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.