Tag: composer career paths

Taking Tweed Seriously–Lessons for the Emerging Opera Composer

On May 3rd, my opera, The System of Soothing, was presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase—a major step into the American new opera scene for an emerging composer. In these essays, I intend to chronicle my experience preparing for, and taking part in, this opportunity. For this installment, I consider how I prepared to present myself as an emerging opera composer, and how I fared putting those skills to work.

“I am becoming a better opera composer” is my brand, to borrow a word from the marketing world. When I was in non-profit administration, we would talk about this quite a bit. We were trying to distill our “soul”—what drove us, as an organization, to do what we did—and then make that into something recognizable to the public that we could, in turn, utilize at fundraising time.  While not my favorite term, The Brand provides a compass, an overarching explanation as to why I make my decisions regarding my work and how I advance plans that will hopefully lead to collaboration. Just saying it—identifying The Brand—doesn’t necessarily translate into anybody buying what I am selling, but it does remind me of my true north.

Opera is an inherently collaborative endeavor.

Opera is an inherently collaborative endeavor. My understanding of the inner workings of the writing and production of opera, and the collaboration required to make it all happen is the bridge that connects The Brand (which is theoretical and internal), and the reputation I want to develop in the real world: the impression I make on those around me as work proceeds.

It’s a bit of a tall order to get that across with a few website tweaks and a new set of headshots, but embodying The Brand is my responsibility, as is communicating it to potential collaborators.  I could easily represent myself as a safe choice, saying, in effect, “I’m not going to be a problem for you. I’m not one of those crazy egocentric composers who is going to make ridiculous demands and make you sorry you wanted to work with me.” I can assuage these preconceptions with a picture that pretty much sums me up: “I’m normal!  I’m a nice guy! I’m wearing tweed, for God’s sake!” But safe is not safe when so few opportunities exist. What The Brand demands of me—and the reputation I wish to establish—is to present myself as an engaging collaborative professional with a clear artistic vision and a solid understanding of the art form, while also demonstrating the leadership skills necessary to bring it to life.

Love in an Elevator

Frontiers was my first foray into the American opera machine. I met other composers, singers, conductors, and general directors both at Fort Worth, and later at the Opera America convention, which ran concurrently in Dallas. Everybody talked, networked, and traded experiences and plans. I knew this was coming, so I quickly had to prepare for succinct conversations about myself, every aspect of my portfolio, and every opera in my portfolio.

In my admin days, the “brand” discussion was always followed by the obsessive for the perfect elevator speech—a pitch given in less than 30 seconds to someone with undivided attention. Mostly used when approaching new donors, the goal was getting a check or a pledge of future support.  I actually followed quite a few marks into literal elevators, so the name wasn’t too misleading.

The same thinking applies when prepping myself to pitch completed, current, and dreamed-about opera projects. With these pitches, I throw things against the wall in hopes that either they will stick or result in a “positive rejection” (a pass on the project at hand, but an expressed interest in a potential future collaboration).

Who am I, anyway?

Pesci in a tweed jacket inside Bass Hall for a performance by the Ft. Worth Opera

I have a diverse background. My writing and performing experience spans rock, pop, jazz, funk-fusion, liturgical music, pit bands, musical theater shows, opera, lonely coffee house singer-songwriter stints where the only thing I was serenading was the coffee, and a smattering of orchestra gigs. On top of that, my work history includes teaching, working with special needs communities, administration, executive leadership, grant writing and fundraising, and restaurant work. I even sold women’s clothes for a while. I don’t exactly embody the traditional compositional pedigree. To practice talking about my musical self, I had to be able to talk to everyone about my musical self—not just other musicians, and certainly not just general directors, conductors, and dramaturges.

The pitch is about 50 to 100 words that could be delivered verbally in 30 seconds.

I developed one pitch for non-professionals, completely devoid of jargon. It was liberating! Crafting an easily understandable, yet engaging personal pitch became much less threatening. It focuses on the “what” of what I do, and less so, the “why” or “what I’m trying to accomplish.” I extended that technique into my opera pitches. I initially thought that I simply needed to describe what happens in the course of a show and could leave out leitmotivs, dramaturgical nuance, or what the piece “means.” I started big, by reverse-engineering a “treatment”—a scene-by-scene narrative format, complete with descriptions of arias, plot devices, and even some general staging recommendations. One size smaller is the synopsis, which is more general, focusing on what happens act to act. The show could then be distilled into the pitch, about 50 to 100 words that could be delivered verbally in 30 seconds, answering the question, “Why should I be interested in this opera?” The hardest-hitting part of the pitch is the hook—the first sentence that should set up what piqued my interest, and why I wanted to write the damn opera in the first place.

The best laid plans…

In the months ahead of Frontiers, I wrote and rewrote my opera pitches, and practiced with colleagues and friends. The feedback quickly coalesced into a common critique: I had written myself out of my pitches. I was pitching interesting shows that in no way could be traced back to me as the creator. I had followed my own advice so meticulously that my pitches were “correct,” but completely impersonal.  Also, I had somehow convinced myself that the show would be seen as more important than the work I had done to write the show. Two nail-biting weeks before I flew to Texas, I started from scratch, rewriting my pitches with myself, my skills as a composer, and what drew me to the subject as the hook. In doing so, I was now selling my craft and myself; in practice, I became The Brand, and The Brand became me.

The long view of a personal relationship is key to successful artistic collaboration.

In doing so, I averted a potentially fatal flaw in my presentation. This was made aware to me in my first meetings with conductors, singers and general directors. As I learned in my initial telephone outreach with American opera companies, the long view of a personal relationship is key to successful artistic collaboration. Leading with who I am, what I’m working on, and how (and why) I’m approaching my work is far more engaging, open and fulfilling.

Next week: Rehearsal and performance, or, “All the things I didn’t know I knew about my opera.”

