Tag: career choices

The Secret Lives Of Composers Who Work In The Trades

My alarm goes off at 5 a.m. and I vault out of bed like a meatloaf rebounding off a linoleum floor. There’s an awkward shuffle in the dark as I locate pants and shimmy to the kitchen where I process my reward for not oversleeping: the first coffee of the day. This is a great time of day to be awake and the coffee discretely severs my tether to sleep before I hit the road. At this time of day, the world is silent and my thoughts would be able to jam wildly in my head if I was having any. I arrive at my destination—an industrial park not far from town. There’s another sip of coffee before I suit up: steel-toe boots, jeans that are never clean, sturdy work gloves, and a tool belt. I’m a concert music composer who has a secret life working in the trades.

Sivack in the trades

About five or six years ago, I made a big change. I had been doing my composer work for approximately a decade at that point and working various retail and kitchen jobs to support my art. From a writing standpoint, things were going very well. My craftsmanship had reached a point where I felt like I was no longer writing student works, professional ensembles would approach me to write for them, and I was bringing in money for the work I was putting in. My career trajectory was looking up.

But then the math set in.

I was being commissioned to write three or four pieces a year. At the rate I was being paid, I could hypothetically divorce my side gig by writing eight to ten more pieces annually. The idea of even approaching doing that much writing was, frankly, unappetizing and completely unrealistic. I was already living the lifestyle of a borderline hermit. Spending more time at my writing desk by forgoing luxuries like sleep, daylight, and grocery shopping didn’t exactly fill me with glee. Also, I was quite sure that if I tripled my output, I would produce exponentially less work I was proud of. The scales would be tipping towards quantity at the expense of quality if I pushed much harder.

If I was unable or unwilling to increase my composition output, I was going to be working my side gig for the next thirty years. Did I want to work in my retail-kitchen churn for that long?

At that point, the record needle swung wildly across the deck: if I was unable or unwilling to increase my composition output, I was going to be working my side gig for the next thirty years. Did I want to work in my retail-kitchen churn for that long? Dread and foreboding crept up my spine. I experienced some serious staring-into-the-abyss moments before I decided what criteria my side gig had to meet: it had to be something that didn’t make me miserable, it had to be something that paid above minimum wage, and it had to be something that could reliably be around as I aged. I began to explore options.

Film work is a great gig for a composer. For one, it can pay quite well. For two, it has exponentially more glitz and glamor than the pencil pushing in concert music circles. For three, because people watch movies in droves there’s the regular possibility someone might hear your music and register a thought about it. But you have to hustle to get film gigs. Big time. It’s not like you just wake up one morning and decide to turn on a faucet that magically sprays you with succulent composer dollars. Anybody who makes their living as a film composer got there by busting their ass. The best suggestion the experienced film composer will give you is if you want to get into film music you should get a reliable job so that you can support yourself while you build yourself up. For me, it just didn’t make sense to have a job I didn’t want, to support a creative pursuit that wasn’t my first choice, in order to financially support myself in the pursuit of my first choice. I could easily remove the film work middle-man and continue in kitchens and retail and be equally miserable.

Academia is a rich pursuit for many of us. However, I was already sick of high academia after my undergrad and, at that point in time, the relationship between the teacher’s union and my local government could be best described as a fistful of pins pounding sand. There were also other problems: I had spoken with a number of teachers who were at the start of their own careers and they were teaching sporadically, with long commutes, and having to do side gigs in order to maintain an income. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Also, if I’m being honest, I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert and I’m just not so sure I would be a good fit for the profession.

So instead of making sales in retail, cooking omelets in kitchens, teaching algebra in classrooms, or writing for my second choice, I picked up a hammer and swung for the bleachers. I was going to work in the trades. When I explain my side gig to people, I often tell them I’m an Internet plumber—my trades colleagues call me a splicer and preface it with the word “filthy.” There are hundreds of thousands of kilometers of cable that snake all over the world humming with data. They hang in the air from telephone poles, they run in underground conduit between manholes, and they even run along the bottom of the ocean. Making sure they are connected properly, figuring out why they might not be connected properly, and splicing them together is my new side gig. My typical day now involves climbing telephone poles with climbing gaffs, ladders, or in a bucket truck; splicing together fiber optic, twisted pair, and coaxial cable; troubleshooting network problems; and getting absolutely covered in grime. It’s dirty work and I love it.

Sivack in the trades

I’ve been at it for three or four years now, and it often feels like I’m leading a double life—something I’m still learning to navigate. There are relatively few of my new colleagues who are interested in classical music and I’m still new enough that I feel like I need to establish myself as someone who belongs where I am, perhaps unjustifiably so. So I don’t mention my composing to my colleagues much during the morning shuffling of trucks.

I don’t mention my composing to my colleagues much during the morning shuffling of trucks.

But I think the reason I keep my art close to my chest is because I’ve encountered a perception in the trades that the arts are a dalliance; art can’t possibly be real work and those who do it don’t understand what real work is. When I was first hired, I was driving to a job site with one of my bosses and he casually mentioned that his son was a musician. Before I could chime in with my shared experience, he rushed to explain that his son wasn’t lazy or lacking in ambition; the young man had a teaching and recording studio and was doing quite well for himself. The immediate defensiveness was striking and I kept quiet. I was right at the beginning of my entrance to the trades and there was a pressure on me to be perceived as a competent and good worker. I didn’t want to jeopardize that by tapping into people’s prejudices.

On the flip side, you can encounter those in the arts who reject you at the molecular level because you don’t fit their perception of being serious about your arts practice. To them, a serious musician derives their income primarily from performing and teaching. There is some flexibility in accepting entry-level restaurant work but if you exceed those narrow parameters then, to them, you must not be serious about your art. Your fellow artists will gossip about your side gig as if you were perpetuating adultery by opting to swing a hammer to pay the bills. Even if there were any rules, written or unwritten, that legislate how a person is to balance art in their lives, it shouldn’t matter if you’re a barista or a plumber. The linchpin is whether or not you continue to make art happen. If your side gig allows you to continue doing it then your dedication to your arts practice is reinforced, not weakened, by whatever you choose to do to keep yourself afloat.

So I tend to maintain a separation between my two lives. It’s not that I don’t talk about it with anyone ever, but I definitely avoid it as a leading topic of conversation. However, I think there is a balance that I have yet to achieve. I recently left my old company to work somewhere new, and on my last day I mentioned to my crew that among the things I was looking forward to in my new life was finally being able to get a piano again. I had been living in a shared space and this was changing after my move. This piqued the ear of an older colleague who was driving me to a site and, once we got to talking, I found out that he was also a pianist. In fact, he had been a touring musician in the ’70s and had a studio back home in Alberta. On this singular drive, we discovered we shared a love of jazz and classical music. We were both flabbergasted. Like me, he had his own crisis when he was a young man and decided to get into the trades to keep his music alive. I had been working with the man for almost two years at that point and we had never clued in to each other’s secret identities. I was hit with regret—playing my cards so close to my chest caused me to miss an opportunity to connect with a colleague. I’ve since relaxed my subterfuge. After all, part of what makes music appeal to me is the chance to connect with other humans over our mutual appreciation of it.

Sivack in the trades

I still have time to write. The same hours I had set aside when I was working my old side gig are as available now as they were before. I also find the creative juices get flowing during moments of solitude at work. I once experienced a wonderful creative rush while driving a truck through a mountain pass and had to immediately pull over and jot some sketches down. Many people say that the hours in the trades are long, and they sometimes are. But one of the benefits is that when I hang up my hard hat, I hang up the stress of my job with it. My work doesn’t follow me home. Instead, I go to choir practice, I open up a copy of The Well Tempered Clavier, I get out a pencil and some manuscript paper and dash some squiggles that will hopefully one day become something memorable.

Initially, I might have been resistant to heading into the trades because I was worried I would be giving up on music and my composition career would end with a resounding thud of failure. I was wrong. The only way you fail at art is if you stop doing it. There’s no reason a composer can’t be a plumber or an electrician instead of a teacher. All you have to do is keep writing.

What the Stage Means to Me

First of all, I’d like to preface this by recognizing that I see a lot of composer-centered posts on NewMusicBox. This is insightful for me as a musician (and as a writer, in this situation) because, well, I’m not a composer (SPOILER ALERT: yet!).

So my not-so-hidden goal this week is to offer composers some context and insight regarding the professional challenges I’ve encountered and the goals that keep me motivated and moving forward, while also hopefully inspiring some performers while I’m at it. Composers want their music played well and played often, and we performers want to play awesome music, so maybe this dialogue will lead to a better understanding and more beautiful music being written and performed? A boy can dream.

