Composing as a Living
People have often asked me how I’ve managed to make a living writing modern classical music. I’ve never had a permanent teaching or playing job or worked for any one business. My preference has always been to freelance and hope for the best. That has worked okay and suits my temperament, but I know it’s not for everyone.
This question of making a living is often vexing for composers. How did John Cage, Lou Harrison and Stephan Wolpe get by? They often had part-time teaching jobs at places like the Third Street Settlement in New York or other smaller schools, and even worked as museum guards or waiters in restaurants. It was only in the 1950s that universities began offering lucrative and tenured positions for composers. Many top soloists also settled into well-paying teaching jobs. Today academia looms large in composers’ and musicians’ long-term career planning.
I feel ambivalent about this development. On the positive side, universities offer financial security for composers for the first time since the courts of Europe employed and commissioned composers on a permanent basis. The downside is that composers are now expected to get a DMA to teach. I respect higher learning, but a doctorate is not necessary to write music – or even to teach music. The DMA is the prerequisite to even compete for the scarce jobs in universities. Even part-time teaching for a composer usually requires top university credentials.
The person’s actual qualifications as a teacher or composer are often of less concern. Technically, Stravinsky and Picasso would not be qualified to hold positions on our university faculties, or even in our high schools. As an artist, I think a Masters degree can give sufficient knowledge for those whose primary wish is to compose. They gain little creatively or intellectually from two or three more years of academic study. The huge number of composers getting their DMA in the hope of getting a steady teaching job creates a dilemma with the job openings steadily dwindling.
So what is a composer to do? Given that we create music that did not exist before and live by our wits and creativity, I see that as a great advantage. We are really inventors, and we would not have chosen composing if we didn’t have some daring and entrepreneurship in our makeup. These character traits can spark other creative work projects that may relate to music somehow — or may go in new directions. I have found great inspiration in studying other performing arts, applying NLP (neuro linguistic programming) to performers, teaching children to create their own music, and expanding my creativity to writing. All along, composing has been my “home base.”
In my own life, a modest lifestyle has enabled me to compose and create. My wife jokes about my “decomposing clothes.” Being urbanites, we never had a car, but at this stage in life we buy tickets for everything we want to experience — and that is a truckload of art and excitement.