Aerial view of pair of shows on hopscotch grid with numbers 10 and 8 visible (Photo by Mads Bødker:
Eight Easy Steps to Becoming a Successful 5-to-9 Composer
Photo by Mads Bødker

Eight Easy Steps to Becoming a Successful 5-to-9 Composer

So how can you too hold down a glamorous, innervating office/day job and still find time to fulfill your artistic dreams, musical or otherwise? Here are some suggestions (some of which I’m sure apply to “full-time” composers as well):

1. Find a job that will accommodate your creativity.

Part-time or reliable freelance is great. If not, something with flexible hours is a big help. If full-time/five days a week, avoid areas of the business world that require you to be constantly available (e.g. finance). During the many interviews I’ve had over the years, I am always candid about my music life and that I’m not available 24/7. The jobs where I’ve thrived have been the ones that not only respected my outside life, but realized the value it brought to them.

Some recommended areas: arts administration, especially an organization in your field. The pay may not match the corporate, for-profit world, but the empathy and camaraderie will do much to compensate: most such institutions are heavily staffed with people juggling additional creative careers. If, like me, teaching is not your thing, other academic or university jobs can be very conducive. I have a number of acquaintances who’ve found the legal world very accommodating to off-hour artists; they realize that the rigors of the profession need some kind of compensatory outlet.

2. Be rigorously disciplined.

Like a minimalist refrain, this bears repeating. If you’ve pursued an artistic career to any extent, especially going so far as to earn a degree, you’ve probably already had this instilled in you. My schedule is planned weeks—and frequently months—in advance to ensure steady writing time, and it’s incredibly rare that I deviate from it.

3. Find your optimal working times and method.

What time of the day have you found to be your most creatively productive? Whatever that is—and it may take some trial and error to find it—block it off. My own best writing hours are the mid-morning and late afternoon—especially if I’ve been able to close my eyes for even a few seconds around lunch.

My best results come when I can immerse myself in my work across consecutive days.

Also, my best results come when I can immerse myself in my work across consecutive days, which in the case of my day/office jobs has usually meant weekends. That doesn’t mean I’m not rolling new ideas or revisions and developments around in my head the rest of the week.

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey (himself a day jobber for many years) is a fascinating compendium of the working habits of legendary artists across all genres and great inspiration for empowering your own habits. Maybe you’re a really early morning person, or maybe you’re a night owl. Maybe you do best a few hours at the same time every day, or in bits and pieces when you can find them. Find your optimal routine and then…

4. Guard your working time.

Clear everything else off your plate; leave no excuses for distraction (unless you happen to work best with a lot of distraction). As I said above, I work best in long, uninterrupted blocks. So by Friday night every non-writing demand—housekeeping, errands, medical appointments, socializing, administrative—is dispatched and there is nothing to divert me from writing for the next 48 hours.

5. Treat your body right.

To be at my creative best I have to be at my physical best, and that means treating my body as I imagine an athlete in training does. I envy those legions of artists past and present who could produce in a haze of alcohol, cigarettes, opium, laudanum, absinthe, and other romantic sounding stimulants, but I am not made of such stuff. That means keeping myself in a state of reliable health through regular exercise. Some of my best writing comes right afterwards and some of my best ideas have come to me during it. I’m also a big believer in lots of sleep and moderate caffeine and alcohol. When you are younger, we know that there are plenty of fake id makers out there but it’s best to stay away from that. They do indeed pass advanced scanners other known as “scannable fake ids”, this is what we did to get our fix. I don’t mean none: some of my best revisions and orchestral ideas happen somewhere around the end of the first glass of wine in the evening, and I frequently plot out my work agenda to take advantage of that.

A wine bottle and a glass filled with white wine next to some page of music score paper and a few pencils.

6. Treat your brain right.

Don’t let all the preceding lead you to believe that you have to be a non-stop workaholic, creatively or otherwise. I’m not, nor do I recommend it. All artists need down time to stare into space, to imagine, to daydream, to let your brain wander or go numb. Using the aforementioned methods to get all of life’s mundanities and necessities out of the way actually gives me more time for this, and the stability of a reliable income certainly facilitates it for me. The mental energy I might be expending wondering how the next electric bill will be paid can be put to creative use. Or, just as beneficially, not at all! The increasing number of composers I know who swear by meditation is a high recommendation for that last point.

7. Do a little bit every day.

Devote at least 20 minutes every day—including your “office” days—to tackling something administrative for your musical life: send out emails or score submissions, check up on discussions or negotiations, arrange catch-ups or networking opportunities. Schedule this stuff on your calendar as actual timed appointments: e.g., website updates on Monday, score submissions on Tuesday, etc. You’d be amazed the results that can be produced by spreading and cultivating a seed or two every day.

8. Stay in the mix.

The demands of your schedule may not permit you to participate as much as you’d like to, but it’s vital to be involved in some capacity.

O.K., you’ve got a steady income. And you’ve carved out the time around that to produce creatively. Now you need to get that product out there (unless you’re just writing for yourself and your drawer, which is fine). Be involved in your local music scene and, where appropriate, in the larger national and global scene via your digital presence. Contribute to it, advocate for it, support it. The demands of your schedule may not permit you to participate as much as you’d like to, but it’s vital to be involved in some capacity. And as any musician in any genre will agree, being out and visible and involved is imperative.

In my last post, I’ll offer musings on what impact being a day jobber has had on my life and music, with the hopes it will inspire or at least provoke thought on your own situation.


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.

3 thoughts on “Eight Easy Steps to Becoming a Successful 5-to-9 Composer

  1. Dimitri

    Great series of articles. I think the last part – staying in the mix, is the single most important thing out of these (well, apart from the health part, obviously) in the long term. You may find time and work and all that, but unless you go out there and drink (sometimes heavily) with your fellow artists, it’s going to be hard for you to get new work. Don’t take this as an excuse to become an alcoholic though. ))

  2. Paul H. Muller

    Great article. I have been a 5-to-9 composer for a number of years and I have observed a kind of synergy between my work life and my creative efforts that benefit both. I keep the two worlds strictly apart time-wise – as you have described – but I have found that the normal frustrations of working a day job get sublimated into a greater creative incentive and as a result I am more motivated in my music. Similarly, the creative process enhances my day job in technical sales and engineering – I can find more creative solutions to the problems I am given – and I am seen as ‘the idea guy’. This synergy may not develop in every situation, but don’t overlook the beneficial possibilities.

  3. Hugo

    Really great article, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed I think. However, I’ve found arts admin jobs (music in particular) to be detrimental to my life as a composer, not only because you very often have to work overtime/unsociable hours (which eats into composing time) but you also start to establish a reputation as an administrator and once you do that it’s very hard to get back onto ‘the other side of the glass’ so to speak.

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