Sustainable Composing

A premiere at each National ACDA conference. Five new publications out each season. A hit piece that every choir in the country programs, seemingly all at once.

This is the kind of fame that defines having “made it” as a choral composer: our name on every conductor’s mind, our music on every concert. Ever since I started pursuing a career in composition over a decade ago, I’ve been pushing for this kind of success to happen as quickly as possible. I’ve been e-mailing perusal scores to every conductor whose e-mail address I could find; I’ve been applying to every call for scores for which my music was even remotely eligible.

Though my career grew slowly, but steadily — a few more commissions and performances and score sales each season — I constantly berated myself for not having “made it” yet as a composer. I wasn’t supporting myself full-time, and my music wasn’t being programmed at every — or, for a long time, at any — ACDA convention. I had yet to have any one score sell more than 200 copies. Constantly pushing, pushing, pushing for success was proving to be completely exhausting and endlessly frustrating.

A little over a year ago, though, a discussion about choral fame and success with composer-conductor Eric Banks changed my entire approach to my career. Eric’s perspective on fame? “Climb that ladder as slowly as possible.”

I’ve mulled over these words this past year, and they continue to resonate. These words call for a career grown deliberately and sustainably: a career approached not as a rapidly ascending line, no shooting star, but as something built steadily over time. Something tangible; something substantial. Something with really deep roots.

Lately, rather than gunning as fast as I can for success in all things, I’ve been consciously nudging the areas of my career that matter most. I’m still actively promoting pieces, yes, but the process is more specific, less scattershot. Before I accept a commission, I’m asking myself whether it feels like a gut-reaction yes, whether the timing is right, and whether I’m the best composer to write this piece for this ensemble. Instead of trying to compose the perfect “opener” or “closer,” I’m aiming instead for a catalogue of strong work behind me. It’s not up to me to decide which pieces make for a great opening to a concert, anyway; it’s the job of each conductor who decides to program my work.

The kind of success I now aspire to hinges on relationships rather than score sales, on cultivating connections with conductors whose musical mission aligns with my own. In striving to cultivate relationships rather than pushing, pushing, pushing for quick success, I’m asking myself before I promote a piece: Why should anyone care about that piece in the first place? Does it match that conductor’s aesthetic? Is it a good fit for an upcoming program?

I’m not saying composers shouldn’t push to get our music into the world; we should. But maybe the way most of us go about it is wrong. Maybe it’s wrong to view the flash-in-the-pan accomplishment of having a “hit piece” as the best measure of success. Maybe the business of being a musician isn’t a race to the top as quickly as possible, but a longer quest to find the people who are our people, the ones with whom we’ll collaborate to bring new music into the world.

In building a life-long, lasting career, there is no rush. This is the beauty of climbing the ladder slowly: suddenly, whether or not I have a hit piece this year doesn’t matter. My goal is no longer to get to the top as fast as I can. If I’m aiming to build a sustainable career in composition — and I am — then my job is simply to compose the best music I can while cultivating relationships with those I respect and admire. If I continue to make choices with that in mind, the rest of my career will evolve organically. The roots are already there.

.  .  .  .  .

Originally published in ACDA’s Cantate Magazine, Vol 28, No. 1, Winter 2016.