One of the hardest things about being a composer today is the sheer amount of other things that we need to do to have a career. The stuff that we have to do beyond just sitting down, writing consistently, coming up with musical ideas and bring them to life. Being a composer means starting, owning, and managing your own business. And there are no guarantees even with that. There’s no salary gig for the composer, there’s no 401K or Health Benefits. Rather than doing just one thing, we have to wear multiple hats, jumping around from many different roles.
And it is frustrating because much of our training does not reflect that reality. It is based on the world the way it was before today. And most of the time, the real things that we need to know and master are not the things that are being talked about in Composition Masterclass.
It is very much a double edged sword. On the one hand, it is exhausting to be a composer, because that really means being: A Creative, An Orchestrator, An Engraver, A Performance Librarian, A Personnel Manager, A Recording Engineer, sometimes A Conductor, sometimes a Performer, a website designer, a social media manager, a grant writer, a contractor, and usually your own secretary. Not to mention, being a teacher, which is being a public speaker, a researcher, and administrator. Unless you make content online, then you might add video maker, podcaster, blogger and the like.
All of that is one side of the sword. Because there are significant advantages to being a composer today rather than in the past.
There are more opportunities to learn than there ever were. There are more resources available for free. Notation software, while flawed is relatively easy to master and use, and saves infinite amounts of time than doing it all by hand. Score videos, tutorials, access to lessons with amazing teachers. Not to mention how much easier it is to distribute your music, get it out into the world. Almost everything is a couple of clicks away if you have the internet. The types of music that we can write today is far more varied and accepted. You can be game composer, you can be a musical theater composer, you can basically do whatever you want and have a much higher chance of bringing it to life in one way or another.
The playing level of musicians is so much higher, some of these Youth Orchestras are unbelievable. There are diehard champions of new music who are willing to challenge what is possible in music. There is just more access to music in a way that simply was never possible before.
It is an incredibly exciting time to be alive and to be a music maker. But There is a big difference between writing Music and Being a Composer, and I wish being composer didn’t take so much time away from writing music
But, even the good stuff is overwhelming. There are SO many routes to take now. Which one will you pick? Is it even possible to just pick one?
And so you may find yourself facing some impossible questions.
How do I juggle all of these things? How do I prioritize? How do I chose wisely?
And there is no easy answer. There is no one size fits all. Everyone will come to their career in a completely different way than the next person. Primarily for each one of us, we are on a different path, a different journey.
What I am going to try to do here, is offer a way forward. A way of simplifying the thought process to provide clarity.
My name is David Vess
Now I want to be clear. This is something that I struggle with. I do not have all of these answers. I’m very much on my own journey with this, I’m still learning and growing just the same as you. This is a big topic. And I’m only going to be able to provide an answer, not THE answer. And ideally, this is less about finding an answer, and more about starting a conversation. You will need to listen to lots of different voices before you find what works for you.
The truth is that it is really hard to juggle all of these different things. Rather than focusing on doing all of these different things, we want to simplify.
Simplifying means being clear about what our goals are, why are we are doing it, and not having too many at the same time. This is the part that is tricky. Because at any given time, we have many things occurring at once. And sometimes it can be really frustrating to have multiple goals and to be split among them.
If you are a student, being in school is a really great thing. If your goal is to learn, to master, to graduate, to meet people, then you are very much in the right place. However, this may start to conflict with other priorities.
If you are a composer, then writing music consistently is super important. It takes time, daily time.
And if you want to learn something new, like how to use a DAW, or how to score for film, or how to conduct, or how to make videos, or even something unrelated like improv or baking, whatever, that also will take time.
And this can get compounded by having to juggle a job on the side. Keep yourself afloat is essential.
And what if all of that is true, but you are applying to schools this year. That is a whole project in and of itself.
So, how do you juggle it all?
First, you need evaluate what kind of person you are when it comes to doing projects. This means being honest with yourself about how you do the work. Not what you want other people to think you do, but how you actually do it.
The 5/25 Rule is seemingly a great choice. Essentially, you list 30 dreams that you have. You pick the 5 that are the most important to you, and you focus only on those. This is effective because the biggest problem is not putting time into our dreams, it’s not putting enough of ourselves behind a few to get them done. To move beyond a state of constant beginnings.
Now that is all well and good. But I cannot do 5 things at once. I can be very productive, but I am useless when I don’t have clarity. 5 is too much for me. But I can do, 2.5.
I have 2 things that I actively engage with every day. The .5 is something that I might do once a week. And that is enough for me. Any more than 2.5, I lose my focus and my edge. I don’t do the world any favors by pretending that I can do more than I can.
For example Right now, I’m a Doctoral Student, and that is very important to me. And this has many responsibilities all wrapped into one. TA, I run the Composer Organization on Campus, I do some tutoring, and obviously I’m in classes.
This is my 1st Priority because this is the only time in my life that I can do it. Even though I would love to put more time into just Writing Music, I chose not to because, this goal has a clear end date. When I graduate, I will be done with that project. That is all school is, a big project and a chance to meet people.
My 2nd Priority is Writing, because that is ultimately what I want to do. And while it is not my top priority, everything that I do with writing has an intention behind it. Even though this is the more important goal to me, it is more of a long term goal. I can write now and also later. But, I can only do my DMA now, not later.
And my 3rd thing, is making videos. I love it. It is new. It is the fun thing I do to remain playful. It is something I do a small amount of during the week, not every day.