In my last entry, I spoke about fear and judgment and how they impact my decisions within the context of artistic risk and career choices.

The one place I’ve recently realized they do not impact me is on stage. I think it is important for composers to know that when they write for me or for my chamber ensemble Sybarite5. Does this mean I might get some crazy, out there shit written for me now and then? Yup. IS that my goal? Nope. I just want composers to know that they should feel free to express their point of view in their music without being too worried about it. Almost every time I or my ensemble gets a new piece from someone who wrote it because they “think” it sounds like music “we play,” it never works. In contrast, when I get a piece from a composer that has their own focused and unique voice, I and my Sybarite5 colleagues are often are compelled to perform it. And perform it often! At the end of the day, if I’ve chosen to repeatedly perform a piece in public, it’s not usually because I hate it. It’s usually because it resonates with me in some way, and I want to communicate that on stage with the audience.

“Love Is a Dog From Hell” – Bukowski

Why do I do it? I love it. I love the music. I love the instrument—bass is the best! I love the freaky little ensemble we’ve made (#stringquintet #FTW). And more than anything, I want to share this love with the world when I perform.

Now, if something about that “share the love” sounded vanilla because it was carefree and simple, you’re gonna have to prepare for some disappointment. Love ain’t easy, and neither is playing and presenting new music.

But I don’t play because it’s an easy job. It’s not; it’s grueling. Life on the road away from family, kids, your support team, and your routine IS TOUGH. And, news flash, it doesn’t get easier. Anyone who wants to romanticize the routine of a traveling classical chamber musician is flat-out mistaken. Don’t get me wrong, we get to do great things. But there is a price to pay—including the literal cost of doing this job. I don’t play because it’s a good way to make a bunch of money. If I wanted to make a bunch of money, I’d be in real estate, finance, law, or medicine. Period, end of story.

But for some reason unbeknownst to me, life and music cannot be centered around money for me. It just cannot. There has to be something more.

Does this sometimes make my life scary, unstable, and difficult? YES. Do I always find a way to make things work? YES.

I make it work, but it’s challenging. So why do I love the stage so much? For some reason, on stage I can be true, honest, vulnerable, innocent, and authentic in a way that is meaningful to me (and ideally others). To me personally, the stage means FREEDOM.

To me personally, the stage means FREEDOM.

Freedom to be myself. Freedom to express. Freedom to share.

Why is it important for me be authentic on stage and who needs to know about that? How about the glorious people who write the beautiful music we wanna play. And, I think the music is the stuff that connects us humans to each other.

How does knowing this help composers? I want composers to know this because I’m hopeful that they will write and communicate more honestly and authentically, and know that it’s more than a concert for me.

How does it impact the work and its presentation? It often means that there are added layers of engagement in musical selections. There’s the music, the story, and the relationship with the composer.

How does the authenticity of the composer and the authenticity of the performer line up? I think in these cases, like seeks like. I’m interested in composers who have an authentic voice. More than that, I’m compelled to program their works and perform them repeatedly. I’m looking for a piece that is going to have a lifespan and not be a flash in the pan.

So when you write music for me, or my ensembles, you should have that info. And, chances are, if you have written for us, you do. Because we are friends with our composer colleagues. We hang. We want to hang. We get along. We value knowing the composers who write for us and having a truly collaborative relationships with them just as much as we value the music they write. Yes, you did read that right, we value the person as much the product. Why? Because when we play those pieces it’s like having a friend join us on stage.

How does Sybarite5 pick the people we work with and the music we play?

I guess I’ve got a week to write that down and let you know.

Questions I Ask Myself

In May 2017, I gave a talk at the New Music Gathering to share what I’ve learned about the practical work of being a composer. I’ve had some success writing percussion music, and I wanted to share exactly what I do for promotion, community building, professionalization, and business stuff in the hope that it could help others also have some success. I wanted to de-mystify this work (which is not hard, but can be mysterious), and so I pushed myself to be as open and transparent as I could.

That desire to open up took me farther than my spreadsheets. At the end of the session, I stepped back to reflect. I opened up about a sea change I’m going through, which is re-arranging my own ideas about what I think music is good at, what I have to offer through it, and what I want out of life.

I was nervous to share these very personal reflections, but I’m glad I did. It sounds like a lot of us are thinking similar thoughts but maybe not talking about them so much. Many people who were at that talk wrote to me to ask if I would share the text of one particular section. It was a list of tough questions that dog me about making my home in new music. They all more or less boil down to: is this a place where am I living my values?

I want to say up front: I’m not sharing them because I think they’re necessarily all fair questions, or kind questions, or because they add up to some kind of coherent critique of anything. I’m sharing them because they’re the ones that I wrestle with. Maybe you do, too.


Am I just trying to impress people and get famous?

Do the experiences I create draw people in or push people out?

My musical world seems to get smaller and smaller, and look more and more like me. Is that what I wanted?

Do I want to be in a culture where hierarchy and prestige have so much power? If not, would I ever have the guts to give up mine?

Do we composers really earn the reverence we are shown?

Our whole disposable capitalist culture is obsessed with novelty and progress. Is a value system based on the newness of music really as countercultural as I think it is?

How many of my ideas about new music really stand up to critical thought and how many are magical thinking?

Do I want to live a life in front of my computer making scores and sending emails?

How does the range of meaningful feeling I experience at a new music concert (or create for others to experience) stack up against other things I love—say, being outside on a summer night, cooking a big meal for friends, or swimming in a lake?

What’s the difference between being a champion of my community and being a partisan, fighting to expand the size and status of a little kingdom just because I happen to belong to it?

Am I OK making music basically with and for people who have received similar educations to me?

When I say “21st-century music” why do I really mean “21st-century music, except for everything made by people who aren’t educated in the culture I was”?

Have I used esoteric musical preferences and interests to feel different from (superior to?) other people? Has that isolated me? Can I in good faith encourage others to do the same?

Am I OK with an aesthetic ideology that values making people uncomfortable more than making people happy?

I LOVE to dance to music, maybe more than anything else in the world. Why am I in a musical culture with no dancing??

For all its education, the words of value I hear more than any others in this field are “weird,” “crazy,” and “cool.” Why is a sound cool if it’s crazy?   Is “weird” actually an interesting idea? Is “cool” enough for me?

Do the technical fixations I inherited—extended technique, virtuosity, hockets, structure, technology, etc.—actually relate to what I find meaningful and powerful in a musical experience? Do I use them to connect with people, or just to impress them?

I feel so much more joy and warmth and connection with others in informal musical situations and with amateurs than I do sitting on a stage in a big hall. So why do I focus so much of my energy on the big hall?

Do I want to learn from other people/traditions/cultures, or do I just want them to do music the way I do it?

Is my ignorance of other musical cultures just ignorance, or is it indifference? Is there a shade of contempt in that indifference?

Am I a snob?

If what I value most is connecting with other people deeply and sharing meaningful experiences, is the way I’m doing music really achieving that?

Forest Trails

Photo by Jens Lelie

I have been wrestling with these questions for the past few years. My ideas about success, music, life, what I want and what I have to offer—I feel like they’ve been melting and are only now, maybe, starting to take a new shape.

When I was a teenager I wanted music to be my passport to the world. I had friends who spent months at a time as happy vagabonds busking in Europe, traveling all over, never needing a hotel, always discovered and taken in by their counterparts after flying their hippie flags. That was my dream—to be able to walk up to any campfire, join in with my guitar, and, by the end of the night, turn some strangers into friends.

I snuck into music school in college and my dream changed. Instead of a passport, I wanted a VIP pass: access to those imagined Arcadias with names that glowed, words I’d never heard but that all of a sudden seemed very, very important—Aspen! Tanglewood! Darmstadt! I dreamed of a future where I’d gain admittance to a sequence of ever-smaller and ever-more-enviable rooms.

I never went to those places, but I have been in some very small and enviable rooms. I don’t want to sound ungrateful: some of them have been to my great personal and professional benefit and I’ll probably never give up the perks, no matter how conflicted I feel about them. But the truth is, I just don’t feel motivated anymore by the prospect of impressing people enough with my CV to move into the next, higher, smaller, more exclusive room. It’s unnerving, honestly, to look inside myself at the hole where that ambition used to be. I ask myself, a little bitterly: Are you getting lazy? Are you giving up?

What’s unsatisfying to me about those rooms is that they’re all in the same country. I’m back to wanting a passport. I don’t want to be a partisan for a territory, I want to travel to new ones. I want to connect with people who aren’t just like me. Music is a great way to do that, but it’s not enough to just open our doors to others; we have to be willing to leave our comfort zone, and take the risk of stepping into theirs. And when I arrive, the last thing I want to do is impress them with my CV. I want to impress them because I can listen deeply. Learn quickly. Fail happily. Connect openly.

