Preparing for Takeoff

Preparing for Takeoff

Boeing B-47B

Public domain, from

Since I’ve been writing for NewMusicBox, each year around the beginning of school I’ve tried to share some words of perspective with composers just beginning their college education, including one post suggesting reasons not to enroll in a composition degree program. But today I want to address my back-to-school post not to the dewy-eyed incoming freshpeople, but to those students embarking on their final year(s) of academic study.

For many music students, there’s a sense of shock and, occasionally, panic at the thought of reaching the end of the road following years of musical study—a journey that likely began long before college, ending in a black hole of uncertainty as many musicians begin to confront the first years of their not being students that they can remember. This is one of the frequently disconcerting parts of careers in music, and making the successful transition from student to young professional can be the single most difficult period of any musician’s life.

While the road of student life does end, it’s only as a runway does: as a necessary path to greater things above and beyond. After spending a great deal of time talking over this particular issue with participants in this summer’s Fresh Inc Festival, I want to share some thoughts on the most important things to keep in mind while transitioning out of student life:

  • Presentation matters. It’s not an afterthought or some kind of fancy icing distinct from substance. Presentation is intimately connected to the way you and your music will be perceived and evaluated—from clean, well laid out parts that help you get the most out of rehearsals, to an articulate and human preconcert talk, to a website that’s clear and easy to navigate. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the substance of your work will carry itself, as it takes work to project that substance to others and help it come across.

  • Music is only one small part of the big picture. You’ll also need writing skills if you want to blog or express your vision to a grant panel; math and software skills if you want to run an ensemble’s finances; knowledge of electronic equipment for your shows; and development skills if you want to be able to raise money for your projects. Try reading through any staff directory for an orchestra or opera company, taking note of all the different roles and tasks to be accomplished. It’s not a bad template for planning out one’s own first projects. It’s also a reminder of how much takes place behind the scenes in order to bring music to new audiences. Develop a broad skillset, and you’ll always have plenty of options for achieving your goals, as well as making yourself useful to others.

  • Engagement is key. Whether it’s through posters at a local venue, posts on social media, or outreach activities at a local library, engaging your fans and potential audience members is a must. Finding (and better, creating) your own networks of followers and collaborators is crucial for long-term development and sustainability. Music is one of the most social professions, and you need to start engaging the larger musical community early and often if you want to have your finger on the pulse.

  • Cultivate a definition of success that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Everyone’s idea of success is obviously different, and it’s more likely than not that your own criteria for success will shift subtly or dramatically throughout a life in music. Be ready for and open to everything; things don’t usually happen the way we expect them to, and we make the most of opportunity when we throw out the script and open up to what’s going on around us. Most of all, avoid the types of success that come at the expense of others in favor of success that uplifts everyone it touches—the kind of success that comes from having given rather than having taken. When you are able to take pride in the achievements of others rather than treating all colleagues as competition, there’s a lot more to be gained and absolutely nothing to lose.


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 “Preparing for Takeoff

  1. david froom

    Great article, Dan! Perfect timing also. I’d add that this no one ever gets to the point where you can rest on your laurels — so this is really for everyone at every stage. Regarding the last paragraph, my brother, who is a very successful rock producer, often says: “you never lose by being generous.” If you live by the notion that success “uplifts everyone it touches,” and “comes from having given rather than having taken,” you come out ahead, no matter the inevitable ups and downs.

  2. David

    Great post, Dan. I admire how much space you leave open in your prose to accommodate for all the different composers there are out there. Perhaps it goes without saying, but there really ought to be some general advice that nothing will happen unless one is dedicated to the musicians you make strong connections with, especially those of your same generation. Without their dedication, commitment, and criticism, everything would quickly devolve into careerism, midi, tape music, and plenty of other unappealing things!

  3. Max Pankau

    Good stuff, man. Props for laying out all the necessary/helpful skills apart from music. It’s easy for us composers to be scared of those things.

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