Taking The Plunge

Four years ago today, I was immersed in the American Choral Directors Association National Conference in Dallas. It was my first ACDA conference, and I had hit the ground running: I was catching up with colleagues, trying to make new contacts, and getting the lay of the land so that I could be better-prepared for the next time. At the same time, I was frantically finishing parts for an orchestral commission, suffering through horrible edits for a now-abandoned choral music recording project, and mentally preparing for a major life change: when I got back to New York, I was going to quit my day job and go full-time as a freelance composer.

At that point, I’d been working for a few years as the Accounts Payable guy for a historic non-profit theater in Midtown, and it had been wearing me down. I’d worked office jobs before—lots, in fact—and mostly, for some reason, in finance despite the fact that my degrees are all in music. I’d been a Fund of Hedge Funds administrator on Wall Street, I’d temped heavily for financial services firms, and had even assisted the Finance Department of the company that manages the Empire State Building.

I composed on evenings and weekends when I had the energy, and stole time away during the day job to handle some of my musical admin tasks and to “network” on Twitter. The 10-to-6 thing didn’t bother me overmuch, and the work itself was easy enough, but more often than not I came home from the job frustrated and angry and in no mood to be creative. The atmosphere at the job was, in short, toxic. That’s nothing new to most 9-to-5ers, and I’d had my share of bad jobs before, but it made the sacrifice of my time and energy chafe that much more.

And in retrospect, I was also in the midst of a delayed quarter-life crisis. I was 30, nearly 31, and surrounded by people who had walked away from their art long ago in favor of financial security, and were palpably miserable because of it. How long would it be until I was one of those souls who looked back wistfully at their happier days as an artist while filing another TPS report? I’d been in NYC for nearly 10 years at that point, and although I’d accomplished a fair amount, I hadn’t moved halfway across the country to one of the most expensive and difficult places to live so that I could play it safe. If all I’d wanted was security, I could have stayed in Normal, IL (yes, Normal), and gotten a job at State Farm.

So the day I got back from Dallas, I sat down with my boss and gave my notice.

Laptop with music notation software program on screen on table with glass of orange juice on the side

In the months leading up this, I’d spent a lot of time talking with my then-boyfriend/now-husband about the decision, and he was 100% on board. I had some money saved up, and I was confident that between the momentum I was gaining as a composer and all of my various side-hustles, I could replace enough of the W-2 income I’d be losing with new musical income and new side-hustle clients.

I had also been doing a lot of research. I read countless articles, blog posts, and books about living as a freelancer, and I was a devotee of a handful of podcasts by successful freelance writers. The common refrain was, it’s not easy, but with hard work and persistence, you can make this lifestyle work for you.

One of the best resources I’d come across, and one I still swear by today, was Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Freelancer’s Survival Guide. In the book, Ms. Rusch tackles everything from adjusting your mindset about being your own boss, to handling your freelance finances, to the types of setbacks you can expect and how to overcome them, to negotiating and networking and assessing risk. Her insights into our motivations and behaviors when it comes to the idea of “work” are eye-opening, and for that alone I think that the book should be required reading for anyone who works any type of job, whether it’s freelance or not.

I also devoured David Cutler’s The Savvy Musician, Angela Myles Beeching’s Beyond Talent, and Jackie Battenfield’s The Artist’s Guide; scoured the blogs of writers Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, and Joe Konrath (titans of indie publishing who regularly write blog posts to help their fellow writers find their path); and hung on every word of The Creative Penn and the Self Publishing Podcast.

All of these resources will tell you that freelancing isn’t for everyone, for any number of reasons. Some people are just risk averse, and prefer having stability: for families that rely on two stable incomes, going freelance is often too risky a proposition. For some, the uncertainty can be psychologically unhealthy, since modern society so often links self-worth with “success”, especially financial success. And some people are, quite reasonably, content to earn their living separate from their art. We each have different values and needs, and we all have our reasons for wanting or not wanting to go freelance.

My good friend Ed Windels wrote some excellent posts here about being a composer with a day job. In preparing to write this first article, I re-read those, and agree 100% with what he has to say on the subject, and find there to be remarkable overlap in his views on what it takes to be a 5-to-9 artist and my own on what it takes to be a full-time freelancer. Both paths are difficult and take an exceptional amount of discipline and sacrifice. Neither is inherently better than the other: so long as it works for you, it’s the right path.

For me, I decided that I needed the change, and wanted to see if I could make it work.

Pages of sheet music from four different projects

So how was this whole thing supposed to work? I was on the precipice of giving up a very comfortable salary, staring into the complete unknown. Surely I had a plan?

At the point where I decoupled from the day job, I had two commissions lined up, and a handful of premieres on the horizon. It was a nice way to start my freelance life, but thanks to my work on Wall St., I was familiar with the caveat, “Past performance is not an indicator of future results.” I couldn’t rest on those laurels, and just wait for the next thing to come along. I also knew that I couldn’t immediately rely on meaningful income from music, so I would have to make up the shortfall from my now-former job in another way.

I’ve designed websites for musicians since 2007, and have done professional-level music copying work for about as long, so I could take on more work in those areas to stay financially afloat, and spend the remainder of my time on composing and growing my network of contacts. I was prepared to expand my web design business, and started canvassing local businesses in my neighborhood, looking for leads on potential new clients. A handful of new web clients could keep me afloat for months without taking up all of my time. I also let it be known to a few contacts that I was available for more engraving work, which paid well, and took a blessedly finite amount of time.

Musically, I was prepared to go deep into workhorse mode. I keep a spreadsheet of pieces that I want to write, so I wasn’t going to be at a loss for ideas; and, while I would certainly do my best to hunt down new commissions, I felt it just as important to keep writing regardless. If I was going to make it, I was going to have to keep expanding my catalog in meaningful ways.

Those of you who have followed my writing or my podcasts know that I take the firm stance that every piece you write, once it is finished, is a product in your catalog, a new asset on your books. Building on that, I made the decision that I would be better served building my catalog where I felt it needed growth even when the new works weren’t commissioned. More works—more assets—meant more opportunities.

So, armed with a plan and the collected knowledge and wisdom of the artists who I’d been following and studying, I set off as a full-time freelance composer.

Within months, everything had gone wrong.

Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski is a composer, vocalist, and advocate for new music and living composers. He hosts two music business-centered podcasts aimed at helping composers and performers to learn more about the practical aspects of their careers: the Music Publishing Podcast, a weekly, hour-long conversation with other professionals in the field of concert music, and The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business, where he answers questions and discusses current issues within the new music community.


Embracing Being a 5-to-9 Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why take up the banner about it now?

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

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

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

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

Ed Windels

Ed Windels. Photo by Derek Edward Pfohl.

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

The View from the Bottom of the Heap

The logo for the July/August 1966 issue (Vol. 8 No. 6) of Music Today, the Newsletter of the American Music Center (the official United States Information Center for Music) listing its then address (2109 Broadway NYC)

[Ed. Note: This essay originally appeared in the July/August 1966 issue (Vol. 8 No. 6) of Music Today, the newsletter of the American Music Center. Since Charlie Morrow brought it up in our conversation almost 49 years after it was originally published and those AMC newsletters are in our archive, it seemed like the perfect time to revisit it.-FJO]

From the moment graduation ceremonies end, the composer faces a future more uncertain than that of anyone, except perhaps the poet. As a student, one can glibly evaluate the world of professional music. The detachment is glorious but only because one is on the outside. Criticism is easy, on the arm of one’s teacher, because what is happening seems so clear. The hypocrisy of expedient allegiances and performances is glaring, because there is no professional involvement. But school days come to an end and the composer mortality rate—not to mention that of their all too perishable idealism—is close to 100 per cent. I am one of the many in that uncertain middle ground trying to survive, pen in hand. While what I say may seem old-hat to those who have braved the storm for years, perhaps some of my problems are relevant to all composers.

Having no independent means but a modicum of public acceptance, I was not ready to throw in the towel and do something else in order to compose. So I set out. A number of people had asked for pieces. Step one was to ask expenses. Printing and copying costs had made composing not just a thankless task, but a luxury. Some said, “No one else charges.” But most responded to an explanation of the problem. An appeal grounded in professionalism looked feasible.

The next step was to ask for fees based on the time involved in order simply to break even in terms of food and rent. No musician plays for nothing; asking anyone to pay for the right to perform would be absurd. Do we only get performed as a favor? We charge for lecturing. All issues of commercialism aside, one must live. People pay for published pieces, instruments, concert tickets and rented parts, without corrupting one note of music. We ourselves buy paper, scores and printing services. We must always be writing for ourselves, certainly, but if the dubious title of professional is to have any meaning, we cannot give away our work—and at a loss—unless a performance really is just a favor. Grants for performing groups might improve the situation by including composer expense allotments.

Everyone knows these facts of life. But such issues are irrelevant if there is no demand for the music. The lack of an obvious market should not deter one from devoting the full time it requires to the profession. Composers as a group have been overly cautious and shortsighted in promoting themselves. Interest in the arts is supposed to be blossoming, yet most of the energy spent on reaching audience goes into little projects, with little or no advertising budgets. It seems unlikely at this time that our society is going to take care of its artists, even as it does its unemployed, sick and aged; and resident composerships are rare. All the money spent on building concert halls, aiding orchestras and the like, helps the composer only indirectly. Other solutions are needed.

Mass media offer an opportunity to reach the greatest number of people, (the commercial, not just the educational media), and all media do inform the public. At present, concert pieces have little hope of being filmed or televised. But the possibilities in theater music, film score, TV-score, advertising, and educational material are staggering. As a rule, “commercial” talent dominates these fields, but only because these people are looking for the work, and often come to be in decision-making posts. The serious professional composer understands sound and its possibilities—dramatic, expressive, constructional—better than any tunesmith. Yet when composers look for work, they change their style. How absurd, when what they are best equipped to write would do the job better!

While the major developments in much new music must be presented by professional specialists, much can be accomplished in commercial situations, and perhaps with a wider educational effect. Not to mention, of course, the wealth of theater and semi-improvised material that is both up to date and accessible to players ranging from grade school groups to adult amateurs. Projects like the Ford Foundation’s “Composer in the High School” are steps in the right direction, but the problem goes all the way down to the primary grades. This is where minds can be opened up. In dealing with this “market,” the publishing industry, if not our educators, are committing a grievous error by failing to use, let alone understand, the talents of our most gifted and imaginative composers. Children respond more readily to enthusiasm and creative spirit than to method.

Most of us are introverts, but there is no reason why there must be only a few channels for performance, most of them self-generated. These are good, but they are not enough; they can make our introversion incestuous (if they do not perform a broad spectrum of styles and a broad service). Building local contemporary ensembles and conning travelling groups into doing our pieces, the one time they play the job we book for them, is hardly good community relations. It may be fine for those who write very small amounts of music each year. However, the stylistic crisis arises anew with each piece for many of us, so that progress is often slow and the product difficult to perform. For this sort of individual, the university and its programs offer unique sanctuary. And even in the university, much more could be done. Workshops in theater, dance, and mixed media (music with lights, film, etc.) could support many composers on at least a part time basis.

But there is both a need and a place for the professional, unaffiliated composer, especially if he is prolific and willing to take risks. This goes far beyond having relatively apolitical people in the field, for we all have biases; there also is a need for self-esteem and social definition if not a community role. Society seems to have come full-circle, since the decline of patronage, to a point where its structure can again support high-class art. At present this possibility exists mainly in the area of functional art, but if the standards are raised there, the future might be very rich indeed. Clearly there is work to be done, and work that can bring at least a meager livelihood and perhaps some social change. If enough of us try, maybe something will happen.

A long-haired Charlie Morrow leaning at a table and surrounded by a lot of electronic equipment

Charlie Morrow at his NYC studio, circa 1969. Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.
(NOTE: This photo, taken three years after the article was originally published, did not appear in the original publication.)

What Have YOU Been Up To?

