Secret Desire To Be A Composer

Secret Desire To Be A Composer

Because I play so much new music, I am often asked if I also compose. It would seem a natural question, and, of course, there are many “new music pianists” who are also composers (Marc-Andre Hamelin, David Burge, and Leonard Bernstein come to mind). Surely, if I’m interested in playing all this crazy stuff, then I must be writing it as well?

Sadly, no, I must admit that I am not writing music. But I do have a secret desire to be a composer, and it is only time (and trepidation) that keeps me from exploring that part of my musical self. As it is, I barely have enough hours in the day to practice all that new music—how will I find more time to explore? I imagine that when I am old and gray and no longer able to get around the keyboard with ease, I will make time to write some of the music that rattles around in my head. In the meantime, I think this side of me only asserts itself when I am asking composers to make changes to their existing score. (Are you sure you really need so many arpeggios in the left hand? Why not try it this way?) Perhaps I am just more comfortable in the editor’s role? I am only too happy to suggest a change that might benefit me.

So I wonder if there are many performers like myself who are exploring the new music sound world because we are also interested in composing, but simply don’t have the time, or we are nervous, or if it’s even a given that one always leads to another. And why is it that no one ever asked me this question when I was playing the more traditional repertoire of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin? Shouldn’t we all be composing anyway? What better way to get to know music than to learn how to write it? Sometimes I think performers are simply like factory workers, diligently cranking out the notes for the next performance. Conductors are the “bosses,” and composers are the “owners.” Shouldn’t we all want to have a piece of that stock? I’m not suggesting anarchy, but what would happen if more performers tried their hand at composing? I confess to pondering this question in my own life all the time.

Or maybe I should just be content with being the vehicle for all this expression? While I know that there are great composers who were also great performers, it may not necessarily follow that playing so much new music will translate into having something to say. Still, I like the idea that being a total musician involves an organic process of musical discovery: Learning to play and write music should be part of everyone’s musical education. What would we all learn if we could do both?

And now I’ve let my secret out of the bag, anyone available for some composition lessons?

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12 thoughts on “Secret Desire To Be A Composer

  1. coreydargel

    When I was in school at Oberlin, there was a proposal by some faculty members to make it a requirement that every undergraduate performance major had to compose a solo piece for him- or her-self to play on his or her senior recital. I thought that was a fantastic idea. Of course it got shot down, but to my surprise it got pretty close to passing.

  2. cpeck

    Do you improvise? And if so, to what extent do you consider improvisation to be composition (spontaneous composition). For many performer-composers throughout the history of music, improvisation has been both an essential element of compositional process and an important practice in and of itself. Embrace your skill and experience as a performer as a creative asset rather than a time management problem!

  3. scottleee

    No Time?
    Many people don’t have time to compose. Somehow though, they find a way to make time if they really have that creative desire. I used that same excuse for a while but then realized I was just afraid of the arduous compositional process. Try to compose a little bit every day so that it becomes a habitual thing. Otherwise, it will forever be just a secret desire.

  4. teresa

    I do improvise, and I agree–finding the time for things you love and want to explore is just about setting aside the time, right? But somehow making the leap from improvising…. to writing a symphony… doesn’t seem as easy as simply finding an hour every day. I don’t know…maybe I have time management issues, or maybe I just have too many notes to learn for other projects that aren’t done (in between the teaching and parenting, and other things… : ) ? Oh, that it were so simple.

    I like the idea of requiring students to compose (I went to Oberlin myself), but I’m not sure that asking them to include a piece on their senior recital is the answer either. We pianists have lots of repertoire to learn.

    I think the answer probably lies in earlier training: if we were all composing as children, or if this were part of our “normal” conservatory training, then it would all be in a day’s work…

    I think there is a needless division between performance and composition in our current music education system. But that’s just my opinion. I wonder how other performers feel?

  5. Kurt Erickson

    I think the biggest problem seems to be not the lack of training but the mental blocks that performers create and encounter. Starting out as a performer myself (piano), I know firsthand that there is a tremendous amount of idol worshipping going on when one is in one’s formative years, trying to learn and master the great warhorses of the literature. The BIG PIECES that everyone practices on end take on a certain aura, and it’s humbling to even conceive of creating something worthwhile when it’s hard enough just to duplicate one of these pieces in performance, let alone master them effortlessly on a consistent basis.

    What changed my tune and lured me over to composition was a happy circumstance of befriending a small group of like-minded artists who were either too carefree or too ignorant to concern themselves with the mistakes we were making in our early compositions. I consider myself lucky – I inherited a kind of artistic reckless abandon that I still keep with me to this very day.

    Perhaps there’s a life lesson here: sometimes you just have to start something and not worry so much about all the second guessing . . .

  6. philmusic

    “…Still, I like the idea that being a total musician involves an organic process of musical discovery: Learning to play and write music should be part of everyone’s musical education. What would we all learn if we could do both?..”

    I agree. It’s learning the music from the inside out as well as the outside in.

    As a composer/performer in different mediums, I have found this;
    Some performers excel at inhabiting roles and repertoire premiered by others, and some performers are the icebreakers who create new roles and sounds.

    Phil Fried

  7. rtanaka

    If you’re being honest with your intensions, composition can be a great way to find out about yourself. It’s sort of like looking into the mirror of your own soul at times — I think everybody can benefit from this process in one way or another.