As these feelings have become conscious in me, I have started to steer my life in a different direction. I’ve found two new ways to be a musician that feel much more like passports. Both lead me out of new music. One is learning to play the berimbau, which led me into capoeira, the national martial art of Brazil (at which I am a happily failing beginner). The other is teaching music at a prison, which has shown me that what I love about music—where I think it has power and where I have the most to offer—has nothing to do with newness, with style, or with my CV. It’s in how music creates a common ground for ambition, learning, creativity, self-discovery, and joy. It’s in how music can bypass guards and barbed wire, stigma and shame, and give people a way to celebrate and inspire each other, no matter how cut off they are.

I’ll write more about that in the next post.

Living a Long-Form Life

As a living composer, I’m faced with my birth year in nearly every concert program. Every time I see that number—and usually it’s listed alongside composers with a death date, too—I’m aware that my time, and what I can compose during it, is limited.

I recently finished my longest work yet, a 35-minute piece for chorus made up of several 2- to 4-minute movements and one 8-minute movement. Writing a 35-minute piece could be intimidating, but writing a 3-minute movement is not. That’s largely how I approached the piece; I’d work on one shorter movement, then another. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to apply this strategy on a much broader scale: to break into movements not only compositions, but everything I want to achieve in my life and career, approaching a life in music as one would approach writing a long composition.

A long-form piece is judged as a whole; there’s no need to express what you want from the piece in a single movement. If we apply this to a lifetime, then one composition doesn’t need to contain everything you have to say, sum up your feelings about the current state of new music, or succinctly capture your worldview. Over a life-long body of work, there’s room for subtlety and nuance; we don’t have to demonstrate in 4 minutes, or even 35 minutes, that we know how to write music.

There’s no need to express what you want from the piece in a single movement. If we apply this to a lifetime, then one composition doesn’t need to contain everything you have to say.

Not every piece has to be perfect, either. The music you’re writing now may have flaws that you’ll later want to change, and there’s room for that, too. Not every piece even has to be good; some works may be more like prototypes, allowing you to try something out and potentially fail while honing that idea for a later, better piece. There’s time to let ideas unfold, and there’s room for rest.

A career functions much the same way. We don’t need to imagine that one big performance or one big award will be responsible for making our entire career. Instead, we can ask ourselves what we’ll try to achieve over the course of a life spent composing. If we view our writing as part of a life-long body of work, then when we set goals for what we’d like to accomplish, we can stop aiming for things we have no control over—like, say, a particular ensemble programming our work next season—and instead ask what we’d like to have happen during our lifetime. How will we pace ourselves over thirty, or sixty, or eighty years of writing music? What music do we want to write, and what will we express with that music?

Given the current political climate, most composers I know are asking ourselves whether every piece of work we compose should now express our political views. Moving forward, should every one of our pieces advocate for social justice? Maybe so, but I’m not sure that every piece we write needs to do so in a big, dramatic way in order to make a statement. Think of a longer composition; we’re able to recognize the larger themes in that work even if those themes aren’t present in every single movement. We take the work as a whole.

Bear with me on a brief tangent: I’ve been a vegetarian for fifteen years. On a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t feel like my personal decision is affecting the world in any huge way, or in any way, period. By not ordering chicken for lunch last Wednesday, I know I haven’t directly saved some hypothetical chicken’s life. If I cast my decision over the course of a lifetime, though, my attitude shifts completely. What sort of impact can I make over a lifetime of choosing not to eat meat?

This concept extends to the current need for representation of more composers who are not white and/or male and/or dead in classical music programming, too. A single concert with a non-white or non-male (or non-dead) composer on the program may not initially come across as advocacy, but if an ensemble regularly chooses to program this way, over the course of many seasons they’ll expose thousands of audience members to the concept that not all composers are dead white men. This, I’d argue, would make much more of a lasting impact than any single concert dedicated to this purpose.

In your creative lifetime, what are you going to accomplish with the music you choose to perform, write, or program? Looking back on the work that you’ve created in the past, what patterns are already present? You don’t have to be an activist in every piece, the same way that your 8-minute piece for solo violin doesn’t have to include every possible extended string technique. But if everything you do advocates for even a small aspect of what you believe, what kind of impact will you create over the course of your life?

Roundtable: Let’s Make a List

Alex Shapiro

[Ed. Note: In the spirit of conversation and story sharing, we reached out to music makers and asked them to let us know what was on their minds when it came to cash and creativity and what lessons from their own careers they might share. Some answered questions we posed directly, others were inspired to take the topic somewhere else. Each provided something illuminating, and we hope you’ll jump in and share your own experiences in the comments. –MS]

Alex Shapiro

Alex Shapiro

Okay, fellow note aligners: let’s talk about the nitty and the gritty when it comes to creating income from the music we compose.

I’ll begin with this important, tone-setting manifesto:

Our worth as composers is meaningful, whether or not our music generates income.

Too often when reading frank discussions about money, some composers who either by choice or circumstance do not garner much revenue from their music are left feeling as though their pieces don’t really…count. Bah, humbug (or maybe in this case, Bach, Hamburg). Money has nothing to do with the quality of anyone’s music.

That said, for those who choose to put together a living from composing, there are myriad avenues for monetizing one’s output—which can offer both exciting opportunities and an overwhelming career equation to solve. Thus, I’m asking fellow music creators to build an ever-growing master list of income sources derived solely from their work. We’ll start with my list, simply because it’s the example with which I’m most familiar, and because what it lacks, others will chime in to add. By doing so, we all can benefit from contemplating the broad landscape of possibility that is seeded by our copyrights.

Ancillary work

Before we launch The Big List, let’s have a look at other income sources in our field. There are many terrific ways to earn a living in the music world through ancillary careers. Performing and teaching are probably the most obvious ones, in addition to working:

as an arranger and orchestrator
as a conductor
in music administration
as a music librarian
as a music preparation professional
in publishing
as a manager or agent
as a composer’s assistant
as a music video producer
as a recording engineer
as a consultant to peers
as a judge on panels
as a studio assistant
for honorariums from service organizations
giving private lessons online and in person
giving workshops and seminars…

…and these are only a few.

There is also a gray area that includes writing articles and book chapters, or allowing one’s music to be used for free in videos, for which one is not often paid, but which offers a level of professional exposure that has the potential to become financially rewarding, one step removed. A few years back, I penned an article for NewMusicBox exploring this, titled “The Economy of Exposure: Publicity as Payment?”.

But in this instance, let’s enumerate the many ways by which the original music that pours out of our hearts and brains can be turned directly into the food that feeds us, the roof that houses us, and the prompt internet bill payment that keeps us connected so that we can deliver our work and watch the next episode of House of Cards. In other words, let’s limit the scope of this list to ways that our music can earn us money. Not our instrument-playing gigs or our conducting, but solely our copyrights.

Round One

Here’s an initial pass at some of the ways in which composers like me earn income. These aren’t listed in any particular order, and some consistently generate larger amounts than others. I invite you to add to this incomplete list in the comments section below.


This includes your composing fee, plus an additional fee for the music preparation, if relevant. If you are also doing the score and parts copying for your own work, then that counts as a source of income directly related to your original music.

Score sales, directly from you

If you are the publisher of the music, you receive 100 percent of these proceeds.

Score sales, through a distributor

If you are the publisher of the music, you receive a designated percentage of these proceeds, after the dealer discount.

Score sales, through a publisher

If you have assigned a copyright to a publisher, then you will receive a designated percentage of their proceeds.

Performance royalties 

Money that comes from your performing rights organization for small rights, and from your own negotiations for grand rights.

Publishing royalties

Money that comes from your performing rights organization and possibly your co-publishers.

Digital streaming royalties

Money that comes from collection services like Sound Exchange, if you own copyrights in sound recordings.

Mechanical royalties

Money that comes from record labels and their distributors. You may need to invest in a high-powered microscope to see the amount you are paid.


Fees that conferences, symposiums, festivals, and schools pay us to come and lecture about our music, coach rehearsals of our pieces, and drink boxed wine with a side of fried mozzarella sticks at Applebee’s after concerts of our works.

Sync licenses

Money paid to you, if you own the copyright, for the use of your music with visual media.

Arrangement licenses

Money paid to you for the right for someone else to create an arrangement of an existing work in your catalog.

Ad revenue

Money paid to you through programs like Google AdSense, Amazon Associates, YouTube Partner Program, etc. when your online content includes ads that generate click-throughs.

