Classes began this week for many college, university, and conservatory programs around the country, and it won’t take long for those who teach composition to begin to offer up sound advice to their students for the year ahead. That advice can range from repertoire listening lists and reminders about deadlines to suggestions pertaining to process, technique, concept, or a hundred different aspects of life as a creative artist. One of the primary reasons why students decide to study at a particular institution or with a specific instructor is because of the nature, tone, and content of that advice.

One suggestion that I give constantly and that I’ve heard over and over from innumerable colleagues and guest composers is a simple one to students of any age or at any level: “Make friends with your fellow classmates—instrumentalists, singers, and conductors—as they will be your collaborators for the rest of your life.” It is easy advice to give because it is absolutely spot on; one would be hard-pressed to find composers whose collaborators do not include at least a few classmates from their undergraduate or graduate studies.

From the viewpoint of a young composer just beginning down the dimly lit path of the creative life, this advice rarely elicits a groundbreaking epiphany. Some may be more outgoing than others, but most students will already have their own circle of friends, so hearing from their mentors that they should go out and “make friends” can easily come across as a “Duh! I’ve already done that” moment. It is also very difficult for college students to see their friends and colleagues as anything but that—to imagine that these same people who are making jokes in the student lounge, dozing off during an early morning theory class, or devouring pizza late at night will be the same professional performers who will be commissioning them years later is a monumental feat.

As I mentioned before, however, many experienced composers would consider the relationships that grew organically during their own formative years to be some of the most consistent and long-lasting of their career. In my case, it was in 2006 when I got a message from Chicago-based trombonist Tom Stark. Tom and I are the same age and we’d played in the same bands and jazz ensembles since the late ’80s. (I’ve heard him say that he’s played more Deemer works than anyone because of how many times we collaborated back in the day.) Tom’s message to me said that his chamber group, the Chicago Trombone Quartet, had been invited to the Eastern Trombone Workshop and he hoped that I could write them a new piece.

I had just finished my doctorate and this opportunity to have a new work performed on a national stage was just what I needed at the time. The fact that it was Tom asking for my first post-grad school commission was totally fitting and, in hindsight, almost inevitable. The result of that collaboration, my trombone quartet Shock & Awe, has borne fruit several times over, with performances by several quartets, a recording by the Chicago Trombone Consort, and several new friendships, collaborations, and new works that all spawned out of that one initial piece between two old school friends.

Minor 4th Trombone Quartet performing Shock & Awe, mvt. 1 ‘Spin Cycles’

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the flip side of these long-standing friendships. It would be easy for an objective observer to note that the new music community is rife with exclusive clubs, cliques, networks—I’ve used the term “tribes” more than once. Whatever you want to call ’em, these relationships can seem, from the outside, foreboding, impermeable, and unfair, and so many of these groups can be traced back to the crucible of graduate school. I myself try to look at the entire situation with open eyes: It’s foolish to begrudge performers for sticking with composers who they’ve worked with before and with whom they’ve cultivated strong friendships, just as it’s folly to expect that friendships alone dictate how opportunities arise.

We as a community have moved past the didactic “schools of thought” concept that shaped so much of the new music scene decades ago, but we haven’t splintered into an “every man/woman for themselves” concept either. Connections and relationships ebb and flow constantly (even more so now, with the help of social media), but underneath the skills and confidence that allow for those new connections to be built is the foundation that comes from our friendships of old.

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9 thoughts on “Friends

  1. Noah Creshevsky

    I know that our teachers and colleagues are not actually advising us to “make friends with…fellow classmates—instrumentalists, singers, and conductors” primarily to procure instrumentalists, singers, and conductors for future performances, but that is close to what they are saying. I have many friends, and I value their friendship, but the mix of friendship and commerce is always uncomfortable for me.

    I’d rather see an academic and/or professional system in place that paid performers to perform, and composers to compose. That may be wishing for something that is unlikely to happen, but it feels more honorable than pursuing friends for reasons other than good fellowship.

