills gave to the London School of Economics during the 1958-59 term, which were also broadcast on the BBC Third Programme (and later published in the BBC’s house magazine). Mills called this lecture “The Cultural Apparatus.” This was also to be the title of a book-length study of American intellectual life, a book that remained unfinished when Mills died in 1962. It would have covered one of his favorite topics: the relationship between ideas and power, how the intellectual community aspired to influence the power elite (a term Mills coined), how those in power exploited their connection to the world of ideas.
Mills was unusually attuned to the way culture creates second-hand worlds, sets of assumptions and ready-made judgments that we try to fit onto experience, even if the fit isn’t so good. He was also attuned to the multiplicity of cultures, those beyond art and science and intellectual pursuits. One in particular fascinated Mills: the culture of capitalism.

As early as 1951, Mills was attentive to how post-war capitalism marginalized and even infantilized creative pursuits. In his book White Collar, Mills noted that most diagnoses of worker dissatisfaction and alienation in the wake of the Industrial Revolution could be traced back to the gulf between the ideal of craftsmanship—where there is “no ulterior motive in work other than the product being made and the processes of its creation”—and the reality of modern work: “The model of craftsmanship is an anachronism….As a practice, craftsmanship has largely been trivialized into ‘hobbies,’ part of leisure not of work.” A couple of years later, in an opinion piece for the New York Herald Tribune, Mills reiterated that assessment (“Today many people have to trivialize their true interests into ‘hobbies,’ which are socially considered as unserious pastimes.”) before going on to chart how the culture of business and capitalism had infected even leisure itself, “that tired frenzy by which we strive for the animated glee we call fun.” He offered a counterproposal, one worthy of any charge to the graduates:

We ought to judge the quality and level of our personal culture by the best that has been achieved anywhere and any time, and we ought to go further than that: with our material equipment, and the more ample time it might make available, we ought to project our ideals even higher than the best mankind has ever achieved. Were we to do this, seriously and imaginatively, we would see that our choice is between genuine leisure, which enlarges the feeling and reason, and spurious leisure, which blunts the very capacity for truly personal experience.

The catch? “The first thing to be said about this choice,” Mills pointed out, “is that most Americans never get to make it.” Why not? Because the culture of business has become so ingrained in society that the choice is forestalled—as impractical, as quixotic, as irresponsible. Because, for artists, it’s capitalism that’s the second-hand world. And it is not a good fit.


Comic by Kate Beaton of Hark, a vagrant.

Comic by Kate Beaton of Hark, a vagrant.

Every tally of post-graduate income, every analysis of the financial worth of the arts, every management-speak probe into the wherewithal of artistic institutions: they all prioritize the culture of capitalism and business over the culture of art. We do it all the time, of course. Occasionally, it’s even necessary. But every time, the balance shifts a little.

The thing about such talk about the arts is that it’s not even wrong. Statistics and graphs, tables and percentages—the factual nature of it disguises the damage that it does. It’s like a live recording of a concert in which the crowd noise is mixed so high that it drowns out the music. It’s not technically inaccurate; it may even (based on some concerts I’ve been to) be a somewhat faithful documentation of the experience. But it misses the point, to the detriment of its own reason for being.

Still, we have to talk about it, don’t we? People have to eat. People have to pay rent. People have to make money. It’s ridiculous to think we shouldn’t talk about it, right? And it feels productive to talk about it. It feels incisive: getting down to brass tacks. Or the other cliché, which stalked Byrne’s address, as The New Yorker reported: “Claire Simno, from New Orleans, liked how Byrne had confronted the ‘elephant in the room,’ and felt confident about the future of her son, Jeff, a theatre grad.”

In other words, it’s being realistic. And we all have to be realistic. But exactly what mountain is that commandment coming down from? Why is realism necessary to survive in the world we’ve ended up in? Realism and lack of sentiment are, after all, virtues of the business world. So you might wonder if any message bearing those virtues is getting anywhere near to the root of the matter, to the Pre-Cambrian levels of encrusted assumptions that pass for conventional wisdom. Short answer: nope. Because if you really start overturning deep assumptions about anything, if you really start to question just why the elephant is in the room in the first place, you don’t sound realistic or pragmatic; you sound instead like—well, you sound like Ludwig Wittgenstein sounded to Bertrand Russell when they first met, when the philosophical conversation turned on yet another large mammal in a small space. Russell:

My German engineer, I think, is a fool. He thinks nothing empirical is knowable—I asked him to admit that there was not a rhinoceros in the room, but he wouldn’t.