Online coaching 

A fee paid to you to attend and coach a rehearsal of your work via Skype or a Google Hangout.

Skypehearsals, as I’ve dubbed them, are a newly created market, and especially useful for composers working with large ensembles. I was among the early adopters who incorporated these sessions as an ongoing income source, and they’re a significant part of my creative and business approach in the wind band world. For a moderate fee, I’m brought right into the interpretive process, resulting in a meaningful connection with the musicians, plus some oblique, tangible advantages. By forming a virtual, yet personal relationship between me and the ensemble, the director is more likely to purchase my other scores (sales income), perform those pieces (royalty income) and commission me in the future (as long as I remember to comb my hair and avoid drooling). In other words, a relatively small Skypehearsal fee often turns not only into a long-lasting collegial friendship, but into three additional sources of income as well.

Be in the flow

Income for an independent composer is all about the flow. Sure, it’s wonderful when larger checks show up in your mailbox or direct deposit. But more often than not, getting a viable career up to speed means creating an ongoing succession of projects and uses of your material that together generate a constant stream of cash that usually arrives in modest amounts.

For instance, a commission fee from an individual or small ensemble might be spread over four payments, as opposed to the traditional two. Perhaps you have three such contracts in a given year, in addition to others that pay you larger amounts in one or two segments. The result of this “3 clients x 4 payments each” is that you have a check coming in virtually every month from one piece or another (and sometimes from several at once, depending on your composing schedule). Those, along with your income stream throughout the year from the categories listed above, complete the recipe for being able to pay your bills.

Account for yourself

Cash Week - sm

Read more new music and money coverage all this week on NewMusicBox.

Like most working composers, I receive income each month in varying amounts from a wide variety of sources, rather than from just one or two places. It can actually be a bit dizzying to keep track of it all. I’m frighteningly organized (yup, one of those obnoxious “neat desk” people), and yet when it comes to accounting and staying on top of things in my business, I’m embarrassingly-but-charmingly simple in my record-keeping. Okay, probably more on the embarrassing side, but hey, it works for me.

To wit: I create a simple spreadsheet each year, featuring columns for the “who/what/when due/when paid” information, with a psyche-soothing color code for each fee category. I list and enter every payment chronologically so I can see the rundown clearly, gathering and summing the categories at tax time. Many of you reading this are highly sophisticated and use great software that does far more (other colorful spreadsheet strategies of possible interest are outlined here). But admittedly, for as über-high tech as I am in my project studio, I’m very old school when it comes to accounting. I’m sharing my process here so that composers daunted by the prospect of managing all their information can see how utterly straightforward it can be.

In addition to the spreadsheet, I keep a tally in an even simpler text file, listing what my anticipated income is for each month of the year, as well as my monthly expenses. Assuming your clients pay in a timely manner, you will know that the second of three payments for Such A Brilliant Piece is due in February, and that the first of two payments for Another Brilliant Piece is due in May, as is the final, fourth payment for This Utterly Brilliant Piece. You’ll know that if you served on a panel in late March, your honorarium will arrive sometime in April, and those residency fees from symposiums and universities will make your mailbox smile in, say, July, October, and December. Your PRO payments come at pre-determined times, while your score sales and Skype fees probably go up and down each month. As I noted above, it’s dizzying, and you can see why it’s wise to write all of this down. Each of these items combines to create a cascade of cash flow, borne from the riverhead of your biggest asset: your copyright.

Live modestly

To achieve the elegant simplicity of the road map above, there is one very significant rule of thumb which cannot be stressed enough: live within your means, and avoid using credit whenever possible. (The tragedy of student loans is an evil that for some is unavoidable, and is a separate discussion.) Pay as you go. Money is artistic freedom: the less stress you’re under to meet monthly financial responsibilities, the less you will need to rely on other non-composing sources of income and the more choice you will have as a composer as to what projects to accept.

Think creatively

If you happen to be a non-performing composer as I am, that means that you can choose to live anywhere you wish. You may decide to trade in the expense of a big city for the affordability of a small town. Or even a small rock, like where I live on Washington’s San Juan Island. Or… a boat! I had a live-aboard permit years ago for my sailboat in Santa Barbara. I still consider the future possibility of forgoing a house, buying a decent sized older vessel, and setting up my studio in it. Thanks to cell and internet connectivity, music creators have many economic options that would never before have been realistic.

Find a balance

For composers who choose to earn money from their art, the pride of being paid cold hard cash in exchange for the sonic chaos inside our heads cannot be overrated. But even for those with established careers, it’s common to toggle between different kinds of projects: some naturally destined to be more obscure, and others predicted to garner many sales and performances. A contrabassoon sonata probably won’t move nearly as many copies off the shelf as a wind band or choral piece. In both cases, they can equally represent the excellent art of the same composer, but do so through different compositional voices for different audiences. One helps to subsidize the other, resulting in a very fulfilling artistic life. No one would criticize a friend for cooking an Italian meal on Tuesday, doing Szechuan take-out on Wednesday, enjoying a North Indian buffet lunch on Friday, and making French onion soup on Sunday. Writing varied types of music is no different, and it is a wise approach to staying in the flow both musically and financially.

Be kind

I’m a firm believer that there’s a beautiful correlation between being a decent, positive person and attracting opportunity. Kindness, graciousness, an interest in what’s meaningful to other people, and a sense of humor about oneself are traits that not only enhance your life, but also your career. Because you’re not just in the music-making business, you’re in the relationship-making business.

Additional resources

Chamber Music America has a long-running series about the music business called the First Tuesday Sessions, for which I was a guest speaker a few years ago. Recently the organization began posting videos of these valuable conversations. The newest one is a must-see for any composer wishing to be paid for their work: composer Martin Bresnick gave a terrific, very specific, one-hour tutorial on the details involved in negotiating fees for one’s work:

Be sure to click here, as well, for more excellent advice.

Another wonderful resource is composer Garrett Hope’s podcast “Composer on Fire.” You can hear me address some of what’s in this essay in my two-part March 2016 podcast, and the site is filled with inspiring conversations that will make you even more excited than you may already be about having a viable career doing what you love.

Never forget

After all of this discussion of the many ways to earn money from your art, it’s important that I wrap up with the very same credo with which I began:

Our worth as composers is meaningful, whether or not our music generates income.

Everyone knows that developing the ability to support oneself in the arts is a challenging mission. Not every artist is naturally suited to the requisite demands placed upon our left cerebral hemisphere, as well as upon our people skills. No one is “better than” or “less than” anyone else, whether or not they possess these traits. We each compose because we are unstoppably drawn to do so. Our work, whether commissioned or not, is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. For those who find a way to make their passion their vocation as well, exhilaration should ideally become the overriding adjective for a very busy life that’s filled with magic.

Composer Alex Shapiro aligns note after note with the hope that at least a few of them might actually sound good next to each other. Her persistence at this activity, as well as at non-fiction writing, public speaking, arts advocacy, wildlife photography, and the shameless instigation of insufferable puns on Facebook, has led to a happy life. Created from a broad musical palette that defies genre, Shapiro’s acoustic and electroacoustic works are performed and broadcast daily across the U.S. and internationally. Her pieces are published by Activist Music, and can be found on over twenty commercially released recordings from around the world. She is the Symphonic and Concert writer representative on the ASCAP Board of Directors.

Roundtable: The Bonnie Jones Grant

Bonnie Jones

[Ed. Note: In the spirit of conversation and story sharing, we reached out to music makers and asked them to let us know what was on their minds when it came to cash and creativity and what lessons from their own careers they might share. Some answered questions we posed directly, others were inspired to take the topic somewhere else. Each provided something illuminating, and we hope you’ll jump in and share your own experiences in the comments.–MS]

Bonnie Jones

Bonnie Jones

A few months back, my friend and fellow Baltimore composer Alex Gardner invited me to sit on a panel she was moderating, “Artists Outside Academia,” which was part of the 2016 New Music Gathering at the Peabody Institute. The artists included were those of us in Baltimore who did not primarily make their living as fulltime professors and were therefore outside of the typical presentation opportunities, support networks, and technical resources that university faculty often enjoy—not to mention the full time salaries.

The discussion centered on the various activities, priorities, and lives of the local artists on the panel and how we each, in our own ways, have gone off script in creating personal lives that sustain our creative work. Certainly for me, choosing to live and work in Baltimore was already a conscious choice made for my art practice—relying on the freedom afforded by relatively lower housing costs compared to cities like Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, etc. Other negotiations of time, space, and finances that came up included taking on the role of primary childcare provider, taking on additional training and classes for skills used to piece together side jobs, working seasonally, or making sacrifices in healthcare or housing to balance paying bills with insecure incomes.

