Part of going to school for a degree in composition is to learn the craft of composing and to build your musical “toolbox” (i.e. control of musical parameters; mastery of various musical languages; solid skills in notation, instrumentation, orchestration, counterpoint, etc.) as well as to discover your own unique musical “voice.” But an equally important part is to figure out how to build a successful composing career. When you graduate, your toolbox will be brimming with finely honed skills and your brain will be bursting with exciting ideas for new pieces, but what do you do now? How do you let people know that you are a composer, and how do you get your music out there?
Tough questions indeed! This is why I advocate for preparing yourself to be a Well-Rounded Composer while in school. A Well-Rounded Composer is not only ready for any opportunities that should come his/her way, but also is a go-getter and creates opportunities for oneself. This is someone who will build and maintain a website, go to concerts, build relationships with musicians and performing ensembles (both in school and out in the community), collaborate with people in other fields, and perhaps even start a musical organization. These skills and strategies can – and should – be tested out by a student while in school: build your website, create a musical organization with your fellow students, learn how to market your organization, and so on. If you do this while you’re a student, then you’ve already gotten a head start on having a professional career by the time you graduate.
A Well-Rounded Composer also takes a good look at his/her skill sets and figures out how these skills can translate to other fields of work while constructing a musical career. Let’s face it – no composer will have a full-time professional composing gig at the moment of graduation. For almost everyone in this field, our careers will take time to build (very few composers ever experience overnight success). So it is good to create a strategy in which you can earn money that will keep you financially afloat while you keep composing and engaging in musical activities. Perhaps you have a knack for turning out beautifully notated music scores - you could become a copyist, or work for a major publishing house. Or if you’ve got awesome orchestration skills, you can orchestrate for a film composer. There are plenty of examples of very successful composers who worked assorted jobs until their careers took off, even jobs outside of music. Just look at Philip Glass, who drove cabs, moved furniture, and worked as a plumber before becoming a full-time composer.
Ultimately, a Well-Rounded Composer is someone who has four elements: a sturdy “toolbox,” a unique musical voice, a passion to chase down and create musical opportunities, and a realistic view about finding a means to support oneself while building towards full-time composer status. With some hard work and careful planning, you can create a path for yourself that will lead to a very fulfilling life as a composer.