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Rileyt

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I have a question that I know won’t be easy to answer but I’m just really looking for advice from people on this website who are in college/have a career in composing.

I don’t want to say my age but I will say that I’m in middle school almost in high school. I have been composing for about four and a half months because my band director recommended I try it since I’m good with music theory (I work in theory books and know theory that is considered senior level of high school - college level).

I’d say that I learn quickly and am quickly becoming a skilled composer. My question is : how will I know for sure if I want to pursue composing as a future career? And to the composers who have been composing for a while : What are the skills/traits of a good composer? 

I enjoy composing and I know that since I’m only in middle school (you could probably figure that out just by listening to my pieces lol) I have plenty of time to decide if I want to be a composer. But is it one of those careers where you have to genuinely enjoy it or be talented at a certain part of it to consider it as a career?

I know this is a very deep and thought-provoking question and thank you for answering if you do.

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Hi Riley,

You've indeed asked a very deep and thought-provoking series of questions.

I would say that the skills and traits of a good composer are, fundamentally, a strong spirit of curiosity.  A desire to find new ways to make sense of the world we live in through music.  This strong sense of curiosity will inspire a quest towards learning new techniques, whether they be methods for organizing sound like "tonality" or the powers of new technologies.  Beethoven says it very aptly:  “Don't only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”

A good composer treats these new skills as revelations.  I've been composing for almost twenty years, and even with a Masters in Music, I'm still watching YouTube tutorials on how to "properly" voice-lead.  Never think you know everything; you'll always find a new context and nugget that will add to your arsenal of tricks.  Musical composition is the art of magic tricks that inspire emotions and memories and feelings.

A good composer is humble with their peers, is not judgmental regarding stylistic choices, but open to any possible way that music can bring people together.  A good composer is sincere in their art.

A good composer is a collaborator, who enjoys and values the company of the musicians that are to play their music.  You are just the writer; they are the actors.

In terms of a career, let me ask you this: I know you're in Middle School, so often the big question at that age is how can one integrate all aspects of my life in the future?  What do you mean by, "career?"

If you mean a steady job, then being a career composer is like any field that involves auditioning and showing off your skills.  It's very competitive to get paying gigs, including commissions, arts grants, and productions.  But if you're kind, positive, and competitive--though not a bully--then people will want to work with you, and your "career" will pick up steam.  Who knows what the media landscape will be like when you grow up!  But remember this, your art has value, and if it has great value, don't give away the best for free.

Many "professional" composers, in the real world, have second jobs.  They may be teachers and professors, but they can be absolutely anything else.  They treat their art, however, as if it were a profession: dedicatedly.

Final thought.  Don't focus on the career-aspect just yet.  However, find opportunities to enter competitions like Kiwanis for young composers.  Build a portfolio.  Make recordings with real players as much as you can, because they will open doors for you.  Take lessons from whoever is available.  Practice, practice, practice.  Keep up the good work!

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2 hours ago, Rileyt said:

I’d say that I learn quickly and am quickly becoming a skilled composer. My question is : how will I know for sure if I want to pursue composing as a future career? And to the composers who have been composing for a while : What are the skills/traits of a good composer? 

The skills and traits that make a good composer are one who is serious about the craft of composition, have a deep respect and love for the traditions, and seek to master that craft. Remember, that all of the theory, technique, pedagogy, orthodoxy, etc. exist for a reason: To help you make the best music you can, and guide you to what you want to create — all of these things came to be because they are rooted in the listening experience and how it can most-favorably affect the senses.

1 hour ago, Monkeysinfezzes said:

In terms of a career, let me ask you this: I know you're in Middle School, so often the big question at that age is how can one integrate all aspects of my life in the future?  What do you mean by, "career?"

The biggest piece of advice here is that, no matter how good you become, it is unlikely that composing will ever become your PRIMARY source of income. I.e., career.

That's okay. One of the biggest mistakes you can make (I did at one time too), is expecting music to give your life meaning instead of your life giving meaning to your music.

 

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Monkeysinfezzes (nice username by the way),

Thank you so much for the reply! The Beethoven quote you mentioned is a great quote in my opinion that I often refer to (I actually have a poster with that quote on it).

I suppose by career I mean a steady job that hopefully you enjoy and in turn will happily dedicate yourself to. 

As I compose more and more every day I realize that I do need the skills/traits that you mentioned. The traits like kindness and open mindedness, etc. 

I do try to find competitions to enter (I actually was looking at some earlier today) and I compose at least one piece a week even if it is short so I can get better even if it may seem little by little or like baby steps. Because, like you said, the media landscape could be very different by the time I grow up and I want to be prepared for it if I do decide that I want to pursue composing further. 
 