For those of us working for our art practice without significant financial support other than what our own bodies and minds can generate, all these negotiations are probably familiar. We always have to consider FOOD/SHELTER against how ambitious a project we can undertake, how quickly we’ll be able to complete that project, and how much energy and self we can pour into that project. All these things change the rhythm of our creative minds and shape what our ART (not the work per se, but the practice), situated inside of our very real LIVES, will have.

My own path for making a living while making art was something that during the panel I referred to as the Bonnie Jones Grant. This “grant” was all the various web-related freelance and fulltime jobs I’ve held during my 17 years in Baltimore, which directly funded my volunteer non-profit, curatorial work, and art practice. In other words, I had a lot of regular jobs, but I thought of them as very much a part of my creative practice because they sustained that practice. I came to music later than most, having in my twenties focused on poetry and performance. Once my focus turned to music, the stuff I was interested in making was often challenging and abstract, produced with cracked and circuit bent electronic instruments. While the international community of noise and improvisation is incredibly stimulating intellectually and aesthetically, the financial sustainability is tenuous at best. So I realized early on that the music and writing I was drawn to might never be able to generate enough income to support my FOOD/SHELTER needs. So I got a job, a job job as artists sometimes call it, or job jobs in my case.

So the other day while working on this blog post, I took a break and watched a documentary called The Wrecking Crew about a prolific group of studio musicians who were responsible for thousands of Top 10 recorded hits from the 1960s and 1970s. You may have never heard their names, but you’ve certainly heard their music. This crew recorded The Beach Boys’s “Good Vibrations,” the Mamas and Papas’s “California Dreamin,’” the Righteous Brothers’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The discography is mind-blowing.

Money was on my mind, so it was refreshing to hear these musicians talk about their art WORK. They spoke honestly about their modest or sometimes impoverished childhoods, the hustle of their early years when they were making their names, the sacrifices in parenting they made to support their families (studio gigs would sometimes keep musicians out for 20-hour days), their struggles with addiction and mental health issues as a result of the demands of their jobs and the insecurity of their incomes. They had no pretensions about how their art and their jobs were, by necessity, collaborative and entwined.

Percussionist Earl Palmer (who played on recordings of Richie Valens’s “La Bamba” and Jan and Dean’s “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”) freely admitted that he didn’t care much for rock and roll, his heart was in jazz, but that to make a living off of rock and roll, he needed to play it like it was his favorite music. There was a general acknowledgement from the musicians that ALL the work you did was the REAL work of being an artist. Palmer’s judicious comment about playing music he wasn’t all that into: “It’s not beneath you if it’s supporting you.”

So why then, does it still seem novel when artists talk transparently about the money they make from art or other jobs? I wonder if talking about the very unsexy ways we make a living threatens some myth of the serious artist? The serious artist doesn’t sell out. The serious artist only cares about the art and everything else is false. The serious artist never compromises their authenticity for money. The serious artist never considers themselves part of the nasty capitalist game where many fight for what few resources are available. The serious artist’s success is based on a meritocracy. Who can actually live like this? Where did this myth come from? Did capitalism create the myth and ultimately make fools of us all?

Cash Week - sm

Read more new music and money coverage all this week on NewMusicBox.

These days funding and jobs for working musicians are fewer and further between—the recording industry is collapsing, arts funding is choked off so orchestras are folding and commissions are disappearing. Even within the world of artists making objects, painters and sculptors are constantly working for free—their work appearing in major cultural institutions with no compensation unless they become one of the few who enter into the art economy as commodity. I think most of us agree that solely making money off your art is becoming a very rare condition.

The WORK part of a working artist’s career has expanded into a variety of industries and jobs that don’t utilize our artistic skills directly. The education industry has probably become the leading source of jobs for artists, while of course generating significant income off of those same folks in the form of MFA, DMA, and Ph.D. programs. This in theory sounds great, until the jobs are all taken and the universities keep creating masters and doctors of art who have student debt but no job prospects. So most artists are still spending lots of time stringing together a lot of different sources of income. Though I think it’s important to note, a lot of them really aren’t at all. A lot of highly visible and successful artists are such because they have financial support from family, partners, or other places not directly related to their art practice and in many cases they’ve always had that. And I think it’s fair to say that that does make an enormous difference in the shape of an artist’s life.

Which brings me to my current fear about the future of art in America. What happens if young artists starting out, with little or no financial support outside themselves, just stop making art and trying to put it out there because they need to take care of FOOD/SHELTER. What if only rich folks can make a successful living off of making art? What if we’re deprived of the benefits of having access to art made from a huge range of human experiences and backgrounds? Or maybe this kind of fear is completely out of touch with how art will be made and distributed in the future? Maybe we’re just witnessing a transition phase?

A side note about my own privileges. I was adopted from Korea and raised in a modest but middle class Caucasian farm family. I had all my basics covered as a child and, with family support, attended a great (cheap) public university that led to some solid job prospects, which led to a secure income working for an internet company, which I was able to parlay into a subcontracting position, which allowed me to go to and pay for my MFA, and which today allows me to work and make money on projects and then take off for months at a time to work on art and touring. Some years I make well above the poverty line and others not as much, but the work is fairly reliable and if the worst were to happen—cancer, psychiatric crisis, car accident, house fire, etc.—I have a stable relationship with my family that I know I could rely on. All of these things I recognize as enormous privileges. 

OK, so for those of us who decide to keep producing anyways, because we just can’t stop, because it’s an essential part of who we are, because we’d lose our minds if we didn’t: Sometimes I wonder, is it all on us to just get our shit together and make it work? Does the working artist these days just need to become a better administrative assistant, giving themselves over to the business of art? Or is there a collective issue here that we can examine?

Raise your hand: who has been asked by an institution (typically a large one—university, museum, etc.) to present your work for little or no money for the “prestige”? For “the love of the work”? To build your resume? Who has agreed to $250 honorariums for two days of studio visits and presentations? Who has decided not to apply for a grant because the application or requirements are labyrinthine and exhausting and you just can’t fit the work into your schedule? Who has noticed that funding is often reliant on having gotten funding in the past, on proving yourself in a certain way—often outside of art itself—which means that grants often go to folks who already are receiving the large majority of available grants?

In 1973, avant-garde filmmaker, photographer, writer/theoretician Hollis Frampton wrote this letter to the Museum of Modern Art on the invitation to present a retrospective of his work. MoMA was hoping to circumvent the rental fees from the distribution company by having Frampton bring his prints and appear for free. The question this letter so succinctly articulates is: why do museums and major institutions prioritize their incomes for everything but the art and artists? This question becomes even more pressing for time-based artists (filmmakers, poets, musicians, performers) who don’t produce objects or straightforward commodities. The NYC-based organization W.A.G.E., which hosts the copy of this letter that I linked to above, takes up that issue by placing the responsibility on institutions to sustain artists and their work by—well, paying them.

On that note, I’ll leave off with a mini manifesto, because writing this post made me realize that I have a lot on my mind these days about art and money and privilege and power…and I could probably keep on writing, but this after all is a blog post likely being read on a phone, so I’m going to leave it at this:

We must question the value system of capital “A” art and how it designates what is important to the market and therefore to artists and institutions.

For sure we must place institutions that profit from artists at the center of the critique and put our minds towards creating more institutions that don’t profit from artists but still believe in what art accomplishes socially and culturally and who are willing to take some risks in supporting work that might question capital “A” art values.

Without a doubt, we must be honest with young artists and students about what the life of the working artist (bills, jobs, tenuous housing, lack of healthcare, lack of access to materials) looks like, vs. the life of the artist who has more financial freedom from the start (plenty of access to materials, ability to present and create work for free, stable housing and quicker financial recovery from health problems).

I consider myself an artist. I’ve been working to make art for the majority of my 38 years. To be sure I’ve had many successes and recognitions of my work over the years, but few of those have paid the bills. And I’m OK with this, for now. But to a certain extent, I have no idea what the next 38 years will look like, and whether the sacrifices one makes for a life of making art might actually have to be the art itself.

Bonnie Jones is a Korean-American writer, improvising musician, and performer working primarily with electronic music and text. Born in 1977 in South Korea, she was raised on a dairy farm in New Jersey and currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland. Bonnie creates improvised and composed text-sound performances that explore the fluidity and function of electronic noise (field recordings, circuit bending) and text (poetry, found, spoken, visual). She is interested in how people perceive, “read,” and interact with these sounds and texts given our current technological moment. Jones has received commissions from the London ICA and has presented her work in the US, Europe, and Asia and collaborates frequently with writers and musicians. She received her MFA at the Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College.