You sound like a fool. Fools have had a hard time of it since the advent of industrial capitalism—the term has come to be synonymous with a dupe, a sucker. A fool and his money are soon parted. What worse insult is there in a free-market society?
It is probably not an accident that the last refuge of the fool is in the theater. The arts.


The fool in Philip Barry’s 1928 play Holiday is Ned Seton, oldest son and youngest child of the wealthy Seton family. Ned’s oldest sister, Linda, is restless and rebellious, constantly chafing at the straitjacket of privilege. The middle child, Julia, is pretty but vague—Linda tries to protect her, Ned is skeptical of whether she wants protecting. The ignition of the plot is Julia’s engagement, to Johnny Case—who, it turns out, sees business as only a means to an end, wanting only to make enough money to retire young, to the horror of the old-money Seton patriarch, and the delight of Linda Seton.

Ned is pleasant and ineffectual on the surface. He is also a truth-teller—we know this because he is, at the same time, in a Philip Barry play and a drunk. (Drunks are always truth-tellers in Barry’s plays. His best-known play, The Philadelphia Story, hinges on the fact that certain characters will only tell the truth when they’re drunk.) Ned wilts in the face of his father’s demands; he is not taken seriously. But he has the fool’s prerogative of saying what others won’t, be it about his late mother (“Drink to Mother, Johnny—she tried to be a Seton for a while, then gave up and died.”) or about Julia (“At bottom she’s a very dull girl, and the life she pictures for herself is the life she belongs in.”). It is Ned who teaches Linda an existential lesson in the guise of the “game” of drunkenness:

NED: Swell game. Most terribly exciting game.
LINDA: You—get beaten, though, don’t you?
NED: Sure, but that’s good, too. Then you don’t mind anything—not anything at all. Then you sleep.
LINDA [She is watching him, fascinated]: How—long can you keep it up?
NED: A long while. As long as you last.
LINDA: Oh, Ned—that’s awful!
NED: Think so?—Other things are worse.
LINDA: But—where do you end up?
NED: Where does everybody end up? You die—And that’s all right, too.

(This is reminiscent of Pompey, the fool in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: “[H]e that drinks all night, and is hanged betimes in the morning, may sleep the sounder all the next day.”)
It is significant, then, that in the 1938 film version of Holiday (the second such adaptation, such was the play’s popularity), Ned is a composer. When Johnny finds Linda in the playroom—once the children’s domain, now Linda’s refuge—he notices the piano, the guitar, the drums tucked against the wall, long unused: Ned’s instruments.

LINDA: He could’ve been a fine musician.
JOHNNY: What do you mean, could’ve been?
LINDA: If father hadn’t interfered.

When Ned wanders in (“I haven’t been in this room in years.”), Linda prods him into playing some of his music—the “Seton Concerto in F major.” Ned sits down and, after a few mocking bars of “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” and a sisterly reproach (“Oh, Neddy, stop—I’ve been boasting about you!”), we get a breeze of Gershwin-esque haze, lovely, fleeting, and unfocused—rather like Ned himself—and then it is abruptly cut off by Julia’s entrance into the scene. At the end of the story, Ned remains trapped in the family, even as Linda and Johnny escape. His tragedy is that he knows exactly how trapped he is.

The screenplay for Holiday was co-written by Donald Ogden Stewart. A famous humorist and raconteur—something like the David Sedaris of his day—Stewart had appeared in the original Broadway production of Holiday: the part of Nick Potter was, in essence, Barry’s stylized version of his friend. The two were on the same wavelength in their fascination with the rich, equal parts envy and critique, a portrayal in which wealth is as much of a trap as poverty. If it was Stewart who made Ned into a composer, an anticipatory manifestation of Mills’s warning about the way capitalism trivialized the arts into hobbies, then it would prove personally prophetic as well. After moving to California and making a handsome living writing screenplays for the studios, Stewart eventually began to feel guilty about it. “I had won all the money and status that America had to offer—and it just hadn’t been good enough,” he wrote. “The next step was Socialism.”