But that is me, right now. In 5 years, I will have very different priorities depending on where I’m at in life. And so will you.
I had different priorities a few years ago. When I taught at BSU, my 1st Goal was to make quality classes and resources. 2nd Goal was writing. And I really put a lot of time into studying conducting.
This list will change as you grow and new things happen.
So, for you, it is worth thinking about what you can realistically and easily juggle. 5 goals? 3? That is up to you. It is okay to struggle and fail at first until you find the right number. I wish I could do more, but I would be lying to myself if I said more than 2.5.
So, have your big goals clearly in mind. And they all need to be things that I have control over.
-Graduating with my DMA is my choice, I have control over it. Winning a GRAMMY is not my choice, I have no control over that.
-Writing Music is something I can control, I chose to do it. Having clients all of the time as a freelancer is not something I can control.
-Getting monetized on Youtube, is something I have no control over. But I can chose to make a video every week.
Now, once you have that, it is time to look at each individual day. Let’s look in the SHORT TERM
What has to happen today? - What is going on today that you need to be prepared for. Be clear. What classes, what assignments, what emails do you need to respond to - What needs to happen today is priority one. And here is where you want to make sure that you can connect these answers to your larger Goal. This needs to be clear in your mind. Even if what you are doing is something that might not be incredible fulfilling, if it is connected to your larger goal, then you know your intention behind it.
Part of what needs to happen today is setting yourself up for success tomorrow. Even just taking a few minutes to start tomorrow’s work, will compound for you. It all adds up. Don’t skip this. 15 minutes a day is everything.
Part of this choosing to set yourself up for success tomorrow, means choosing to engage with your larger, long term goals.
For example, do I absolutely have to write music today? No. I will not die. Things will be fine.
But, if my goal is being a composer, then I actively chose to not walk towards that. And if I want to achieve my long term goal, then I do have to write today. It doesn’t mean that I need to write for 3 hours, but if I can do 30 minutes, or even 15. Honoring the choice is key.
As much as you can, find ways of connecting all of your activities to your larger goals:
I study and turn my assignments in on time BECAUSE I want to Graduate BECAUSE I want to move to LA and film stuff.
I joined my community’s Music Organization BECAUSE I want to have a Network of Musicians BECAUSE I want to be a Composer
I work as a Waiter BECAUSE I need to earn money to go a Music Festival BECAUSE I want become a Better Conductor
It will be much easier to be invested in what you are doing when you can understand how it connected to your larger, more fulfilling goals.
Try your best stack them. For example:
Let’s say you want to learn more about Electronic Music. You might view learning this new skill as being different than your previously established writing habit. Sure you have to learn whatever software you are using and that takes time. But you could easily combine them.
You could make your next composition project be an ELECTRONIC piece. For yourself to engage with the new thing that you are trying to learn. Or you could make several smaller pieces in a row that deal with some aspect of Electronic music.
Are you trying to learn orchestration? Structure your next piece as a way of dealing with some aspect of orchestration.
See what you can tie together.
When I said before that you need to have goals that are within your control, that are measurable, I did so intentionally, because rather than having you pick a great Goal, I’m trying to steer you towards building a great habit.
A good Goal is really a Great Habit in disguise.
Habits and Greater than Goals. It is about the minutes, not the hours. In James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, he talks about the idea that every day, you cast a vote for yourself. Are you the kind of person who writes every day? The only way you determine this is by actually writing every day. By voting every day.
Now does this mean that you have to be perfect? Definitely not. There are going to be days that you can’t do it all. This is okay. Because you will have spent time before, doing the work, making it happen.
And remember it is okay to have bumps in the road, to change your mind and to realign.
If you find yourself in doubt or questioning why you are doing something, go back to the beginning. Does this action align with my larger goal? If it doesn’t it will be worth checking in on either the goal or the action. Note, this does not have to be a bad thing. You will find that your larger goals will change, you will have different priorities. This is a good thing.
You may find yourself drawn away from writing music and more to just the production side of things. Or you may become interested in engraving and preparing parts. Or you may be drawn away from writing music in favor of teaching. Or conducting, or whatever.
Goals change. Directions change. Always be honest with yourself and what you want, not what others around you want for you.
So, to sum up, you want to take the time to write down your biggest goals and aspirations. Compile that list. These need to be things that you have control over. You have no control of winning the Pulitzer Prize, but you can chose to write music every day. You can’t control getting new commissions, but you can chose to overdeliver for your next project.
Now, go through and pick a small number of them to focus on. 5 or less. I can only do 2 or 3 at a time. (This could be graduating with your degree, being a composer, and learning how to conduct). Remember, those goals, those come first. When you start working on something that is outside of those priorities, you are taking away your focus from the important ones. This slows down the process.
As each day comes, you take care of what needs to be done today. You will take a little time do what is needed tomorrow. The rest of your active time is pursuit of your goals. Your goals ideally need to be habits, small measurable activities that you chose to do every day.
And that is it. Somedays, you will only be able to do what is soon, what is short term. Others you will have time to dive into those longer term goals. Ideally each day you choose to do the small but significant work of showing up each day for yourself, whether that is for 15 minutes or several hours. The minutes matter and they add up.
Now, each day, is going to be different. There may be some days you get to start with the things that you really like. Days I get to start with writing music are always great. But many days I have to start with school responsibilities. The same will be true for you.