Growing Pains

When I was 18 (and had barely a year or so of musical study under my belt), I remember that one day our school composition seminar was visited by accomplished composer Stephen Paulus, who was kind enough to share some of his experience and expertise as a business-savvy independent composer. A lot of what Stephen described to us—self-promotion, distribution, contract negotiations—seemed laughably out of reach to our undergraduate minds, even pompous; I recall sharing in a bit of nervous tittering while a slightly more advanced student asked if he should create a professional website. That seemed like a silly question to most of us beginning students with few musical offerings, which is why several of us chortled that we would never have a website.

Just over a decade later, I not only have an unremarkable but functioning composer website, but have crossed all kinds of other Rubicons: writing a blog, teaching my first class, receiving my first humble commission payment, and seeing my work reviewed in the paper. I own an 11×17 printer and a coil binder, have a folder for commission agreements, and an envelope for tax-deductible receipts. On the flip side, I’ve never sent out an email concert announcement or Facebook event invite; I’ve never applied for a Guggenheim; and I’ve never presented my own concert or festival.

There is such a thing as reaching for the next rung of the career ladder too early, as in the case of the over-eager self-promoting student, or buying a lot of expensive printing equipment when you print out only a few scores each year. Yet there comes a time for every composer when one must either expand or else stifle development: when works are receiving some performances but there’s nowhere online for someone to listen to or purchase the composer’s music, or when it’s time to create a separate checking account just for composing travel and expenses. It seems to me that there are paths that overemphasize each extreme—pushing to expand too rapidly when it is not helpful, or failing to make the necessary changes and investments when old ways are holding us back. Composers would do well to stay attentive to their own needs right now, and not what their peers, friends, and competitors are doing.

The process of growth looks different for every composer. Some of us build momentum fast, while others do their best work when they take their time. Some of us peak early and ride out a plateau, while other composers modestly chug along until they are knocking out some of their best music in their 70s and 80s. Some of us follow linear paths, while for others development is marked by a process of lateral expansion. But all of us will grow if we keep composing, and all of us will have to deal with musical “growing pains” of some variety.

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