Sunday, May 8, 2016

Embracing a Freelance Career

Frank Ishman, photographer
Recently, I stepped down from my full-time position at Roosevelt University. I’ll serve as part-time artist faculty next year, teaching studio composition lessons, while the university holds a formal job search to find my replacement.

Why did I do this? The answer is simple – I want/need/desire more time to compose. It has taken a very long time to arrive at this juncture. I have taught at Roosevelt since 2000, and over the past sixteen years, the university has been a wonderful and supportive home for me. My work at Roosevelt has been fulfilling—I greatly enjoy teaching students and helping them develop their minds and musical skills. I’ve also enjoyed working with my talented colleagues in our common goal to strengthen the university and to provide our students with a wealth of knowledge and opportunities.

For many years, I successfully kept a balance between teaching/collegiate responsibilities and composing. But this balance has been getting harder and harder to maintain as my composing career moves in new and exciting directions. Now, I want to explore new paths, to collaborate with musicians, singers, ensembles, organizations, dancers, and opera companies. I wish to explore getting into film music, as well as to delve deeper into developing music entrepreneurship for myself and for others. In short, I want to explore my fullest potential. If I don’t do this now, when will I ever stop to do so?

I will always love teaching, and plan to do so in one capacity or another throughout my life. There are many avenues for this—Skype composition lessons with people around the world, guest residencies in colleges and universities with a focus on both entrepreneurship and composition activities, educational outreach activities with music organizations, and my continuing role with Fresh Inc Festival, where I’m on faculty. But as much as I love teaching, it is time to move composing to the forefront and take my first steps on a new path as a freelance composer. I’ll be blogging more about this transition and my new adventures as I do!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

5 Marketing Tips for All Musicians

Last night, I talked with Chicago a Cappella’s interns – they are a talented group of high school singers chosen from all over the Chicago area. In prepping for the talk, I realized that most of my blog columns have been aimed at composers.  In today’s blog, I offer some ideas (derived from last night’s talk) that pertain to singers and instrumentalists everywhere:

1. Meet musicians, performing groups, and composers
• Go to concerts; afterwards, introduce yourself to the singers, the conductor, any composers who had works performed, and the director of the organization. Hand out business cards (with your email and website address) or CDs.

• Keep up with these people on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media.

2. Build a website.
• All musicians need a web presence these days. If you’re not on the web, how are people going to find out about you and reach you?

• Check out websites by professionals at various stages of their careers. See what’s important on their websites: a welcome page, biography, repertoire list, audio files of your works or performances, upcoming performances, and a way to contact you. Then build your own website.

3. Create an email newsletter.
• Putting your name in front of people every 1-3 months helps keep you in their minds for potential gigs. An email newsletter is a great way to do this.

• A newsletter can cover a range of topics: upcoming performances, a blog of your adventures for the past month; current projects that you’re working on with other singers, musicians, dancers, or visual artists; recently released CDs; pictures of you at various events (such as posing with fellow musicians after a concert); links to audio files of a recent performance you gave; and so on.

4. Targeted advertising via “cold calls.”
• Contact groups that you want to work with. If you’re a chorister, that can be local churches, choirs, and choral societies. For instrumentalists, you might try local chamber groups, regional orchestras, and concert presenters.

• In your email, introduce yourself with a short biography, and explain your interest in the group you’ve contacted. Put links to audio files of yourself up on Soundcloud or on your own website. Also, have repertoire lists and packages of potential programming on your site, so people can see the kind of music and concerts you offer.

5. Ultimately, you are in charge of running your career.
• Figure out your strengths and weaknesses. You'll see what you're already good at, and what you need to work on.

• Create a list of short- and long-range goals. These will help you figure out where you want your career to go.

• Get organized & stay organized. This is an essential skill for everyone - to be on time to gigs, to be prompt in returning emails. Keep yourself from procrastinating on projects.

• If you’re currently in college, start making your career happen while you’re still in school. Network with student musicians and composers, create your own ensemble, start a concert series in a local venue, make a website, go to lots of concerts, and so on. Take charge early!

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Composing Process: From the First Note to the Final Score

[This is an article I wrote for the fall 2015 issue of the Roosevelt Review, the alumni magazine for Roosevelt University. To view the original, click here.]

At performances of my music, I am frequently asked how do I compose. Do I hear it all in my head? Do I use computers to assist me? Have I ever experienced writer’s block? These are all excellent questions, all of which I will address as I de-mystify the composing process. The following steps and strategies are not only what I use when I compose, but also what I teach my composition students at the Chicago College of Performing Arts.


