The Amateur Composer

The further along I advance into this composer interview project I’ve given myself, the more I find myself coming up with new questions that I’ll have to go back and send as follow-up queries to those I interviewed early in the process. One question might center on an issue that has been nagging me for quite some time: Why aren’t there more amateur composers? Or, to look at the question from a slightly different angle, why does it seem that so few people pursue the art of writing concert music, not as a vocation, but simply as a part of their lives?

I’ve known many people whose chosen professions don’t keep them from their interests in visual art, photography, poetry, theatre, filmmaking, or performing music, but it a rarity to discover someone who writes concert music “on the side.” It is not uncommon to find amateur songwriters of all styles and genres alongside professional songwriters, but it is few and far between to find composers even in the ranks of instrumentalists, singers, and educators, much less outside of the music community.

There are several reasons why these questions may be important. There are many aspects to composing that can be easily transferred to everyday life: the ability to think conceptually about abstract ideas, the ability to both plan and improvise, the ability to imagine oneself in the shoes of others (performers/audience members), and the ability to find a common ground between intellect and emotion. Collaborating has become integral for many as their social worlds grow while their career paths become more and more specialized. Finally, the entire artistic community is continually asked by our society, our media, and our government to demonstrate why its very existence is necessary, and as I’ve mentioned before, composers are a pretty small slice of that artistic community.

Of course, one could easily ask the opposite—why are there so many composers, and wouldn’t the influx of amateur composers simply muddy the waters even more? There were several discussions in the journals of the College Music Society in the 1960s about whether or not universities should even offer doctoral degrees in music composition, and of course today there are scores of academic degrees to be had in the subject. With technology making it both easier to create and distribute one’s own musical wares, it is understandable that many would be wary of introducing and encouraging any but the most determined and talented.

Tomorrow morning I am taking part in a roundtable discussion as part of the Bowling Green New Music Festival where we’ll be talking about composition and pre-college students: What are the opportunities that are currently out there? What can be done to introduce composing to more students? What are the challenges in teaching composition to beginning students? As we as a community continue to introduce composing to young students, we need to be thinking of how the concept of the amateur composer can and should fit within our world and be careful not to fall into the trap of beginning many off on their travels only to discourage them later when they choose not to focus on it for their livelihood.

15 thoughts on “The Amateur Composer

  1. Bob Paolinelli

    I have been an amateur composer for many years. I made a living working in the corporate world as a manager but, all the time I continued to write music. I’ve been retired since 2007 and devote most of my time to composing now. I feel the quality of my work has improved since I’ve been able to do that, as well as my output. I’ve never made a dime writing music and, since I’ve never done it for a living, I write whatever I wish and am not at all reluctant to explore new ideas and approaches.

    In that regard, I admire composers like Charles Ives, who wrote very contemporary music for its time and made his living selling insurance. I think there’s always a place for the amateur composer. I’ve tried to get works performed but have always been turned away, mostly because these groups already had an agenda and a select few composers they wanted to work with.

    I do all of my work on my computer and produce the finished recorded work in my home studio. I share it with everyone through my website and do it with no restrictions or money. I’ve had many people download much of my work or simply listen to it online. I get much more satisfaction doing that than I would trying to compete with the academia obstacles.

    Reply
  2. Joseph Holbrooke

    “why does it seem that so few people pursue the art of writing concert music, not as a vocation, but simply as a part of their lives?”

    Concert music is a pretty severe limitation, like asking why so few people play polo for fun. The answer is easy: there are many similar activities that provide comparable challenges and rewards without the expense and exclusivity. Just imagine the number of people right this moment who are improvising, creating electronic music, and composing song forms without professional ambitions. Concert music is just not a very compelling format for unfunded and unconnected amateurs, unless they like synthesized realizations. I’ve never met someone who does.

