What is a Composition Career?

From a practical standpoint, the field of composition is not well-defined.  There is no formal path laid out for the practitioner.  Seniority isn’t necessarily rewarded, and neither, for that matter, merit. (Indeed, who would define “merit” and how would they do it?)  There is no predetermined ladder for one to climb once one graduates from college as there is in more common occupational paths.  Determining what a “career” consists of and what, by extension, “success,” means, becomes a real challenge and can be a source of great anxiety and stress.

That we have no formal career plot is both a blessing a a curse:  it’s freeing in that we can determine our own course,  but with that freedom comes enormous uncertainty and no sense of security.

This dichotomy is an especial challenge for young composers, who often get caught in the trap of comparing themselves to “big names” and either become obsessed in trying to emulate them or become helplessly mired in jealousy and envy.  We begin to see, however, that pathways in composition are just as individual as the composer–trying to follow someone else’s path is ultimately counterproductive and will be personally unsatisfying.  The path that a composer embarks on must take into account many personal factors: creative desires, lifestyle requirements/restrictions, etc.

So, given that each composer must find their own way, what are the yardsticks by which we might measure relative success on these paths?

  • most commercially-published pieces?
  • most professional recordings on the market?
  • most commissions?
  • most contests won?
  • most films scored?
  • most days on the road rubbing elbows with big names?

The list could go on, but it would soon become clear that most composers would not meet many, or even some, of these yardsticks (even those composers whom we hold high in esteem).  The conclusion we come to, then, is that each composer must define the terms of their own success.

In my own practice, for instance, I’ve determined that my career will focus on pursuing commissioned work.  Therefore, my personal measure of success will be in that area of attainment.  The other areas I listed above won’t be as important to me as they might be to others.  This career path is a good fit for me because my sense of personal satisfaction derives, in part, from being able to collaborate with terrific performers and write high level music.  It also fits my lifestyle requirements in that I can do this work entirely from home (I have a wife, small children, a job, and I am a student again so having to travel widely would not work well for me right now).

Whatever your path, there are a few factors that we might identify as universal to success:

  • very high level of artistry and craftsmanship
  • effective networking
  • good sense of entrepreneurship
  • being in touch with the needs and desires of the people you’re writing for (and, to some extent, your audience)

As we’ve seen, composers must define their own careers and what they feel “success” will mean.  There is no “right way,” only the way that bests fits one’s needs and desires.


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