He knew that he had the priorities wrong; but that doesn’t mean he got them right. Socialism was still a materialist lens, capitalism’s mirror image—the criteria were still profit and loss, haves and have-nots. Stewart’s commitment was sincere and unwavering: he was proud of his convictions. He ended up blacklisted, and lived the last three decades of his life in exile in England. He had realized that there was something beyond the culture of business and capital; he just wasn’t able to trust that it could be art.


To start with, we don’t trust the language anymore. Maybe we never did: most current language about music and art is still, in large part, similar to Romantic language about music and art, and Romantic language is, not to put too fine a point on it, purple as a bruise. That was the point—the original Romantics figured that if any language was going to get at the effect of beauty, it would be at the far edges of sense and sensibility. It worked for a while, but it also made it all the easier for the simplistic, seemingly more objective language of business and analysis to push it aside, to make it sound, by comparison, ridiculous.
This is another game, this one so painstakingly explored by Wittgenstein in the years after he refused to admit that a rhinoceros was not in the room. It’s a language game. Wittgenstein, too, went out to the edge of language, but in a microscopic rather than a macroscopic way. He frogged the knit of language, the way we organize words and propositions into games, with their own definitions and rules. Philosophical problems, for Wittgenstein, were language-game problems, the result of thinking that we’re applying one set of rules when another is already in play, the assumptions invisible in plain sight (“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.”), our thinking lacking the perception to realize we’re even playing the game. “The confusions which occupy us arise when language is, as it were, idling,” he wrote, “not when it is doing work.”

In his final work, Philosophical Investigations (from which I have been quoting), Wittgenstein keeps setting up simple language games to train the reader to notice when the grander games come to bear. One of these games—which I find especially apt, since it stakes its ground at the nexus of market realism and the arts, the intersection of aspiration and expectation—concerns wishes.

439. In what sense can one call wishes, expectations, beliefs, etc. “unsatisfied”? What is our prototype of non-satisfaction? Is it a hollow space? And would one call that “unsatisfied”? Wouldn’t this be a metaphor too?—Isn’t what we call non-satisfaction—say, hunger—a feeling?
In a particular system of expressions we can describe an object by means of the words “satisfied” and “unsatisfied”. For example, if we stipulate that a hollow cylinder is to be called “an unsatisfied cylinder”, and the solid cylinder that fills it “its satisfaction”.

441. By nature and by a particular training, a particular education, we are predisposed to express wishes in certain circumstances…. In this game [that is, the “satisfied”/”unsatisfied” game], the question as to whether I know what I wish before my wish is fulfilled cannot arise at all. And the fact that some event stops my wishing does not mean that it fulfills it. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been satisfied if my wish had been satisfied.

In this game, the question as to whether I know what I wish before my wish is fulfilled cannot arise at all. There is a specter haunting artists in capitalist societies: the specter of regret. Within the ingrained societal habit of talking about achievement and satisfaction in market-based terms, it is regret that unites C. Wright Mills’s disaffected worker, Donald Ogden Stewart’s guilt, Ned Seton’s tragedy. The game is rigged: You can either regret choosing a career in the arts, or you can regret not choosing a career in the arts.

Or, maybe, you can simply decide not to regret. It’s harder than it seems, though. Mills knew how ingrained the conditioning was: “Growing up and working within it, educated by it, many cultural workmen today never feel the need to make political choices simply because they are in fact committed before the age of political consent.” So, in his linguistic way, did Wittgenstein: “One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its application and learn from that,” he wrote. “But the difficulty is to remove the prejudice which stands in the way of doing so.” He added: “It is not a stupid prejudice.”