Part 1: Pre-Composition

The first stage of beginning any new piece is research. This stage involves studying other composers’ works, as well as familiarizing myself with the particular instrumentation for which I’ll be composing. For instance, when I wrote Helios for brass quintet (an ensemble that consists of two trumpets, horn, trombone, and tuba), I acquainted myself with the ensemble by studying brass quintet repertoire, listening to recordings, and attending live concerts. These activities helped me to ascertain the ensemble’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as to detect possible performance issues (the tuba, for instance, needs a lot of air to produce sound and tires quickly, so a composer must leave ample time between passages for the performer to breathe). The more I understand how the ensemble works, the better I’ll be able to compose for the group.

Along with conducting research, I brainstorm about possible sources of inspiration. When a work is a commission, I find out from the commissioners what their interests are, and incorporate these interests into my brainstorming process. In the case of Noir Vignettes, my double bass and piano piece, the commissioner told me of his fondness for movies, and of his particular interest in the director Alfred Hitchcock. I watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rebecca, and while I didn’t care for Hitchcock’s filmmaking style, I became very intrigued with film noir, the genre in which both of these movies exhibit characteristics. I watched several more movies in the genre, including The Lady from Shanghai, Double Indemnity, This Gun for Hire, and The Maltese Falcon. After watching each movie, I wrote down my thoughts on various aspects; for instance, a femme fatale could have an exotic, enchanting sound, whereas a gumshoe detective smoking his last cigarette of the day should sound slow and jazzy. Alternately, if the commissioner wants me choose the work’s topic, I select a subject that is of personal interest to me. Recent topics include the Greek myth of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun, and a depiction of the starkness of Wyoming’s landscape.

At some point during the brainstorming stage, I start putting pencil to paper. This can be a rather daunting moment. What if the notes I write down aren’t interesting? How can I possibly fill up the entire page with thought-provoking, well-conceived music? Self-doubt and high expectations can make it quite difficult for a composer to compose. To aid myself through this part of the writing process, I use a strategy: whenever I begin a new piece, I write one minute of music a day for seven days. It doesn’t have to be a great minute of music, or even a good minute, but it has to be one full minute. The music need not be continuous – I can compose three different ideas, each twenty seconds long. Giving myself permission to compose without judgment is an essential element of the strategy. While the first few days of composing are typically challenging, I eventually produce ideas that have real potential. I also get increasingly focused on how to creatively use the instruments.

Once I have written several minutes of music, the sorting process begins. I select out the strongest, most intriguing ideas and start to flesh them out further. To do this, I analyze the musical material from every angle. What musical pitches comprise the melody? What are the intervals between each set of pitches? How would it sound if I turned the intervals upside down, or reversed their order? Can I extend these ideas into longer phrases? What if I move the pitches higher or lower? I will often cover entire tabloid size pieces of paper with various configurations of each musical idea, and refer to these papers throughout the entire composing process when I need more material from which to draw.

As my musical materials become more substantial, I create the overall formal structure, or “roadmap,” of the entire piece. Having a roadmap is critical, for how can a piece have direction if you don’t know where it is going? Building from the musical materials that I’ve been developing, I draw a graph for the work, with the x-axis representing time and the y-axis representing the level of tension in the music. The graph can show many other elements as well: how many sections or movements the piece will have, what musical characteristics each section or movement will contain, and so on.

Part II: Composition

Once I’ve developed enough pre-compositional work, I delve completely into composing. This is the most exhilarating stage of the process; I am entirely engaged in sketching and developing my musical materials into full sections. For a while, I am quite conscious of every decision that I make while composing; however, the further I get in composing a piece, the more these decisions are being made subconsciously. I tend to write faster as this process moves along, as well as find it difficult to do anything but compose once I’ve fully hit my stride. Going to concerts, seeing friends for dinner, running errands – all of these can break my concentration on the piece and make it hard to resume where I left off. As a result, I generally find it easier to compose in large blocks of time, usually anywhere from two to four hours. Once I’ve reached a natural resting place, such as break between sections or the end of the movement, then I will stop for the day.

In the initial brainstorming stages, I sketch ideas using pencil and paper. Sometimes I’ll use my piano to tinker with possible ideas, while other times I’ll sketch directly from my head onto paper. I will work in this manner long enough for the ideas to take shape on the staff paper; then I move over to a computer. I use a software notation program that allows me to hear the music that I put on the staves, as well as to create a beautifully engraved final score. Computer programs are a tremendous help to composers – you don’t have to wait until you rehearse with musicians to hear how your music will sound – but you need to use these programs carefully. Software programs never achieve an accurate, realistic balance between instruments, and composers must account for balancing issues themselves. Nonetheless, I find this playback to be very useful, as I can check to ensure that my rhythms, tempi, and pitches are to my liking.

