How to Have a Composing Career in 10 Easy Steps

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 20 Jan 2014]

BeethovenIf you haven’t seen the article on how to write a symphony, you should check it out, because it’s filled with incisive advice like “Be inspired,” and “Eventually each theme will become a decently long movement.” This got me to thinking about something bigger than a symphony or even composing itself. How, you’ve probably already wondered, can you have a composing career?

Well, it turns out I’ve been asked that once or twice, and while my plan is to solve that in about 50 years, in the meantime I thought I’d let you in on what I’ve already discovered. I believe that if you follow these steps, you’ll no doubt—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

1. It’s All About You

Your vision as a composer is the most important thing for you to remember. Consequently, it’s the most important thing for everyone else to remember, so keep telling them. Your life as a composer, and the act of composing itself, is incredibly exciting. Be sure to talk about it whenever you can. Everyone will thank you for it, inwardly, because the lives of non-composers are by nature dull when compared to yours.

2. Have Opinions, Lots of Opinions

People admire strength, and there’s no better way to gain admiration than to have strong opinions. So take every chance you get not only to have an opinion, but—and this is the important point—to let it be known. It can be about anything, but politics and religion are good choices. It’s best to be outspoken about something you’re pretty sure they already agree with, though.

3. Wait for Your Chance

If only the big orchestras would commission you, you’d show them. Don’t waste your time writing for friends or small groups or amateurs. You’re meant for better things. Bide your time.

4. Know the Ranges of the Musicians You’re Writing For

Singers, especially, love it when you ask them what their highest note is and what their lowest is. Sure, they can sing lots of other notes in between, but anybody can write for those. Show them that you’re no average schmo.

5. Deadlines Are for Chumps

The piece will be ready when you say it’s ready. You can’t put genius on a clock.

6. The Basses Are Never Loud Enough

You know how your piece in real life is never as punchy in the bass register as it is on your computer software with headphones? I know, right? It’s the players’ fault. Listen, you’re the composer, and you’re in charge. So make it louder by adding fs; turn every forte (f) into a fortissimo (ff), and so on. You might want to put accents (>) over every note. If that doesn’t work, make them the accents that stand up like party hats (^). Those are good. Or add a line under the accent. Or a dot. Or a line and a dot, or even better, make up your own, which shows ingenuity, and as we all know, the root of ingenuity is genius, and the root of genius…is u. The main thing is to make it sound like what you hear at home, so don’t change your music, just keep adding fs or accents. If that doesn’t help, then. . .

7. If You Hear Something Wrong, Tell Them

In rehearsal, the players will turn to you at some point and ask you what you think. This is your chance to get their respect! Start by pointing out mistakes. Disregard bourgeois concepts of “technique.” A violinist who repeatedly can’t play your finely crafted septuplets is not to be coddled because didn’t Beethoven say that he didn’t care about somebody who couldn’t play something, once? So why should you? If you can’t model yourself after a great composer like Beethoven, you shouldn’t be in this business. If it sounds good, then remember your self-respect and say there are “balance” or “intonation” issues—if they ask where, just say “in general”—and remember…

8. Nice Guys Finish Last

Music history is filled with stories of great and grumpy composers like Beethoven. Brahms loved to insult people, it seemed, just to see how they would react. Bach had a sword fight with a bassoonist. David Diamond, having no sword or bassoonist handy, punched a conductor in the nose, or in the Russian Tea Room. So the thing to do, if you can’t yet aspire to their talent, is to imitate their bad habits.

9. You Wuz Robbed

To help you get in the right frame of mind, remember that there’s a conspiracy against you. You know that prize you didn’t win? You think they didn’t recognize your genius? No. Way. They owed the person who won, and they’re all friends anyway. A great sadness for Brahms was that he never could get that job as director of the orchestra in Hamburg, his hometown. There he was in Vienna, with everybody loving his lullabies and his decently long movements, but he was bitter at not being asked to conduct Hamburg. Be bitter like Brahms; you know the fix is in.

10. Trash-Talk Other Composers

If you’re not as high on the ladder as you’d like to be, the next best thing is to pull other composers down. They don’t deserve to be that high anyway. You’ll deserve it, when you get there, but they only got there because they went to the right school or knew the right people. It’s not because they worked hard for years, creating a long list of works that musicians like to, you know, play, and that audiences like to, you know, listen to.

So there you have it. If you’re a composer, or would like to become one, just follow these steps, and I’ll be content, knowing I’ve done my part to make life easier for at least one composer.

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