Part 3 - The Graduate

On grad school: 

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, although a DMA/PhD from a top 10ish school seems to be basically a prerequisite for actually getting a college teaching job. It's not a guarantee of security, or a job, or commissions. At its best, it's a group of students and faculty you can learn from and who get to know your work, a place to meet friends and collaborators, and a temporary source of externally imposed structure, all of which are great. At its worst, it's a money-sucking debt-hole in a town you hate with people that make you angry. You definitely don't need grad school to make yourself a better composer or build your career, and ultimately you will need to figure out how to do all of these things in "the real world" regardless of whether you go to grad school or not. However, a good program makes certain things a hell of a lot easier. Here are some numbered thoughts:

1) DON'T GET HUGELY INTO DEBT for an advanced music degree. Just don't. There just aren't enough jobs to justify it, and you can (and should) do plenty outside of school for your comp career. 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. I also know folks who saved up for a couple years and continued to work their asses off in outside jobs throughout grad school to cough up the $25k every year. If you don't get into a good program you can reasonably afford, keep working, save, get better, organize more concerts, perform more, and apply again the next year. 

2) KNOW YOUR CHICKEN. Like I said, at its best grad school is primarily source of interesting and useful people. So do your research. Look up faculty members to see who's doing stuff you're interested in (emailing them is a mixed bag in my experience, but at the very least can be helpful in determining if someone's an asshole). Internet stalk and then email current or past students to see what they're like and how they like the program. If you're into research, see what people are researching. If you're into an extra-academic career, see if people are getting commissions, starting ensembles, and what kind of gigs they're doing. Basically just be an internet stalker. Also look at program offerings and call financial aid offices. Visit places if you can and get a real sense of what the place is like. Know what you're getting into, whether you'd be a good fit there, and whether you can afford it. 

3) JOB PROSPECTS. Post-Masters, much to my disappointment, I did not immediately receive two years worth of paid commissions and a college teaching job. I moved to Brooklyn and spent a year essentially doing the same work I was doing pre-Masters, and, as with my post-Pomona move to SF, was broke and stressed a lot. However, occasionally people also paid me to write or perform, which they very rarely did pre-Masters, and that work has gradually become a legit income stream. 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 shortly), but which are all also things I have cultivated outside of school too. 

4) DON'T STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING. Regardless of grad school, I wouldn't have any the connections and opportunities I have now if I hadn't continued doing all the stuff from my last blog post. Never stop doing what you love, never stop getting better, never stop going to shows and meeting people, never stop organizing your own stuff. 

4) SUMMER FESTIVALS. This one should even go in the Food and Music post, because they can be so goddamned helpful. I credit a three-week program I did at CSU Fresno with really teaching me how to write for instruments and make legit scores, and in so doing, getting me into grad school. I credit the two summers I spent at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival with launching my career in New York - a huge number of my paid commissions and most of my paid performance work so far has been through connections I made there. I would look particularly at ones that emphasize composer-performer interaction, and preferably ones with faculty from schools you're interested in. Yes, they can be expensive and that sucks (although way less expensive than a grad school without a good financial aid program). As always, hierarchy of needs. But if you can figure out how to make it work financially, it's absolutely a good investment early in your career. 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, or commission a piece from you, or hire you as a performer. It's huge. 

5) If you're interested in making yourself crazy by thinking even more about this, a while back Aaron Gervais also wrote a very interesting series of blog posts on this topic that you could go read. Maybe someday I'll get to discuss this with him. 

Them's the thoughts on grad school. Look forward to part 4, where I just ramble on about some general thoughts I have about composing and performing. 

Part 2 - Food and music

Life as a composer/performer outside of school AKA how to not starve and hopefully make music you like:

When you’re straight out of school as composer or composer/performer, the way I see it you’ve got a couple basic things to deal with: 1) feed and house yourself, and 2) figure out how to make music you care about and keep improving. Here we go. 

1) On feeding and housing yourself

We’ll start with some real talk - with very few exceptions, no one will pay you to compose music for them in your first year or two out of school (especially coming out of undergrad). So, 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, but you also need enough time and energy to write. There are a number of possible solutions to this, but virtually every composer under 25 (and most under 30) have day jobs.

One guy I know helps run a tech startup in SF part time and spends the rest of his time composing. Another friend who is a particularly amazing composer with great connections and a great degree still spent a year and change after his M.M. teaching in a magnet school and doing freelance web work before commissions started picking up the slack. Other folks I know have worked at ticketing companies, public schools, doing engraving for music publishers, driving cabs – it’s all over the place. I’ve also known people who were pretty determined not to work day jobs, and they’re super, super poor. It’s the way it is, and the sooner you wrap your head around it the sooner you’ll start coming up with solutions.

My first couple years out of undergrad I did a mix of nonprofit admin work and guitar/theory private teaching, but it took about six months to build up the part-time work enough to start having a decent income. I lived for two months with one guitar student that kept me in groceries, and paid rent out of my paltry (but thankfully existent) savings from undergrad jobs. I was pretty determined to not work at a grocery store or a café (which in retrospect may have been a mistake), so I started volunteering at The Walden School, a music nonprofit. Since I also desperately needed teaching experience, I put on a nice shirt and walked into a local elementary school and handed them a resume, which resulted in a year of volunteer guitar teaching in their after-school program. Both of these volunteer jobs eventually resulted in part-time paid work – Walden after two months, and the elementary school after six. After the first year, between Walden, private students, and the elementary school, I was working 30-35 hours a week, lived pretty comfortably, and had a good amount of time to write and practice.

