I turned 40 last year. This transition made me think a lot about career trajectories for composers. It doesn’t feel like a particularly old age, especially in a career that often involves schooling well into adulthood. So I began to think of what, exactly, the career expectations for composers are at various stages in our lives.
Composers are always being reminded of their age. Early on, it’s all about opportunities. Many (too many, perhaps) opportunities for composers focus on that golden developmental period of ages 18-ca. 35 known as “emerging career” (with the occasional variant for “young composers,” which can mean the same as the “emerging” demographic, or may refer to a younger age group, typically high school aged or earlier). This is so common a distinction that its unfairness is something of a cause célèbre in our field. Beyond age restrictions on opportunities, the emerging demographic—when narrowed to the group of composers finishing graduate school—is also primed for entry into the academic job market. As we age, we transition into what is known as “mid career,” although it feels strange to suggest that we enter this at the tender age of 35.
When I began my schooling, I fully expected to spend around ten years in the academy, through the completion of a DMA or Ph.D. program. Upon finishing my training, my plan was to find a relatively comfortable teaching position and settle down into the life of an academic composer. This is a fine, noble career choice, and an attractive one given the relative security and the perquisites of research assistance by way of grants, fellowships, and sabbaticals. Yet this has become an increasingly tough path to follow, and the door to academic job security remains closed to many. I myself, regardless of my original expectations, never found my way onto the tenure-track academic path (at least, not yet). Because of this, however, I’ve had to be resourceful and instead found a path that has often been fulfilling, sometimes rocky, and always surprising.
Beyond mid-career, there is the fabled world of the “elder states(wo)man” further down the road. This may mean emeritus status at a university or having the kind of career that allows one to charge large fees simply for attending a rehearsal. This stage also brings with it a level of recognition that comes with a responsibility to mentor younger and less famous composers but also the perks of portrait concerts, retrospective boxed sets, and the occasional festival celebrating your work during an important birthday.
For each of these stages, however, there are a number of composers who don’t conform to the model, and the truth is that there really is no typical career trajectory for a composer. My expectations for my own career were typical of a certain, mid-to-late 20th-century attitude towards music composition and don’t seem to jibe as well with the expectations of young composers coming of age today (although I’m often surprised by how many still expect to re-enter the academy, as professors, upon exiting it as students). With the myriad ways to network and disseminate our music available today, many young composers are developing important careers even while still working on their degrees, at times going as far as winning significant prizes once held for only a long-established elite.
The only way to navigate a career as a composer, I have found, is to be prepared for anything. Developing strong contacts, nurturing the “mutual benefit balance,” and being a good musical citizen are all ways to guarantee, if not a long career as a composer—I’m not sure I can speak to that at the moment, frankly. Ask me again in another 40 years…—at least the ability to weather the storms that any life transition may throw your way. Flexibility, savvy, and a strong network are the only ways to truly guarantee a fulfilling life in the arts.
And, if you watch out for others in the process, they’ll watch out for you when you need it.