A drawing of a multilimbed creature with an eye in its center grabbing various objects including a paint roller and a musical keyboard (by Xurxo Martínez via www.flickr.com/photos/seretuaccidente)
Do You Have What It Takes to be a 5-to-9 Composer?
Photo from Xurxo Martínez

Do You Have What It Takes to be a 5-to-9 Composer?

Juggling a creative life with an often rigid office schedule isn’t suited to everyone: it means being extra dexterous at carving out as much creative time as possible and making the most of that. Though, as Daniel Ott pointed out a few years ago, that’s true for the majority of composers, day jobbers or not.

From personal experience—and much reading up from similar minds and situations—here are some of the qualities that I think best suit this method:

  • You function best with a minimum of uncertainty. Do you thrive creatively under largely predictable, dull, stable circumstances? Not knowing when or if my next paycheck is arriving, whether my financial situation will force me to change residences, whether I can afford to have this or that health issue addressed if necessary: this does not set my creative juices flowing. The less uncertainty in my life, the more creatively productive I am. I think most artists feel this way. Some of us just prefer to take measures to secure it.
  • You’re an inveterate multi-tasker. Assuming you don’t have minions to handle the minutiae of life, you can create the most time for your art by getting multiple other things done simultaneously. When doing what I call “grunt work”—engraving, website updates, social media curation, etc.—I always try to have at least one, if not several, other things under way at the same time. That ranges from printing scores or editing audio files to all the mundanities of housekeeping. But there are countless opportunities! In between sets at the gym is a great time to work on blog posts. (That’s exactly where I’m writing this very article.) Stationary bike workouts are great for catching up on reading or proofreading material. Public transportation commutes are excellent for catching up on pieces you’ve wanted to hear. You’d be amazed at how many things you can accomplish simultaneously, and how often.
  • Discipline and rigorous scheduling are two of your favorite things. Because of my personal work habits and office schedule, weekends are when I write, and in order to maximize that time I get everything possible out of the way during the week to make sure that time is clear and uninterrupted. That means scheduling all the non-writing stuff just as concretely as my writing time.
When your writing time arrives, you embrace it and WRITE

And when your writing time arrives, you embrace it and WRITE. Turn off all the devices (mobile or otherwise). No posting to social media. In fact, no internet at all. The re-organizing of your sock drawer can wait as well.

  • Sacrifice is not something you shy away from. All the above may leave you with the impression that there’s little flexible “free” time in this life. That’s pretty accurate. What time I have away from the office is almost entirely spent either writing or preparing the conditions to write. As Cory Huff writes on his blog The Abundant Artist: “What can you cut out of your life to achieve your dreams? TV? A recreational soccer league? Can you cut down work hours?” For me this means prioritizing my free non-writing time. The performances and events I attend are generally tied to my concert and theatrical careers, as well as to providing creative inspiration and empowerment. My socializing time is confined almost exclusively to the week, meaning I don’t get to hang out with as many people as I’d like. But the people who know me and value what I’m doing understand and accommodate this draconian lifestyle. And it’s just part of the territory. As John Assaraf says:

“When you are interested, you do what’s convenient: when you are committed, you do whatever it takes.”

  • You can identify and focus on the projects and goals that matter most. I find the new music world to be brimming with experts who will tell you of endless imperatives you need to be doing to have any hope of getting yourself or your work noticed: blogging, podcasting, fronting your own ensemble (preferably also performing in it in multiple capacities), having a presence on every social media platform, attending as many industry conferences and seminars as your time and budget will allow—and all of this while maintaining steady creative output. I think this holds more weight if you’re following the “traditional” route or trying to make the majority of your living from your work: your potential income is tied to the widest possible visibility. Not following the “traditional” route, I have to balance the time I devote to non-writing activities with actually writing. That includes being particularly selective about how to maximize my digital presence. The boundless opportunities offered by the internet are a boon to self-promoting artists, but they can also be a curse if you feel you have to be involved in all of them. Thomas Deneuville and Dennis Tobenski’s discussion of these possibilities on the latter’s Music Publishing Podcast offers much food for thought on this subject.

That selectiveness applies towards choosing the music opportunities I’m offered. Yes, I’ve had to weigh some of those in terms of what I think is the best use of my writing time. A cello sonata may not be the most original idea, but it has the potential for greater distribution than a piece for, say, kazoo and theremin, though the latter might well generate more interest and notice. This sort of thing is obviously a very personal issue.

  • You can keep your eyes on the prize. Making a reliable and possibly comfortable living should be a means to an end, which is your creative output. (And hopefully getting that output heard by as much of the world as possible.) Guard that, protect it, remember that’s your goal. The lure of advance and promotion in your day job, especially if commensurate financial reward is involved, can be a seductive and distracting thing, but more often than not comes at the expense of loss of personal time. This isn’t confined to those juggling non-arts careers with creativity. Many are the aspiring composers, past and present, who’ve found fame as conductors and had to battle back from their podium time to refocus on their writing.

Does all this strike a chord? (Pun intended.) Stay tuned for my next post for some suggestions on how to manage the realities of this situation.

Ed Windels's table in the midst of shelling peas (with bowls of shelled and unshelled peas), writing a string quartet (with manuscript paper, ruler, and writing implements), drinking a glass of wine, and a computer monitor.

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.

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