Time Management and the “Part Time” Composer

In a  recent Composer’s Digest entry, I outlined several changes I wanted to make to enhance my professional productivity.  A short while after publishing that, I hit upon the idea of creating for myself an annual production schedule (that is, mapping out all the projects I would complete during the course of the year and an approximate time frame in which to complete each project).  I was really taken with this idea as I thought it would give me more focus and thus lead to more pieces being completed.  As I began to sit down to put this list together, however, I kept coming back to the question:

When during the day will I actually DO the composing?

A tricky point, considering (as is the case for many of my fellow “part time” composers) I have a job, go to school, have an active family, and participate in community music groups.  Those rare occasions when I have down time, I’m usually too physically or mentally exhausted to do anything else.

So it became clear that, while having a production queue was a fine idea, I was first going to have to figure out a way to organize my life.

I began by coming up with my time inventory.  First I figured out the things I absolutely had to carve out time for on a daily basis and usually occurred at set times.  I called these “fixed mandatories.”

  • Work
  • Class (including transit time)
  • Meals
  • Organization Attendance (choir, band, drum corps; the kids’ activities)
  • Sleep

Next I came up with the things I had to do but for which the time demands change from day to day.  I called these “variable mandatories.”

  • Household Administration (e.g., chores, paying bills, etc.)
  • Studying
  • Organization Administration (e.g., maintaining web sites, managing libraries, member communications, etc.)
  • General Family Time (any manner of casual or structured activity as a couple or as a family)

I also decided that I needed to create “flex time” to allow myself some wiggle room in the case that time estimates are off, if something comes up at the last minute (as often happens when one has a family with young children), or if I felt I needed additional down time.

The final decision, then, was how to categorize composition.  I could either make it fixed mandatory or variable mandatory.  Looking at my overall situation, I felt it was more realistic to allow myself to budget time for this based around the holistic demands of each day, so I went with “variable.”

The basic time inventory complete, my next task was to flesh out a daily schedule (note I normally sleep from 11p-7a, though when I work, that’s my shift; either way nothing special to report there so I saved space and left it off).  The kids go to school during the day, so that helps in being able to accomplish more focused tasks.

My life, in Excel format:


I tried to arrange it so that composing occurred in longer blocks of time so that I could give it sustained attention.

Note that, in practice, this “schedule” is quite fluid.  If I have extra chores to do, or not much studying, or something comes up at the last minute, I freely rearrange things.  As long as I can still get in the approximate total allotted time for each activity by the end of the day, then I consider it a success (e.g., two hours for housework even if it isn’t at the exact indicated time).

With that squared away, I could return my attention to the original quest of organizing my composing life.  First I had to decide what my professional priorities were.  I have any number of projects I could pick away at, but, as you’ve seen, only so much time to spend.  To maximize the impact of this precious time, I decided my career would focus primarily on publishing concert band literature.  That isn’t to say I won’t work on other kinds of projects now and then; certainly I have commissions and other projects that require my attention from time to time.  But for the most part I have decided I will be focused on writing band music for publication.

Right now, as a consequence of my previous “scattered” approach to time management, I have a large number of unfinished projects in my sock drawer.  So I started my project queue by taking a look at these and deciding which seemed most promising.  I took into consideration several factors:

  • how much progress had already been made (and approximate time to complete)
  • intrinsic interest level in working on it
  • publication potential
  • whether it advanced my primary career goal (i.e., publishing band literature)

Using that criteria to whittle down the considerable list of unfinished projects, I settled on a short list of pieces I would focus on completing this year.  My next task, then, was to give myself a broad time frame within which to complete each piece.  Similar to my life schedule, I thought it wise to give a little flex time in the production queue as I’ve noticed projects don’t always go according to plan (or life events slow things down). So I inserted a week long “buffer” between each project to either take a break or give myself a little extra time to work.

The amount of time assigned to each piece is largely arbitrary since I’ve never done this before in such an organized way (though if a piece was mostly finished already, I didn’t need to give it as much time obviously; I also took into account other life events happening, like exams, holidays, etc). I erred on the side of giving myself more time than less.  Rushing is probably not a good idea. And if I do finish a project early, I’ll just jump to the next piece and adjust the schedule accordingly.

