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Some Reflections on Transitioning Out of Being a “Young Composer”

Some Reflections on Transitioning Out of Being a “Young Composer”

What is the cut-off for being a “young composer”? Everyone defines that line a little differently, but I’m in my mid-30s, and in my case anyway, I certainly feel like I’ve moved onto the next thing.

This transition is more a state of mind than anything else. Over the past few years, when I’ve found myself in young composer settings, I’ve gotten that awkward feeling of being somewhere you no longer belong, like when you visit your old high school a few years into college.

Also, much to my amazement, I’ve found myself confronted on occasion by composers younger than me asking for career advice. Thinking back on the past few years, I suppose I did learn a few things that would have been useful to my 20-something self. So in the spirit of paying it forward, here are some reflections on composing after young-composer-hood.

What you did in your 20s won’t matter much

There is a cult of youth in the composition scene, just as there is with most public-facing human activities. When you’re a young composer, a lot of people are interested in what you’re doing simply because “young composers”! That’s not wrong—young people with no track record do need a way to get a leg up—but the mistake is assuming that the attention you get as a young composer somehow predicts the attention you’ll get when you’re older.

After a few years, most of the people who experienced your youthful glories will have totally forgotten that you exist, having moved on to the next round of young composers. So while you should definitely take advantage of the young composer competitions, festivals, workshops, and prizes, it’s important to realize that there’s an expiry date on their usefulness.

Composing is about who you know

Speaking of prizes and festivals and such, it turns out that winning them is much less important than the connections you make along the way.

When you’re in your 20s, the task of finding compositional opportunities mostly gets sorted out on its own: you have to write pieces for student recitals, you go to summer festivals, you get a few emerging composer commissions, etcetera. This is also, not coincidentally, the period in your life when you reach “peak friends.” Opportunities arise seemingly organically, maybe you win a few prizes, and it’s logical to assume that all this is happening because you write good music.

Yes, you do have to be a good composer—but there are a lot of good composers out there, so people tend to work with their friends.

Then a few years pass. You’re no longer in school, you’ve aged out of the young composer festivals, and—having passed peak friends—a lot of people move on and lose touch. It then becomes obvious that the main reason you’re composing for Quartet XYZ is because the cellist is a buddy of yours, not because of your skill as a composer. Yes, you do also have to be a good composer—but there are a lot of good composers out there, so people tend to work with their friends. While there are exceptions to this pattern, most of your post-20s opportunities will stem from the personal relationships you make.

When I was in grad school at UCSD, I got my fair share of those young composer commissions and prizes. Also, as a Canadian I didn’t expect to stay in the US long term, so while I did of course make friends at school, my priorities were always elsewhere. Well, here I am in San Francisco almost ten years later, married to an American. Yet few of my professional connections today stem from grad school, probably because my peers could tell I wasn’t fully invested in the community. And for all the effort, Gaudeamus and MATA and the prizes I won never created any lasting opportunities. In retrospect, back then I probably should have spent less time sending out applications and more time just hanging out with people.

A lot of your peers will stop composing

Look around: how many of the composers that you know are in their 20s? Then think about how many you know in their 30s. It’s a smaller number. Move up to 40s and it shrinks again. With each passing decade, there are fewer people who continue to compose. It’s a hard lifestyle, opportunities are not always forthcoming, and faced with the task of toiling in poverty versus getting an office job that actually pays, many people eventually choose the latter.

You need to keep proving yourself

I’m a recluse by nature—I’ve always dreaded schmoozing and networking, or really most types of group-based social activity. But in my 20s, I expected that if I stuck it out for a while, eventually my reputation would make it less necessary to do that stuff and that opportunities would come my way with increasing ease. Turns out that’s not the case. You need to make more of an effort as time goes on, not less, due to a confluence of the factors described above.

At some point in your life, while you’re busy being a young composer, you’ll suddenly realize that an active cohort of younger young composers has sprung up after you. They will be largely unaware of what you were doing in your 20s, because they were teenagers then. And just as you did before them, they’ll be busy basking in the cult of youth and hanging out in an echo chamber of people mostly their own age.

Of course, this happens at the exact same moment the more established musicians have forgotten your young composer successes—there’s a new group of up-and-comers to attend to, after all. You’ll also have fewer colleagues your own age to turn to, because of the people-dropping-out-of-music thing.

The end result is that you have to keep proving yourself, just like you did in your 20s, getting to know the younger cohort and solidifying your ties with your remaining peers and the musicians who came before you. Except now, you also need to create all of the opportunities yourself. There are no prizes or festivals or required recitals to rely on. You have to form an ensemble, or put on concerts, or pitch ideas to the groups your friends run, or otherwise use your personal network to find ways to create music.

You achieve greater success by helping others succeed

Design your activities so that they help others achieve their goals as well.

Which brings us to the next point. When you pursue projects that are exclusively about your own glory, you will have to do everything yourself and pay full price for services. People will play your gigs, but since they’re not invested in your success, it’ll just be another gig for them.

