Advice is good. Well, let me rephrase this. Good advice is good.
I believe the following is good advice, if not great advice for the young composers out there. A younger version of myself would have loved to have known these things. It sure would have saved him a lot of time, money, and heartache!
So here they are – a few words to help you thrive in your craft as a young composer.
Don’t ignore the old guys.
Aspiring composers often discount the Baroque and Classic composers Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and others since they composed so long ago. It’s because they’re not composing anymore, but decomposing (drums enter and crowd goes wild over an incredibly cheesy joke I learned from my composer friend).
Don’t discredit the 1500 years of music that precedes our current period. These composers laid a foundation for you. Embrace their work. Learn from them.
Did you know this is exactly how Mozart and others learned to compose? They transcribed one another’s work. Transcribing is the process of putting music into written form. It’s a great exercise that does wonders for the ear. (Check out this free course to help you get started.)
Bach transcribed the work of the great Renaissance and Baroque composers who preceded him. And EVERYONE else transcribed Bach! (Listen to the marvelous final movement from Bach’s b-minor Mass.)
Emulate your mentors.
I’m sure we all agree that plagiarism is a bad thing. You can’t steal someone else’s work and pass it off as your own! It’s just not right, man!! But you don’t need to reinvent the wheel either. At least not now.
It’s a perfectly acceptable practice to emulate your favorite composers. I’d go as far to say that it’s essential to the learning process. Young composers are often encouraged to “find their voice.” Of course, you want to speak from your unique point of view, but you need the vocabulary first.
I fell in love with the music of Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen, and Christopher Theofanidis during my student days. Their music had a profound influence on my music. But I felt bad about emulating them. Like I was cheating or not being true to myself. So I decided to quit listening to them.
A couple of years later I came to my senses and realized it was OKAY to have influences.
Don’t be like me. Don’t stop listening and emulating your mentors. It’s the only way you build a vocabulary and find your voice!
Compose, and compose often.
Aristotle said, “the things we have to learn before we do them, we learn by doing them.” There’s no substitute for learning-by-doing.
How often do you compose? Do you compose only during the school year? You know what I mean; that jury deadline is fast approaching, and you want to make sure that your piece is in tip top shape for the adjudicators.
What about the Summer months? Do you take a break? Or do you work hard to crank out a piece of music while your buddies are taking it easy on the beach?
It’s important to take a break, for sure. But you also need to get in the habit of setting self-imposed deadlines and putting systems in place to help you achieve your goals.
Don’t focus too much on the future.
Plans are necessary. But obsessing over the future is unhealthy. And obsessing too early can be harmful to your growth as a composer.
Those of us with a message and talent to spread that message long for a network with whom we can share our ideas. We long for an audience. But don’t focus on building an audience to the detriment of your craft.
Let me explain –
I wanted an audience. So much so that while in high school, I contracted a designer to build my personal website and spent copious amounts of time booking gigs. I traveled to various venues and performed my music often.
I was going to have successful songwriting career. But I spent more time checking my guest book and calling potential venues than working on my craft. My priorities were out of line.
For a variety of reasons, we often look to take a shortcut to get where we want to be. We see others who are “successful” and want to experience instantaneous “success” ourselves, forgetting that an individual, such as a chef on Chef’s Table or any comparable show, has put in many, many hours to get where he or she is.
I love the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The big take away from from the film is not to obsess over the BIG move (job, money, etc.). Rather, focus your efforts on where you are today, and the hard work will pay off!
Follow your heart.
If your heart leads you to compose children’s piano pieces, then compose children’s piano pieces. If it leads you to compose for film, by all means, compose for film. If it leads you to arrange music for the church, then do it joyfully!
Following the path that someone else has picked for you will only leave you feeling unhappy and unfulfilled in the end. You must be true to yourself. Follow your heart and follow it hard. Be bold and courageous. Dare to dream big. Execute on your dreams!
So there you have it – advice that will help guide you as a young composer. May these words guide you as you grow in your craft. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions. I’m always happy to lend a helping hand to a fellow composer!
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