Just know this: realism, in the hard-nosed, nickels-and-dimes business sense, is a way of maintaining the status quo. Wittgenstein and his rhinoceros excepted, every time I have heard or read someone confront the large animal in the room of whatever they’re facing, it is because they have given up on ever getting it out of the room at all. Brass tacks pin you down.
Everybody in the music world, I think, subscribes to the idea that music is more than just entertainment, that it is transformative, that listeners should be changed by the experience. But in the face of the encroachment of free-market and capitalist rhetoric and values into every corner of society, that sort of talk about music has been reduced to the level of platitudes. “Music can change the world!” sounds sentimental and unrealistic. But do we believe it or not? Maybe a statement like that isn’t extravagant enough. Art’s realism is no less real than capitalism’s realism, even if the respective vocabularies stand in disparate esteem. The first step toward resolving the disparity might be, literally, to talk the talk. The danger? You might get lumped in with fools. But it’s fools who know the score; and anyone who calls you unrealistic isn’t really interested in anything beyond cosmetic changes anyway.

In the midst of working on the Philosophical Investigations, in one of his many notebooks, Wittgenstein jotted down an unusually emphatic command:

Don’t for heaven’s sake be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.

My thoroughly unqualified advice to the graduates? Don’t stop until everyone else is paying attention to your nonsense as well.

Two Lou Harrisons

Last Friday I saw a screening of Lou Harrison: A World of Music, a remarkable new documentary about the American composer, artist, writer, and activist by Eva Soltes. I highly recommend this documentary to anyone who has a chance to see it—it’s a thoughtful and fairly comprehensive look at one of American music’s most fascinating figures.

One of the things that struck me about Harrison’s life is how easily it could be divided in two. There’s the period up until 1947, when he was incredibly active and involved in the American new music scene. And there’s the period after his nervous breakdown, when he retreated to the countryside to work mostly in isolation. (I say mostly because for several decades he was accompanied by his life partner and collaborator Bill Colvig.)

Post-breakdown Lou Harrison is the version that fans of his music would be most familiar with—the easy joy of his personality that shines through so clearly in his compositions, the abiding interest in Javanese gamelan music, the awesome beard. But I found pre-breakdown Harrison to be eerily familiar, too. Just before his breakdown, Harrison was living in New York City, the epicenter of American new music at the time. In addition to his composing, he was a music critic under the guidance of Virgil Thomson, sometimes racing to multiple concerts in the same evening. And he was preparing the music of Charles Ives for performance, translating Ives’s chicken scratch into something legible, even interpolating ideas of his own when the scores were incomplete or unclear. This culminated in the first public performance of Ives’s Symphony No. 3, which Harrison also conducted.
In other words, pre-breakdown Lou Harrison is like almost every young composer I know, taking gigs left and right to keep his career going. In fact, he had a career that many of my colleagues would probably kill for, working with nearly every significant figure in American music at the time…Ives, Thompson, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg…

But for Harrison, this environment was poisonous. Not only to his state of mind, but perhaps also to his creativity. We don’t remember Harrison for the imposing serialist works that he was writing while in New York. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with serialism,” I quickly add.) It seems that he needed to get away from all of that to become the Lou Harrison we know now. Sure, in retrospect we detect hints of it in some of his early percussion music, like the still-popular Double Music collaboration with Cage, but it makes me wonder: What kind of a composer would Harrison have been if he had never left New York?

This is an absurd hypothetical question by any measure. But I also wonder what kind of creativity the current climate of careerism is killing. One characteristic of being very busy is that it can leave little time for introspection, musical or otherwise. Certainly there’s an economic imperative at work here, and another very familiar aspect of Harrison’s life is the anxiety about financial insecurity that comes through in his letters.

But I also think there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy going on here. If you don’t stop to think now and then, you may not be able to even see what options are available to you. Personally, some of my most rewarding musical projects and experiences happened when I let go of what I felt I was supposed to do, and did what I wanted to instead. I only hope that every composer is able to allow themselves this luxury. Preferably without a breakdown.


I should also mention that the documentary was presented at REDCAT as a part of MicroFest, and was preceded by a great performance of Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, played by Mark Menzies and percussionists from CalArts. Old Granddad, the gamelan that Harrison and Colvig built, was brought down from Santa Cruz for the occasion, and it was a treat to hear this beautiful instrument in person!