Words After Music: Stories from the Archive

On May 19, 2015, NewMusicBox hosted its first live event which featured performances and stories as told by three incredibly compelling and diverse music makers: Gabriel Kahane, Matana Roberts, and Joan Tower. The evening was filled with laughter and poignant reflections, and throughout the month of August we will be posting each of the 20-minutes sets for you to enjoy.

In addition, we took the opportunity to dig through the NewMusicBox archives and reflect a bit on the phenomenal stories composers and performers have told us over the years. Since May 1999 when the site first launched, we have profiled hundreds of artists, presenting in-depth conversations with them through text and video and showcasing their music. In the early years, fans used to frequently ask if we hoped one day to be successful enough to have a print version, but this never made much sense to us. It is a magazine about music, after all. That readers are able to hear the work we cover for themselves is one of its greatest features, not a flaw.

And so for sixteen years we’ve carted our recording equipment all around the country and—even though we joke about how these interviews always seem to take place on the hottest or coldest day of the year, in a 6th floor walk up, or on the exact day the next-door neighbor decides to start a complete apartment renovation with a jackhammer—the fact is that the invitation we have been given to step into artists’ homes, their lives and their work, can’t be beat.

Since the beginning, it’s been very important to us that NewMusicBox let’s music makers speak for themselves, and they have told us some unforgettable anecdotes. We’ve loved being able to share those experiences with you online. Here are a few highlights.

Dotting Dots

Colorful bokeh

Photo by Susanne Nilsson via Flickr.

My early relationship to music was, for lack of a better term, pantheistic. I worshipped most jazz trumpet players—from Charlie Shavers to Miles Davis, from Woody Shaw to Barbara Donald. And I don’t use the term worship lightly. I’m not describing the typical process of transcribing solos or modeling my dress or stage presence after heroes. It went far, far beyond that point. I used the legends surrounding these players in the same way people use scriptural allegory as a basis for a moral and just life.

That’s a little tongue in cheek, but only a little. The fact of the matter is that, growing up, I had little or no contact with the greater world of music outside of magazines, books, and records. My imagination used these sources to mythologize my favorite players. And the few musicians I was meeting at jam sessions who had had contact with larger-than-life personalities like Miles et al. did nothing to dispel my romantic vision.

After finishing my undergraduate degree and still very much under my enhanced impression of jazz musicians, I began spending time with Ron Miles while doing my master’s degree at the University of Denver. Ron has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most interesting trumpet players of his generation, a fantastic teacher, and perhaps the nicest human being in jazz music. I don’t think it would be fair for me to claim to be his student; partially because our time together wasn’t structured in that way, but mostly because he worked hard to make me feel as if we were peers, even when I argued to the contrary. Of course, the lack of student-teacher dynamic didn’t affect how much I learned from him in that short period of time.

After my first short trip to New York, I saw Ron. He was interested in my impressions and, at length, I told him various stories about which trumpet players I felt were “ripping off” material from others and which I thought were really original. His reply, after a long pause, produced such a radical swing in my thinking that I tend to visualize it, now, as a tectonic plate shift. He said:

None of that matters. In the grand scheme of things, we’re all just dots on dots on dots on dots on dots.

I recognize that, taken out of context, it sounds nihilistic. And I probably would have dismissed it as such long ago but, with Ron, pessimism is an anomaly.

The essential truth in his statement is that we should not mistake reality for the presentation of a stylized world. The importance we attach to the physical presence of a human being who plays music can far outweigh how we view the work they produce and their acts outside of that world, creating a hierarchy that ultimately limits how we are able to interact with (and ultimately learn from) each other. Why did Ron treat me as a peer instead of as a student? Because I think that’s how he viewed me. I think that’s how he views everyone. We were just two people sharing knowledge about a similar interest. His attitude had more to do with equality of effort than hierarchy of success: everyone’s just a dot.

I started from scratch after this meeting. I stopped practicing trumpet under the weight of worship and started playing trumpet to see what I could add to the conversation. I was free to follow what I heard in my head, not as a challenge to the tradition of jazz trumpet, but as an extension of the idea of innovation on which it is based. While not feeling cocky about my ability, I appreciated that there may be a certain language that I could develop that would add to the grand conversation around the tradition and capability of the instrument. It was both exciting and daunting, the kind of experience in which you see how much work has been laid out before you and you’re almost giddy with the prospect of beginning—not with a goal in mind, but simply so you can enjoy the process as much as those before you did. The wonderful joy of realizing you’re a dot.

Why I Make Music

Nick Norton's desk
Most of the time I take it for granted that I’m a composer. When I tell people that that’s what I do, the conversation usually turns to the music itself (“oh, so soundtracks?”) or to the sometimes-tricky financial side of the equation (“right, but what’s your job?”). These questions are similar to what I concern myself with in the day-to-day of it, too: What project needs attention? How does this transition sound? Are parts going to be ready in time? Who can I get to pay for this flight? The one question that no one ever asks, however, is simply “why?”

I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but in a curious one. What is it about making art that drives us to pick a path in life that involves thousands upon thousands of hours of dedication, serious financial risk, and, in many cases, rejection after rejection after rejection? This is not to say that you can’t make music as a hobby or just for fun and self-enrichment, but that’s not the way that I’m currently pursuing it. For me, there are quite a few answers to this question, which make themselves felt to varying degrees at different times. They all play a role, though, and they add up to something that, for me, makes it worth fighting through the struggles (both artistic and personal). Here’s why I make music:

Making music excites me, more than almost anything else I’ve ever experienced.

While growing up I’d always planned on doing something in or with music, but I can pinpoint the exact moment that I decided that something was composing. It was while hearing the third bar of the first piece I ever wrote for someone else to play. As an undergrad, I had started out as a double major in guitar and political science and had always written music for my bands, so I decided to take an introduction to composition course with Harvey Sollberger. Our first assignment was to write a short piece for flute, using only five pitches, which he would then workshop with us and perform. I spent the week coming up with something that I’d probably now find pretty dull. It didn’t matter. On the second beat of the first bar I was totally enraptured. I had an idea in my head, and now it was being turned into something real in the world. This was not considered a miracle? Somewhere in the second bar I did some calculations, thought about what I’d enjoyed in life thus far, how much I hate having a routine schedule and how much I like working with people, and on the downbeat of the third decided to change my major and abandon any plan B. No plan B makes me feel the way that creating music does.

I have some kind of artistic impulse, and I love introducing people to new things. Music is just the thing that I am best at.

I love to introduce people to new experiences—I worked as a tour guide in college, am pretty obsessed with finding craft beers that people who say they don’t like beer end up loving, and get a surprisingly similar kick out of making a mixtape for someone as I do from inventing my own sounds. Music is the thing that I’ve spent the most time with, and have the most experience in, so that aspect of my personality most often manifests itself in composing. Now, the things that get my mind going, and that I want to explore, could be equally well dealt with in any medium. I’d likely be just as satisfied and excited making visual art, but I’m a terrible painter. Music is my most developed skill, so it makes sense to me to use it to do the things I want to do.

Music has done so much for me. I want to do that for someone else.

This is more of a social answer than a musical one. When I was growing up, I was kind of a nerd or loner or whatnot. We moved a couple of times, and the town we ended up in placed a lot of value on adolescents’ athletic abilities and/or how hard they partied. I went a lot of years without a lot of friends, until I found the (rather small) neighborhood punk scene. Before finding it, I always had music to hang out with and work on, and after finding it I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my feelings and could use a shared interest in music to connect with people. There were even songs about just that, and I’d always read interviews with guys in little-known bands where they said, “if one kid [listener, regardless of age] connects with something in our music and finds something he can relate to or that makes his day a little better, we’ve completely succeeded.” I wish I could tell a lot of those guys how much what they did meant to me—I did write John K. Samson a letter once, and he actually wrote back!—and I do truly hope that I can do that for someone else.

There’s war and global warming and terrorism and corporate greed and student loans and corrupt cops and terrorism. The universe is probably meaningless, and we’re basically all screwed. Music is nice.

Why not, really? I’d rather be playing guitar or putting together a concert than fighting a losing battle against spacetime.
Norton at the beach


In re-reading these answers, the one that might not come across, and needs to be emphatically added, is that I love the stuff. I love making it, and I love listening to it, and I feel insanely lucky that our society makes it possible for me to pursue those things instead of pursuing subsistence. We have an extremely small amount of time in the universe. Spending it doing stuff that I don’t love just seems like a shame, and enough of a shame that I’m down to work myself to the bone to avoid it.

