It Gets Better

The other night after closing shop I ran over to my favorite D.C. bookstore to attend a reading by Alex Ross of his new book Listen to This. The store was filled with an enthusiastic crowd that listened attentively and then bubbled with questions regarding music education, engaging audiences, and thoughts on file sharing, among other topics. This gathering felt completely different from the last Ross reading I attended three years ago in Baltimore to usher in The Rest Is Noise—that event was packed with music students and faculty from the Peabody Institute. This time, when Alex spoke briefly about the lives of living, breathing composers, it seemed, based on the somewhat blank stares of the crowd, that he could just as well have been talking about aliens. And for a minute I really did feel like an extraterrestrial, trying to fit into an earthly existence.

Despite speculation that aliens are among us, this is probably not an unusual way for a composer to feel in Washington, D.C., or St. Louis, Missouri, or Big Fork, Montana, or in many locations on planet earth. One reason for this is, as Chris Theofanidis recalls in a story about meeting Otto Luening, is that the reality for composers is that achieving a point of relative financial and/or life stability involves a long haul. Sometimes it’s hard to watch friends and family find that much earlier—they buy houses, have children, get steady jobs with health insurance! The first twenty years or so can be difficult, says Luening, and plenty of talented people get fed up and choose some other more predictable profession. As a composer nearing that twenty-year mark I can say that this is absolutely true, and also that it does get better. The sheer act of sticking it out and being tenacious can yield positive results. Of course, this depends on what “things getting better” looks like—for some, it means the trappings associated with big commissions, signing on with a big publisher, and other accolades, and for others it might mean that they are able to hire a copyist, pay comfortably for recording studio time, or find an assistant to help manage increasing score orders. Success can mean a lot of different things.

As we talked for a moment while he signed a book, Alex asked if I thought the internet really has been helpful to composers, and the answer is a resounding “Yes!” It would be incredibly difficult to continue on this path without the ability to disseminate music via the internet, to connect with ensembles and musicians outside of one’s immediate geographic area, and to simply let people know what is going on. Hats off to Otto Luening and the many others who were able to thrive without the occasional Skype rehearsal! Now the internet is a crucial component of the “long haul,” and there are copious resources available for ideas about how to use it effectively. This is an exciting time in history to be a composer, and though it’s not an easy road for many reasons, there are tools out there to help ease the journey.

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(If you thought this post was going to be about another topic, let’s just say that gets better too!)

8 thoughts on “It Gets Better

  1. Armando

    Oh yes!
    Thanks for this, Alex. Seriously. I’m at the ten year mark since I finished school and already feeling like things are getting better (although that definition does not include health insurance or my own home. I guess I have another decade to go there). I often feel (and have written about it) that I would have more of my road before me were it not for the internet and social media booming, as it has, in the last decade. How did people like Luening (or any of our teachers) ever stick it out for as long as they did?

    Reply
  2. ChristianBCarey

    Alex,

    This is a terrific post. Chris’ story about Luening is an inspiring reminder that composers have a different trajectory and must be patient, however unsettling that can be at times. Like Armando, I’m nearing the end of that first decade out of school, and there’s still a lot to be done. But it is nice to see progress being made.

    I met Chris Theofanidis at June in Buffalo in ’99. I was struck both by his talent and by his encouragement of the other emerging composers at the festival. He seems to be one of the really “good guys” in the business and I’m glad to see him becoming so successful.

    Armando, I did want to gently remind our friends starting out that one doesn’t have to remain without health coverage, even in the early stages of our careers.

    ASCAP, BMI, and a variety of other arts advocacy organizations offer access to health insurance. Even getting “catastrophic” coverage is better than nothing. The plan I purchased through ASCAP helped me a great deal when I was unable to obtain coverage while adjuncting at various institutions.

    Sure, put off the mortgage and other accoutrements of middle class lifestyle ’til further down the road, but be sure to take care of your health!

    Reply
  3. jeidson

    Long time lurker, first time poster here. As another struggling young composer I really related to some of the things found in the excellent Theofanidis interview, and also in your article. Thank you for the reassurance that things DO get better, since some days it certainly does not seem that way!

    I am looking forward to picking up the new Alex Ross book this holiday season – rave reviews from all corners of the internet.

    -Joseph Eidson

    Reply
  4. Alexandra Gardner

    @Joseph – thank you for commenting! We are always glad to see new faces around here!

    @Christian – thank you, and excellent point about health insurance. People, health insurance is SO important!! As Christian mentions, a number of artist service organizations offer possibilities for individual artists to buy insurance – Fractured Atlas is another good source. I have had an individual plan through CareFirst that I purchased over ten years ago – it remains affordable and the coverage is quite good. No need to wait for that full-time job – get it now. Seriously.

    Reply
  5. Armando

    Health insurance
    Christian (and Alex): indeed. And thanks for posting about the insurance coverage available through ASCAP and BMI. Not to worry, I was exaggerating a bit there in my original response since I do, indeed, have health insurance (although at this point it’s through my wife’s employer).

    Reply
  6. Rob Deemer

    Spot on
    Alex’s column is just that – spot on – once again. I can say this not only because of my own experiences, having hit the 10-year mark of being a composer with a big “C”, but also because of the great number of living and thriving composers with whom I’ve been lucky enough to have in-depth conversations & interviews (more on that coming soon). Today’s myriad marketplace allows for a composer to not only find their own voice, but to find their own method of enabling and distributing that voice…and with patience & persistence, it indeed does get better.

    Reply
  7. JHigdon

    Right on the Money!
    Great article, Alex! All of this is so true…I worked for years and years and years (boy, they pile up) before I had anything that might be construed as visible success. But I always sensed that if I could just hang in there, eventually, things would start to happen. But having insurance is extremely important. I have always (and to this day), paid for my own insurance (yes, it definitely costs a lot). And I’ve had to use it enough times to know that had I not had it, I would have been sunk so drastically that a career in composing probably would have not been an option. You can make it…just hang in there, and definitely, find a way to insure yourself.

    Reply
  8. payelgreen

    I seem to be the first commenter expressing concern that this article deliberately appropriates an anti-suicide slogan for a privileged activity. I imagine my feeling of discomfort is shared by other gay or perceived-different survivors of hate speech and violence in your readership.

    As for whether composing is an activity of privilege, only our presumed goal of economic self-sufficiency can tell. Remarkably, the subject here matches that of the IGB phenomenon perfectly: it does get better, but sooner and better for some than for others. Perhaps we can take a lesson from IGB and draw our attention to influencing factors.

    Reply

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