The studio for Found Objects showing a chair at a desk with a computer, keyboards, speakers, and a large screen

The Found Objects Studio

A couple weeks ago I was at the New Music Bake Sale in Brooklyn. I was walking around meeting composers and performers at this social gathering/concert/pastry sale—occasionally reconnecting with people that I haven’t seen in a while. I even ran into some people that I had not seen since my grad school years at the Yale School of Music. I had a few exchanges that night that really stuck with me afterwards. They started with the most common question between fellow artists: What have you been up to? I was a little stumped.

I did have a ballet performed at BAM in the summer of 2014, but since then and very much before then, not a lot of new music activity has been happening in my life. So in that moment, I didn’t feel I had anything compelling to discuss. There was nothing that I was finishing or that was in progress. And so the conversation became a little awkward.

I later thought about these moments. My next ballet premiere? Where is my opera or orchestra commission? This isn’t to say that I deserved these projects, but more that I hadn’t thought about them much until now. Between the years of 2010 and 2015, I’ve written a total of three substantial works.

But I have been ‘up to’ something over these years. I’ve been building a commercial music company called Found Objects. It’s not “new music”, but I write a lot of music and it’s an immense amount of work.

The unintended consequence of building Found Objects is that the focus and energy required to create and maintain it has in some ways forced me to withdraw from other fields of interest. While my friends and colleagues were pursuing projects in concert, dance, opera, and other artistic mediums, I was meeting music producers for new commercial opportunities. These opportunities were required to make Found Objects a success and, if I missed them, Found Objects would suffer.

Jay Wadley, Bryan Senti, and myself started Found Objects while studying at the Yale School of Music. It began as a simple composer collective but eventually grew into something completely different. Eight years later, Jay and I now have a producer, an accountant, and a lawyer, as well as health insurance, workers’ comp, freelancer agreements, musicology reports, and many more responsibilities. But more importantly, we have a beautiful music studio with three writing rooms and a common space looking towards the Empire State Building in which we write music for advertising, television, and film almost every day.

I remember imagining that I was going to be a concert composer who moonlighted as a professor at a major university, just as my teacher at the time, Kevin Puts, was making it work at the University of Texas where I got my undergraduate degree. That made sense to me at UT and during my first year at the Yale School of Music.

My ideas began to change when I interned for Nico Muhly at Philip Glass’s studio in NoHo. This was the summer of 2006. Nico was just beginning to get consistent commissions and collaborations. He became busy enough to need a full-time intern to help with his assisting of Philip Glass.

I had been a very serious superfan of Philip Glass’s music since high school, so the whole opportunity blew my mind. I knew everything he wrote. I knew all of his popular canon but also his more hidden works—symphonies, concertos, and orchestral overtures, etc.—which rarely get played. (They are amazing pieces that are completely ignored by the traditional classical music industry.)

But Philip seemed to be making it just fine by himself. He was always writing and he was living comfortably. He only had a few employees to help facilitate his extraordinarily busy career. Nico worked for him as his sole music assistant for about nine years. Philip wrote all of his music fully orchestrated by hand and he needed someone to transfer his manuscript into Sibelius and, when working on films, Digital Performer to make orchestral mockups.

What I found most interesting was that he was writing so much music and he was open to whatever assignment that came to him. As long as he thought it was either artistically interesting or was needed to pay the bills, he took it on. It looked like a great balance and a great way to be a composer for a living.

I was interning when he was writing his Oscar-nominated score for Notes on a Scandal. That film was a struggle and he had to write the score twice. At the same time, however, he was writing a 40-minute oratorio called The Passion of Ramakrishna. But Philip’s approach to music had a Zen-like abandon. Keep moving, keep writing, and never look back.

I returned to Yale for my second year with a new perspective. This guy was doing it all by himself. He was completely artistically fulfilled and self-sufficient. I was talking with Jay and Bryan at a School of Music event and we agreed: individually we were no Philip Glass, so let’s band together and make it happen.

For the next few years, we navigated our lives through various positions of apprenticeship. I was working for Philip full time when Nico left to pursue his own extraordinary career. Bryan was assisting Rufus Wainwright on his first opera, Prima Donna, and Jay also assisted Rufus and was an assistant composer on the TV show Lie to Me, among other projects.

After working with Rufus, Bryan landed a job for an ad music company called Human. Human has offices around the globe and employs some 13 full-time composers in their NYC studio alone. Bryan was a music producer there for about nine months and learned about music in the advertising industry in great detail: the most notable detail being money. Maybe this was the route for our artistic success. Make Found Objects a music company that writes original music for advertising and then turn that financial stability into a way to balance the work that pays the bills and the work we found most artistically interesting, just as Philip Glass does.

This was 2011 and, for the next four years, we had a new path to follow. We knew we were getting into an extremely competitive industry so we quickly learned that the only way we were going to make this work was to drop everything and go full force. It was a grueling process that took place in our apartments until 2013 when we built our studio in the Flatiron District.

Since then the amount of work has only increased and we struggle to find time for other projects. It’s a real issue that Jay and I discuss when we get overwhelmed. How are we going to find the time that we hoped we would have? I sit in this chair nearly nine hours a day, and I had to look carefully for a break to write this very article.

Ultimately, however, I think it’s time to take the next steps forward. Our business is stable enough for us to now think about our own careers as artists for once. It has always been the plan. It’s part of the reason Found Objects exists in the first place.

Coming out of those conversations at the New Music Bake Sale really opened my eyes and helped me remind myself that I’m still interested in new music. I still want to be ‘up to’ things other than advertising. I’ve been out of the game for almost five years now and while I know I’m starting from square one in many cases, I’m looking forward to this new challenge.


Trevor Gureckis in front of a window from which a building across the street with many windows is visible.

Trevor Gureckis

Trevor Gureckis is an award-winning composer and producer working in New York City. Major ensembles around the country have performed his music and his modern ballet Potential Energies received its premiere at BAM in the summer of 2014. Trevor owns a music production company called Found Objects that has offices in NYC.

Perceptions of Opportunity

There has been a bounty of quality writing over the past few weeks by my colleagues touching on a wide range of topics and viewpoints—global views on fair business practices aligned with the dissemination of music, repeat performances, academism, ageism, student debt, commissions and stuff, perceptions of persecution, and how not to network—so much so that it’s been hard to keep up. (I haven’t even begun to delve into Robert Carl’s thoughts on the next century.)