2) Making music you care about and continuing to get better at it

More real talk – my experience is that initially you’ll be lucky if you can talk people into even playing your music, let alone paying you for it. Don't just expect people to play your stuff if you just cold-email them. Flutist Meerenai Shim wrote a characteristically thoughtful blog post on this. Similarly, don't expect too much to come out of grants, calls for scores, or competitions, especially early in your career. (Meerenai wrote another totally fascinating if somewhat depressing article comparing the relative odds of grant applications and gambling). So much of what dictates these things is outside your control - who happens to be on the jury that year, who else applied (everyone), how close to the top of the pile of 600 scores the jury had one day to look at your score was, etc. Yes, it’s depressing. Yes, there are still things you can do to get your stuff out there.

1) Make connections in person! Seriously, go meet some people right this goddamn second then come back and finish this stupidly long post. I can't emphasize this enough - the people in the scene are what makes everything happen, and if they know you and like you, the likelihood of good things happening to you goes way up. Go to a lot of concerts of whatever kind of music you're interested in and talk to the people there. Don't be overly clingy - like, if someone clearly doesn't want to talk to you, stop bothering them and go find someone friendlier, but it's OK to be awkward (or better still, be not awkward if you're the kind of person that can do that - I'm not) and introduce yourself to people you think are doing interesting things, especially if you have something intelligent to say to them about what they're doing. 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. 

2) Perform your own music! Perform other people's music! Find people in a similar position to start a group that plays your music, your ensemble-mates' music, and whatever else you're into. My experience is that you tend to get better performances early on if you do your own stuff (because presumably you give a shit about your own stuff and won't just sight-read it), you learn a ton about your music, and you'll have a lot of fun. I've learned at least as much about composing from playing in rock bands and chamber groups as I have from my teachers (and I've been lucky enough to have had some seriously awesome teachers). 

3) 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. 

4) 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. These people will help you make numbers 2 and 3 a reality. You gotta find a braintrust. (Excuse me while I Hot Snakes)

5) I actually had fairly regular private composition lessons with more established composers for my second and third years out of undergrad, (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 (or an EXTREMELY kind older mentor composer who will occasionally put up with your shit for free) 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. 

6) Despite my eternal pessimism about grants and competitions, I still apply to the free ones when I’ve got time. If you’re going this route, take the time to do them right (Jen Wang of Wild Rumpus wrote a kickin' rad article on applying to these things) and don't take it personally when you get rejected - which you will. If you stick in the game eventually you will have more attractive pieces, better scores, know more of the people on these panels, and sometimes they will be kinder to you (or so I hear). In the meantime, it can be good practice to get your stuff really presentable (and used to dealing with rejection and moving on), so make your music as awesome as you can and your scores as clean as possible and apply to the free ones - sometimes you get lucky. 

OK, that massive pile of braindump is all I have for now. In Part 3, I'll give some thoughts on grad school, and Part 4 will just be me talking about general philosophies and feelings about this music thing, or something. 

Part 1 - Hold on to your butts

This will be 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, which in turn prompted me to put down in writing thoughts stemming from many experiences and conversations I’ve had over the past few years both in and out of academia.

What will follow is a series of posts trying to sum up my thoughts on life as so-called "professional musician" and “new music composer” in the US, as well as thoughts I've been putting together for a while as to how musicians (but composer/performers in particular, since that’s how I roll) can better participate in their local and not-local scenes, get their music played, and maybe even make a few friends. More after the jump - hold on to your butts. 

My ranty preamble to my email response to that unexpecting post-undergrad dude/my general spiel to anyone that asks me if they should try to make a living as a musician

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. Rock music is not looking much better, especially if you’re trying to do something interesting or different. Ask Future of the Left, or hell, even Pomplamoose

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, engaging, and aggressive, and you should only try to organize your life around being a professional musician if a) people are already throwing money/awards/kittens 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 don't mean to discourage anyone. But the reality is that it's a tough field to crack into, let alone 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 bother giving me a sense of that. 

Ok, rant nearly over. It can be daunting, but know that nearly everyone trying to do what you're doing goes through the same bullshit. And if you can stick out the bad times, get really good at it, act like a human being, and get sufficiently lucky, people will maybe sometimes pay you enough money to continue doing it. You do have to be prepared for the fact that it almost certainly won't happen for a while, and may not happen at all. You'll have to weigh what kind of material lifestyle you want to have against how much of your time and energy you can spend on your music. 

But on the other hand, you get to do something you're really seriously passionate about, and you get to spend a lot of time with some of the coolest people ever. My friend Doug wrote a great article a few years back on the economics of a touring metal band, and many of the same financial woes and will plague you as a professional musician in any genre. For me though, as with the band profiled in Doug’s article, for me nothing can replace the camaraderie and chemistry of a musical group, the feeling of really nailing music you’ve worked on for ages, of having a crowd really respond and knowing you really communicated something to other people. These are things I know I can’t be happy without, and they're the reason I still do what I do (OK, awards and money have helped too).

If you're still with me, my next post will work through some of the ways I’ve dealt with being a musician/composer/performer out of school, both before and after grad school – paying rent, finding gigs, competitions, getting music played, finding people who get what you’re doing – etc. See you then.