Things I Wish I Had Known When I Thought I Couldn't Be A Composer

I think back to myself at age 13. I had thought of an interesting melody while practicing my Mozart concerto. I played my melody on the piano. I did my best to write it out. “Look,” I thought to myself, “I’m a composer.” I opened the piano bench to place my composition amongst those of my friends Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Scarlatti, Bach, Poulenc, Mendelssohn, Clementi, Haydn. I glance at my stack of CDs and the posters on my wall. My composition is in the piano bench, but where do I place myself? Somewhere else, as that dusty piece of staff paper didn’t resurface until I was 22. And on that day when it resurfaced, knee-deep in vocal performance degree programs, I thought, “it’s too late for this.” I also thought, “I (singer, woman) am not the person who does this.” 7 years later, I’m a week shy of receiving my doctorate in composition, and have had enough luck to have more than handful of people around the world know and like my music.

I’ve won awards, had my music programmed internationally, and been invited to competitive residencies, but in a certain sense, I will always feel behind. Due to my late start, my lack of experience with orchestras, and lack of consistent mentorship (due in part to my gender), there are certain blind spots I have about preparing scores, things I still haven’t learned about the orchestra, and composers of old with whom I’m still not familiar. As our field lives, breathes, and changes to become more inclusive and more representative of the global human experience, such blind spots become less important, but can still be the difference between a commission and a competition win: the more we prioritize “calls for scores” and judge a piece solely upon its notated accuracy or orchestral ambition, the more we exclude creative voices who have come to our field from the outside. There are certain advantages one has if they have had the opportunity to pursue composition since before college, and if they have been lucky enough to receive individual, in-depth mentoring for many years: these advantages have real, hidden weight to adjudication panels and faculty search committees, but have no bearing on the actual quality of compositional ideas and the relevance of the resulting piece to the world.

As someone who straddles these many worlds - “establishment” composing and “outsider” composing, to take a cue from our political vocabulary - I have both been rewarded for my outsider ingenuity and punished for my tendency to ignore certain norms within our field. I’m certainly not unique in this - I believe almost every composing individual who comes from a performance background and/or identifies as female has experienced this in some way, given that the system tends to exclude our types of folks in certain ways. One of the gifts of my unique vantage point is the ability to encourage young, creative minds to pursue composition despite the obstacles they sense and provide a role model in whom they see themselves. And they do sense the obstacles: almost every young woman I’ve worked with has expressed some sentiment related to “it’s too late for me, no point in trying,” or “my ideas are not creative enough” or “i will have more success if I just perform.” My students of all genders who come from somewhere outside the world of classical composition report feelings of intimidation and inadequacy when confronted with notating their ideas.

Given this reality, I think it is important we try two things: 1) lift up composing-curious students who come from non-composing backgrounds and give them the tools and knowledge they need to be able to create works that are performed and appreciated; 2) question the “establishment” ideas of orchestra-supremacy and notation-supremacy, encouraging ensembles, universities, and competition panels to value work beyond what it looks like on the page, and strengthening the value of smaller-scale, non-orchestral works in our musical economy. In this article, I’ll be digging into #1, throwing out the advice I believe should be open-source to young composers who feel intimidated and in the dark.

Be a human.

Three rules:

  1. If you sit there and don’t do anything but meant to compose, that’s composing

  2. Take a walk

  3. Be a person

Just a few weeks ago, during a composition workshop for students in grade 7-12, my youngest student - a quiet and determined 7th grade girl - raised her hand with a question. I saw her take a deep breath as though to muster the courage to speak in front of her classmates, all of whom were older and more experienced. “What do you do if you can’t think of anything?” Silence. “I’m so busy with school and everything, when I sit down to think about music, my mind just feels overwhelmed.”

I nodded. “Me too.” I pondered for a moment. I remembered something the greatest teacher I’ve ever had said to me, when I had asked a similar question in graduate school. “Well, if you sit there and don’t do anything, that’s composing.”

Everyone sat there (not doing anything, ostensibly composing) considering this idea. I elaborated, explaining that brain science shows us that musicians are constantly “practicing” subconsciously, and sometimes all creativity needs is a moment or two of silence to let the ideas cook to perfection. The relaxation you experience from this form of meditation, over time, will accumulate, eventually revealing a complete idea. “Composing is not just writing things down,” I said. “In fact, that’s the very, very last step - the tip of the iceberg. Sit with an idea for week. Let yourself stare at a blank piece of paper. When you come back to it the next time, you might have a fully fledged idea to write down. Don’t write it down before it’s fully fledged.”

I also told her to take a walk. I would guess that 90% of the music I’ve composed in my entire life was generated in my brain while walking or biking. Take a walk, let the music flow in your brain, take note of these musical hallucinations, and over time, let them coalesce into something complete. When you receive this complete idea, write every last bit of it down: include every musical parameter that comes to you. Pitch, rhythm, timbre/instrument choice, dynamic, articulation. An idea isn’t complete until you have a sense of the role of many parameters. A two-beat idea exploring 10 parameters is more complete than a 10-measure idea that only explores one.

And once you’ve sat, and walked, make sure to be a person. The last thing our field needs is more people writing music about music: write music about existence. Spend time with friends, family; eat good food; travel; explore; indulge; exercise; think; sleep; breathe; love; be. Write about it all.

