“How Do You Decide What Piece to Write Next?”

Many people still harbor romantic notions of composers. I often get the impression that they think we drift from project to project on the wings of  some mysterious force called “inspiration,” perhaps while hunched over a piece of manuscript parchment, ink quill in hand and scowling at a stingy muse.

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In reality, the question of what we work on is mostly about how one chooses to manage their time and what one’s professional priorities are.  I’ll illustrate from my own experiences.

What composing actually tends to look like...
What composing tends to look like.

Since I usually have little time to compose most days, I have to maximize the impact by focusing on projects that have a clearly-defined future.  Thus, if I’m working on a piece, it’s usually for one of these reasons:

  • commission
  • contest/call for scores
  • strong publication potential (or request from publisher)

A commissioned piece will generally take priority in my work queue (guaranteed income and/or public performance are hard to argue against), though that depends on what I’m currently working on, when the commission is due, and how much time I think it will take to write.

I’m relatively new to the “contest/call for scores” scene, having taken some time off from it after grad school.  I’ve decided to give it another go as winning contests can be a fruitful avenue to pursue, both in terms of money and exposure (often times the winning piece will be publicized, performed, recorded, or even published).  So I feel pursuing projects for this purpose would be a good use of my time.

Another part of my writing time is devoted to publication. I’ve established relations with a number of houses and am always looking to expand in this area.  I’ve found publishing can be a good way to get music out to a bigger audience and can start a “snowball effect” of increasing demand for your music (the more you publish, the more they want you to).  It’s not a great way to make money typically (publishers keep the bulk of sales income and it’s a tiny marketplace to begin with), but if your name gets big enough (often in combination with prominent contest wins), it could result in achieving commissions from customers who like your work.

So, taking those avenues into consideration, I decide what my next project is.  If I don’t have a commission and there’s not a contest I’m interested in, I’ll write something I think will be publishable and offer it up in that arena (occasionally publishers will request something to be written, which I consider akin to a commission).

Every professional composer goes through a similar process of time management and prioritization.  My practice illustrates how one such process operates.

Now, I’d say “back to composing,” but I’ve been commissioned to do a load of laundry.

Composing time!
Composing time?

Take a look at what I’ve composed here

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2 thoughts on ““How Do You Decide What Piece to Write Next?”

  1. Great article, Brandon. I’ve actually found myself saying no to people as of lately, whether it’s performance/composing opportunities, just because I know those opportunities won’t be fruitful or lead to greater things. Our time as composers is so precious because there’s so much else to do.. like feeding and bathing yourself! :p

    1. You’re absolutely right. Learning to say no is important. I know a few composers who would be doing a lot better if they didn’t throw themselves at every offer, despite what it may or may not offer them in the bigger picture.

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