Again thanks for the reply and advice! You know, you remind me of my band director in a way. You remind me of him with just the ways you describe being a composer and the positive traits to have. I think that’s a reason I enjoy talking to composers and other musicians, especially on this site. The majority of them seem kind-hearted and tend to lend helping hands to others.

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You don't really choose to be a professional composer. It's just something that happens over time. You start off as a performer who writes music on the side and keep at it until your writing gradually eclipses your performing (which might never happen -- it usually doesn't). Eventually, if you're lucky, you'll get to focus more on composing rather than performing, at which point you might become a full-time, professional composer. In today's market, that's probably around the age of 30 at the earliest. So you have plenty of time to think about it.

In the meantime, I will say this: You absolutely do not need to major in Composition in university to be a composer. In fact, I would highly discourage anyone from taking this route. It's far better to get a more marketable degree (pretty much any other music degree is more marketable) and pursue composition on the side.

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Posted (edited)

I basically agree with Vogel. It may involve luck - being there are the right moment. Very few 'composers' I've met are professionals though plenty end up as teachers.

I also ponder on the value of a "degree". I avoided that in preference to certification by our Royal Academy (which is about as useful as a degree but does come with a certain pedigree). I have a piece of paper to stick on the wall but what I compose bears no relation to what I was being 'taught' on a college degree course from which I walked out. You can't teach creativity.  It wasn't about developing a good inner ear for music and translating it into a result. Just rote learning and exercises.

I get the chance to make some money here and there, mostly hanging on a friend who has a senior role at an agency. No doubt I could double it if I put in the effort but the simple fact is I could never live on an income from composing. I'm happy enough getting public hearings of my work, these days usually from 'virtual performances' though the town and County orchestras have done my stuff.

Edited by Quinn
Art. What else?

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I have another question to ask : does anyone know of websites or where to find opportunities for young composers? I enter competitions frequently but since I’m still new to the composing world I figured others on this site will probably know of more places to find opportunities than I would. 
 

Also, thank you to all the people who have replied to my original questions. Your responses have helped me a lot. Most of the advice that I’ve found online has been for adult composers and not someone in my situation who isn’t even in highschool yet.

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Posted (edited)
10 hours ago, Quinn said:

I also ponder on the value of a "degree". I avoided that in preference to certification by our Royal Academy (which is about as useful as a degree but does come with a certain pedigree). I have a piece of paper to stick on the wall but what I compose bears no relation to what I was being 'taught' on a college degree course from which I walked out. You can't teach creativity.

Degrees are essentially worthless; especially in a time where more people than ever before have them. If everyone has a degree, no one cares.

The fact is also that if you start taking this stuff seriously when you're a teenager, you'll honestly know more than many college graduates and stuff will simply because you've been learning for way longer than many of them.

I passed the entrance exams; theory, performance, all of it for my college despite having been almost totally self-taught up until then. I wound up turning them down because I didn't feel like being 10k in debt and the first year of the program was studying stuff I JUST PROVED I already knew!

Then there's the fact that the arts (and post-secondary education in general) are totally corrupt.

Edited by AngelCityOutlaw
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4 hours ago, AngelCityOutlaw said:

Degrees are essentially worthless; especially in a time where more people than ever before have them. If everyone has a degree, no one cares.

The fact is also that if you start taking this stuff seriously when you're a teenager, you'll honestly know more than many college graduates and stuff will simply because you've been learning for way longer than many of them.

I passed the entrance exams; theory, performance, all of it for my college despite having been almost totally self-taught up until then. I wound up turning them down because I didn't feel like being 10k in debt and the first year of the program was studying stuff I JUST PROVED I already knew!

Then there's the fact that the arts (and post-secondary education in general) are totally corrupt.

 

Dead on. Music degrees like a few others are just certificates of education. They seem to self-perpetuate degree courses - financially nice for the unis and helps prune unemployment . They produce teachers, critics and people but can't inculcate creativity. That comes from the artist. True, the education could stimulate an awakening. The best that can happen is it puts a student in contact with potentially useful people more on a social than musical side. But I doubt an impresario will be wowed by the kind of thing an acquaintance tutor of mine has to teach. That's aside from the UK having a paucity of "useful people" to latch onto at all but a couple of colleges.

 

 

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14 hours ago, Rileyt said:

I have another question to ask : does anyone know of websites or where to find opportunities for young composers? I enter competitions frequently but since I’m still new to the composing world I figured others on this site will probably know of more places to find opportunities than I would

This website is fairly good about continuing to post new competition opportunities, though it is by no means exhaustive:

https://composerssite.com/

I would also check your local orchestras / community bands / etc., just in case there's a state or local competition you qualify for. A lot of them are annual.

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Posted (edited)
On 7/15/2020 at 5:33 AM, Quinn said:

Dead on. Music degrees like a few others are just certificates of education. They seem to self-perpetuate degree courses - financially nice for the unis and helps prune unemployment . They produce teachers, critics and people but can't inculcate creativity. That comes from the artist. True, the education could stimulate an awakening.