Other Hats

Different Hats
People often talk about “wearing different hats,” by which they mean assuming distinctly different roles with different priorities and types of awareness. Of course, this concept of varied roles could very well be explained without reference to hats, but hats are inherently funny and there’s something about the idea of their metaphorical donning that remains appropriate to the varied roles that many—especially composers—inhabit even as pursuing a seemingly unified trajectory.

I’ve recently taken over directorship of a music ensemble in the Washington, D.C. area, and it’s remarkable how many relics of the composing world appear totally transformed when donning the “hat” of artistic director. So far, one of the most interesting things about this new role has been the way it tends to shed light on certain composer habits.

In the interest of sharing my findings, below are a few of the observations I’ve made since donning the director hat that I hope will prove interesting or helpful to those currently wearing the composer hat:

1. If a composer website has any purpose, it ought to be to list titles, instrumentation, and durations of available pieces. So often ensemble directors will be interested in a piece that fills a particular programming hole or fits a strange, rare instrumentation, and not everyone will take the time to email a request if the information isn’t easily at hand—an unfortunate fact of human nature and limited time, with the moral being that you want to make it as easy as possible for interested parties to note the main defining details and requirements for performing a given work, without having to enter into an email conversation to do so. And since new music concerts often have thematic programs, including program notes or even one-sentence synopses certainly couldn’t hurt.

2. Listing the dates of composition is another important detail that seems pretty insignificant, but it’s worth keeping in mind that many programmers of new music are looking to program something new-ish, or even get in as a consortium partner on works-in-progress. Always list the dates your compositions were composed, and always list works-in-progress with as much information as possible. I’m not alone in searching for new and developing pieces, and you want to minimize the chances that a work or project of interest is passed up.

3. News flash: people actually go to your website! I have a few times contacted composers who seemed like potential fits for my ensemble’s projects, only to find they were oblivious that half their site was down, or they hadn’t updated it in a year because “no one goes on my site.” If you’re going to go to the trouble to maintain a website, you should plan for the desired outcome and realize that someone who programs new music may very well stumble upon it—especially because many of us in the new music world are so excited by discovering cool works by fantastic unfamous people. Remember: a website that hasn’t been updated in over a year makes an unfortunate impression, and no one will be able to notice your newest pieces if they’re not listed on the site.
This is some real meat-and-potatoes advice, not particularly lofty or inspirational yet hugely important in terms of maximizing the music that composers have worked so hard at creating. My final piece of advice would be: wear as many hats as you can! Each time I explore another nook of the music world, I find myself not only enriched and refreshed but also armed with new experiences that shed light on all the others. Whether it’s as a freelance composer, blogger, teacher, curator, administrator, or any one of the many roles a devotee of new music might inhabit, assuming a distinct and different point of view can be one of the most illuminating experiences it’s possible to have.

Success Stories

It happens with the onset of every new year—as people take a bit of time to assess where they have been and look ahead to where they are going and/or where they wish to go, discussions revolving around the nature of success crop up. There have been a slew of articles posted lately addressing the need to redefine success both for individual artists and for organizations (you can read some of them here, here, and here). A particularly good one came from theater artist Polly Carl, who makes a number of very smart points that are absolutely applicable to multiple art forms, including music composition and performance. (If in doubt, try substituting the word “music” for the word “theater” and “composer” or “performer” for “theater artist.”) Painters, writers, actors, puppet makers, etc. tend to endure very similar artistic struggles, and often I find that artists other than musicians are far better able to articulate the things that go on in so many of our heads.

Carl smartly makes the point that the path towards “success” is not linear, although all the standard models would have us believe that it is. Start at Point A, move directly to Point B, and so on. Small gigs become larger gigs, which become more frequent and always bigger, commanding larger commissioning fees, bigger halls, more folks in the audience; and with it the awards just keep coming with increasing frequency and increasing prestige. It sounds really nice, right? Yeah! To be honest, I can count on one hand the composers who have actually lived that model, and they lived it decades ago when our composing world was far smaller and more insular than it is today. In my experience and that of most of my musical colleagues, the path towards success moves in cycles; there are good years, there are bad years, and trying to predict or control how things are going to go is a recipe for frustration. This is true especially if one is defining “success” in terms of external validation such as awards, commissions, and other accolades. You win some, and you lose some. Sometimes you win a lot and then you lose a lot! Sometimes you win nothing. The composer Eric Whitacre has a few wise words on this subject for composers in the early stages of their careers.

