The Benefits of Living Abroad

Since lots people are currently deep in the annual back-to-school frenzy, and there is often a lot of advice to young composers flying about the internet, I thought I would throw in another $0.02 with an extra tidbit that I don’t believe has been covered:

One of the very best, most transformative things one can do for oneself and one’s art is to live abroad.

It has long been customary for composers to travel to Europe for study: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Phillip Glass and many others studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris; Janice Giteck worked with Messiaen; now it seems that composers tend towards Amsterdam, and also Berlin. I know that for many people this seems unrealistic, and perhaps a bit scary, but it is an adventure worth taking, whether it is for study or simply a change of scenery.

I’m not talking about a traveling vacation or blowing through the major European cities with a backpack over two months (although these are excellent things to do as well); I’m talking about immersing oneself in a different culture for a substantial chunk of time. Six months allows for getting comfortable with the very basics of living in a new culture, and it is during the second six months when the Really Good Stuff starts to happen, like making real friends (as opposed to acquaintances), learning more of the “insider details” of the culture, and perhaps getting a handle on the language. More time than that is for digging even deeper into the culture—icing on the cake.

Why is all this important? Some of the benefits include:

  • Increased self-confidence
  • Mental and emotional flexibility—the ability to tolerate ambiguity
  • A new perspective on pretty much everything, including the music you make
  • An understanding of one’s own cultural values and biases
  • Creating a greater diversity of friends and colleagues
  • New skills, such as learning a foreign language

At this time of year in 2002 I moved to Barcelona, Spain, where I intended to spend a year. It turned out to be such a good thing that I ended up staying two! I had received a fellowship that allowed me to focus on composing for a while, and although there was not travel associated with the award, I thought that if I wanted to run off to Europe I had better do it then. I had been in contact with a university that agreed to “sponsor” me (i.e. let me play with their toys), and it was a very relaxed affair. The first couple of months were admittedly difficult, but once I got settled, met some nice people and improved my Spanish enough to converse decently, any initial bumps seemed completely worth the effort. Not only did these two years have a profound effect on my music, but I found a community of enthusiastic, open musicians to play it, audiences interested in listening to it, as well as lifelong friends, an ongoing fascination with Catalan culture, a city that feels like home. . .and a stash of really good stories, like the one about riding in a van with gypsies!!

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8 thoughts on “The Benefits of Living Abroad

  1. Alexandra Gardner

    Hi Antonio,

    I did not have a great deal of money, and I lived quite simply. Although the cost of living in Europe has risen quite a bit since then, it is absolutely possible to live in many places with far less money than is required for survival in many parts of the US. I met many expats who live in Europe and have freelance telecommuting jobs that sustain them comfortably. I also hear that housing in Berlin is very affordable!

    There are also places to consider like Argentina, Bolivia, Thailand, Panama….there is great music everywhere.

    Reply
  2. smooke

    Absolutely wonderful advice. The only true regret of my life is that I never jumped at the opportunities that I had to spend time outside the U.S. when those opportunities presented themselves.

    – David

    Reply
  3. Celaya

    Parts of Europe may be cheaper than the portions of the US, but one still has to have money. Unfortunately, my youth in the 1970’s and early 80’s pre-dated “teleworking.” One had to have a work permit. In retrospect perhaps I should have just become an illegal alien working in the underground economy Copenhagen or some other such place.

    Such things are still basically an option for children of the middle class. It would have been a lovely thing. Perhaps I shall be able to give my daughter such an option. But, if one isn’t living in cardboard shack in Mumbai, perhaps things aren’t so bad.

    Reply
  4. rtanaka

    If you don’t have money, it might help to keep some great historical thinkers in mind — J.S. Bach, Immanual Kant, etc. These were people who were able to accomplish great intellectual feats even though they never really left really far from the proximity of where they were born. Travel can be useful for some, but it’s not necessarily a requirement for creating great art.

    It’s a pretty standard thing for classical musicians to travel to Europe since that’s where the medium’s roots lie — there are cultural differences but they’re not going to be as immense as ones in other parts of the world since there’s already a common language between them, musically speaking. If you’re looking for more of a culture shock, you might consider going to Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East. I know some people who’ve done well for themselves by going to “risky” areas of the world…well, you hear some pretty scary stories some times, but there’s usually a pay-off for putting yourself in that kind of danger since it’s directly related to current political events. This is a very west coast type of mentality, though.

    Reply
  5. arssubtilior

    I so wish I had
    pursued this earlier and more aggressively. It’s never too late, though! Here I am nearly 40, and whereas I’m not certain it’s for a study program I’m aiming (I’m a little older than the fresh warpable minds they’re mostly seeking), I’m intending to at the utmost least live there and soak up anything I can from composer & other musician friends I have there already.

    Reply
  6. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    My first time in Europe was when I was 42 … and I stayed for more than six months in Cologne and then Amsterdam. It wasn’t cheap to live in 1991, but we paid little more for our life there than we had in Vermont. We ended up with a debt certainly more rewarding than buying a car or new music technology.

    It was transformative. Friends helped so we could find a sublet. We shopped at local street markets and always cooked at home. We attended every concert we could afford (rehearsals if we couldn’t) and made our way on cheap buses and a tiny Fiat Uno for our time in Eastern Europe, staying in youth hostels along the way.

    It never would have happened if a composer friend hadn’t insisted. He knew I would grow (or grow up) by living in a place where composers (and my wife’s work as a midwife) were respected.

    Dennis

    Bathory Opera

    Reply
  7. Alexandra Gardner

    go for it!
    @arssubtilior DO IT! totally true as Dennis states that it’s never too late. I was 34 when I went – age doesn’t matter a bit.

    Reply

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