The entire point of most art studies today, as I was saying before, is to suppress this and not build on it.

Unique possibilities arise from a combination of older styles that are informed by natural beauty laws. These are rejected, for various political reasons, by the arts programs of basically everywhere.

That's why something like the common practice period was able to produce music that was new, but was also good. It was an outgrowth of what came before it, but atonal and serialist stuff was not. It was a rejection of it and ultimately a dead end; that's why Mozart endures and Schoenberg is limited to the realm of pseudo-intellectual "academics".

Teachers today, especially in visual arts but it's there in music too, actively discourage or even punish being in tune with the nature and past of all this, and so, no genuine creativity is allowed.

Instead, they will champion modernist trash with "something to say" as being "progress" — even though all that stuff is exactly the same as all the other "progressive" stuff that has been churned out over the last 100 years.

Edited by AngelCityOutlaw
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On 7/13/2020 at 4:56 AM, Rileyt said:

I’d say that I learn quickly and am quickly becoming a skilled composer. My question is : how will I know for sure if I want to pursue composing as a future career? And to the composers who have been composing for a while : What are the skills/traits of a good composer? 

A good skill for a composer to have is something that has nothing to do with music! Seriously, pick anything else you like that isn't art and actually pursue that. I'm not saying you stop doing music, or composing, but if you're worried about a "career", then get a career (like toxic materials handler, for example), and then do music without any worries!

 

Now if you want to suffer? Sure do music "for a living," and then realize that to get there you need to do a lot of other things that aren't music. Just the way that works.

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Typically speaking, it is extraordinarily rare for anyone to be a full time composer and nothing else. Most composers either:

a) have non related professions

b) work in academia

c) work as performers or some other composer adjacent/music related profession

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Posted (edited)

Frankly, another huge problem here — as is true of so many things today — is globalization.

For example, where I live, we have a few major game companies and such that would need music. Where I am from, there are 3 composers who I am friends with and they are basically the only people where I'm from who have done major films/games or otherwise and have their music performed in live, orchestral concerts. There are not many composers here.

30 years ago, it would have basically been the 4 of us competing for what local gigs there are, but now it is literally us against the entire world. Those game companies, for example? They've always hire foreign composers out of Hollywood or whatever.

In times when such was not possible, they'd have been forced to hire local people so the "labor pool" essentially would be smaller and pay would be higher too. Quality would also be higher among local musicians. 

But that's not the case anymore. Your local filmmaker or game designer or concert hall or whatever can pull from anywhere in the world, even just over the internet; so it's literally you versus 1 million others. Whether you're in Los Angeles, or middle-of-nowhere Idaho. It also applies to teaching. Charge 30 bucks an hour? Well, I can just go online and get one-on-one skype lessons with this guy in Bangladesh for less money, so screw you!

Really lame.  

Edited by AngelCityOutlaw

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On 7/12/2020 at 9:56 PM, Rileyt said:

I have a question that I know won’t be easy to answer but I’m just really looking for advice from people on this website who are in college/have a career in composing.

I'm not a professional composer, nor do I have a degree in music, or any musical "credentials" of any kind, but I think my answer might be useful nonetheless. 

The extent of my musical experience is as a member of band/orchestra throughout middle school and high school, and about 3-4 years of piano lessons within that time frame. There was a point in time, when I was about your age, where I thought I wanted to be a musician. As I got older and into high school, and found out what a career in music realistically looked like, I realized it wasn't for me.

But I was still passionate about music, and I always took music along with me. I studied something completely unrelated in college and focused most of my energy on getting good grades and getting a good start on my career, but on the side I had an old version of Sibelius that I would tinker with from time to time. I never was able to complete anything substantial, but it was a good way to feed my creativity and keep my passion for music alive.

Fast forward a few years, I'm started in my career, I've got a lot more free time now that I'm not engulfed in my studies, and I've got some extra cash from my job. So I say to myself, "You know, now that I've got my job and cash flow figured out, why don't I take another stab at composing in my spare time?" So I went online and did some research, and before long I got my hands on a DAW and some decent samples and was making music again. This time however, with the tools I have available, I am much more satisfied with the music I am making, and I can make pretty convincing audio files with the quality of samples available today. It's not as good as a real orchestra, but it's pretty cool to have an audio file of something I wrote that I can listen to in my car as I drive around town.

The best part about this is I can write the exact kind of music that I want, whenever I want, without any restriction. If I were doing this professionally, I would have to write ALOT of music that I might not necessarily want to because the job requires it, I would have to make many artistic compromises with directors/producers/etc. that want a specific sound for their medium that I might not agree with, and I would have to meet strict deadlines, all of which would hinder my creativity. 

