Your Career or Your Life

The joke used to be that you’re a young composer until you’re fifty. By that measure, I have eighteen months left. By any other measure, I’m solidly middle-aged.

One of the pleasures of mid-life is the ability to look both ways at once. Still, I’m hardly the right guy to offer sage observations about a career as a composer. From mid-adolescence on, I never had any doubt that I’d be a composer. But the whole concept of having a career didn’t really dawn on me until I was almost forty. By then it was too late for me to worry much about it.

As a young man, I had the idealistic notion that being a composer was all about music. No one ever told me there was this other dimension that involved studying with the right people, living in the right places, being published and recorded by the right companies, winning the right prizes.

Or if they did tell me, I wasn’t listening. Either way, I’m grateful. With role models like Lou Harrison, Pauline Oliveros, Conlon Nancarrow and Harry Partch, I blissfully followed my own path. The rest is my life and my music.

Several years ago, I congratulated a fellow forty-something composer about some well-deserved professional recognition that had just come his way.

“Who knows,” I said half-jokingly, “This could be your big break.”

“John,” he replied wistfully, “I gave up waiting for the big break years ago.”

My friend’s remark was a knowing one. But there wasn’t a trace of self-pity in his voice. It’s not an easy proposition to make a living as a composer, independent of steady support from academia or commerce. But those of us who follow this rocky road get something priceless in the bargain: We get a life.

A life dedicated to music is a rare gift. The possibilities for growth and discovery are vast and open-ended. Unlike athletes, composers can look forward to getting better at our work as we get older.

But whether Henry Brant or Natasha Sinha, a composer’s age isn’t as interesting to me as the music they create. I’m much more interested in the age of listeners. New music needs new listeners. And the younger those listeners, the brighter the future of the art.

For most of us independent composers, there will always be the difficult problem of finding a way to make a living and to get our music to the audience we believe is waiting to hear it. But the greatest reward is the work itself. And, at least for those of us who don’t know any better, the music will always come first.

What about you? How do you manage the balance between your musical career and your musical life?