Surviving the Post-Young Composer Years

I’ve hit the age where I’m not longer eligible for most of those “young composer” competitions. So now what? Sit around and wait for that blowout festival celebrating my 70th birthday? I won’t hold my breath. The mid-to-late-30s is an interesting time for those of us with day jobs, like myself, who sometimes self-identify as composers. It’s a time to acquire a midlife-crisis-mindset, as some of our friends and colleagues begin to make their living solely from composing and performing, while others start studying for the LSAT. While my composition career is only a mere blip on the musical landscape, I’m not about to give up composing cold turkey just yet. For those of you in the same boat, here are a few careers to look into while you continue to support your composition habit.

1. Arts administration. I know. Yawn. But it is a popular choice among composers, and why not? Work really hard, put in a lot of extra hours which severely cuts into your own composing time, and get paid peanuts. Okay, it doesn’t sound that glamorous on paper, but at least you’ll be working in the arts, which is probably what you always wanted anyway. If you’re lucky, you might end up with a cool gig like me. Otherwise, I’d suggest polishing your tin cup. Just look at the classifieds: non-profit arts organizations are always looking for development-types.

2. Lottery winner. This happens to be my personal favorite for obvious reasons. Once you hit that Mega Millions jackpot, your composition life is made in the shade. Live wherever you want, write music whenever you want—or don’t, who cares? Commission a piece from Stockhausen in celebration of your cat’s birthday. Buy a huge-ass Julie Mehretu painting and stare at it until you feel inspired to write an orchestra piece. Anything goes.

3. Retail store greeter. This one makes a lot of sense for those who balk at the value of their composition degrees. Useless? Hah. I’ll show you useless. Go down to your local Wal-Mart, grab an application, and soon you’ll be standing by those automated sliding doors dishing out disingenuous hellos, welcomes, and have-a-nice-days left, right, and center. You’ll have the distinct satisfaction of knowing that every single person waiting in line for the cashier is thinking to themselves: Why doesn’t that guy shut the hell up, get his butt behind a register, and starting ringing? Just another way to be subversive in the face of the culture at large, but doesn’t require your vast musical prowess. Save that for after work.

9 thoughts on “Surviving the Post-Young Composer Years

  1. JKG

    Reality and person hood…
    Interesting humor, Randy. Frankly, as an autodidact I have never had to worry too much about the mystical and human interest side of writing music. Spending time working (as at Yellowstone for many years) allowed me to invest in my person hood in many and various ways. I suppose for anyone who considers it beneath their dignity to actually work around the average Joe, it makes sense that the average Joe couldn’t possibly understand a thing about real music. If we work and invest in our personhood, however we choose that balance to be, then its likely we’ll at least have enough meaning in our lives to have something good to write about. I’d rather be a gretter at Wal-Mart writing great music for a lot of folks than to be a poorly talented hack who professes to know all their is to know about music.

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  2. rskendrick

    hitting your stride
    I’ve got a lot in common with you Randy – I’ve got a day job in the business world and I’ll be hitting the ripe ol’ age of 35 this Sunday. I guess that means I’m no longer a ‘young composer’ with the additional opportunities that provides. However, it wasn’t until my early thirties that I realized what sort of music it was that I wanted to write…and now I’m actually doing it with a surprising amount of productivity. I guess the point is, after I ‘hit my stride’ so to speak, I no longer felt the burning desire to enter and try to win a lot of competitions that go with being a younger composer. There’s definitely value in them, I just was more concerned with writing for my own sake and development, and almost too busy with the writing to have time to think about entering them. That’s allowing me to keep the ‘mid life crisis demons at bay’.

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  3. Matthew

    The age-cutoff actually fed my laziness in a wonderful way. Before, I’d feel guilty about not getting up out of my chair and writing something to fit some competition to get my name out there to get a foothold to jump-start my career, blah blah blah. Now I just assume I’m too old for everything and go back to my sandwich.

    In all seriousness, stay in music at all costs, be that as an administrator, a critic, a stagehand, an accompanist (singers and dance studios are always looking, believe me), a burgeoning academic (cue JKG eye-rolling), or even as a gofer for somebody more successful as you. Office jobs are great money, but unless you’re unusually disciplined (and have no other mental life), it’s hard to keep your mind on music. I had an office job for a coouple years after graduation, and composing was like pulling teeth. Now I work a bevy of part-time music jobs, and while it’s cut down on my free time, when I do sit down to write, I know exactly what I want to do.

    Personally, I’ve always thought, with their talent for conceptual planning, structural analysis, and counterpoint, composers would make good cat burglers. We already have the black wardrobe.

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  4. Philedwardelphia

    The title of this post interested me, as I’m a young music writer. What intrigued me, though, was the disconnect that I felt with the topic discussed: competitions.

    I’m a semester away from entering the Real World, away from my gloriously cozy Liberal Arts World, and thus constantly have The Future working itself out in various delusions, etc. None of these dreams coincided with the idea of winning competitions, as – who knew? – they exist. Are there lots of these competitions? Do they mean anything? Is this something you only encounter at schools with departments that take themselves seriously?

    I realize that I’m being rather naive, but the New Music World always appears so hidden. Maybe I’ve just been hanging around with the wrong sorts of people all my life….

    Also: this post at least gives me a better answer than, “Get a job and write music,” to the unceasing question of “what next” from everyone I meet. “I’m writing music to win” will now be my mantra.

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  5. JKG

    Eyes wide rolling…
    Please, please… to set the record straight – I have nothing against academics in general. Its just when untalented , dogmatic hacks become professors at all that I have a problem. And if talent is described by how many grants one was sucked on, that’s not the kind of talent I’m talking about. There are plenty of really good composers and teachers who really care that their students have every opportunity to commune with an audience, not just preach to it. When music sounds “like a math problem,” then I can promise you we indeed do have a problem.

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  6. rskendrick

    Sure, there’s tons of competitions and opportunities for composers below 30 and below 35. Join the American Composers Forum or Society of Composers (or both), and you’ll see that there’s probably a few every month you can apply to.

    Competitions that have been won look nice and shiny on a resume. And often, the resume is what gets you through the first cut for jobs before they ask for scores. A lot of opportunities will also ask for you to submit a bio/c.v when you enter…and those competitions look good.

    I guess it’s something tangible for administrators to grab on to when you’re trying to compare something abstract like the quality of person A’s music vs. person B’s.

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  7. randy

    And hey, by the way, the American Music Center—you know, the non-profit that publishes this very website—also publishes a little something called Opportunity Update, which has tons of calls-for-scores and competition listings. I count myself very lucky during my under-30 years. Some of those competitions afforded me trips to Europe (for months at a time!). All you youngsters out there, get your CV, bio, list of works, recordings, and photo (yeah, a lot of the European opportunities like to have a photo with your submission—don’t ask me what that’s all about) together and start entering these things. Get all the free handouts while you still can!

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  8. manyarsih

    Randy,

    You forgot my favorite….artist by day, bartender by night. That way you can have your art and drink it too!

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  9. randy

    Hiccup
    Doh! How could I have missed that? Back when I was bartending, I was rolling in cash—fortinately I stayed sober enough by the end of the night to count it all. All composers should have good bartending chops! All music schools and conservatories should offer elective courses. Thanks Scott.

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