AND QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD ASK YOURSELF
While I’m an amateur composer, and still learning constantly, I feel it would be good to share my advice. Music composition is an ever-changing field, and music itself is evolving over time and there are many online communities dedicated to certain niches of writing. Here is some advice, tips, and more importantly–questions you should ask yourself as a composer.
- What do you want to write, and why?
- Where do you see yourself and your future in music? As unrealistic as it may seem, think about your dream involving music.
- Who are musicians or composers who you respect, and why?
- What do you find to be moving or effective in music, and why?
- Do I need to learn a primary instrument? If I could learn any instrument, what would it be–and why?
Those are questions which may seem odd at first, but they are actually quite necessary to answer. I’ll do my best to answer these questions myself (as a way, perhaps, for you the reader to know me better!) but my answers shouldn’t be taken as what you should do, but what you can do.
For the first question (1), I think that terms like ‘dream’ and ‘passion’ may be seen as over-used or sappy. What is effective and beautiful to each of us as individuals varies from person to person, so I cannot speak for everyone–but if you find some music that moves you, and makes you want to know mere about it an experiment with it—then, excellent! You’ve been hooked. Almost all of us have a light-bulb moment when it comes to music—we hear something and it ignites something in us. If you’ve found your passion, let nothing get in the way of immersing yourself into it further and further.
For me, I’d hear Vivaldi or Bach on the radio growing up (my parents were very generous in keeping the radio always on the Classical station here in New England) and eventually it just found its way into my head. Thanks to the Internet and Youtube, I’d find videos and just listen as much as I could. I knew what I wanted to write—but of course, being as young as I was, I didn’t have the skills necessary to properly articulate or write the notes I had in my head. To this day, honestly, it’s still a struggle!
(1a) If you know what you love, stop at nothing to overflow your ears and brain with the music. Read books, scores, any form of literature either on the music or the composers. (1b) If you don’t want to involve yourself in something musical which you don’t enjoy, and you don’t have to do it, then don’t do it. Now, this advice is sometimes seen as ‘close-minded’ and you are ‘limiting yourself and your horizons.’ That notion is disagreeable to me. I only speak from personal experience, but in college when I was exposed to a lot of modern music, I didn’t enjoy it. Granted, I now can appreciate composers like Schoenberg, Pärt, Webern, and others–but frankly, most modern composition isn’t my cup of tea. As important as it is to identify what you love and why, it is also important to identify what you do not want to be involved in, and why. Writing something for a theory class so you can pass it is necessary, of course, but I understand what burnout is. Try not to get overwhelmed–but don’t be discouraged!
(2) Ah, the future. Here and gone before we know it. Admittedly, my dream was not to be Bach but be someone like Bach. I wanted to have a nice church position, accompany the choir, play great organs, get paid to perform, write music, and teach lessons. Now, obviously reality today is not the reality of the 1700’s. Many of you who are in college or entering college may have to support yourselves doing non-musical work just to pay the bills and get by. It’s draining, taxing, and frankly I didn’t have the best of times working retail to get myself through college–if you do, the excellent! If you don’t, then I completely understand.
It’s important to be patient with yourself and the world. (2a) Getting your music ‘out there’ is a difficult thing. Do you want your music noticed and performed? Published and recognized? I still have no clear answer for how this is done–obviously in some cases it depends on what style you’re writing. It took my years to feel like I was making a name for myself on Youtube because not many folks are interested in Baroque music.
*If you’re in college, try connecting with other musicians! Not only for social reasons but also musical reasons. I was shy in school and lost a lot of opportunities to get people to play my music (except for one occasion).
(2b) Don’t shove your music down the throats of others, take rejection personally, or ever tell other composers what they should be writing! If you want to see more music of your passion in the world, then involve yourself in communities (online or offline) within the style. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is what I think to be a very good mantra. Stand up for yourself without being haughty or too self-centered. But it’s also important to remember that in the world today, writing music and being recognized is 80% promotion and 20% creativity. If you’ve got the music written, upload it online! Youtube, Soundcloud, Sheet Music Plus, Facebook, and other sites are there to help you. But it’s also important to not be a walking, talking, living, breathing advertisement. I think most of us dislike ads.
Skipping ahead to point 5: Knowing an instrument will make your skills at composing music much better. Granted, there were famous composers who didn’t know how to play an instrument and still wrote music (Stavinsky, I think, was non-instrumentalist). However, seeing as my interest and passion is the Baroque era, I took into account that all or most composers played an instrument of some kind. Either you’ll write primarily for that instrument, or learn to write prolifically for other instruments. In today’s economy, if you have more than one skill (especially in music!) then you’ll have more opportunities to get you and your music out there in the real world. I’ve played piano, harpsichord, and pipe organ for a decade, and the music I’ve learned has helped me become a better composer, but also more importantly a better musician! How? By getting out of my comfort zone and playing hymns each Sunday, by accompanying a choir, by playing various weddings, funerals, and other such events. Am I the world’s best keyboardist? Absolutely not! It’s important too to admit your faults as well as your successes.
Perhaps my experience as a church musician has been incredibly fortunate (but also reflective of the past; some of the most noted Baroque composers worked for the church as organists, but frankly any kind of holy employment was a necessity in those days!) but most people, I find, are willing to listen to your music in public settings. Plus, if you play an instrument and want performance practice, try putting on benefit concerts or recitals! Include repertoire you’ve either written or studied.
Advice for points 3 and 4
What performers or composers do you enjoy–and why? Just like knowing music theory is important (spotty advice; it depends on your genre! Not everything relates to traditional classical theory, and classical theory does not relate to other genres) it’s important to watch other performers and composers. I find as an instrumentalist, watching other harpsichordists on Youtube gives me a greater passion to become a better performer. I admire greatly other composers who are alive and well who are involved in Baroque writing.
(4) While music is subjective, what is moving and emotional to us, and individuals, can be a rock-solid fact. What do you want to emulate and explore? Now–it’s important to never copy a composer’s work. You can quote and be inspired by, but never steal. I knew I wanted to write Baroque music because it affected me deeply (and still does!) on an emotional level and I knew it was what I wanted to dedicate my life to. Either performing or writing (or both, preferably!).
To paraphrase all of my advice, think of the following as steps:
1) Identify what you love in music, and why
2) Learn as much about it as possible, and don’t stop writing or experimenting!
3) Be patient with yourself; learning music is hard and requires a great deal of self-discipline, and discipline in general. You won’t be a master from the start, but it’s important to recognize this fact and never put too much pressure on yourself. Progression will come naturally, in time. But you do have to be diligent and strict with routine.
4) Know when to take a break for the sake of your mental health! Writing and playing music should be fun and not a chore–however a job is a job. If you have to perform music for a living, then it’s what you have to do. Work first, then play–but if you’re too burnt out to write music for your own enjoyment, then pushing yourself into stress isn’t a good idea. Be kind to yourself.
5) Never stop challenging yourself or trying to improve. Also, promote your music in the real world as much as you can, to whatever degree! Also, professionals are here to help you. Either they are professors in college or musicians who have a website, it never hurts to reach out and inquire for advice or critique.
6) Learn to be a role model, and learn to not only take critique, but also provide constructive criticism. Never resort to personal attacks or judgement. Try your best to teach others what you know of your craft–the best teachers don’t have all the answers but give you more questions. (Well…maybe that was a stupid statement–but there’s a general gist I’m trying to convey which is lost in the moment).
So, that’s all my experience and advice which I can offer to other composers! I hope this has been helpful for you to read.