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Composition Plus Networking = ?

April 4, 2013

From my friend and colleague, David Wolfson:
On Failure: or, how composing is like being under water.

My favorite bit: Composers, like other types of writers and like many performing musicians, tend to be people who are very comfortable alone in a room for long stretches of time, and possibly not as comfortable, say, approaching strangers at receptions. This has certainly been my experience. However, networking turns out to be the primary ingredient in getting all the way underwater to an actual career.

There are several schools of thought on how to get one’s music played. All begin, of course, with writing the best music one can. Then what? I often – perhaps too often – tell my students two things: 1) “It has only taken me about 35 years, but I’m becoming an overnight sensation,” and 2) “Put yourself into a situation to become lucky, and be prepared to back it up when you do.” Yeah, I talk too much sometimes.

What it comes down to though is simple to say and hard to do: 1) Have patience. Lots of patience. 2) No one, but no one, has ever had a compositional career without connecting with someone else. 3) Be prepared. And these axioms: 4) Try. You have nothing to lose, or, You never know. Maybe not in that order.

One thing I’ve learned right from the time I was an undergraduate is that your fellow music students of today could be your professional performing champions of your music tomorrow. Sure, when you’re just starting out you might not be writing the best music ever – yet – but so what? You gain experience learning from your friends about what really works for their instruments or voices, they gain experience performing something other than standard literature and, frankly, it’s fun to collaborate in this way. And no, you don’t have to be “best buds,” just know and respect each other. Any situation that puts you and other musicians together can be a starting ground for such camaraderie, but I’ve noticed that educational settings work really well. I can think of two colleagues who became friends and champions of my music right off the bat.

One is Laura Leon, a fabulous pianist whom I knew and highly respected when we were both undergrads, is one. We weren’t close friends then but were on each other’s radar. (I was intimidated by her musicianship then. I had a lot to learn about, well, everything.) Anyway, we got back in touch in the 1990s and ever since she has commissioned and performed and recorded just about everything I’ve written for piano. Another friend/champion is Keith Johnston. We met at the Conductors Institute, also in the 1990s, where I went to develop what skills I had/have after finishing my Ph.D. and to reconnect with the participatory aspects of music. (Hey, some folks go to Disney World to celebrate. I do this.) Keith has commissioned and conducted a slew of works over the years since, he has been instrumental (sorry about the pun) in getting me to write more for band. Last year he commissioned Nine Feet of Brass (A Concerto for Trombone and Band), for which I conducted his ensemble at Sacred Heart University and he was the soloist. (We’ve since done the work again with the combined Flint Community and Mott Community College bands in Flint, Michigan, thanks to the MCC band’s director, Mary Procopio; in May I’ll conduct trombonist John Rojak and Michael Breaux’s NYU Concert Band in the work.)

The step after writing music for friends is, well, writing music for strangers. Getting to those strangers seems to be an insurmountable task but doesn’t have to be one. It requires what author Jerzy Kosinski called “Being There,” or the comment attributed to Woody Allen, “Half of success is showing up.” You don’t have to go chasing musicians down the hallways to get them to consider your music — not all the time, anyway — but you can put yourself into social situations where you meet “on neutral territory” with a possibility to be explored. But — and this part is important — be prepared for whatever comes next.

Huh?, you ask? How can I be prepared for “whatever comes next” when I don’t know what comes next? Good question. There are no simple answers, though. But you can have some ideas and physical items at the ready.

  • Business Cards: Seriously? In today’s world, with iPads, iPods, smartphones, and who knows what, you’re talking business cards? Yes, I am. They’re physical items that people tend to remember more than inputing information on an electronic device; they’re simple cardboard with printing, and if they have the right basic information they can be useful. And they’re cheap  to make or have made too. Name, what you do, contact information (telephone number, e-mail address, optionally a physical address), URL (or URLs) — that’s all you need. My most recent batch also has my picture on it, because I think it helps people remember who handed them the card and why, but that’s my way of thinking. Plus, you can write on it whatever you need them to specifically remember.
  • Scores and/or Recordings: I do not recommend having scores and recordings on hand for all situations, as I’ve learned the hard way that it smacks of desperation and unprofessionalism. But there are times when you need to have something on hand. Case in point: Back in 2002 I attended the Midwest Clinic on behalf of the publisher LudwigMasters, which was publishing some of my arrangements for orchestra. There I met Don Keller, then LCDR Keller, who was leading the U.S. Naval Academy Band. We got to talking and he mentioned his ensemble was celebrating its 150th anniversary. Knowing I was a composer he asked if I had anything to look at or listen to, to give him an idea of what I could do. At that time I only written two things for band, both were at the grade 2 level and over 10 years old, and I didn’t have either score or recordings of those pieces with me. But I did, luckily enough — or, rather, prepared enough — to have a score and a recording of my Violin Concerto, which had just been premiered two months earlier in Dresden. (That’s another story but similar in some ways.) So I handed him the score and a CD player with the performance cued up, suggested he listen to only a minute or two of each of the three movements, and that I would send him a complete package once I got back home. Short version: He listened to the whole thing, then invited me and my wife to come down to Annapolis to meet the band. The result was Symphony for Band (“Academy”), which the ensemble premiered a year later.
  • Ideas to Keep in Mind: 1. Be honest. If you’ve never written for a particular instrument or type of ensemble say so up front, but also make sure the person with whom you’re discussing this knows what you have written for similar situations, and that you are happy to do the necessary research to get it right. 2. Don’t be a pompous jackass, but don’t be overly shy or noticeably insecure either. In other words, be (or at least act) confident. There’s an old axiom that says that nothing is more attractive than self-confidence. I’ll amend that to say be self-confident in that you know you are a good composer, and given the chance you are willing to prove it. 3. Don’t make it about money, even when it is about money. Money should usually not be focused on at a first meeting; discussions should revolve around what music is needed, who is going to play, why (an event?), and when. The financial aspects should be discussed in the next round of discussions. If you have an extraordinary reputation and can command a particular fee, that’s fine, mention it all you want — and if you have that sort of reputation, I doubt you’re reading this anyway (grin) — otherwise, be prepared to say things like “I’m sure we can work something out,” “There are resources to look into for commissions,” and “Let’s talk about this some more at another time, and then you can let me know what your budget is like.”

You never know is a wonderful catch-all concept. You never know what will happen if you start talking with that famous flutist. You never know what happens when you get a particularly nice performance of one of the best pieces you ever wrote — who was that in the audience? And you certainly never know when a musician you already know talks you up to another musician who could be interested in your work. Stop doing the “facepalm” slap after the fact and just do it. And have a business card handy. Because, well,  you never know.

And what about patience? Well, you got this far down the page, so I guess you’re okay on that aspect, but I should still make one point: Be prepared to hear “no” a lot. Remember that 99.9% of the time it’s no reflection on you or your compositional abilities. And that other 0.1% is probably based on the other person’s incorrect set of assumptions.

One Comment
  1. Great article! Thanks for posting.

    Something I’ve had several years to learn/internalize: networking starts at home. As a talk show host said while discussing a different subject: “start with your own family, and work outwards.” Where in your home town (or childhood home town) can you promote your/new music? Is there a musician among your family or friends that you can write for? I have received plenty of performances writing for my organist mother’s church (twenty minutes away from my childhood home town), as well as for a very talented soprano who happens to be a family friend.

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