What interests me about these posts is that their focuses converge on the idea of opportunity, a through line that is not unique to these recent articles but has become quite prevalent over time. In decades past, you might have read rhetorical calls for or against a certain artistic concept or creative technique; such full-throated arguments are relatively rare any more (with the exception of the occasional Huffington Post diatribe). Today, however, we have moved beyond simply debating content and concept and turned our sights toward something more elemental—opportunity—and the access (or lack thereof) to it.

For many years, music composition projected the perception of a gatekeeping system. If one wanted to participate, one had to relocate, both physically and artistically, to one of several spheres of influence (usually associated with the faculty and alumni of a handful of academic institutions). If one was not a “member of the club” and/or lived outside of those locational and aesthetic spheres, not only was there a dearth of opportunities for creation and performance, but the very choice of composition as a career path was limited to vocational income-based options (writing for band or choir, for young performers, or for film). This perception was so strong that it could easily transcend other more foundational reasons why a composer could gain “club membership”—namely aptitude, perseverance, and quality of work.

Only the most naive and optimistic among us would suggest that this perception does not remain; I would color myself as neither naive nor optimistic in this regard. I would, however, posit that the landscape has really changed over the past 25 years or so. One could list several factors to this point—the sheer increase in the number of composers, the growing interest in new music in cities outside of the traditional centers, the acceptance of new music within academic curricula in many institutions, the expansive growth of composer- and performer-formed organizations, and the emergence of the chamber ensemble as the primary vehicle for composition are just a few. All of these changes have occurred during the evolution of the Internet, which has allowed those aforementioned perceptions to weaken over time as information has become more readily available and as communication lines between composers and performers have improved.

It is because of all of these changes that, I believe, the issue of opportunity and the perceptions surrounding that idea of opportunity have become so important for those in the creative arts in general and in the contemporary concert music scene in particular. As more of us understand the new reality and forgo the perceptions of the past, the more we will all be attuned to the various aspects of opportunity, including when it doesn’t exist, how to make sure it does exist, and how best to proceed once that opportunity is available.

Whether it is the opportunity to study with the right teacher, to compose for a specific type of ensemble, to work within a particular genre, to collaborate with and have one’s music performed by well-known performers, to allow audiences and critics to hear and react to one’s music, or just to have a career doing what one loves, composers—and indeed all creative artists—want to be given the chance to make their voices heard and participate in the scrum that is our culture and society. It should be a high priority to do whatever can be done to keep those pathways of opportunity open and clearly marked for everyone.

Ageism in Composer Opportunities

We're Closed

“Sorry We’re Closed” by Tommy Ironic, on Flickr

“We don’t serve that population.”
“You are ineligible and our policy is non-negotiable.”
“If you look elsewhere, I’m sure you’ll find other opportunities.”
These are words no one wants to hear when applying for an opportunity for which they otherwise qualify except for one thing: they are too old. They are, unfortunately, actual responses I have received from providers of composer opportunities when querying them regarding their age discrimination policy. However, this article is about more than any one composer. It is about a wider industry practice. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that ageism exists within composer opportunities, to attempt to explain why it exists, and then to propose solutions for operating without age discrimination. We’ll take an empirical approach looking at data related to composer opportunities. We’ll also take a logical approach to examining various arguments for and against ageism. Lastly we’ll look at the issue anecdotally via comments from various composers. The goal of this article is to educate and inspire change for the betterment of the entire new music community.

Discrimination against someone of the “wrong” color, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation is generally frowned upon in modern society. Progress has been made on these fronts to change peoples’ thinking and to embrace inclusion. However, progress is still needed in the area of discrimination on the basis of a person’s age. This one is arguably subtler, but it ultimately has the same effect: to exclude someone from pursuing an opportunity for which he or she would otherwise qualify. People usually are not aware that they practice ageism—just as with other forms of discrimination—because their assumptions all point to a certain expectation they believe is true. With respect to composers, said expectation goes something like this: child prodigy enters school already a mature genius; impresses all of his/her professors; then sets the world on fire with his/her youthful vigor, technical wizardry, and creative talent while winning all sorts of competitions; and proceeds to redefine an art form for the betterment of humankind.

There may be examples throughout history where this fairy tale plays out in the likes of wunderkind composers such as Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven; but is this the most accurate representation of a composer’s path? What about Brahms, whose first symphony wasn’t completed until he was 44, or Janáček, who did not make a mark until his early 50s? While the wunderkind may make for a good story, so does the person who fought all stereotypes and began to attain great things at an older age. But, let’s forget about all of these stories and focus on reality. We’ll do this in the context of looking at hard data on age discrimination as it pertains to present day composer opportunities.

Opportunity and Competition

For purposes of this discussion, composer opportunities include anything of a competitive nature which may further a composer’s career. This encompasses juried competitions with prizes including cash awards, commissions, appointments, readings, performances, and/or recordings. While some may argue the efficacy of competitions, the fact remains that they are crucially important for launching a composer’s career in today’s environment. An objective view of the record bears witness to the fact that there are virtually no examples—at least I cannot think of any—whereby a modern composer has attained notoriety without winning a significant composer prize. It’s a dog-eat-dog world highly geared toward recognition gained through competitive means. There’s an underlying assumption that the best always wins and that true talent gets recognized.
Winning competitions puts accomplishments on a composer’s resume which may be weighed at times more heavily than the quality of the music itself, either intentionally or unintentionally. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant. Organizations need to sell seats to their events and they stand a much better chance of doing this when they can advertise a composer with impressive credentials versus one with zero or few competitions won. It is a complete waste of time and money for composers to submit work to a major musical ensemble for their performance consideration without sufficient credentials to warrant the interest of the organization.

Regardless of whether you agree with the principles behind all of this, the fact is that one must compete—and win—in order to get ahead.