Every now and then, I need to evaluate what I’ve composed thus far. Is the music on the right track? Do the various musical ideas work together, or has something shifted? While these assessments are valuable for a piece of any length, I find them to be even more so when composing a long piece. For example, when I wrote my piece Sanctuary for violin, cello, and piano, I wanted the piece to start at a point of complete relaxation and, over the course of thirteen minutes, progressively get more and more tense. This movement ends at a moment of extreme tension, which nicely sets up a very quiet beginning to the second movement. The first idea I composed seemed suitable to open the first movement, but after brainstorming additional ideas, I realized that the initial material would work far better if it occurred around the fourth minute. What had changed? I finally realized that my first idea had too much tension already and couldn’t be used at the beginning of the work! This realization helped me to compose a slow, mysterious opening that gives the piece ample room to grow.

Occasionally while composing, I will arrive at a spot in which I can’t seem to progress any further. Some people call this writer’s block. When I reach such an impasse, I back up to a few measures prior to the trouble spot and rewrite the passage at least two additional times, each time leading to a different musical outcome. Within an hour or so, I have developed three or more possible options to consider. Not only does this method usually unearth a new way to proceed, but it also supplies additional musical material that I can use elsewhere in the piece. This strategy also serves to bring home the point that there’s no one exact path that a composition needs to follow; instead, there are several potential paths, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Once all of the notes are in the computer, I proceed onto the final stage of composing: adding all of the details. These details include anything that shapes the music and gives it nuance. While these details may seem not as important as the choosing of pitches and rhythms, the truth is quite the opposite. Imagine hearing an entire orchestra playing loudly, followed a moment of silence, and then single trumpet enters quietly. Now imagine if the orchestra plays very quietly, and – without a moment of silence – the trumpet enters obnoxiously loud. While the notes and rhythms didn’t change between these scenarios, the details did, and with startlingly different results.

Part III: Post-Composition

Now that the composing phase is complete, I move on to proofing the full score and making parts. I don’t particularly enjoy this phase – it is tedious compared to the excitement of composing – but if I don’t work carefully, then rehearsals could be disastrous as the instrumentalists encounter mistake-laden scores. In addition to a full score that shows all of the instruments that play in the piece, each instrument requires its own individual part (for a string quartet, this would result in four separate parts for the ensemble’s two violins, viola, and cello). Once I have made all of the instrumental parts, I check these against the full score three times to ensure that I have caught any inconsistencies and errors. This phase can easily take just as long as composing the piece, if not longer, depending on the number of instruments involved.

I also need to give the piece a title. Technically, this phase can happen prior to composing the work, or at any stage along the way, including after composing is done. Sometimes, I’ll think of a title that shapes the brainstorming phase of pre-composing. This was the case with the double bass and piano piece; once I figured out that the piece would reference film noir, I easily came up with the title Noir Vignettes. At other times, however, I struggle to find a suitable title even after the piece is completed. Recently, I composed a piece in honor of Cedille Records’ 25th Anniversary season. James Ginsburg, the label’s president, mentioned that he had an interest in street musicians (or “buskers”) he encountered in the city of Prague. The word “buskers” didn’t appeal to me as a title, nor did a string of unfortunate titles that followed. I finally decided on Bohemian CafĂ©, as it aptly describes the carefree, freewheeling atmosphere that I invoke with the music.

No piece is ever complete until I have rehearsed it with performers. In this phase, I can make adjustments to various musical elements – increase a dynamic here, or change an articulation there – to bring out more subtleties in the music. This is also the phase in which I finally discover what passages don’t sit well in a performer’s hands. Performers generally begin rehearsing without the composer present; I will listen to one or two rehearsals as the premiere draws near. This allows the musicians to work out the music for themselves and to create their own interpretation of my piece before I give them my thoughts.

The final phase of any piece is its premiere. This is a thrilling moment! My adrenaline is pumping throughout the event, from any pre-concert discussion I have onstage for the audience, to listening to the musicians play the piece, as well as conversing with audience members afterward. I greatly enjoy this wonderful moment; at the same time, I am assessing the music as it is played, ascertaining where adjustments need to be made. I usually make a small round or two of revisions after the premiere, which I test out at the piece’s next performance. By the third performance, I have worked out all of the kinks, and can finally consider the work finished. When the composing process is complete and I’m pleased with the final results, then I have successfully navigated the composing process from the first note to the final score.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

5 New Year’s Resolutions for Composers

2015 was awesome! I had premieres of several works, worked with wonderful musicians for the first time, and attended some fabulous performances of my music as well as of works by a wide range of composers. However, in reminiscing over my activities of the past year, I found that I didn’t devote as much time as I’d like to other aspects of my career.