Onward, then. I’ve got a piece to finish.

The Role Of College Teaching In The Life of A Creative Musician

The Grass is Greener

Photo by Scot Woodman on Flickr

“There’s no way I could come to your university and perform with your students. Academic institutions suck all the creative life out of me. I hate them. I try to avoid them as much as possible.”
“But William Paterson University is a creative place,” I responded. “We have a great New Music Series and an amazing jazz program and we do a lot of commissioning and improvising out there. I think you’d like the vibe.”
“Nope,” he said. “I appreciate your offer, but my experience with schools is that they are creativity killers. They’re just so conservative and backwards thinking. Thanks but no thanks.”

Sigh. Once again I found myself trying in vain to defend the profession of teaching music at the university level and the academic institutions that support it. I had offered this prominent New York City composer/performer a good fee, a nice sushi dinner, and the opportunity to have his piece performed by a dedicated group of students and faculty who would put months of preparation into it, but I was getting nowhere. I let it go and we talked about other things.

This musician’s attitude was particularly intense, but it wasn’t the first time I had encountered such resistance to academic institutions. Over the years, many of my friends and colleagues across the U.S. who are freelance musicians and specialize in contemporary music have told me that they dislike schools of any sort and they want nothing to do with them. They’ve either implied or stated outright that if I were really good at what I do then I would be able to make it as a freelancer and I wouldn’t need to teach. They believe the old adage of “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.”

At first I just shrugged this off as arrogant first-world thinking. I thought that in the interest of enhancing their street credibility, they could afford to discredit the system that helped them develop their skills, because in the end there was still plenty of money and work to go around. But after considering it more carefully I came to the conclusion that the issue is more complicated and subtle and deserves exploration. I’ll explain, but first, some background.


I’ve been teaching at the tenure-track college level for thirteen years. Even before I had my DMA from the Eastman School of Music in hand at twenty-six years old, I had landed a tenure-track job at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. I taught ethnomusicology and percussion there for three years (2001–2004) and then landed my current position at William Paterson University (WP) in Wayne, New Jersey, twenty miles west of New York City. At WP I teach percussion, contemporary music, Indian classical music, and improvisation. I was tenured in 2009 and am currently at the rank of Associate Professor.
I set my sights on a college teaching job when I was a freshman during my undergraduate years at the University of Michigan. I knew by then that my options were fairly limited in terms of making a living in the U.S. as a composer and percussionist. Most of my colleagues in the percussion area were trying to land jobs with orchestras. I’ve never found orchestral percussion playing particularly interesting, so I scratched that option off the list right away. The other possibility was a job playing percussion with a military band, but it was still basically an orchestral gig, so I scratched that one off the list too.

That basically left freelance work or college teaching. For me, college teaching was a better choice. To start, I’ve always enjoyed teaching. Secondly, I knew that it would take some time to find the right job and that I would have to jump through some hoops to tailor the job to what I wanted, but I also knew that when I got things where I wanted them I would have a stable income, good health insurance, and a solid retirement package. But here’s the salient point: those things really only mattered to me because they would give me the freedom to perform and compose the music I wanted.

Freelancing as a composer/performer never appealed to me for one simple reason: I’ve never wanted to play or write music that I don’t believe in. I knew that as a freelance percussionist I would need to play any and all gigs to survive—especially for the first decade or so I was in a city—which would likely include playing in bands for corporate gigs and bars, musical theatre shows, commercial recording sessions, and orchestral percussion gigs. As a composer I would likely need to write commercial music. I did all those things in the first few years I was working, but I did them knowing that it was just to round out my musical experience to make me a better teacher. I didn’t want to be doing them in the later part of my life.

Of course, I would never criticize anyone who has taken that path. Many of my colleagues have an agnostic attitude towards music. So long as they’re playing drums (or violin or whatever), they are happy, no matter what the style or situation. The same goes for many of my composer friends. I respect them greatly. After all, it’s very difficult to survive as a freelancer anywhere in the world. But I’ve always felt that it wasn’t the right path for me, and many others feel the same. My burning passion has always been experimental music and world music. [1] What I needed was complete freedom to pursue any musical direction I want, no matter the commercial value.

Of course, there are other ways to go about this. America has a long history of composers and performers working jobs unrelated to the music field in order to pay the bills. Charles Ives working in the insurance business, Philip Glass driving a taxi and working as a plumber in the early part of his career, and John Cage working a variety of jobs until he was nearly fifty years old are but a few famous examples. I also considered that option, but I couldn’t get the math to work out, both in terms of finances and time. If I worked just a few hours a day at Starbucks or another entry-level job I’d have the time and mental space I needed to pursue my artistic vision, but not the money. Everything I earned would get sucked into paying bills and I’d have nothing left over to invest in hiring good players to perform my music, make recordings, buy equipment, build press materials, etc.—the basic things you need to form a career. This is especially true in big cities like New York where the basic minimum wage has fallen far behind the cost of living over the last forty years. Steve Reich could drive a cab in the early 1970s and rent an apartment for $50 a month and save a bit of money to pay his ensemble members and release recordings, but that’s much more difficult now.
If I got involved with a more serious career like selling insurance or working as a lawyer I would have the money I needed, but not the time. I’m an incredibly energetic guy, but even I have my limits. Fifty hours a week at the office wouldn’t leave much mental space or physical energy for composing sessions, long rehearsals, and touring.

College teaching seemed like the perfect answer because the hours are generally much lower but the pay is reasonable. Most weeks I’m up at the University about three to four days. One of those days is quite long, from about 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., but the other days are shorter. On average I’d say my time teaching and attending to various administrative duties is about twenty to thirty hours a week, for about eight months a year.

There are two things about those hours that make them special, however. First, they are flexible. I tour many weeks each semester and it’s very easy for me to rearrange rehearsals, classes, and lessons. Second, I’m immersed in fascinating, quality music during those hours and I have the freedom to choose good repertoire. I pick the pieces I’ll conduct, I organize my classes how I like, and when working with students one on one in percussion or composition lessons I help them select the repertoire. I also have a laboratory at my fingertips to help develop my own music. That all gives me a lot of job satisfaction because I have some degree of creative control; I’m not just taking orders from someone.

However, lest you might be getting ready to write a letter to the Governor of New Jersey expressing your anger at lazy professors who only work twenty to thirty hours a week and enjoy a fat salary, let me put those hours in perspective. Those are only the hours I spend at the university. When you add in my composing time each day, my practicing, and several hours a day on email and the phone for hustling the various business aspects of my career outside the university (as well as the university administrative work), the hours top out closer to sixty or seventy, sometimes more.

Of course, college teaching jobs are hard to get. When my freelance musician friends make disparaging statements to me about college teachers being second-rate players or composers, I gently remind them that based on one’s performance recital and interview, getting a job usually means someone has beat out well over 100 applicants for a position—most of whom are freelancers. And being a successful university professor requires more than just teaching and playing skills. One must know how to interact with Deans and Presidents, apply for grants, and navigate the various administrative and political aspects of working in a large organization. Maintaining this balance is more difficult than it may seem and many people don’t have the knack for it.
There is something else many freelancers don’t know: being successful at a university gig and climbing the academic ladder has more to do with what you do outside the university than what you do inside. Once in a great while someone will be denied tenure because his or her teaching is bad, but usually someone is fired at the university because he or she didn’t have the ambition and vision to build a successful career outside the confines of the academic institution. This is a great boon to serious musicians who teach, as it justifies spending time away from the university while on tour or making plenty of room in one’s schedule for composing.

There are three basic criteria that promotion and tenure committees look at when evaluating a candidate. First, the quality of their teaching as measured through student and faculty peer evaluations. Second, the quality and quantity of a candidate’s professional life outside the university, and third is service to the university (committees, panels, etc). There are a few universities who bill themselves as “teaching” universities in which the teaching is the most important criteria and professional work doesn’t matter, but in general there is no question that one’s professional activity is what guarantees employment. “Publish or perish.” That is why most college professors are excellent players and composers. They have to be or they’ll lose their jobs.


But what about what that prominent NYC composer/performer said? Are university music programs conservative places that have little use for truly creative thinking?
Yes, sometimes they are!

I’ve spent hundreds of hours of my life sitting through faculty meetings and serving on various committees and in my experience university music departments are often risk-adverse. There are two reasons for this.
First, frequently updating curriculum (or simply letting students design their own with guidance from a professor, which is what I advocate) requires flexibility from the faculty. One must be willing to teach something different every semester and take on the role of adviser and collaborator rather than top-down mentor. However, many faculty are unwilling to do this, mostly out of ennui. Once many professors have become comfortable teaching something, they are unwilling to investigate new ways to apply their knowledge to a rapidly-changing art form. Unfortunately the classic image of the professor wearing the dandruff-covered sweater jacket, peering over reading glasses at ancient notes that he or she made decades ago (on paper no doubt) is all too alive and well.

