Today, I am here to give you an update on how my time as a freelance composer has been so far. I will also give some advice to those who are about to dive into the world outside of the comfortable academic circle.
I jumped out of the academic lifestyle last May when I graduated with a masters degree in music composition at Michigan State University. At the beginning, I managed to work on three composition projects: euphonium sonata with piano, clarinet/percussion duo, and a grade IV band piece (eventually adding a project for percussion trio in December). While this was all exciting and fun, life quickly became quite stressful and unsatisfying. Although I was no longer bound to the assignments/projects that was required in school, I had to find a way to manage my schedule so I could compose effectively while working for my Dad and teaching at Jackson College. This resulted in me being very exhausted, making my projects much slower in the composition process. I even had to postpone a project because of how overwhelmed I was. In addition, I was also applying for graduate school for DMA studies and summer festivals.
As time went on, things started to look up for me little by little. I have been able to write more and more music for some of my projects. I completed two composition interviews at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, which I felt quite content with, as well as feeling extremely excited about their composition program! I am teaching at Jackson College with a booming roster of 29 students (slightly more than double my class size last semester!) Throughout this school year, I have been able to travel around the country to meet some of the finest composers for advice on my portfolio as well as my path as a composer. More recently, I have been selected as 1 of 16 composers to study abroad in Croatia for two weeks. So while my experience so far has been mixed, I am truly enjoying my experience as a freelance composer!
Now, for the excited emerging composer/performer/theorist/whatever your “weapon of choice” is, I will give you some useful advice that I have used and learned from many people who have also experienced this moment. Credit for advice goes to Ricardo Lorenz, Carter Pann, David Maslanka, my Dad, and other articles that I have found online.
1. Always be driven to compose music. Many composers have made this suggestion to me and I will do the same for you. No matter what you have on your to-do list, always make sure you are creating music in some way, shape, or form. Even if there are no deadlines/goals, make a goal, make a deadline. It will help you push further and give you some excitement for more projects as well as maintaining the habit of writing.
2. Build and keep up connections/networking. This was a difficult step for me since I have always been a shy person. The key point is to think of everyone as equals. Every composer, from a Michael Goodman to a John Adams, is a human being. We might think highly of Adams, but to the public, he is nothing more than a person. As long as you have that type of mindset, you will have no problem approaching composers and performers unless they are trying to ignore you.
3. Collaborate through symbiotic collaboration. Ricardo Lorenz taught our composition seminar last spring about the process of symbiotic collaboration, which in my opinion should be the new standard of collaborations and commissions. Although I can not go on a large-scale explanation on the concept of symbiotic collaboration, I will say that through this process, you will not only write a piece, but you will learn a lot about a specific instrument/voice, the strengths/weaknesses of a particular musician and most importantly learn about each other. I composed Dialectics with Genevieve Beaulieu and we both loved the collaboration! Do this as much as possible! You will not regret it! (More information on symbiotic collaboration.) Link by Tom Childs.
4. Expect more failures than successes. This step has been and will always be an issue for me, since I consider myself to be a perfectionist. When it comes to jobs, competitions, commissions, graduate school, the chances of succeeding are lower than what we expect. When you are denied a job or a college, it is not an indicator that you are a horrible musician, but rather it either did not meet the panel’s interest or there was not enough room to add anymore people to a studio. Such a frustrating process. Instead of hiding in a corner and moping about your failures, take a look at the failed goal, look at it with glaring eyes and fight back. Failures will help you become determined since you will have something to prove to others the next time you apply.
5. Collaborate with music programs from the K-12 system. Although many composers, including myself, shun at the idea of writing music for the K-12 system, it is a great way to get your name out to the music world; especially if you want to make good money. Also, the public schools are always more than happy to work with composers.
6. Attend as many concerts as possible (specifically new music concerts or concerts with new music). Through this school year, I have been to more concerts and recitals than I ever been to through the six years at MSU. This is great for many reasons. As a composer, you will always learn new things through concerts. In addition, it is an excellent way of making connections with composers, performers, and others associated with the musical business. Two examples: I have been to Ann Arbor for many concerts within the past three months. Specifically the Midwest Composers Symposium and the Willo Collective. At the symposium, I met several composers from Michigan who had outstanding pieces as well as great personalities. I also learned about the overall musical language of each college. At the time, I was quite impressed by the originality each work, which made me challenge myself. I decided to challenge myself by breaking many boundaries to write anything possible. No apologies whatsoever! The Willo Collective Concert, which was at the Yellow Barn, gave me more reasons why I would love to write more works for percussion as well as experimenting with dance.
7. Work on other skills involving your career. These can include teaching, recording services, performing, publishing, conducting, music business, and other venues related to music.
8. Apply to graduate schools? It depends on what you are looking for. If you want to teach composition, then by all means, apply for a masters and a doctoral program. If you do not want to teach, it is not necessary to earn any graduate degrees. For the non-teachers, the only benefit of having a masters degree is that it will give you more time to learn more about writing. Personally, I’m applying for a doctoral program since when I do get a job, I will be able to use the said college as a vehicle to perform my pieces as often as possible while helping young eager composers become better communicators. In general, the goal for composers is to not be a teacher with a job. It’s too limited, too short, and it shows that composing is only a secondary chore and not your main focus. A realistic goal is to live life as a professional composer who inspires to become what he/she truly wants to be while maintaining a decent/fantastic financial lifestyle like teaching.
9. Publicize yourself with confidence. Musicians have to grow a strong skin when it comes to putting yourself out to the small but competitive musical world. It takes a lot of energy and patience, but there will be a moment when something will click. It was not until last year when I had about eleven interested musicians who wanted to play my music. (ten for The Two Siblings and one for Dialectics).
10. Take as much time as possible to reach your goals. What is the rush? Although many people have made this suggestion to me, Lorenz, Pann, and my Dad have emphasized this reason to me through their experiences while away from school (Pann took one year off from Michigan, while Lorenz took five years off before going to Chicago to study with Shulamit Ran). It is normal to feel jealous, angry, and stressed during the first year because everything is so much different from when you were in school. While some people want to get out of school, I feel the exact way when it comes to going back to school! The main thing to point out is that there is no rush whatsoever when it comes to education. Unless an apocalypse occurs, the degree will not go anywhere. Going to college is not a race and neither is art. Music in particular takes many hours to perfect and rushing things will ruin that concept. So enjoy yourself and do what feels right for you.