Here is my 2013 production schedule:

January 1 – February 23:  drum corps commissions

February 24 – March 2:  work buffer or break

March 3 – March 16:  unaccompanied solo piece (title TBD)

March 17 – March 23:  work buffer or break

March 24 – April 6:   “Heart of Kings,” concert band

April 7 – April 13:  work buffer or break

April 14 – May 4:  “Testaments,” concert band

May 5 – May 11:  work buffer or break

May 12 – May 25:  “Suomalainen Suite, ” concert band

May 26 – June 1:  work buffer or break

June 2 – June 15:  “Glory of the North Country, ” concert band

June 16 – June 22:  work buffer or break

June 23 – July 20:  “Variants on Greensleeves,” concert band

July 21 – July 27:  work buffer or break

July 28 – August 10:  “Through Many Toils, Snares, and Dangers, ” concert band

August 11 – August 17:  work buffer or break

August 18 – August 31  reworking of completed-but-unreleased concert band project (new title TBD)

September 1 – September 7:  work buffer or  break

September 8 – September 21:  complete binary band piece (title TBD)

September 22 – September 28:  work buffer or break

September 29 – October 12:  “Revival, ” concert band

October 13 – October 19:  work buffer or break

October 20 – November 2:  “Silent Night/Coventry Carol, ” concert band

November 3 – November 9:  work buffer or break

November 10 – November 30:  “Benedicimus Te,” choir

December 1 – December 7:  work buffer or break

December 8 – December 31:  “Desert Sunscapes,” concert band

I’ll post progress updates on my Composer’s Digest.  Here’s to a more productive year!

Take a look at what I’ve composed here

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12 thoughts on “Time Management and the “Part Time” Composer

  1. Wow, your production schedule is thick! You wrote this article really, at the perfect time for me, as I have been noticing that I spend too much time on things that don’t really matter all that much to me, simply out of habit.

    The more that i have going on, the more I find myself in need of some structure – looking forward to seeing how well you stick to your production schedule which is kind of incredible to me!

    1. I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted! I’ll just point out that it seems like my production schedule is heavy, but most of those pieces are already in various stages of completion.

      Thanks for coming by and I’m glad I could help!

  2. Brandon, this was written at the perfect time for me too. I am trying to allocate some time to compose as well. As my primary goal and work pattern is different from yours (I’m on a rota), I just wanted to ask a question: does your partner agree with this? I also have a family with two little kids, none at school.
    I guess that, if my girlfriend would see any benefits coming out of my “hobby”, the situation would change, but at the moment I gain no money out of my music, hence she thinks this is time wasted. Did you need to fight for your time to compose?
    Thanks for the article, very enlightening indeed!

    1. I generally try to find time to write when it would be least obtrusive to family times or wouldn’t create an undue extra burden of child care responsibility on my wife. So I’ll write when they’re at school or after they go to bed.

      The essence of good time management is meeting ALL of your life needs as much as possible. There were years when I did almost no composing at all (mostly when the kids were infants and I was teaching full time) because I couldn’t do it without onerous sacrifices to family or work needs.

      It can be difficult for our life partners to sit by and watch us toil away so many hours without any clear gain. Especially if our partners are not “in music” they may not realize the years of seemingly fruitless dues paying that is required to “get anywhere” in composition.

      I think if you are willing to sit down with her and make a sensible schedule everyone can be ok with and you spell out why this is so important to you and why it takes so much time and effort (perhaps even outline your long range plans and goals), you will “win her over.” Like any other relationship issue, communication and flexibility are the keys to solving this.

      My wife generally respected (and respects) my writing needs. So I’ve been lucky. She knew what she was getting in to anyhow… 😉

      Best wishes and happy writing!

      P.S. – if you’ve seen the movie Amadeus, you’ll note even Mozart had to deal with a money-concerned partner 🙂

  3. Interesting – thanks for posting. I have a (temporary) day time job which I have to combine with music and audio related activities. If I get up at 4 am during the week I can put in a morning run before heading out of the door at 6 am, and I can still beat traffic, reducing the commute from 1 1/2 hour to 1/2 hour. For me deadlines are usually dictated by film festivals (I also do sound post production). There’s never enough time in a day it seems, and it doesn’t help that I am too easily distracted. 😉

    1. I admire your dedication in getting up so early–I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to do that!

      I’m easily distracted too. Starting this new approach to time management had helped a lot with that actually. Knowing what I’m “supposed” to be doing at any given time during the day helps keeps me on track and productive. And allowing myself regular breaks has been a helpful practice. I get antsy if I sit for too long.

      Best wishes and happy writing!

  4. Thanks for this information. It is very useful for us. We are a music writing team. We have need a composer, music writer, musicians, song writer and singer. Now we try give a musicians music jobs. We are wanted composer very quickly. Because our all writing need to compose and then publish.
    composer wanted

  5. I have a full time job – but all my children are grown and gone. I have found that Saturday morning is ideal – I can sleep in to 8 AM, its quiet, and I have the energy to concentrate. Your schedule has you sleeping until 2 PM and composing later. Also, time management is part of it but composing is only about 50% of the time needed to bring something to performance. i have found that writing electronic music gets a piece out there much faster that finding performers, a venue, rehearsal, etc. There are efficiencies in 21st century technologies that are important, too.

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