One of the most illuminating things I have learned from my time here at NewMusicBox, and from talking to lots of composers, is exactly as Carl says, that many of the ones who have arrived according to the above terms don’t even realize it. It continually boggles my mind how many “successful” composers truly think their careers are floundering! What? Despite having won pretty much every prize and what-have-you that a composer can possibly attain, and receiving commission after commission, they are still deeply dissatisfied. Composers (and plenty of other types of artists) are generally so hard-wired to be thinking about the next achievement that it’s easy to lose sight of recent and current successes. The “externally” successful ones who are genuinely comfortable in their own skins and in their lives are surprisingly small in number, and I think they have figured out a way to define success for themselves that is internal.

For composers who do not choose to follow long-ago established narratives of success (of which there are many), it’s important to spend some time creating alternate visions of success. And even for those who are treading a well-worn groove in the road, it’s useful to confront assumptions about what success under such circumstances looks like in 2013. There are way more composers out there than there are teaching positions, Guggenheim awards, Pulitzer Prizes, and the like. Those things aren’t going to be possible for everyone, but that in no way means that one can’t still build a satisfying and “successful” career.

I really like the three points Carl makes about creating a picture of personal success—it is at once self-reflective and inclusive of others—which I’m going to quote, except with changed wording for musicians:

1. Spend this next year imagining your own definition of success as if it was as important as the next piece you write or concert you perform in. This will be your most creative endeavor, trust me.
2. Commit to the success of at least one or two other composers you care about. Imagine, in the most creative way, how you can support that artist’s career. Make this part of your workday. You will learn so much about your own definition of success this way.
3. If you haven’t created a personal ethics statement for how you will achieve your definition of success, do it. If your success is achieved on the backs of your collaborators or by breaking the backs of others, I promise you it won’t feel like success when you get there.

Most of all I appreciate the simple, clear plan of action for personal success recently outlined by a dear composer friend:

Keep making pieces.
Keep having pieces performed.


Adventures in Orchestra, Part 3: Final Thoughts

Seattle Symphony Sonic Evolution 2012. Photo courtesy of Jerry and Lois Photography.

A lot of ground has been covered in Part 1 and Part 2 of this little series on working with an orchestra. Here are a few final points, based largely on questions people have asked about the process and timeline of this composition for the Seattle Symphony. I hope that readers with additional thoughts and insights will share them in the comments section.

It takes a village.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child, and making a large musical composition come to life is not so different. The composer is only one little piece of the puzzle; an important piece, of course, but there is so much more involved. The amount of administration necessary to make an orchestra run is staggering—artistic planning, development, publicity, education, operations, music librarians, and more—and it is quite an experience to stand in the midst of the machine. And that’s before you get to the fact that there are 80+ people playing your music at the same time! It’s like the ultimate musical aircraft carrier.

It never hurts to ask.
Augmenting the above organizational village over the course of composing this work were a number of behind-the-scenes musician consultants, helpers, and advice-givers whom I contacted at various points, and they generously shared their knowledge and experience. For instance, when the idea of having an organ involved in the piece struck fear into my heart, what better way to fix that situation than to hang out with an organist? Every one of these people played crucial roles in making the music better than I could have done flying completely solo. I am beyond grateful, and I’m really, really glad I asked.

It’s not sexy. (It’s really not.)
Composing for orchestra sounds very romantic and kind of sexy from the outside, and there are definitely moments when it feels that way, but those moments add up to a grand total of a few hours, or at most a couple of days—a tiny percentage of the complete door-to-door process. I was well aware of this before I started, but nothing drives a point home like the actual undertaking. The reality is that it can be grueling, exhausting work. Obviously the level of toil differs for each composer and for each project, but I think that very few composers will say that it’s an easy ride from start to finish (and I’m not sure I’d believe anyone who does say that).