    Reply
  3. Steven Cartwright

    I’m one of those rare amateur composers apparently. I’m a medical physicist who writes music on the side. My music is mostly instrumental and pretty solidly in a traditional vein. I’ve often said I aspire to third rate Copland. I started hanging around New Music Box and Sequenza21 in an attempt to learn more about modern trends. I think I’m happy where I am.

    As a freshman in college I decided it would be easier to be a physicist with music as a hobby rather than a musician with physics as a hobby. (Why do so few people pursue physics as a hobby?) I write because I have no talent as an instrumentalist. For whatever reason I think in sound, not pictures. For people like me notational software and CD burners are a godsend.

    Music makes a lousy hobby. If you paint or photograph or write poems you can hand your work to someone else and say “See what I did”. If someone asks about my music, what am I going to do, sing them a string quartet? (I’m not such a good singer either.) I, too, have no luck getting anything performed, although I don’t pursue it too strenuously. I just let the notebooks and CDs pile up in the basement. I think composing is a hobby for lonely people. Still, it’s a step above amateur choreography.

    While I’m here I do want to take a dig at people who do applied math and call it music. I’ve done applied math, and believe me, it ain’t musical. Assigning tones to numbers generated by any process is simply not music, it’s encoding. And before all the sophomore music theorists of whatever age start hopping around saying “I don’t understand what you mean. How can you make absolute statements about what music is?”, as an amateur with a day job I can say things like that. I’m not being graded.

    Gee, it felt good to say that.

    Reply
  4. Jacob

    This is a really great question, Rob. I think the fact that contemporary music in the U.S. primary resides in the academy poses many daunting barriers to entry.

    Unless you’re composing electroacoustic music (which increasingly more composers are turning to, in part due to these barriers) or are satisfied with MIDI playback, you need to have a network of performers to realize your work. Since most performers of new music function within the academy, it’s really hard to break in to that scene if you’re not a student, faculty, or otherwise involved with the university. Even here in Buffalo, I know several non-academic composers who complain of being isolated because the vast majority of resources are concentrated in university, and hence inaccessible to them. However, this might be much less of a problem in a large city than it is here.

    Of course, we can also say that the vast majority of American composers are in fact amateurs, since most make their incomes from teaching, administrating, consulting, or any number of jobs besides composing.

    Reply
  5. j109

    I consider myself an amateur composer, though not usually of concert music. As J. Holbrooke writes above, one is severely limited in writing concert music. I don’t think the problem is at the student level; when I was in school I knew many students who composed. Gradually though, the pack thinned out, and I think this was due to a collective realization of the practical difficulties in being a composer of concert music. I remember one student who quit because “it stopped being about having fun,” which I interpreted as a kind of disillusionment with all the hoops one has to jump through to get things performed, hoops that can even affect the nature of the music composed (commission/competition specifications, for instance), plus the concern about one’s reception and popularity in light of trying to build a reputation (which helps to secure performances).

    One can respond to the variety of challenges in a number of ways. One can:

    (1) rise to the challenge and get performances
    (2) write for your own resources
    (3) still write concert music, but for the computer or the shelf
    (4) quit

    I think following #1 takes such tenacity (publicizing yourself, making connections, etc.) that if you’re at all successful at it you might not even be perceived as an amateur. As Jacob suggests, the vast majority of American composers may be technically amateurs; we don’t see their paychecks and bank balances.

    My approach is #2, that is, writing for the ensemble one has. Though, as Jacob says, some composers are turning to technology in response to performance barriers, this approach is of course SOP in the non-classical world (e.g. a house musician doesn’t ‘get performances,’ he develops his technological skills and makes his own music based on what he can do). In my case, as someone who came to concert music rather late (at 17), writing for my own talents has always felt like the most natural approach. Though it may feel less natural to some at first, it’s not a compromise so much as a completely different way of working that usually affects how the music sounds, how the music is composed, and how people interact with it. Many composers have warmed up to writing for their own modest ensembles (in principle no different than rock bands) or, in recent years especially with more powerful technology, working alone. I think composers who become acclimated to working within their means are likely to find it liberating.