    In the last few years I’ve known several people who made the jump from performer to performer/composer (the degree I graduated with) and have done fairly well for themselves. Performers, I believe, have an advantage in making the leap (as opposed to doing composition then trying to get into performance) because unless you’re insanely motivated to do so it can be very difficult to jump into the habit of practicing everyday. Whereas composition can be done on-and-off according to inspiration, because it’ll always be there on paper, waiting to be finished.

    So I generally tend to encourage performers to try their hand at composition if they can, even if its just for their own personal enjoyment. Some of them make good use of it in their own careers as well, like writing small pieces for their students to play that emphasizes certain techniques. If you have the ability to at least compose a little, you can taylor some of the music towards the needs of certain situations that might come up.

  8. mdwcomposer


    I think there’s the other side of the coin that is worth exploring as well: what about some of us composers who have desires to be a performer? Well, maybe not desires exactly, but who feel that’s a part that we ought to be doing?

    Personally, I’ve been trying to give up organ playing for years: you can’t practice at home, you always have to go somewhere; if you don’t have a regular church job, you have to be really creative about caging time (and ideally a set of keys); and whenever you want to practice, the sexton is vacuuming [no kidding – once I stopped in an interesting-looking church in Amsterdam, just to view the interior: the organist was practicing, and the sexton was vacuuming the carpet in the chancel – it’s universal!]. And the worst: if I go a month or two without composing, I may be grouchy as hell, but my technique doesn’t suffer much. When I take a couple of months away from the keyboard (which I do entirely too often), I can barely find middle “c”.

    And yet and yet, I can’t seem to let go of that connection to actually making sound happen in time. It still means something to me, or feeds my composing somehow. Not just the playing part, but the practicing / learning part.

    Maybe what you are really feeling / saying is something about trying to be connected to the musical process in as many ways as you can (performer, composer [at least in a fantasy way], improvisor, listener, thinker). Perhaps a testament to how our art tries to engage (seduce?) us in every possible way.

    Then there’s the practical aspect: if you’ve done some composing, then when you suggest a change to a composer, you can say “Don’t look at me like that. I’ve composed before, and I know something about the process“. Just as I get to say “Yes, I know how difficult it is. I’ve played my own music before“. And there’s nothing like having tried on the other guy’s shoes to reinforce the realization that yes, we really are all in this crazy galaxy we call “new music” together.

       — Mark Winges

  9. Elaine Fine

    It is a very big step for a performing musician to “become” a composer. As performing musicians, we are often very critical of what we play, and with new music we often need to use a great deal of our own interpretive creativity to make “sense” out of what we are playing. Sometimes the amount of effort the performer gives to a successful performance of a new piece is far greater than the amount of effort the composer put into it.

    As performing musicians, particularly as string players, we tend to “fix” things that are awkward: changing articulation and bowings to fit our instruments. We get angry at composers who ask us to find pitches that do not make physical sense on the instrument.

    That being said, the act of composing music opens a whole new interpretive world to performing musicians. After approaching music from the side of the person who puts it together and makes decisions about how phrases are going to go, what instruments are going to be used and what instrument gets what to play, what pitches are going to be used where, what rhythms are going to be used, how long the piece will be, and a whole warehouse of other musical elements, the world of music opens up in more ways than can be imagined. It helps to understand the rules of counterpoint, because they really do apply to music from all periods. You don’t have to follow them, but it is good to understand them. Same with harmony.

    It doesn’t matter if what you write is any good. You can use the performing part of your musical personality to evaluate it, and you can change what doesn’t work. It might even start out as total dreck, and with the careful use of the delete key or the eraser, can be transformed into something you like. It really does help to find a teacher who can help you to recognize where you are and what you need to do in order to go where you want to go, but be careful to find someone you really trust and like. A well-known composer with a big name may or may not fill that bill. A person who writes music that you genuinely like, and someone with an understanding of music from all periods–not just the avant garde–would give you more perspective and help you get more technique.

  10. sbrenzel


    Thanks for addressing a topic that is absolutely near and dear to my heart, and my work in providing educational programs for young musicians and their teachers. From where I sit, approaches to musical training, from a very early age, tend to require a specialization that is too narrow. We should be educating musicians, not pianists, composers, theorists. Of course, along the way, people do specialize in every field, in music, too. But in most fields, this does not happen before adequate exposure to and training in lots of different aspects of a discipline.

    I think many young people are exposed to performing music, but too few are exposed to composing (and improvising) it. When learning a language, in order to master it you read it, speak it, compose poems/stories/essays in the language, recite it, listen to it and immerse onself in a culture where the language is spoken. This analogy holds for music, to be sure. I would argue that music IS a language, and must be approached that way. Then everyone, by the time they are specializing in violin performance or opera or electronic music or post-tonal theory or choral composition has had adequate exposure to all aspects of being a musician, including composition.

    Whether people should have to perform a solo piece on their senior recital in Conservatory, I’m not certain of it. But I do think that a composition course should be required of all music majors graduating college. Or students who study in preparatory programs at conservatories should be required to have some experience with improvisation and composition. Of course, then, you have the issue of how to teach composition to performers or how to expose people who are not going to be “composers” to the craft of composition. But that would be a good problem to have.

    Thanks again for your stimulating discussions.


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