The Top Five Composer Blunders

Following my recent open letter to new music performers, I thought it might be worth turning a critical eye on composerly habits that can grate on others and stunt personal growth. Being a composer, and knowing a lot of them, I’ve tried to identify the general areas where composers tend to fumble, bumble, and blunder their way into unfortunate predicaments. Avoiding these pitfalls won’t make you a good composer (the items below have almost nothing to do with writing music); but these are all mistakes than can snuff out an aspiring composer’s career:

5. Shoddy Materials. The musical scores and parts (if that’s how you work) are how others come to know your works in both artistic review and performance. The performers might be you and your buddies, who have a “system” worked out on some of those shifting rhythmic patterns, or they might be members of an orchestra who expect MOLA guidelines to be followed, workable page-turns, and heavy paper with binding that won’t be crushed in a rehearsal folder. Expectations differ as do ensembles, but it’s the composer’s responsibility to present materials in line with the expectations inherent in each situation. I’ve seen many young composers make the mistake of pouring countless hours and amounts of energy into their work, only to have all that potential limited by and smothered under a confusing presentation. Short of basic music preparation skills, not explaining things is probably the biggest problem; if composers are asking for something out of the ordinary (like that ever happens!), they should dedicate more than a little thought to how to best communicate these ideas. It can be helpful to mime performing parts (extremely useful for percussion setups or for keeping track of string/trombone positions); engaging with how your materials are presented will bring a lot more focus to your work, and I feel this is an especially important point in an age when most composers are their own publishers.

4. Lateness. Composing is often about juggling two or more big, time-consuming projects, and it can be difficult to manage these demands while also maintaining a stable life. Get in the habit of making time for the kind of work that is very important but easily lost in the comparatively petty day-to-day tasks that can obscure larger goals. Many successful and famous composers have had lateness issues, so it’s very possible to get to a high level in one’s career without having learned how to manage one’s time—I’ve learned (after several tense races against the clock) that the actual composing usually takes only 50-70 percent of the entire work time, whereas it’s easy to assume that the composing component is much greater. Often coupled with lateness is the fact that many composers are prone to disappearing during crunch time, which is always terrifying for everyone else! Stay in touch with your performers and commissioners during all stages of the process; they’ll appreciate your reaching out, and they’ll be more sympathetic to the need for an extension should that arise.

3. Pushing too hard. While shying away from interaction and promotion can be its own brand of problem, pushing too aggressively for attention and action can appear desperate or transparently selfish. Composers can also have a bad habit of comparing themselves to their peers, often making the mistake of assuming that attention or success for one is somehow a slap in the other’s face. It’s better to build a community of people whom you like and support, rather than waste energy and attention on the ones you don’t.

2. Rehearsal manners. There is often so much mutual nervousness in rehearsal that it’s like a ticking time bomb waiting to blow. In my experience, composers can be over-anxious and over-involved in rehearsals; prioritizing (writing down all the ideas/spots and then circling three to bring up to the conductor) is a must. Before you say anything, ask yourself, “Does me stopping everyone here resolve the issue any faster than them just working it out?” Some mistakes require urgent correction while others work themselves out with a few more run-throughs. Learn to let go of your own nervousness and you’ll accomplish more, as well as be more aware of the needs of others.

1. Narrow focus to the exclusion of broad awareness. Composers have to focus in on so many specific details, and we become wedded to our ideas of our new creations which may end up not resembling reality. This is not necessarily a failure, but composers do their best work when they remain open to the needs and input of others—neither pandering nor dismissing. Sometimes unexpected things can happen in rehearsal or a meeting, and they’re not necessarily problems just because they take us off our normal tracks. This seems to be one of the most pervasive problems faced by largely introverted, technically oriented types, and stories of composer diva-hood over tiny details are common parlance. Part of being a composer is knowing how to stand up for your ideas and beliefs in a way that does not disparage those of your collaborative partners, and for this to occur composers have to be able to loosen their grip slightly more than they are accustomed to during those endless work hours (where they get used to having the last say!)

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