    Yet, some people have it in their hearts to compose concert music and there is no alternative. If they don’t have the time to fight for recognition and performances, they may resort to computer realizations of their music, which in my experience are not very satisfying. Moreover, I think there’s a certain prejudice against such works because they so clearly fall short of what they intend to be (that is, a sound collage one makes on a computer is exactly what it is, but a MIDI piano concerto is a kind of pretend version of something else we likely won’t get to hear). There may be a prejudice that such works exist only in synthesized form because they’re not worth performing. Then again one could just file away paper scores without having them realized in any way, but this sort of amateur composer you wouldn’t have any way of knowing about. Or one could just quit.

    On the whole, I think the reason you see so many amateur non-classical songwriters and composers is because the music they are responding to creatively is usually not concert music, and can therefore more easily be built upon. If Woody Guthrie’s music is your starting point, all you need is a guitar and your voice to get going. If Wozzeck is your starting point, you’ll need a lot more.

    Reply
  6. Daniel Wolf

    “Why aren’t there more amateur composers?”

    I would counter that most composers are amateurs and this is neither an inherently good or bad fact. Unless you’re being paid — for commissions and licenses and coaching performances of your work and perhaps a few pre-concert chats — you are not working professionally as a composer, and even then, very very few are able to make a complete living from those activities alone, so most “professionals” are only semi-pro at that.

    So most of us get by patching a living together through some combination of activities. Many composers would counter that working as teacher of composition qualifies one as a professional composer. But that is both confusing a day job with a degree of compositional patronage (and usually a very small degree at that) and privileging teaching over other forms of income-producing work. As much as I enjoy and respect teaching music and as much as I recognize the kinds of networking and institutional advantages a teaching gig can bring, I can’t honestly claim that it gives any composer an automatic entry into the ranks of the professional and, indeed, we should strongly resist automatically associating academic prestige (which is an authentic achievement in its own terms) with professional compositional achievement. A church music director is likely to have more direct compositional demands from her institution than a university teacher and an orchestrator, sound engineer, publisher, copyist or music librarian may well have more paid time engaged with new music than a composing academic. The physician or hardware store clerk or bus driver who composes may well have more time in heart, head and hands for creative music-making, simply because the rest of his or her waking hours is not filled with the distraction of someone else’s music.

    In the end, it is the musical work that counts, not the material circumstances of its author. Whatever practical advantages a composer may have in working full-time as a composer or in a day job as a harmony teacher, they are ultimately irrelevant and assuming otherwise might mean that one is taking these irrelevant aspects more seriously than the music itself.

    Reply
  7. Brighton

    Great comments, y’all.
    I agree with Daniel. All composers in the US are amateurs. The real question is “why aren’t there any full time composers?” I won’t use the word professional, because writing concert music is not a mere job or profession. And we all know what you meant by concert music, Rob. We need better composers writing art music, classical concert music. We will never have any more at the rate we are going. We insist that composers support themselves which is impossible without selling out, dumbing down, and wasting precious time as a sandwich artist, stock broker or clarinet teacher.
    A century ago, the best composers had means or were provided means and were beholden only to their muse. There is no such privatevor public patronage system today, as the wealthy have no taste and the government has no money. And there is no software or social network that will ever make Steve Drumcircle into Verdi.
    Lets not make excuses for a society that fails to support its composers. Art cannot be had on the cheap, in some lawyer’s spare time. Art must be again recognized as the ultimate flowering of humanity, more important than money, politics, religion or even sports.

    Reply
  8. Rob Deemer

    Thanks to all for your comments so far – I wasn’t quite sure where this post was going even when I was writing it and your thoughts are illuminating. Of course it’s a fine line between an Amateur Composer (who I see as someone who intentionally composes for fun and not for professional gain or stature) and a Composer who doesn’t make a living off of their music but who takes other jobs to fund their true calling, which could be the start for several future posts. Semantics aside, it’s great to hear your feedback!

