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.

Last semester, spring of 2011, I competed in Michigan State’s Composition Competition. The judge for this competition was none other than David Maslanka. We received an email of Maslanka’s comment about our pieces, and one of the comments that he said to all of us was the following: “I want to say to take everybody’s computer away and make them write by hand. [In other words], Learn to hear internally and at the piano without [the] benefit of computer playback” – Maslanka, email.

I did not actually experiment with this method until two months ago when I began writing the third movement of The Two Siblings (sax/euph duet). At first I thought, “This is taking forever!” But shortly, I realized that this was easier for me to compose than using Finale from start to finish. Before I go on, I’m not here to say those who exclusively compose by Finale or Sibelius are wrong, but I’m comparing the pros and cons between the two methods.

Compose by Finale/Sibelius

One of the benefits of using music notation software are the large assessment of tools that a composer can use. They are quite accessible and easy to use. In addition, they are a great way to make music scores look professional (as long as you know what you are doing). You can also change the size of the paper, score, everything in the music with a couple clicks. In addition, you can erase and edit in a short amount of time (even though it still takes forever to edit). Now for the cons. The main problem with music notation software is the playback. I can imagine that many of you reading this are thinking “But that’s the best part of Finale!! I do not need to play any instruments. I don’t need to listen to a band. I don’t even need to think! I just sit back and enjoy the sweet sounds of video game music right in my ears!!” I can not emphasis this fact any more: the playback will disorient the natural sounds and capabilities of the instrument, therefore the composer will assume that if the particular motive sounds good on the computer, then it will sound amazing in person. In other words, it’s not real! In addition, MIDI playback is absolutely HORRIBLE!! (really!) MIDI, along with other sound libraries, can deceive your ears by making music sound either disturbing, or somewhat decent. The point is that these sound libraries, such as GOP4 and COMB2, try to recreate real sound to help the user on how his/her music will sound in person, yet even if they sound exactly like an authentic Saxophone, it will never match a live instrument. Another problem are the tools used in these programs. I might be contradicting myself here, but the available tools on Finale/Sibelius are amazing: convenient and easy, but it is very easy for someone to get distracted by these tools and not pay attention to the realistic results to the real musicians. That is why so many young composers’ sounds so fragmented. You have so many options to work with, along with playback, that when you hear a motive that sounds so EPIC, you will use that motive REGARDLESS OF WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON IN THE PIECE!

Though I bashed this category quite a bit, I still use Finale, but only when I’m “publishing”/editing my pieces, and/or arranging music.

Compose by Hand (Old School)

There are many benefits to composing by hand. One of them is flexibility. Although you can not control how your staves look, you can add any marking just the way you want it, such as adding aleatoric boxes, customizing time signatures, omitting barlines…anything really! In addition, Sibelius/Finale contain a lot of tools that you can use to write music. One benefit, in my opinion, to composing by hand is the lack of distractions to writing. Finale is amazing in so many levels, but there’s too many options for me to choose, and sometimes they make composing much more complicated than it should. By hand, I can focus a lot more on only the ACTUAL composing part of the process. As far as how to hear your music, you can either play your music on a piano, play it on your instrument (if possible), or you can give it to a musician who would be willing to check your music out. One of the cons for this method is the editing process. Since you write in pencil, you will be erasing literally all the time. In fact, time is a big problem when writing by hand. When comparing finale to hand, it could take about 10 minutes or less to write 10 measures on finale where it could take about 20 minutes, or more to write 10 measures by hand.

I highly recommend writing by hand, however I would also consider using Finale/Sibelius for editing purposes. Everyone has their own preferences about which method is better. The only way to find which method is the right one for you, is to try both methods out.

BTW: the recordings from the Premieres Concert are here, so I will post Concert Etudes I on Youtube tomorrow!

Well, it has been over 1.5 months since my last post and I must say a lot has happened since.

Where to start? Oh yeah!

Well, I have managed to find 17 musicians, including myself, who will be performing in my capstone recital on April 15th at 8pm. The only problem is that I am having a difficult time finding a violinist. I had two violins, then both of them could not perform, found one, but no luck on the second violin. It will work out eventually. Meanwhile, I have been finalizing my rehearsal plans for the recital, and so far it is looking great.

A couple weeks ago, I found out that I have been accepted to Michigan State University for my Masters in Music Composition! Now I know that I will be going to graduate school. As for The Ohio State University, I STILL have not heard from them which concerns me, but I’m not worried.

Now for the composition part of this blog, what am I doing?

Well, I have been working on a set of Concert Etudes for piano: six etudes. I am currently working on the fourth movement of six, as well as editing the first three movements. In addition, I started working on an unaccompanied solo for euphonium. The idea of writing a piece such as this for euphonium came from the influence I took from John Stevens, Soliloquies.

ONE MORE THING!!

Two days ago, I received an email from Dr. Hutcheson regarding the results for the Honors Competition for Composers at MSU. I am happy to say that I was the runner-up in the orchestra portion of the competition! The best part of the competition was the judge. The judge was none other than the amazing David Maslanka! The email contained many comments from Maslanka. Even though my piece was not the most dominate piece in the competition, the fact that David Maslanka was the judge of this competition was a win for me and everyone else who competed in the competition.