A Long and Winding Road

A Long and Winding Road

As I’ve been teaching a class this semester on music of the 21st century, I’ve been introducing many of the composers I’ve already interviewed to my students, both musically and by giving a brief history of each composer’s background. By mentioning where each composer is from, where they went to school and what, if any, other careers they had before they focused on composition, the course has allowed us to recognize patterns and outliers to those patterns—whose career paths not only stood apart from many of the others we have discussed in class, but stood outside of any path the students had yet considered in their own minds.

When Harold Meltzer, Pulitzer-nominated co-founder of the ensemble Sequitur, graduated with his bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst after studying composition with Lewis Spratlan, he decided to study law at Columbia University (all the while still composing like crazy and studying on the side). When I mentioned that Rome Prize recipient Lisa Bielawa attended Yale University, no one batted an eye—until I specified that she had majored in French literature and not music (though, as with Meltzer, she had been composing before attending and continued to do so throughout her studies). Steve Bryant worked for years as the operations manager in the I.T. department at Julliard as his composition career took off. Jennifer Higdon gives us a further example, enrolling as a flute major at Bowling Green where her flute professor asked her to write her first piece.

So why is this important? The more I see these young students’ reactions to some of these career paths, the more I feel the need to emphasize to them that there is no pre-ordained path to building a career as a composer. While there are many successful composers who discover composition either in middle school or high school, attend one of a handful of strong composition programs for undergraduate and graduate studies, and enter the workforce either in academia or as a successful freelance composer, there have been many others that come from all corners of our society and, in many cases, forge their own place in the musical community much more easily because of their non-traditional backgrounds.

Anyone else out there with a similar, “outlier” background?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

8 thoughts on “A Long and Winding Road

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Yes, outlier here. I came to music late (as a teenager) and went to an awful school (Rutgers).

    My life was as an independent composer, on the street (or in the storefront) with my own ensemble. Occasionally we (as part of Trans/Media) performed in New York but largely kept to our base in Trenton, New Jersey, creating concerts and festivals and performance events.

    While working with Trans/Media, I ran a printing press, drove a truck, designed museum posters, raked rocks for a landscaping company, and worked in the bowels of the public library sorting government documents.

    That kind of approach was a guarantee not to be able to get much notice as a composer, much less performances by academy-resident ensembles. Unlike composers who can work their academic networks, I had no such network, no colleagues fanning out across the country remembering to program my music. And my move to Vermont (chronicled here) was an excruciating time, including work as a secretary, electronics repairman, writer, editor, and elementary schoolteacher.

    Little has dramatically changed. My road is still winding. By the Higdon or Hagen measurements, I remain unknown at 62. My performances are occasional but I work with the mindset of a artist still thrilled by the work and the endless discovery and magic. And now — in my third semester of actual college teaching (an accident of someone else’s sickness) — I emphasize by example how difficult it can be.

    Yes, 5 months and $6000 to go

  2. Tom Myron

    Bright Lights, Big Cities
    11+ years as a TV news & documentary cameraman. It’s a fantastic business for a composer to be in. It’s filled with curious, extroverted people, many of whom, if they don’t already have some kind of arts background themselves, are avid and vocal enthusiasts.

    The job also gives you legitimate access to people and situations that are light years from what academia can do for you. You just have to know how to be cool. If you’ve got any real talent, it will be found out and put to use.

  3. Colewthornton

    Still working on the comp. career
    I’m still trying to make a career as a composer, but I am well positioned in the moving industry! I realize I may not make a decent living as a composer, but owning a moving company and composing on the side won’t be a bad gig. Plus, if I do make it, I’ll have good stories about life before composing.

  4. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    I’m still in the process of starting a composition “career” which may never materialize. I finished my masters degree last spring, and I have only just started the first job that could probably be considered a “career”- teaching English as a Second Language at Boston Conservatory (where I received my masters). I can’t think of anything better- being in constant contact with excellent musicians, yet keeping enough distance from it that when I get home I still have the mental energy to do my composing.

    I call myself a composer, because it is the most important part of my life. I earn a living on the side. Of course I take my job very seriously, but as much as I love my teaching, it is largely a necessity. I don’t know if I’d ever want this situation to change.

  5. pgblu

    I would love to see a sequel to Rob’s project in which composers are interviewed who don’t make any sort of living from composing or even from music at all, yet still manage to get high-quality performances and write, with complete freedom, the music they want to write. It would give much-needed courage to those on the sidelines who are on the verge of throwing in the towel, and provide an antidote to the kinds of profiles that simply reveal ‘how [x] made it in this business’. (Please note: I do not mean to imply that the latter describes what Rob is putting together).

  6. Frank J. Oteri


    I’m delighted to learn that you are teaching English as a Second Language. Teaching ESL was also my first paying “job.” Fresh out of Columbia after I got my B.A., with no idea how I could earn a living from making music, I applied to the NYC Board of Education figuring at least I could teach music. However, while I qualified for a music teaching license I could not get a job teaching music. This was in 1985, and most schools in the system had one music teacher only, if that. Luckily, since I also took enough course work at Columbia to earn a concentration in “English” (since literature and writing is my other passion), I also qualified for an English license. But it wasn’t until my fourth (and final year) in the system that I was able to teach in my license area—in the interim they put me where I was needed most, teaching English as a Second Language.

    I have to say that it was an extremely rewarding and life transforming experience to teach ESL, far more rewarding than teaching “English”, and I might have stayed in the system if I could have continued teaching ESL. (The Board of Education will not allow you to teach permanently in an area that you are not licensed to teach in and taking the requisite course work for an ESL position would have been financially unfeasible at the time.) So after those four years, I wound up going to grad school for Ethnomusicology, in part inspired by my contact with so many fascinating students from other parts of the world. Teaching ESL also had a profound effect on my own musical compositions, both in terms of the expanded “compositional tool box” I came to work with as well as a basic philosophy toward the work since it gave me a mindset that was 180 degrees away from the notion that the world “needed” timeless “masterpieces” from me or anyone else. Why I wrote music became a lot less about myself.

    Keep doing what you’re doing!

  7. Mischa Salkind-Pearl


    I’m so glad to hear that! I love this job, and I have the strange and unique position of teaching ESL at a conservatory, largely to students nearly my own age. Aside from the obvious musical influences I gather from people growing up outside of a totally western tradition, the notion that my effect on these people is passing has done a lot for my music. Like what you said, the idea of a “masterpiece” does not really apply to the lifestyle I have. I’m not anyone’s favorite French lit professor or anything- I just teach verb tenses and vocabulary to discuss music in English. My work in class is hopefully lasting, but the students’ sense of my impact (if any) is very temporary. I’ve come to regard my music that way, and it has really allowed me freedom in ways I couldn’t have previously imagined. And beyond all of that, what a rewarding job!

  8. JHigdon

    Some of the jobs I’ve had during and following my time in school:

    -night guard

    -house cleaning business

    -filed slides at a university art center



    -miscellaneous (meaning, whatever needed to get done) for the Video Software Dealers Association

    -miscellaneous at a market/social research company

    …and this is a partial list


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

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.