The next week she said she “sat, and walked, and was a person.” And she had 16 bars of a beautiful idea - most importantly, an idea that she loved, felt, and valued.

“It doesn’t matter if what you write is simple, as long as it is yours.”

Once you have that beautiful idea written down - all aspects of it - analyze it. What does it mean? Why does this note come after this note? Why does this forte happen? Why is that note staccato? Perhaps every bit of information that you need for your 12-minute piece is embedded in these two beats. And perhaps not. Either way, analyze it, understand it, love it, live it, breathe it.

And analyze everything you like: what is it about Lemonade that astounds you? What is your favorite moment of Shosty 5 and why? Why do you listen to the Chopin Nocturnes on repeat? Embedded in your preferences - genre being the least important parameter - is the key to everything you will ever write. I once had a teacher tell me to question everything I “liked” and to do the opposite. I challenged him and said, “what if I instead go as deep into what I ‘like’ as possible?” After an invigorating conversation we realized we were saying the same thing. Sometimes the opposite of what you love is just a deeper expression of it. Because of that, never be afraid to try the opposite of what you think should happen.

My student came away from all of these realizations with a bit of wisdom, shared with the audience at the final performance, that brought a tear to my eye: “I learned that it doesn’t matter if what you write is simple, as long as it is yours.” True: as composers, the most important thing we will ever learn about ourselves is when to say no: don’t write that extra bit that you think you should include for complexity’s sake; don’t be afraid to delete those 40 bars; take the thing you love, and challenge it only with its own self (whatever that may mean to you). Importantly, we must embrace that complexity does not inherently determine value.

Be a musician, not a composer.

If you are in high school or college and want to be a composer, the greatest piece of advice I could ever give you is to not get a composition degree until later on in your life. I’m certain this is controversial, but worth considering: you have the option of spending 4 formative years of your life post-high school spending time only with composers, saturated in your own ideas, your GPA determined by your compositional output, your identity formed by what you’ve put on paper; or, you could spend these years developing your technical performance skills, developing close relationships with other performers (who will eventually play your music, by the way), fully understanding the capabilities of your instrument, and studying repertoire, all the while composing/improvising in your spare time and facing no consequences as to the quantity and quality of your compositions. The overwhelming number of professional composers I know today stress that developing your performance skills and mastery of your primary instrument will serve you much greater in the long run. You’ll also be able to perform your own music - an indispensable asset to getting your work out into the real world.  If you compose for “fun” and self-expression during your college years - and not for juries, grades, or awards - you will build a compositional identity and an attitude of resilience and confidence in your own work that is difficult to come by if you are seeking a composition degree. College and university undergraduate music programs can learn from this as well, perhaps restructuring their curricula to include opportunities for all students to explore composition without consequence.

That said, find a composition mentor, even if you aren’t majoring in it: most professors of composition will be delighted to have a student who is interested in it for the sake of the work and with whom they don’t have to worry about juries and grades. In my life, those teachers with whom I studied composition when I was working towards my vocal degrees have given me my most prized wisdom, and instilled in me the value of composition without consequence.

Be a composer, not a promoter.

Finally, when you’re out there in the world, composing, you will find that there is little infrastructure to support you. Learn and embrace teaching: in a way, my students have taught me more about this field than my professors. Find a way to teach young kids about composition. They will guide your creativity and open new worlds to you. Importantly, the job market for composers is skimpy - unless you can teach, and are open to teaching little ones.

You will not make a living as a freelance composer, unless you have extraordinary connections to the choral music and band music world - which are excellent options if those genres speak to you. That said, every composer on every end of the freelancing spectrum will have to self-promote. You will get caught up in the trendy idea that new music has to be sexy. You will constantly hear that your success is dependent on your ability to network and market yourself. These things aren’t untrue, but can be risky to those of us who came to composing because we prefer sitting in a silent room, listening to birds chirp, and spending 8 hours on 2 measures. I encourage you to remember that no matter how many people you meet, how many follow-up e-mails you send, and how many business cards you distribute, your music is still at the core. If you find that the time you are spending on your entrepreneurship is destroying the time you are spending with your musical ideas, make a major adjustment. Don’t go to that event: there will be more. Hold off on sending that e-mail. Take a few months off from applying to competitions: they will be there when you come back. The more of yourself that you can put into your music, the more you will reap. A smart way to simultaneously focus on your craft and augment your professional profile is to aim your energy towards applying to residencies rather than calls for scores or competitions: residencies afford you uninterrupted time to create, and often foster collaborative relationships and connections. Many also offer paid fellowships or at least have extremely low fees that make them even more economical than living at home in a major urban center.

Conclusion

These are some of the things I wish I had known when I made the choice to shift my energy from singing to composing at age 23. When I spend time with my college and high school students, I am filled with renewed optimism at the fearlessness of their ideas and genuine curiosity and love for our field. In a recent workshop I conducted for high schoolers, the requested subjects that we cover were “composing for flutes with guitar pedals” and “tonal harmony of the 17th century.” If this is where you all are now, I have nothing but pure confidence that our field will grow in consciousness to reflect your ingenuity, your curiosity, your empathy, and your unbridled commitment to inclusivity and pluralism.

By Kaley Eaton