    I don’t mean to misrepresent Rob Deemer’s point of view. At the very least, I have overstated the case he presents. At the same time, the alliance of business and pleasure is something to be carefully considered.

    Commissions are generally few and far between. A classmate asking a composer to write a piece can be an act of friendship or a practical way of obtaining a new piece for little or no money. Only a few composers will find friends with the will and means to provide much remuneration for a new composition.

    Making friends to have a better “romantic” life has a name. Perhaps making friends in order to find instrumentalists, singers, and conductors also has a name, but with or without a name, the pursuit of friendship to advance one’s music is something that deserves some serious thought. I think it’s a slippery slope, fraught with contradictions.

    1. David Froom

      Rob says (and I agree) that you make friends to make friends. The more friends you have, the happier you are. When it turns out that these friends are also fellow musicians, they are, of course, not required to like your music, but if they do, and they want to play it or recommend it to their friends, I don’t think that’s mixing personal and professional.

      I look at this the other way around. Every professional interaction is an opportunity to make a new friend. One would hope that ones reputation is a combination of “really nice person” and “really fine composer.” If I have to choose between the two, I’d go for the former.

  2. Paul H. Muller

    Composing is typically a solitary endeavor and it’s easy to get caught up in all the technical details. And yet the ultimate success of a composition generally depends on the decisions of others to commission or perform a piece. People skills are, I think, an overlooked part of the equation that composers must master in order to bring their work to completion. One way to exercise those skills is among one’s peers and colleagues. Being comfortable talking to people about your art is essential if you are going to convince someone to perform it. These skills should be cultivated at an early point in the educational process.

  3. Jim Stephenson

    I can honestly say that I would not have a career as a composer if it wasn’t for my friendships that I had cultivated early on in my music life.
    I don’t think Rob is saying that one should cultivate friendships ONLY for the sake of having people to draw upon for commissions later. In short, I’m pretty sure he’s just saying to be a decent person and get out there and meet people – if not only for the sake of the value gained from interacting with people from of all walks of life.

    Furthermore, I can no doubt say that the pieces I’ve written directly for old friends/colleagues of mine have more value to me than can possibly be measured by the almighty dollar. To write a piece 10-20 years later for a good college friend is a wonderful trip down memory lane, while also including the “look how far we’ve both come” aspect that enhances the entire thing. (Not to mention a great reason to have a celebratory beverage!)

  4. Kyle Gann

    Funny, I guess I’m the exception. I went to a conservatory thinking my most talented friends there would all be big names in the music world thirty years hence, and we would rule the world together. Turns out, the only college friend I’m still in touch with is an author of books on American history. The musicians have vanished. I Google their names, and the few I can find are no longer in music. They’re lawyers, or computer geeks. One teaches meditation at a Zen monastery. One’s an astrologer.

  5. Jamie Whitmarsh

    I feel this is quite similar to how things work in the world of gigging as an instrumentalist. Undoubtedly, there is someone else out there who is available for a gig who is as – if not more – qualified than the person hired. Any number of reasons can go into why a person is hired for a gig over another person, and familiarity is probably one of the bigger factors. Going with the devil you know and all of that.
    As a composer/performer who is still in school, I can say that, while I am not ignorant of the long-term benefits (and drawbacks!) of my interactions with other graduate students, my primary reason to interact with people is just that I like people. Not all composers are as socially enthusiastic as I am (nor should they be!), but I think a level of acquaintanceship with musicians in your peer group should be achieved either way.

  6. Ray and Jim

    Robby Krieger has said that perhaps the most impressive indication of Ray Manzarek’s brilliance was how he saw great promise in a fellow student friend just about everyone else at UCLA dismissed as a jackass. I treasure the time I spent with Ray, and about a year before he left us, wrote a beginners poem about the band he formed that included his unusual college friend as vocalist, composer and lyricist:


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