This is a bit of a departure from my usual light homepage fare, but I got an email a while back from a recent college grad inquiring as to my thoughts concerning life as a composer in The Real World (tm) as well as applying to grad schools. This seemingly innocuous request prompted me to vomit up a small mountain of surprisingly ranty text, to which, dear reader, I'm now subjecting you, since it sums up a lot of my thoughts on life as so-called "professional musician" as well as thoughts I've had for a while as to how composers can better participate in their local scenes, get their music played, and maybe even make some friends.
Being a professional musician is a pain in the ass, even though it is (or at least can be) awesome. You will work your ass off (you will need to enjoy doing this), you will make less money than almost all your peers (especially if you went to a liberal arts school like I did), and your most stable career prospects (assuming you're trying to write concert music) are extremely competitive tenure-track jobs or one-in-a-million orchestral commissions.
If you're doing this, you're jumping off the train of the set career path, and there will be a lot of uncertainty. You'll have be driven, passionate, entrepreneurial, engaging, and aggressive, and you should only try to organize your life around being a professional composer if a) people are already throwing money at you for it or b) you seriously can't picture yourself being happy doing anything else. I personally have no regrets whatsoever about the life I've chosen for myself, and I definitely don't mean to discourage anyone. But the reality is that it's a tough field to make a decent living in and will definitely mean a pretty weird life compared to your peers, and I felt like my undergrad didn't really prepare me for that.
Ok, rant over. The positive side is that you get to do something you're really seriously passionate about, and if you get good enough at it and spend long enough doing it, people will sometimes pay you quite a bit of money to continue doing it. You get to spend time with some of the coolest people ever, and have a proper calling, which is something most folks can't really even imagine.
It can be daunting, but know that everyone trying to do what you're doing goes through basically the same things. If you're still with me, onto some suggestions for you fresh-faced post-undergraduate composers out there:
Life as a composer outside of school:
1) Unless you're independently wealthy or have parents that will heavily subsidize your lifestyle, I highly recommend living simply and getting some sort of part-time, non-soul-sucking, stable income. I personally have a really hard time writing effectively without knowing living expenses are taken care of - hierarchy of needs, you know? But you also need enough time and energy to write. My first couple years out of undergrad I did a mix of nonprofit admin work and private teaching guitar/theory totaling 30-35 hours a week, lived pretty comfortably, and had a good amount of time to write and practice. I know one guy that helps run a tech startup in SF part time and spends the rest of his time composing. One friend of mine who is a particularly amazing composer with great connections and a great degree spent a year and change teaching in a magnet school and doing freelance web work before commissions started picking up the slack.
2) Don't expect much to come out of calls for scores or competitions, especially early in your career - with a couple exceptions, I can't help feeling that they're by and large popularity contests. I've applied to tons and basically never got anything until getting into Yale, and the same goes for the vast majority of my peers. Unless you know an ensemble, there are better uses for your time right now, such as...
3) Make connections! Go to a lot of concerts of whatever kind of music you're interested in and meet people. Be awkward (or better still, be not awkward - not that I have any idea how to do that) and introduce yourself to people you think are doing interesting things and have something intelligent to say to them. Become a regular presence in your scene, get to know people, and figure out who does what and who is most interesting to you and treats you like a human being.
4) Perform your own music! Find people in a similar position to start a group that plays your compositions, and whatever else you're into. You'll get better performances, learn a ton about your music, and actually have fun. I've learned at least as much about composing from playing in bands and ensembles as I have from my teachers (and I've been lucky enough to have had some seriously awesome teachers).
5) Organize concerts! If you want an ensemble to perform your music, offer to put on the concert yourself (or at least help). There's a weird ladder of perceived status between composers and performers, and early on you're at the bottom of it. Accept it and make yourself useful to people - in my experience it always comes back around.
6) Make friends with other composers and performers your age and career level, get together and nerd out. Swap pieces, talk about your problems, support each other. Spend long nights talking about what you want the musical world to look like. Dream, commiserate, and plan.
7) I actually had fairly regular private composition lessons with more established composers for my second and third years out of school, (once I had the money to pay for them) and they were awesome. They give you deadlines, feedback, and a voice of experience. Don't break the bank if you can't afford it (hierarchy of needs) but it's something to consider. A peer composer who you can meet with regularly and whose opinion you really trust is another good, less cost-intensive option, and one I still make use of.
Applying to grad school:
1) Understand what grad school is and isn't, and what you're trying to get out of it. It's not a ticket to a college teaching gig or really any gig, although a DMA/PhD from a top 10ish school is a basically a prerequisite for actually getting a college job. Post-Masters I've been essentially doing better-paid versions of the work I was doing pre-Masters, but now people also pay me to write and perform, which they didn't used to do. I chalk that up to connections, reputation, and being a way better composer and guitarist than I used to be, all of which are things I cultivated at Yale (and Bang on a Can, but more on that later). To that end, as far as I can tell, the things to look for in an advanced degree are connections and access to performers, reputation (this matters more than it should), faculty and students whose feedback you actually value, and a program structure that gives you time to focus on what you want to do.
2) Do your research. Look up faculty members (emailing them is a mixed bag in my experience, but at the very least can be helpful in determining if someone's an asshole), look at program offerings, email current students, call financial aid offices. Visit places if you can and get a real sense of what the place is like.
3) DON'T GET HUGELY INTO DEBT for an advanced music degree. There just aren't enough jobs to justify it, and you can do plenty out of school for your comp career anyway. I know composers who got saddled with debt and basically stopped writing after grad school because they had to work so much to pay off their loans. It's scary and you shouldn't do it. If you don't get into a good program you can reasonably afford, keep working, get better, organize more concerts, perform more, and apply again the next year.
4) Look at summer festivals, particularly ones that emphasize composer-performer interaction, and preferably ones with faculty from schools you're interested in. They can be expensive and that sucks, but they'll help build your chops and portfolio, and potentially connect you with the person deciding whether or not to admit you to their school. I credit a program I did at CSU Fresno with basically teaching me how to write for instruments and make real scores, and in so doing essentially getting me into grad school. I credit the two year I spent at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival with basically getting me started in New York - a huge number of my paid commissions and most of my paid performance work was through connections I made there.
5) Be OCD about your scores. Study a ton of scores, learn a notation program to make things look really good. Understand how performers interpret what you write (ask them and be open to their feedback!), edit constantly and mercilessly, and always get other eyes on your work.
6) Be the most OCD about making your music as undeniably awesome as it can be. Write exactly what you want, and be open to the fact that what you want may change over time. Be your harshest critic and never stop trying to improve.
The bottom line
Don't commit to this field unless you really, seriously love it. But if you're doing it, then do the shit out of it. Good luck, fellow nerds.