In contrast, if you design your activities so that they help others achieve their goals as well, they will want to help you succeed. You will find that you have a network of people eager to assist you with the things you care most about, and you’ll be able to mount your projects with greater ease than you could have on your own.

Making money and making music are unrelated questions

There are a lot of ways to earn a living, just as there are a lot of ways to compose music. You can follow the academic path. You can teach privately. You can conduct or take gigs as a performer. You can do a job outside of music, or as an arts administrator. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll start an ensemble that taps into big philanthropic dollars.

There will be some overlap between the money aspect and the composing aspect, but the connection will never really be as strong as you want it to be. In my 20s, I was fairly successful as a grant writer and freelancer. I assumed that this success would continue to expand, both in terms of volume of commissions and remuneration.

What I discovered, however, is that there is an upper bound. There are only so many funders, and you can only write so much music. Therefore, as your financial needs increase—and they will, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can live like a college student indefinitely—you need to find other income streams. My income from grant writing and commissions has stayed fairly steady over the past decade, but it has become a smaller proportion of my total income.

You have to work from a place of strength

Andrew Solomon perhaps put this most poetically in his Advice for Young Writers: “To know more is simply a matter of industry; to accept what you will never know is trickier.”

When you’re young, there’s the tendency to want to do everything, learn as much as possible, conquer all challenges. I used to drill and drill and drill on ear training exercises, because as a percussionist, I felt like I had to “catch up” to the composers who grew up playing strings or singing and had an amazing sense of pitch.

I did get a lot better, but I don’t play pitched instruments every day, so those skills are just never going to be as good as someone who does, even if I did have the time to keep up the ear training drills.

So I compose from my strengths and interests, accepting that there are things others will do better than me and that there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve got the right skills for the music I want to write, and that’s what counts.

Focus on the types of activities that you’re good at and enjoy.

This principle likewise applies to the more career-centered aspects of composing. You need to focus on the types of support activities that you’re good at and enjoy, whether that means grant writing, running an ensemble, freelancing as a sound engineer, etcetera. The reason I’m sitting here writing this article is because I like to write, I’ve gotten decently good at it, and I’ve attracted a respectable audience over the years. If those things weren’t true, I would be doing something else instead.

In this respect, composers are best served by standard career planning advice, with the exception that you’re most likely to find a hodgepodge of workable if imperfect compromises as opposed to the single, Goldilocksian solution a vocational counselor might prefer.

Career counseling

You need collaborators

Find people in your life who can support your weaknesses.

Because you’re working from a place of strength and can’t do everything yourself, you need find people in your life who can support your weaknesses. This arrangement could be formal or informal. A lot of great people throughout history have had spouses or patrons that have kept them afloat, both financially or just in terms of keeping their shit together. Some composers start collectives or ensembles, or they work with dance companies or otherwise find a team of people to support them. Note that this doesn’t have to be an egotistical, “taker” kind of arrangement. In fact, it’s usually more successful if it’s reciprocal. But you need to find your complements and work with them.

You won’t go to all the concerts anymore

It’s Friday afternoon and you’ve been (working/teaching/grant writing/rehearsing) all week, haven’t seen your (spouse/kids) for more than a few minutes a day all week, had a (board meeting/fundraiser/computer meltdown) last night and have (no groceries/a piece due next week/relatives coming over tomorrow). There is a new music concert tonight featuring amazing players that you love, but they’re playing Boulez (or whoever) and you’ve just never really been that into Boulez. You will skip the concert to watch Netflix and have a beer, guilt-free. Otherwise you’ll soon burn out on all concert going, and if you don’t enjoy concerts, it’s pretty hard to stay motivated to compose. I suspect that going to boring concerts is the #2 reason why people stop composing. (#1 is, of course, the money.)

Your best artistic days are ahead of you

This article by Irish/South African composer Kevin Volans caused quite a stir recently, and there’s a lot in it I disagree with. But one thing he said that is undoubtedly true is that people become better composers over time.

Young composers, on the whole, write conservative music that lacks depth and personality. There are Mozartian exceptions, but even the best young composers tend to get better with age. You’ll write better music in your 30s, even though you’ll likely get less recognition for it, seeing as you’re not a “young composer” anymore.

You have to be O.K. with a lack of feedback

Chances are you’re no longer in a structured environment like school or the young composers summer circuit, so you won’t get a lot of feedback on your work, except for reviews of your performances here and there, or complaints from your parents who wonder, “Why can’t you just write a pretty melody for once?” (Full disclosure: my parents are actually super cool and really supportive.) You have to be O.K. with not having anyone comment on your music most of the time.

This is an especially composerly issue. Playwrights tend to work with dramaturges for this very reason, professional singers often have coaches, and there are many other parallels across the arts. But it’s hard for composers to find this kind of collaborator. It’s just going to be you most of the time.