Too Old To Tango

Ageism is very much alive in the emerging composer arena. In short, once you get to a certain age, you’re considered too old to tango. To support this claim, let’s examine composer opportunities as published on ComposersSite.com. After careful research, this site has been identified as containing the most comprehensive listing of opportunities available for composers of classical music. Further, the site is freely available.

There are other sites which list opportunities, including the opportunities page made available to members of the American Composers Forum—which at present has an annual membership fee of $65. The American Composers Forum opportunities listing is well organized and provides a number of good opportunities but they seem to publish fewer opportunities than what is available on ComposersSite.com.

The person behind ComposersSite.com is composer Robert Voisey, who kindly made available the database of opportunities published on his site for this analysis. The following figure shows the types of opportunities listed on March 28, 2013.
Opportunity Listings from ComposersSite.com as of March 28, 2013
For this study, these opportunity types have been further organized as follows:
• Award – monetary award (may also include free pass to important event)
• Performance – no monetary award, just performance
• Position – paid position
• Residency – no monetary award
• Workshops – conferences

For purposes of numerical analysis, I’ll consider the award, performance, position, and workshop opportunities as opportunities which might further a composer’s career. I’ll also break out just the award opportunities.


“Sorry we’re closed” by xddorox, on Flickr

More than 400 opportunities were reviewed from the ComposersSite.com database as published over a six-month period from November 2012 thru mid April 2013. Many of these opportunities were deemed to be insignificant for purposes of advancing a composer’s career. For example, if the performance opportunity was not offered by a nationally recognized ensemble, it was excluded. Also excluded were opportunities which restricted on the basis of a person’s race, ethnicity, sex, or domicile. Opportunities with application fees of $50 or greater were also excluded on the basis that participation in said opportunities was exorbitantly expensive for most composers. The process of filtering left me with 165 opportunities to examine. For those curious to see the detail behind the filtered and unfiltered lists, they are available for download.

Now for the results. Of these 165 opportunities, 35% are restricted to composers at or below the age of 40. If we filter just the award opportunities, we have 82 total in which 36% are available only to composers at or below the age of 40. Of all the opportunities, there is merely one which is available only to people older than age 40 and that is the Composers Concordance Annual “Generations” Concert and Composition Competition which provides one division for composers over age 65. Noteworthy is that the same competition—which simply provides a performance opportunity—also has a division exclusively for composers under the age of 25. There is not a single opportunity made exclusively available to persons between the ages of 40 and 65.

The moral of this story: in today’s society, you better make it as a composer before you turn 40. Once you pass that milestone, you will need to understand that you are at a competitive disadvantage to younger composers as there are 35-36% fewer opportunities available to you.

Should we be concerned about this disparity? Well, the feminist movement has drawn much attention—and rightly so—to the fact that equally qualified women receive 19% lower pay than men for the same jobs (as has been reported in Time magazine). Our 35-36% numbers are of course much higher, and here the issue is not a difference in pay but whether or not one is even allowed to enter. From this perspective, the 35-36% numbers are huge.

Now that we see who is affected by ageism, the next question is who is responsible. It is very difficult to hold any group or organization accountable since ageism in favor of the young is rampant in so many areas across modern society. However, characterizing the problem as simply a societal issue isn’t a sufficient excuse since, as will be discussed later, ageism hits composers particularly hard.

Arguments Made in Support of Ageism

No Entry

“NO ENTRY” by Simon Lieschke, on Flickr

We will now explore the various arguments made in support of ageism using comments I have personally received via direct email correspondence, phone conversations, and online forum discussions with fellow composers, opportunity sponsors, and leading industry professionals. Quoted assertions in this section represent actual statements made in response to the questions “Why does your opportunity discriminate based on age?” and “Is it not possible for someone over a certain age to be a student of composition?”

Provide More Chances to the Young
“The limit of 39 years of age is set in order to give more chances to the young generation of composers.”

This may have been needed during a time when opportunities were disproportionately offered to composers of an older age. However, the numbers clearly show that today it is the younger composers who receive far more opportunity. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to argue younger composers need more chances when they already have more chances over older composers.

Favor Those with Less Experience
“There are those younger students who by virtue of their age have had less experience in the world. Are they always going to be up against those that may have had the opportunities and time to learn and progress much more?”

The assumption in this argument is that favor should be granted those who, by virtue of their age, have not attained the same level of experience as older people. If an older person wants to begin a new career as a composer, they enter with the same set of skills and experience as the younger person. Should we deny a 60-year- old grandmother the opportunity to start a career in composition due to her age? And if she bravely attempts such a feat, should we insult her chances at success by discriminating against her by virtue of the number of opportunities for which she qualifies to further her career?

One might argue that grandma is wise in her ways by virtue of those 60 years of experience and therefore has a competitive advantage. But what lessons might she have learned in those 60 years which will now help her when she is already restricted from applying to 35-36% of the opportunities? What life lesson can she use to convince people to give her a chance? How does experience help if doors are closed to being with?

Numbers Don’t Justify Helping Latecomers
“For composers, how many people really are we talking about who begin a career or study later in life?”

That seems like a reasonable argument and the number of latecomers are likely dismally low—although we’ll hear from some latecomers later in this article. Latecomer composers appear to be a minority group. The question then is simply whether or not we should ignore this minority group because they are insignificant, or if we should do the opposite and help this group grow. Discriminating against minority groups is generally shunned in democratic societies. If the number of older composers just starting off is low, maybe more, not less, opportunity should be made available to them. For those who contend that the 60-year-old grandma making a go at a career in composition is an unlikely scenario and therefore doesn’t deserve attention, well, maybe there aren’t many of these cases specifically as a result of the current discriminatory practices and cultural thinking which makes such an endeavor virtually impossible.

Older Composers Already Had Their Chance

Another argument put forth somewhat related to the “experience” argument is an assumption that older folks have already had their chance. This one can really strike at the heart of the issue in a manner which can be quite hurtful to older composers who really never did get their chance. Take for example the composer who, due to life events, was not able to pursue a career in composition until after the age of 40, or the person who just simply decided to make a career change later in life. Is it correct to assume that an older person indeed has been given a fair shot in any given field and therefore should not be offered the same opportunity as a younger person?

