“Why would you even want to do that? What does that have to do with composing? Doesn’t that distract you from your other work?”
I’m not sure how many of my other colleagues get asked such questions, but I hear variations on this theme a fair amount. I have never been one to focus intensely on just one thing–for many years I was a woodwind doubler who enjoyed the challenge of learning as many different instruments as possible, for example. Fast-forward twenty years and I find myself “doubling” on a great many activities these days. I teach (both at the college and pre-college level), I conduct, I interview, I write (which still surprises me–never thought I’d be doing this), and over the past few years I’ve found myself being placed in administrative positions…which brings me to my current situation.
Every faculty member in academia is asked to take on various service roles; the risk of entire departments disappearing into their labs and studios is too great if this was not the case. Over the past three years or so, I’ve been involved in several campus-wide committees, including chairing the Faculty and Professional Affairs committee, which has allowed me to both advocate for my colleagues as well as improve things for everyone through awareness and legislative actions. While the workload on these service opportunities has not been overwhelming, they have made it challenging at times to keep all the plates spinning, as it were.
This year, however, has put me in a completely different position–I have agreed to serve as the chair of the University Senate, which forces me to find a balance between those important responsibilities and the many other facets of my career. It’s at this point that you are probably asking those questions I mentioned at the top of this column, which is entirely understandable. We have a new president this year, and the opportunity to actively improve many aspects of my institution was too great for me to turn down. While it has relatively little to do with composing on the surface, I am finding that my creative and organizational skills as both a composer and conductor are translating well to this new position; the similarities between convincing a performer to take part in a concert and convincing a colleague to take part in an important subcommittee are surprising. As for distractions, yes–hell, yes–it’s distracting just at the time that the visibility and nature of my composition projects have been increasing (timing is everything), but I have found over years of trial and error that my best work comes out of the white-hot, last-minute terror that comes with “not having enough time.” And to be honest, the administrative work, if anything, is much less stressful than composing.
One interesting (and sometimes frustrating) aspect of being a composer is the potential hybrid nature of our career models. It is not a rare thing to come across an artist who describes him or herself as a series of hyphenates: composer-conductor, composer-performer-educator, composer-IT professional, etc. While many career paths require one to have a diverse skill set, there are few paths that allow for, and in many cases encourage, an individual to pursue and engage in other careers simultaneously.
One might conclude that this is due to the difficult nature of making a living being solely a composer. I would agree that such an endeavor is challenging, but I have met and gotten to know such a large group of composers who do have thriving careers just composing–so that’s not the only mitigating factor here. Indeed, many from this group say that they compose because they literally cannot do anything else–it is the one profession in which they feel they can flourish.
My point here is that it is helpful for us to remember, wherever we are in our careers, that there is no one overarching and “correct” model for a successful career as a composer. For every example of a composer who devotes all of her or his time to writing music, there are others who have the capacity and aptitude to pursue a hybrid career–a fact that should be both accepted and encouraged.