You’ll probably be a much faster composer

The reasons why you write music will become clearer. (If they don’t, you’ll probably stop composing.) When you know the why, and you have more practice with the how, the act of composing speeds up quite a bit. That doesn’t mean you’ll never get stuck, just that the average number of hours you need to put in to create a given amount of quality music will go down.

That will give you time for other things, like hobbies or volunteering or having kids—whatever. Take advantage of those possibilities. They’ll lead to a richer life, and the best art always stems from lived experience.

***

Aaron Gervais-TracyWong

Aaron Gervais
Photo by Tracy Wong

Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at aarongervais.com.

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.

20 thoughts on “Some Reflections on Transitioning Out of Being a “Young Composer”

  1. Alex Shapiro

    This essay is spot-on, Aaron! There’s a great deal of wisdom here, for composers at any stage in their pursuits. Among the many gems:

    “…I probably should have spent less time sending out applications and more time just hanging out with people.”

    Your points about the significance of relationships can’t be overstated. Most professional opportunities spring from these. I’m fortunate to make my living from the sonic chaos inside my head, and I promise: not once has a commissioner ever asked to see a list of the prizes and grants I’ve won (almost none), nor a college/master’s/doctorate diploma I’ve received (definitely none).

    They care about our music.
    Which they discover, by stumbling upon the composer.
    Who makes that possible by making himself or herself discoverable.
    Write music from your heart, show up, connect with the hearts of a few others. Repeat.

    Thanks for taking the time to pen such a thoughtful piece, Aaron.

    Reply
  2. Loie

    This is an excellent, well written and thought out post, Aaron. I think it brings up several points relevant to other disciplines as well, particularly in the creative sphere.

    Reply
  3. Robert J. Martin

    The important thing is to find a community of people who compose and perform that you can be part of. It makes everything worthwhile. I’ve been lucky to have many interests and to have been part of a number of supportive communities–including a theatre group, a composers group, a job I loved (not in music). I mostly write for performers and ensembles I know, and I do my best to involve them in the process of creating the music.

    Reply
  4. randy woolf

    i would like to add that at all stages of your life as a composer, it is imperative to have really good recordings of really good performances of some of your work. not only is it a huge edge when applying for grants, and sending out your music, but to have these recordings feels good and is very educational. spend money on it…i have spent mid 3-figure sums to get good recordings, and it was always worth it.

    Reply
  5. Ryan Thomas Johnson

    Worthy sentiments here. I’ve only recently (past 5 years or so) dedicated myself to new music composition after spending years as a rock musician. So I’m experiencing being both an “emerging composer” and “too old for young composer calls”. But all these points have applied to my life in rock and the lessons are transferable to any arena. Your advice will be heeded. I think I’ll put down the feverish competition writing for awhile so I can send some new stuff to the choral folks I already know. Cheers!

    Reply
  6. Jeff Myers

    This article is totally on point. I remember I used to ask my friends in grad school “Where are all the composers in their 40s?” It seemed like I knew lots of young composers and older composers, but there were like 5 composers that I knew in between. Well its true, lots of them 1) quit 2) are geographically isolated because they are teaching somewhere random 3) raising kids and busy with family stuff and can’t hang out 4) they just hang out with their peers. I’m usually a solid #3, but I find that it is hard to break out of #4 too, because it’s easy to just stay in your established social circle. #2 is more of a problem if you don’t travel–there are ways to make this work. And of course #1 is always a threat to anyone who wants to make more money than a ____ (fill-in a low paying job you did in high-school).

    I always think of my teacher Brent Heisinger in freshman theory saying basically “Unless you’re doing this because there is absolutely nothing else you would rather do, you should leave.” Which is true. And I watched many peers slowly slip away. It’s not something you do for fame and fortune–it’s like saying you’re going to get rich by mining in the hills of California in 1859–Good luck with that! I also remember a speech that Aaron Kernis gave in 1998 at the BMI award ceremony. His point was that you have to have a NEED to compose. I told him at the time that I was very ambitious, and he was like, “No you have to have a NEED to compose.” That has always stuck with me too. It’s true. You have to need to do it for some reason, whether it’s an obsession or some kind of mental disorder, I don’t think it matters. Philip Glass in an interview on British TV said that “commitment” (of doing something as irrational as composing (as a serious pursuit) ) is an integral part of the equation–it makes the music even stronger. I understand that now too–at some point I realized that whatever I was writing had to be totally honest, from the gut–full commitment. I would think “what if I knew I was going to die in a month and no one would even know that I ever existed?”–now…what would I want to write? All of this is to say that I think the move from young composer to whatever comes after, is a difficult and sometimes lonely process which all young composers will have to face. Fortunately we still have online forums!

    Reply
  7. Liz Comninellis

    Thanks for this article. I am a just turned 30 composer about to finish my DMA. I found these insights encouraging and helpful. I’m sure I’ll come back to it again as I transition into no longer being a “young composer”.

    Reply

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