Advice to a young composer
Are you a classical music composer starting your career? Scott Good gives advice on working, learning and prospering as a composer
The path of the composer to professional status is not singular. Everyone has their own story. There are several general ideas that I would like to share from my own experience, and that of talking with other composers, or reading about their careers.
First off, you have to be good at what you do. And you need to realise that this may take a long time. The end of schooled education is simply the beginning of professional development. Never stop, never believe you know enough. Be hungry for knowledge and skill. It should be like food, and not thought of as any less important.
Think of it as intellectual capital which can be drawn from, but must be replenished regularly, in perpetuity.
Be a performer if possible. It is such a good thing to do for three reasons:- 1) Maintains contact with musicians. 2) Performing music is studying music, so kill two birds with one stone, and 3) Earn money!
It could be argued that playing takes time away from composing, and that is very true. Practice time on an instrument is extensive to be able to play at a professional level. But who said being a musician was supposed to be easy?
Being connected to music-making for me is essential to composing. Although I am quite a fan of John Cage and his ideas, I do not agree with his notion on the separation of performance, composition and listening. For me they are all intimately connected. Various works I have played demonstrate a lack of this fundamental understanding.
Amateur playing is very important too. I have played piano, percussion, and have sung in amateur performances, and not only had a good time, but was able to study new repertoire/genre, and learn more about these instruments.
Don't be isolated
Community. Think about it, engage in it. Remember, you are the composer - the 'leader' - you write the instructions. So your art can be the focal point of a community.
Create an ensemble. Put on concerts. Build trusting relationships with performers - these can last a lifetime. A professional relationship built on trust and respect will not likely go away, but grow over time. These are the seeds one can plant for future fruits.
And it can be tons of fun as well! Enjoy it. It is through these activities that I have made many of my closest friends, and met my life partner.
Enter competitions, but don't count on them. They are far more subjective than they are for performers. One of the main criticisms is they place the emphasis away from composing for concerts, which should be the composer's main aim.
This may have been different in earlier times, when a new work could be generated in a week or two. It is hard to imagine composing a 'winning' piece in two weeks these days. So, they gobble up time for works which might not get performed.
Are you ready?
Put your best foot forward, but don't jump at being that professional you are hoping to be until you are ready. (There is a rude joke about this involving two bulls... for another time.)
Think of having an orchestra play your music. Think of all of the hours of practice behind every note that those players bring to the table. Think of the resources, administration, money, fund raising etc. it took to provide that orchestra. Think of the audience that has been cultivated to build a feeling of trust with the orchestra to spend money and attend their concerts. There are lots of other choices.
Do you believe you are ready to impose your concept on that machine? Are you worthy? Have you even spent as much time on your craft as the back desk second violinist, let alone the concert master, principal clarinet, and conductor?
Orchestral players = beasts!
These are questions we should feel confident to answer 'yes' even if timidly and with humility, before we jump into the arena. Otherwise, you will be eaten alive. Orchestral players are beasts when confronted with music they don't respect.
It is easy to put a note on paper - which is why composers are not trusted. But to play the violin well enough to perform in a professional orchestra, that means something.
Hard work, no money
I had a teacher who suggested a composer's career will only start around age forty! I used this as a general goal post, and made sure that my actions and choices would make it a reality, not a fantasy.
It has not been about immediate gratification, but slowly evolving, yet highly productive years of producing concerts, performing new music (and old of course!) studying repertoire and instruments, experimenting with various other musical fields (jazz, rock, folk, 'world,' improvisation, etc.) attending many concerts and festivals, and most importantly, composing lots of music. Often done for little to no money, or even forking out some cash myself to make a concert work.
But I have found it very useful to have long term plans. They help me make decisions, and to choose perhaps the more difficult ones, but ultimately it is more rewarding.
What does one need for survival? Food, shelter, clothing. Add in friends and family and one has a full life. Stuff is stuff, and the less of it you need, the less money you will need. So, keeping life as cheap as possible will help you get through the leaner times.
Time is money. Whether from grant source or private, one must secure funds to have time to do what one wants - compose music! For me, now, this has become even more pertinent, as a father of two small children.
1. Performers don't want to play new music. I just want to say that this is nonsense. Newly composed concert classical music is wanted and needed. It is the fuel of the fire.
2. It's all been done before. I find it just as easy to say: 'This is just the beginning.' You choose.
Harvest when ripe
Sure, the road is difficult. But in this society of convenience and technology, it seems to me, quite doable, if it is truly what you want. Plant lots of seeds with your creative thought and see what will grow. Harvest when ripe: not too early, and not too late.
Brightcecilia discussion thread
18th September 2009
Scott Good (b. 1972, Toronto) is a Canadian composer of orchestral, chamber and vocal works which have been performed in North America, Europe, and Asia. Scott works in numerous musical avenues. In August, 2008, he began an appointment as composer in residence with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
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