There is little the students or other faculty can do about this. Unless a tenured professor does something illegal, the unions hold so much power it is nearly impossible to fire him or her. Indeed, this is the primary criticism people have leveled against the tenure system: that it fosters stagnation and only serves the professors. This is a fair criticism and one I’ve expressed many times (and I’m a tenured professor). But getting rid of tenure entirely would be very dangerous. That would put the employment of the faculty at the whims of higher administrators, most of who know virtually nothing about the field of music and are often quick to fire and hire people to serve their own career interests.

The solution is to keep the tenure system, but never guarantee life-long employment. Rather, one should be able to earn increasingly longer sentences of job security. So, for example, one could come up for review after one year, then two years, then four years, then perhaps every six or eight years for the rest of one’s career at a given institution. The reviews should have teeth and no matter how long someone has been at an institution he or she should sweat at the conclusion of each block, even if they’ve been there thirty years. This would force faculty to stay professionally active and keep refining their teaching and answering the challenge of working in a dynamic musical culture. This structure would be fairer to the students—who deserve professors who are professionally active—and it’s fairer to the majority of the faculty at any given institution who are burning the candle at both ends.

The other reason most university music departments are so risk adverse is because the canon takes on too much weight over time. The great composers of the past wrote so much great music and it takes so much time to get through even a fraction of it that it can be difficult for professors to figure out ways to balance a thorough education in the old masterpieces with more modern skill sets (e.g., music software literacy or world music awareness). Some schools have responded to this challenge by throwing out the old masterpieces all together and letting the students study whatever they want, which usually means pop music. This often falls under the guise of postmodernism. “Down with The Man!” “No more letting dead males dictate our aesthetics!”

However, those dead males wrote a lot of great music. Although I’d like to see more flexibility in curriculums, there is no question that working through the standard repertoire develops one’s technique better than anything else, and technique is important. One thing I’ve noticed after thirteen years of professional work with the best contemporary classical and jazz musicians in America is that without exception, the most creative players have a thorough grounding in the classics. A handful of them got it outside of school, but almost all of them procured it during their high school and university years. Indeed, I frequently hear “new music” by young composers who have eschewed the classic studies of counterpoint, orchestration, and harmony because it’s too “conformist” or some other such response. The results are dreadful and predictable: poorly orchestrated tunes that lack coherence. Even worse is the performer who has refused to grapple with the standard repertoire and has developed their “own thing.” Sloppy tuning, bad rhythm, and lousy tone are the primary results.

A basic working knowledge of the canon also gives one a key into a fraternity of professional musicians. It is basic musical literacy. For example, if you are a classical musician and you don’t know anything about the music of Palestrina or Stravinsky and you don’t know who Yo-Yo Ma is you won’t be able to communicate effectively with the best classical musicians working today. (And more importantly, you’ll have deprived yourself of some of the greatest music ever written and performed.)
One must be careful not to confuse conformity with discipline. Even though university music programs need to find more creative and dynamic ways to balance the study of the canon with the diverse skill sets needed to negotiate the modern musical landscape, studying the canon and developing a highly refined technique are still paramount. You can’t escape it. Studying the classical masterpieces of the past only fosters conformity if the professor insists that his or her students blindly imitate that music or interpretations of that music. (In the case of jazz this would take the form of stopping with the Abersold method. That is, getting to a point where you can imitate the great jazz musicians of the past, but can’t go any further.)

However, good teachers do much more than that. They open students’ ears and souls to the creative spirit underlying all great music and thus enable the transference of that creativity from one generation to another. What that New York City composer/performer that I quoted at the beginning of this article failed to understand is that at William Paterson University (and other quality music schools) we focus on the classics because that is the best framework for a young musician to gain the skills needed to perform all manner of modern music. That doesn’t make our institution uncreative or conformist. Quite the opposite: our dedication to creative music requires us to focus on the canon. Indeed, what we want for our students is for them to become the most creative musicians of their generation, but first they need some chops.

What music schools and departments need is balance, and I think art departments do it better than we do. Art majors start creating art from their very first day, in different mediums, while simultaneously studying the great classics through their art history courses. There’s no reason we can’t do this in music departments. Every music student in America should be composing, improvising, and learning music software as part of their university education, all the while studying Beethoven symphonies and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. As I said at the beginning of this section, this can be done in a way that maximizes each student’s individual interests and talents by letting them design their own curriculum under the guidance of a supportive mentor. It might take a bit more effort on the part of the professors, but the result would be a much more dynamic and relevant experience for everyone.


The big point that critics of college teaching fail to understand is that teaching music is more than just teaching music. Yes, of course a teacher has to teach a student how to hold a bow, or how to realize second-species counterpoint, or how to play a double-stroke roll, but it’s more than that. A good teacher connects the great musicians and musical works of the past with the present, while paving the road for the future. This doesn’t just mean technique, rather, it means connecting with the wildly creative spirits that flowed through each and every great musician of the past. This is one of the things I love about teaching: I regularly come into contact with wonderful music and by figuring out how to help other people plumb the depths of these sonic wonders I am refreshed. My passion for creative music is renewed time and again.

I also see people change. Over the course of four or five years my students become more sensitive, intelligent, and creative because of their contact with great music. Ultimately, it is these deeply spiritual experiences that motivate my teaching, not financial stability.

Each of us is a link in a chain that extends outwards to infinity in either direction. None of us were hatched from eggs yesterday (to borrow a phrase from J.M. Coetzee). We all owe a huge debt to those people who spent the extra hours with us to make our performing and composing that much better, and opened our ears and hearts and minds to the masterpieces of the past. Our teachers didn’t just give us employable skills, they deeply enriched our lives. We can repay this debt in many ways, but one of the most powerful is by doing the same for others. It’s a massive challenge, but ultimately a musical one.
Undoubtedly my attitude in this regard comes partly from my deep involvement with North Indian Hindustani classical music. In India teaching is held in high regard and even the most commercially successful performers (e.g., Zakir Hussain) make time in their lives for teaching. My gurus, the renowned Dhrupad masters the Gundecha Brothers, regularly bring their top students on tour with them. The students join them on stage and play the tanpura (the drone instrument) and often sing backup vocals. Teaching actually happens on stage, even for major concerts. When the show is over it is common for the teachers to quiz the students on what they just heard and for the students to ask questions about the performance, even very specific technical ones. Thus the teaching and the performing are seamlessly intertwined. The past, present, and future connected as one.
Of course, some people have no talent for teaching or interest in it. But their deficiencies or attitudes shouldn’t be twisted into virtues. As with most things in life, the reality is highly contextual and subtle, much more than the crude distinctions many people make between “teachers” and “freelancers.” Yes, there are some bad teachers out there, but there are also many wonderful teachers who are highly accomplished performers and composers outside of the academy. And yes, many college music programs are procrustean and need improvement, but they still serve an important basic function to give our future generations the basic skills they need to participate in creative music making at the highest levels.

There is nothing more important to the future of creative music than passionate and talented teachers. Let us all reevaluate the role of teaching in the realm of creative contemporary music, and let us be glad that many of us college professors are working tirelessly to inspire creative music-making in future generations.


1. I realize that I’m drawing somewhat of a line here between “commercial” music and “experimental” music, and I admit that that line is quite fuzzy and often doesn’t exist clearly at all. All music has both elements to it, but it is a matter of degree. There is quite a difference in intent—and I would say artistic effect—between the music of, say, Justin Bieber and Charles Wuorinen. No matter how clever one is in trying to erase that line and intellectualize the supposed similarities between Mr. Bieber and Mr. Wuorinen, the fact is that the audiences are different, the venues are different, composing and learning and performing the music is different, and the emotional experience of hearing the music is quite different. No disrespect to Mr. Bieber, but I much prefer Mr. Wuorinen’s music, or Mr. Cage’s music, or Mr. Reich’s music, or Ravi Shankar’s music, and it is that music and music that is created in that spirit to which I have devoted my life.


Payton MacDonald
Payton MacDonald is a composer/percussionist/singer/improviser/administrator/educator. He has created a unique body of work that draws upon his extensive experience with East Indian tabla drumming and Dhrupad singing, Jazz, European classical music, and the American experimental tradition. MacDonald was educated at the University of Michigan and Eastman School of music. He has toured the world as a performer and composed music for many different ensembles.