    Reply
    1. MarkNGrant

      Essential further reading on the amateur composer are the classic statements on this topic by Virgil Thomson from his 1939 book The State of Music, specifically his chapters “How Composers Eat, or, Who Does What to Whom and Who Gets Paid” and, even more, “Why Composers Write How, or, The Economic Determinism of Musical Style”(the book is reprinted and parts of it available in anthologies).

      The above has been one of the most candidly informative threads I have ever read on NewMusicBox. Fascinating. Bravo to all.

      Reply
  9. Tawnie

    Perhaps I haven’t read closely enough, but so far I haven’t read a comment that has discussed the general lack of pre-college training in composition.

    For six years I taught composition classes at an arts magnet high school that required all music students to take composition once they had a very basic grasp of music theory. I noticed that although some students were initially nervous at the idea of writing music, they loved composing and new music once they’d been introduced to it.

    With all that’s already required of them, I’m not sure how general music teachers could integrate composing into the curriculum (some of the attempts I’ve seen make my hair curl), but if all music students were given enthusiastic instruction appropriate to their age and abilities, I suspect that new music audiences would grow and that purely amateur (as opposed to semi-professional) composers would also increase in number. Both outcomes seem pretty good to me…

    Reply
  10. Paul Muller

    Great discussion.

    I fall into this category to the extent I have never taken money for music – for either composing or performing. I prefer to think of myself as a composer who is his own patron. I agree that it is lack of access to performance opportunities that is the most difficult obstacle – and this is true for all composers. That said, my work has been regularly performed by my church choir and there is no greater satisfaction than to write music for friends in a spiritual setting. I also enjoy the freedom to write what I want, when I want to write it.

    The opportunities on the Internet for networking and sharing new music have never been greater and I have started a netlabel to distribute my electronic music on-line and have made promotional CDs for radio airplay. I have developed a network of composer friends around the world and we have formed a sort of mutual support group for listening and advice. The tools that are now available to create music electronically have never been better and provide a level of efficiency that allows even those of us with full-time day jobs to be reasonably productive.

    So the main difficulties for the amateur composer – lack of performance opportunity, lack of time, lack of distribution, lack of networking and interaction – are slowly being broken down

    A somewhat related discussion is in the Composer’s Forum on Sequenza21 this week.

    Reply
  11. Ian Dorsch

    I definitely agree with those posters who have suggested that the barriers to entry for concert composition are much higher than they are for many other types of art. I also wonder if a large part of this issue might be the gulf between the world of concert music, which seems inexorably tied to academia, and the world of “commercial” music.

    As a part-time pro composer in the commercial world, I am continually amazed at the staggering number of young amateur composers who aspire to write music for film or video games. A quick search on Soundcloud for keywords like “cinematic” returns thousands of results. The composers are out there, but it’s my belief that many of these talented amateurs do not realize how deeply the “commercial” music they admire is influenced by concert music. It may indeed be that the only reason many of them have not considered at least dabbling in concert music is a lack of exposure or instruction.

    Reply
  12. pgblu

    Perhaps I’m being a bit obvious here, but my reaction to the question “Why aren’t there more amateur composers?” is:

    How do you know how many amateur composers there are?

    Reply
  13. Josh

    I’m an amateur composer and I am in a group of amateur composers that puts on concerts of our new works three times a year. We all have day jobs (many of us are Federal government workers – a bunch of us are scientists – and one is a sculptor). Feel free to email me if you want more info

    Reply
  14. Trevor Thomas

    I’m an amateur composer/writer. I’m currently in the progress of making an album called “Between Oceans And Ruins.” I have two songs up on my YouTube channel right now and a Facebook page. I’ve been trying to promote my album the best I can because I DO want to make this into a living and make it a big part of my life, but I just wouldn’t know the first place to start on something like that. Here’s two of my songs if you want to listen to them.

    “Not Dead Yet”

    “Everything Dies”

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.