I’ve created my 2016 New Year resolution list to augment my current activities, and offer it here in case these can help other composers as well: 

1. Think like an entrepreneur.

Whether we realize it or not, composers are business owners. We create our own unique product, which we then need to market to performers, music organizations, and supporters. The sooner we can consider ourselves as entrepreneurs, the sooner we can start running our careers as such. There are a number of resources (both online and in print) that help in developing the skill set of successful entrepreneurs. In particular, businessman/motivational speaker Brian Tracy has recorded several videos on his YouTube channel that address various aspects of thinking like an entrepreneur, including this great short clip on the daily habits of successful people.

Another angle is to stay informed on the latest advances in the music field. I’m a member of ASCAP; this performance royalties organization sends out a daily email with links to articles on the web that affect their artists. These emails cover a wide range of topics, from copyright issues and ongoing negotiations with digital streaming services to social media marketing strategies. It is worthwhile occasionally checking out Musical America Worldwide's website too; this organization’s front page covers news in the music world. Sign up for their email newsletters as well, as every few months or so, they put together special reports that go in-depth on particular topics. Editions in the past few years have been devoted to social and mobile marketing, copyright issues, developments in digital publishing formats, fundraising strategies, and 30 key influencers in the performing arts.

2. Go to LOTS of events.

There’s no better way to get musically inspired, as well as to check out what other living composers are writing, than to go to concerts. I’m lucky to be living in a major city with a thriving musical scene – Chicago is home to a host of soloists, chamber groups, choirs, orchestras, and opera companies, many of which perform new music on a regular basis. The city also has several concert presenters that bring guest artists to town. Most concert series and organizations offer student discounts, which is very advantageous for students studying in Chicago; for people out of school, it can be worthwhile to sign up for email alerts from various ensembles and performance venues for special discounts on tickets (I typically receive mailings from 25-30 organizations every month about upcoming concerts). In addition to concerts, I seek out a variety of events to attend. Dance, theater, even art exhibits – inspiration can come from anywhere.

3. Make a new connection each month.

Attending events is a fantastic way to expand anyone’s musical horizons, but making connections is equally important – meeting people who might be future collaborators, friends, and supporters of your career. A good challenge to give yourself is to make at least one new connection at every event you attend. Take this a step further than just handing out your business card (which people still do these days): set up a coffee meeting or lunch date. Having quality one-on-one time is where you can find out what interests you each have, and where you might find potential to collaborate on a new project together.

4. Brainstorm projects you wish to explore in the next few years.

It can get very easy to slip into a pattern of writing pieces for commissioners and ensembles that have their own requests and requirements for a new piece, ignoring your own desires of what you want to compose. While these commissions can be very fulfilling and help to pay the bills, it is important to dream up projects that you want to do. Otherwise, you inadvertently run the risk of having your career basically run by others. Every few months, take yourself to a coffee shop, turn off your phone, take out a pen and pad of paper, and brainstorm a list of possible projects you wish to explore. This list can be as general or specific as you like. At the very least, writing a list will help you realize pieces you want to write; at the most, you can get inspired to reach out to your connections and discuss how to bring your idea to life. Either way, when a group approaches you about a possible commission, you’re more apt to be able to propose something back to them that reflects some aspect of your dream list.

5. Make new commissions happen.

One of the main money-making avenues for composers continues to be commission fees. Ideally, a commission offers a composer enough financial support that you can pay your rent, purchase food, etc. without being otherwise employed while you compose the piece. A successful freelance composer is able string enough commissions together to make this lifestyle a viable way to paying their bills. It can take years (or even decades) for composers to reach a point in which he/she can make this a reality, but if you can keep this in mind as your goal, then you’ll be more motivated to seek out commissions.

Commissions can take all sorts of forms – you can apply to organizations like the Fromm and Koussevitzky Music Foundations; the Barlow Endowment and Chamber Music America also have commissioning programs. This route can be very financially rewarding, but typically only a handful of composers are annually awarded these commissions. You can also find individuals or concert presenters to commission a piece on behalf of an ensemble; however, this route is not all that common, and you need to cultivate a strong list of supporters. A more proactive route that you can do yourself is to try your hand at building a consortium commission in which you bring together multiple groups of the same instrumentation to take part in commissioning a particular project; this approach allows all groups to pay less to join the consortium, and you get more performances of your piece (which will ultimately earn you more money in performance royalties). There are some great examples of consortium projects on the web: Benjamin Taylor’s solo saxophone consortium; Roshanne Etezady’s consortium for saxophone and percussion; and wind ensemble consortiums for Daniel Werfelmann, Simon Hutchinson, and Alex Shapiro.

Final Resolutions

Every composer needs to find his/her own path to a fulfilling career. Take a few minutes before midnight on December 31st to write down a few of your own resolutions, and have a happy and productive 2016!