Young is More Interesting

In many ways there’s a culture of youth driving the marketplace. At play here is thinking that there’s something more sexy, appealing, or exciting about young talent which can make for a better sell in the brochure, on stage, at the donor’s reception, or in the grant proposal, thereby making the sponsoring organization look more vital—and, in some less philanthropic endeavors, helps make more money. I think it’s wonderful that society places so much interest in maintaining appearances of vitality, but I think it’s wrong to associate those characteristics with age. Age need not—and often does not—have anything to do with it. In fact, sometimes less experienced or younger artists—or those still in the process of developing their voice—may find it necessary to utilize stylistic fads and trends to fulfill the image expected of them. Often these attempts die as quickly as they are born. Maybe there should be more of a focus on just the character of the music and less on the age of the person behind it?

Same Old Horse

“Older composers submit older and outdated stuff. Younger people submit newer and fresher material. People are more interested in new, fresh material thus there’s more interest in works from younger people.”

I believe this argument is just plain wrong on various levels. Yes, at times innovation may occur within the younger groups of society. But, as already discussed, sometimes fads and non-lasting expressions also flourish within younger groups. The fact is there are plenty of examples across multiple disciplines, including musical composition, where innovation is attained in older years. Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky and countless other recognized composers continued to innovate their art past the age of 40.

On the point of focusing just on newly composed work, the age of the composer need not factor into determining this criteria. The competition rules can easily restrict submission to works created, premiered, or recorded within the last x years. I see no valid reason which suggests one needs to target young composers in order to ensure the submitted work is actually new. I further find spurious the notion that the best or most interesting work is that which was created recently.

Limit Submissions Due to Purported Resource Limitations

“Unfortunately, there has to be a limit. Every day we get around three applications. If there is no limit, we are not able to devote [our attention to] all applications.”

This argument suggests that the organization sponsoring the opportunity doesn’t have sufficient resources to accept applications from everyone, therefore it only accepts submissions from people under a certain age. I find this argument extremely weak, as it says nothing about why they choose a narrow age range as their filter. They just as easily could limit submissions to people over versus under a certain age. Or, if they really want to restrict their workload, they could limit submissions to composers between the ages of 45-50 or some other silly, arbitrary threshold. This is but one example of how phony excuses are used to justify or deflect away from an underlying prejudice.

Cater to the Young Even Though Not Required Under Organization’s Mission Statement

There are various examples of 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations who accept tax-deductible donations and who discriminate based on age even when it is not within their organizational mission statement to do so. For example, one organization sponsoring a composer opportunity states their mission as follows: “Our mission is to enrich the cultural vitality of the region and to offer a unique experience to exceptionally talented musicians.” However, they limit composer submissions to those under the age of 35. Looking at their mission statement, one has to ponder whether or not it is possible for an older emerging composer to “enrich the vitality” of the community. This is but one example of a disconnect between an organization’s mission and their policies, and one which I believe hampers musical progress.

More a Problem for Composers than Others

Ageism most definitely exists in other professions and in some it makes perfect sense. This is why you don’t see many professional baseball players over age 40. But in arts and letters, ageism really doesn’t make sense, even though it is rampant across virtually all music disciplines. One might argue that ageism has the same impact in other occupations and thus there’s nothing special about how it plays out in the emerging composer field. The only problem with this line of thinking is that the way in which a composer establishes his or her career is completely different than the manner in which a person pursuing almost any other occupation establishes his or her career. In most fields someone has a job and is hired by a company which is bound to follow federal employee hiring laws which explicitly disallow age discrimination. The same laws also protect musicians, but only for actual employment opportunities and not for the competitions, performances, recordings, and other opportunities which are the methods by which a composer launches his or her career.

Unless a composer has a full-time position as an employee at a university, he or she generally functions as a freelancer seeking commissions or—in most cases pay-to-maybe-win—opportunities. Working as freelancers and going after the typical freelance opportunities means that composers receive no legal form of protection against age discrimination.

There are numerous examples in other disciplines where someone may embark on a new career in their later years and not face the degree of ageism experienced by composers. Why should there be any obstacles based on age for someone choosing a career path, in particular a path where maturity and experience can bring a lot to the table, such as with music composition?

Beginning or renewing a career in composition after age 40 should not be any more difficult from an opportunity perspective than a career change in other industries. It may be equally challenging from a career training perspective, but there should not be the additional burden of ageism.

Young vs. Emerging

I think that most opportunities seek to identify and assist emerging talent but many use age as their criteria. I believe this is a flawed method due to the unethical and exclusionary issues associated with ageism. I don’t believe age should or needs to be used to determine emerging status.

There are many practical methods a competition or opportunity may use to restrict the scope of applications to just emerging talent without resorting to ageism. An opportunity can prevent prior winners from participating or can limit the number of times the same applicant submits—opportunity organizers may complain about the tracking needed for this, but it’s really not that difficult with modern software. An opportunity can literally define emerging as “not earning a living based on teaching, commissions, or royalties from composing.” It can also be based on the honor system. If composers feel they are emerging, they can apply. Would truly established composers be willing to suffer the embarrassment of winning a competition specifically designated for emerging talent? That’s tantamount to them admitting in public that they don’t believe they are established. They would be shunned and laughed at. But, who knows, maybe even a former big name talent might try to apply to help get their career kick-started again, or maybe even to make a little money to help pay the rent. It may be disheartening to them and to others to see them go through this, but should we deny them the opportunity to renew their career?
Hidden Discrimination


“Blinds” by reway2007, on Flickr

Some opportunities list no age restriction but discriminate in private. This speaks directly to the point made earlier that ageism is a subtler form of discrimination. At least one highly sought after and respected composer and contest adjudicator recently shared with me that preference is highly tipped in favor of younger applicants for at least one prominent opportunity, even when no age limit is officially listed. Knowing this, why even bother if you’re considered too old to tango? Why pay the application fee and take on the costs for postage and score duplication if you will not be treated equally?

