While I was seeking advice from a relatively well-known composer a couple of years ago, she asked me to tell her my compositional goals. I launched into a lengthy explanation as to what sorts of pieces I wanted to work on immediately and how those would help me to develop skills for my future projects, what I perceived to be the flaws in my current compositional voice and how I would correct these deficiencies as I moved forward. When I finished, she looked at me with an odd expression on her face, and then commented by saying that, although she liked my answer, that most people responded to that query by stating their career aspirations.

In the years that have followed, I often have thought about this exchange. To me, the whole point of having a compositional career is to increase my ability to achieve my artistic dreams. If I wanted monetary success, I never would have left my first work field in order to go to graduate school. If I wanted fame or to reach as many people as possible, I would have focused on popular music or composing for films or video games. I followed this path because I had a creative itch, and there was no other way to scratch it.

I think that it’s emotionally unhealthy to set goals that lie beyond the realm of what we possibly can control. We can create art that more clearly expresses our ideas, but we absolutely cannot predict how that art will be perceived by any specific audience, no matter whether that audience is an awards jury or a programming committee or the crowds at our local symphony’s subscription concerts. If we want to write a beautiful opera and have it produced in a fully staged version, we can set aside time to compose the piece, then fundraise over years until that dream is realized. If our main objective is to have the Met commission an opera from us, then the process becomes far less relevant to the work itself and greatly dependent upon factors beyond ourselves. I think that it’s important to place our goalposts carefully so that we always will be striving towards creating a better product.

many sizes of goals

Many sizes of goals.

The main reason why I’m considering this issue right now is because of a recent post on Fluting High, the blog of Helen Bledsoe, the flutist for musikFabrik. First, I’d like to take a moment to recommend this blog in general for all composers. She writes quite clearly on many aspects of new music from a performer’s perspective, giving advice on topics as useful as how composers can notate microtones in order to make them more legible for interested performers, and a step-by-step guide on how to teach yourself to play the difficult embedded tuplets found in the music of composers like Xenakis and Ferneyhough (yes, each step is remarkably difficult).

In this post, however, Bledsoe discusses the intricacies of the “Vision Training” that her ensemble has been following in order to help them grow as an ensemble. In her assessment, the focus of this exercise is far too heavily weighted towards perception, with little consideration of the product itself. In short, the ideas generated in these seminars rarely relate to methods for improving musicianship, instead focusing on topics like audience outreach.

I whole-heartedly agree with the conclusion she draws, and so I’d like to simply quote it:

As musicians […] when you ignore the music, when you ignore the basic precepts of artistic integrity (be genuine, don’t compare yourself to others), you gonna die. Even if you don’t immediately expire, you will suffer the indignity of being back where you started. Like a revolving door.

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3 thoughts on “Goals

  1. chris s

    Thanks for the post – I wholeheartedly agree. Yet it is about career aspirations too. What you want to work on compositionally and improve will be your guide to what professional avenues you wish to pursue.

    So, hearing yours I would say, teaching composition, theory and an instrument would be your best bet for earning income OR a non-arts job which does not demand much overtime if you aren’t into teaching. This in addition to pursuing commissions and connecting with performance groups.

    Of course there are other avenues – maybe you enjoy electronics so you could seek a computer music tech job which would gain access to the media to hone your craft. Church musician is a great career IF you realize being a church musician has a significant counseling/liturgical copmponent which cannot be ignored – you have to have some commitment to the church tenets and interest in liturgy to do well. Otherwise I advise subbing.

    So, I think some musicians do the process backward – especially when they see audience taste dwindling and think it is automatically a marketing problem – it could be many things – more competition, the choice of your venues, demographic changes in the area you live. So, say there has been a demographic change andm usical tastes have changed somewhat, musicians should ask – am I so in love with performing that I have no problem learning what repertoire required to ensure an audience to provide the income to support my music and have a decent standard of living? Or it may not even be required to learn that much new rep, but just approach your favorite rep with new ears and present your newfound pleasure to the new audiences.

    And honestly, beautifully played music will grabbed a large audience. I recall a friend who hated the Messiah – but when he heard an excellent performance he found out he liked a good deal of the piece. This person had heard too many shoddily opr uninspired performances because it was the Christmas Season or it was considered a cash cow of the repertoire.

    In other words, evaluate the activites you enjoyed most and then determine the activities which earned the most income. Maybe it still will be something you like but not your 1st choice – big deal, you still can carve time for your favorite activity. A very simple example is let’s say you love playing quartets more than then solo work but the solo work earns more income. Well you can do both just not in equal degree.

    Marketing should definitely be attended to, it is good to see musicians paying attention to this – but you cannot market an inferior product in the long run.

  2. Mark Winges

    David, I think this is a very important point, especially your second paragraph. To have a composing career so that one can focus on what one likes to compose seems to me to be the most important goal to have. Having a sense of curiosity, wanting to discover things, wanting to become better – these certainly get me out of bed in the morning. . . and not trying to control the perception of our work, because we really can’t.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Helen Bledsoe

    Hey David, thanks for linking to my blog, and I’m glad you found some words of inspiration. I caught Hell for writing that entry from my colleagues. To keep the peace I took out all that stuff about vision training and changed the wording of the sentence you quoted. But the idea is still clear, I hope. Good luck to you! Looking forward to reading more.


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