Basically, the trappings can be very nice (if they happen), like staying in a fancy hotel or possibly hobnobbing with the wealthy and/or famous, but they are simply icing on the cake. Everyone knows what s/he looks and feels like after wrapping up a long day and/or night of composing. It’s not always pretty. That is far more the daily reality one faces, and it’s the part you gotta love.

It ain’t over till it’s over.
Once the score and parts were sent there was a fairly steady stream of other items to take care of: publicity things and assorted other communications, travel arrangements, etc. Lots of folks needed stuff. There was no real detaching from the piece until well after the premiere. This somewhat affected my composing schedule immediately after turning in the piece, so next time I will adjust my calendar accordingly.

Post-premiere self-care
One of the trusted advisers mentioned above said it’s common to feel a little depressed after a premiere, so treat yourself well, get sleep, exercise, eat good food, etc. Although I didn’t feel sad, I did feel a bit numb for a while, as if waking up from a dream that I couldn’t remember fully. Those suggestions are things I do normally, but like a lot of people, when things get really busy I tend to slack off, so kicking a healthy routine back into gear helped to clear my head and restore balance. In addition, now I also completely understand why composer Pierre Jalbert tries to alternate between composing orchestra music and chamber music to reset his ears. Soon after finishing the orchestra piece, I had to jump into a piece for solo percussion, which was completely refreshing and just what the doctor ordered.

Other Hats

“Why would you even want to do that? What does that have to do with composing? Doesn’t that distract you from your other work?”

I’m not sure how many of my other colleagues get asked such questions, but I hear variations on this theme a fair amount. I have never been one to focus intensely on just one thing–for many years I was a woodwind doubler who enjoyed the challenge of learning as many different instruments as possible, for example. Fast-forward twenty years and I find myself “doubling” on a great many activities these days. I teach (both at the college and pre-college level), I conduct, I interview, I write (which still surprises me–never thought I’d be doing this), and over the past few years I’ve found myself being placed in administrative positions…which brings me to my current situation.

Every faculty member in academia is asked to take on various service roles; the risk of entire departments disappearing into their labs and studios is too great if this was not the case. Over the past three years or so, I’ve been involved in several campus-wide committees, including chairing the Faculty and Professional Affairs committee, which has allowed me to both advocate for my colleagues as well as improve things for everyone through awareness and legislative actions. While the workload on these service opportunities has not been overwhelming, they have made it challenging at times to keep all the plates spinning, as it were.

This year, however, has put me in a completely different position–I have agreed to serve as the chair of the University Senate, which forces me to find a balance between those important responsibilities and the many other facets of my career. It’s at this point that you are probably asking those questions I mentioned at the top of this column, which is entirely understandable. We have a new president this year, and the opportunity to actively improve many aspects of my institution was too great for me to turn down. While it has relatively little to do with composing on the surface, I am finding that my creative and organizational skills as both a composer and conductor are translating well to this new position; the similarities between convincing a performer to take part in a concert and convincing a colleague to take part in an important subcommittee are surprising. As for distractions, yes–hell, yes–it’s distracting just at the time that the visibility and nature of my composition projects have been increasing (timing is everything), but I have found over years of trial and error that my best work comes out of the white-hot, last-minute terror that comes with “not having enough time.” And to be honest, the administrative work, if anything, is much less stressful than composing.

One interesting (and sometimes frustrating) aspect of being a composer is the potential hybrid nature of our career models. It is not a rare thing to come across an artist who describes him or herself as a series of hyphenates: composer-conductor, composer-performer-educator, composer-IT professional, etc. While many career paths require one to have a diverse skill set, there are few paths that allow for, and in many cases encourage, an individual to pursue and engage in other careers simultaneously.

One might conclude that this is due to the difficult nature of making a living being solely a composer. I would agree that such an endeavor is challenging, but I have met and gotten to know such a large group of composers who do have thriving careers just composing–so that’s not the only mitigating factor here. Indeed, many from this group say that they compose because they literally cannot do anything else–it is the one profession in which they feel they can flourish.

My point here is that it is helpful for us to remember, wherever we are in our careers, that there is no one overarching and “correct” model for a successful career as a composer. For every example of a composer who devotes all of her or his time to writing music, there are others who have the capacity and aptitude to pursue a hybrid career–a fact that should be both accepted and encouraged.