One significant opportunity for composers to have their works read by an accomplished orchestra announced the winners as “the nation’s top young composers” even though age was not a published criteria for said opportunity. An inquiry as to why their announcement made reference to “young” composers when the opportunity was specifically offered to “emerging” composers was met with no response. Are “young” and “emerging” synonymous?

Then there are the mixed messages, such as those which advertise a student or emerging composer award but also set an arbitrary age threshold—generally somewhere under 30 or 35. Or the competition that doesn’t have the words “young” or “emerging” anywhere in its title or in the mission statement of the sponsoring organization, yet somewhere in the fine print the opportunity-seeking 40-something-year-old discovers s/he doesn’t qualify because s/he is too old. What a letdown.

What is “Young” Anyway?

Then there’s the question of just what is young anyway. Is the 50-year-old person who eats well, exercises, and maintains an active lifestyle and positive mental outlook more of a “young” and vital person than the overweight, junk-food-eating, negatively charged, emotionally distressed 25-year-old? Have you ever been wrong on guessing people’s ages based on their looks and behavior?

I contend that youth and vitality are a state of mind to which any person, regardless of age, may represent a glowing example. Setting an arbitrary age threshold of 30, 35, 40, or whatever for determining the age at which one is no longer considered “young” is a futile exercise and prohibits from participating those who may in actuality possess more vitality in their spirit and art than those far younger in years.

Accordingly, I’d like to see these arbitrary age thresholds die a quick death and for ageism to no longer exist within composer opportunities.

Older Newcomers on The Rise

“I didn’t start at composition in a concentrated way until I was 48 or so. Up until then I was busy playing, arranging, and orchestrating other people’s music. I believe anyone should be granted equal opportunity when pursuing a career change in their later years.” —Phil Orem

“I composed a lot as a teenager then built a career as a performing musician. When I recently turned 40 I decided to pursue composition in a serious manner and am actively writing new work.” —Andy Skaggs

“While I am totally supportive of opportunities aimed specifically at student composers, I question arbitrary age limits; i.e., under 30 or 35. These seem targeted more at keeping mature composers out than welcoming in new talent. Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, and Wagner wrote some of their greatest works past age 40. Is there something about veteran composers that makes managers and conductors uncomfortable?” —Stanley Friedman

We're Open

“We’re open” by enricod, on Flickr

I’ve run into a number of people over the age of 40 who decided to enter the field of composition after many years as professional performers. I applaud this career shift and believe people entering composition this way deserve just as many opportunities for success as those entering at a younger age.

Composer Jim Stephenson is a perfect example of someone who was a working musician for 17 years before deciding to pursue composition as a career. In Jim’s case, he was about 38 years of age. While writing this article and already having pondered the question of why there aren’t any competitions just for older composers, I saw Jim post the following lighthearted status update on Facebook: “So tempted to start a competition for composers OVER 40. Would be interesting, I think.”
Then there are recognized composers such as Joan Tower who didn’t receive an orchestra commission until her mid 40s. Clearly, people are recognizing the need for “older newcomers” to be granted more opportunity in classical music composition.

Goodies from Oldies

Besides the effect on composers’ careers, ageism inhibits diversity and arguably prohibits great art from having a chance to be heard. Remember that guy Brahms who completed his first symphony when he was 44? Now just imagine that composer out there today who is in his or her 40s and who just completed what may be considered an incredible work but who can’t get it heard because a large percentage of opportunities discriminate against people his/her age? It’s not just composers who suffer under ageism; the whole industry suffers.

Ageism wouldn’t be a problem if there were a representative number of competitions to which only composers over age 40 would qualify. But sadly this is not the case. Anyone want to launch a series of Senior Composer, Old Composer, Reborn Composer, Old Newcomer Composer, Gray Newcomer or Goodies From Oldies competitions? There’s always a market for new things, even for “old” people!

The tenets of a democratic society shun inequality and embrace the concepts of inclusion and fair treatment for all. I would like to see these same concepts applied to the emerging composer industry for the benefit of composers as well as the betterment of music in general. I invite opportunity sponsors to re-evaluate their position on ageism, and I encourage all composers to insist upon fair and equal treatment.


Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld is a composer and pianist of classical and jazz music. For more info on Bill’s music and his writings please visit www.billdoerrfeld.com.

Mutually Exclusive

One of the few things that most composers seem to agree on is that new music ought to be more inclusive and more welcoming to outsiders. Beyond that, however, there’s very little agreement on what this inclusiveness actually means. Is it simply to do with the framing and presentation of the music, or does it extend to the musical content itself? If so, what kind of music includes, and what kind excludes?

An effect of this–or maybe it’s a cause–is that practically everyone in new music feels excluded by somebody else. Overtly tonal composers, who might believe they are writing truly inclusive music, may feel that their work is unfairly dismissed as unserious. Meanwhile, more conceptually or experimentally minded composers may feel that their work is unfairly dismissed as too difficult or academic, while they try to grapple with more than a half-century of post-tonal developments. (Developments that tonal composers may ignore entirely.)

A full cataloging of the intricately nested and overlapping sets of perceived exclusions is way beyond the scope of this article. But the end result is predictable: nearly everyone feels like the victim of some kind of persecution, often while being completely oblivious to the persecutions they themselves are perpetrating.

The copious verbiage expended on these sorts of topics tends to wear me out, to the point where I am not even sure what the arguments are about. Consider Daniel Felsenfeld’s recent article trying to redeem the term “academic,” and Kyle Gann’s subsequent response. I start to wonder if the terms “academic” and “professional” are even useful at all, because no one ever seems to use the same definition twice. For example, the “professional tricks” Gann mentions in his article, I learned as “craft,” and they were definitely a part of my academic education.

In other words, both articles create a kind of dichotomy that doesn’t really resonate with me. Instead, these conversations seem to be more about personal experiences that have been amplified into generalizations. But this seems to be the norm these days, to create a mental framework in which you, the composer, are situated in opposition to a large, monolithic establishment that is out to deny you the recognition you deserve. We are all rebels now.