In addition, with the technology that exists nowadays it is entirely possible to make very high quality representations of your music using just your computer. Just listen to some of the audio on this site as an example. Does it sound as good as a live orchestra? No, but you can still produce a decent quality audio file that is enjoyable to listen to. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is it is very important to be fulfilled by the music you make. I can honestly say that even with the path I chose, I am still able to make music that fulfills my passion. Will my music ever be performed? Probably not. But I am incredibly satisfied with the music I am able to make with orchestral libraries I have available (and untrained listeners can't tell the difference from a live orchestra anyway lol). Had I chosen a career in music, I don't know that I would be making music that is as fulfilling as the music I make now. I have met a few professional composers that are burnt out and exhausted from writing music they are TOLD to write, instead of music they WANT to write. Putting a price tag on your passion changes everything, and I realized a long time ago that you should never sell something that you love.

 

On 7/12/2020 at 9:56 PM, Rileyt said:

I don’t want to say my age but I will say that I’m in middle school almost in high school. I have been composing for about four and a half months because my band director recommended I try it since I’m good with music theory (I work in theory books and know theory that is considered senior level of high school - college level).

At your age you should be doing exactly what you're doing. Compose because it's fun. Explore your passion for music. But I would also say to try other things you might be interested in as well. Take an art class. Take wood-shop. Join the debate team. Get out of your comfort zone and try new things. As you get older, these opportunities will go away, so take advantage while you can.

On 7/12/2020 at 9:56 PM, Rileyt said:

I’d say that I learn quickly and am quickly becoming a skilled composer. My question is : how will I know for sure if I want to pursue composing as a future career? And to the composers who have been composing for a while : What are the skills/traits of a good composer? 

I'll touch on the career aspect below, but as far as skills go: curiosity. Always ask "why?" Why did this one composer structure this piece that way? That one part in this piece sounded cool, why is that, and how did he/she do that? Why did this instrument get the melody in this section? How did the composer achieve that really cool sound in this other part? etc.

Also: learn, learn, learn. Get your hands on books and study. Harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, etc. Find scores from your favorite composers and study them. Do what they do. You will sound like them at first, but as you experiment you will develop your own voice.

On 7/12/2020 at 9:56 PM, Rileyt said:

I enjoy composing and I know that since I’m only in middle school (you could probably figure that out just by listening to my pieces lol) I have plenty of time to decide if I want to be a composer. But is it one of those careers where you have to genuinely enjoy it or be talented at a certain part of it to consider it as a career?

I would advise you to try to meet people that work as composers and ask them about their career. Ask them what their typical day is like. Ask them how they got there. Ask them what school they went to. Try to find out how much money you could expect to make. You need to be very aware of the lifestyle you can expect. This site is obviously a good source.

Lastly, (and this is important), if you decide to go into music, pick the right school for you. But don't base this just off of what people say about the school, try to find people who graduated from that school and ask them about their career opportunities. Ask them what it was like to study music there, and what kind of jobs they got when they graduated. Try to find people that just recently graduated, people that graduated 5 or so years ago, and people that graduated 10 or so years ago. If you really want to be a film or game composer, but you find out that most people that go to that school become band directors, or lesson teachers, or something unrelated to music entirely, then you shouldn't go there. There's nothing wrong with any of those jobs, but it doesn't make sense for you to go to school there if you don't want to do those things. 

Sorry for the long-winded response, but I hope this helps at least a little. If you want any more advice, feel free to message me.

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No one makes a full time living off of music.

And the ones who do are selling t-shirts and coffee mugs on the side.

If you are planning on studying something for 4 years +.. my advice

is to pick exactly what you want/crave. Not any kind of compromise.

You'll have plenty of time later to compromise, but it's definitely not

worth being stuck anywhere for 4 years unless you 100% into it.

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One thing that I don't think has been mentioned that you might find helpful...  learn some music history.  Pick up biographies of a few well-known composers from the library, read the biographical information on their wikipedia page, or go watch some youtubes about them and their careers.  Times have changed a lot since Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach, but some things have not.  Bach was a church organist. Vivaldi was a music teacher for a girl's school.  Mozart's "Requiem" was commissioned by an amateur composer who liked to pay better composers to write works which he then pretended to have written himself.  Looking at how the big name composers careers developed can help you get a sense of what is actually a good career path, when it is worth doing some unpaid work, how much time to spend on your composing education vs. taking piano lessons, what kind of other jobs successful composers tend to have, etc.  The idea here is not to learn every little fact about a composer's sonata, but what their education and career looked like.  What would their resume look like if you could see it, condensed down to one page?  Did family help them pay the bills or introduce them to an internship while they got started?  Did people like their music right away?  Did they get into every music school they applied to?  Did they get every job they applied for?  Were they ever full-time composers?  How did they get their scores into the hands of people who passed them down, and passed them down, so that we still know their music today?

Edited by pateceramics
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