A Composer's Adventures

Composing as a Living


Tom Hulce plays Mozart in the classic Milos Forman film, “Amadeus.”

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.

Michael Colgrass


  1. Thank you Michael – This is such a massive subject I wouldn’t know where to start…

    I don’t have a degree but certainly did benefit from the equivalent of 2 years of undergrad study at Berklee music school in Boston as a kid. (it was not a degree institution when I went there). At that time if you graduated you were considered weird – a teacher only – an egghead. If you were any good you got picked up by a big band of the day after a time – Buddy Rich, Woody Herman or Maynard Ferguson for example.

    I have been beat out on composing gigs by musicians who had no musical training whatsoever and I have admired their music. My favorite jazz composers and arrangers Duke Ellington and Gil Evans were self-taught. On the other hand I have seen how some have benefited by advanced degrees – it’s hard to know though how well these degree-bearing composers would have written without the training… I have traveled a lot and have heard amazing musicians in out of the way places and heard gems of music that have only been performed in kitchens.

    It seems that writing great music is not enough – it must be presented to people and a certain amount of confidence, persistence, ambition and social acumen is required to get it ‘out there’ – and thereby ‘make money’.

    I teach part-time these days under many degree-bearing colleagues. Some have got degrees only to ensure their tenure – they were already great musicians. Some have just got degrees, are good players and pedagogues – hard to generalize.

    To make money it seems that you have to have to appeal to the largest common denominator and unfortunately for many of us our tastes just don’t jive with what is popular. This is a particular problem for those of us who are explorers. The ‘public at large’ is not known to be adventurous.

    There is also the entertainment factor. There are musicians, groups or compositions that have a kind of verve that tickles folks – sometimes bizarre, corny or virtuosic (flashy). Those of us who have little interest in these qualities are at a disadvantage it seems.

    I am aware of this phenomenon in jazz, which has become rather incestuous; jazz has lost a lot of it’s appeal because jazz musicians are often more interested in impressing each other than playing for their audience.

    I admire your dedication to your ethos (your own muse) Michael. That and your music are an inspiration to many.

    • Bruce: Your remarks are perceptive and also reflect much experience in the professional field, and show the commonality on this subject between jazz and classical music. Thanks for your added insights drawn from direct experience on the battlefield of music.

  2. If you have any talent in composing at all, you should be able to land at a pretty good school for a doctoral degree that will give you a fellowship – which means you wouldn’t take out loans for the doctoral degree, and probably also the Master’s if you play your cards correctly. There aren’t even the hangups about styles of composing anymore. The kind of people who would go to Indiana or Michigan are very different then the composers who would go to Harvard or U-Chicago.

    5 years of being around great performers, teachers, and being able to think about, write, and be around a lot of music while living an OK life as a student is something I would never trade. Who wants a fancy car when you can write concert music!

    However, I would never recommend to anyone to take out major loans for a graduate degree in composing. If you can’t widdle your way into a fellowship, find a long lost family member or friend and live in their basement for cheap and crank out and send out as much music as you can… try again next year, and the year after, or find an alternate route which doesn’t involve being a low-paid professor just so you have health insurance.

  3. Dallas—What you say is true, but I found it more valuable as a composer to go to New York and study privately with the best teacher I could find. That was Ben Weber. Ben taught out of his apartment and made his living as a copyist and private teacher. He was very inspiring to me and demonstrated how a composer might live without the university. I felt free with Ben to write the way that was most natural for me. He had no ax to grind, though he had been writing 12-tone music for over twenty-five years already then in 1958. I learned from him how atonality can be stretched to fit any composer’s temperament. I’m glad about my decision to avoid further university education. I respect universities and their faculty and enjoy visiting them, but my creative part gets restless being in that atmosphere too long.

  4. One key point I didn’t make in the blog about composing for a living and making a professional life as a composer, is the choice one makes for a lifemate. Vital here is that you share the same values so strongly that even when the chips are down you don’t lose sight of what has become a common life goal. I made the right decision and waited to find the right person. I thought I might never get married or hook up with a mate, that it would complicate things too much, but I found in my wife, Ulla, someone who actually made life easier—both creative life and life in general. Two minds and four eyes working on the same issues is a much richer and more fruitful experience than going it alone. And I’m not talking about the benefits of two incomes (In fact, my wife’s primary interest and passion is community service), but rather the expanded insight and strong moral support of a good mate.

  5. It’s great to have someone of your stature tell it like it is, namely that the enterprise of creating contemporary music for the most gifted and disciplined musicians to perform is a cultural experience that does is not necessarily relate to teaching and academia. I pursued a D.M.A. because I wanted to continue composing music in a encouraging environment of musicians, Yes, I expected to land a teaching job, but outside composing opportunities always kept from the positions that always seemed to be somewhere else. I ended up surviving by running a business (think: Charles Ives) and by living an intentional life style that is more financially sustainable. Now, with technology so accessible and social networking expanding our lives, I expect that young composers can invent their own paths.

  6. William—Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Yes I agree that the opportunities for composers to create their own paths are greater today than ever before and that’s definitely what I would recommend a young composer today think about doing. Seek the resources inside yourself and I think you will find that there are many you might not have been aware of. The key thing is to answer for yourself what you really want. Do you truly want to create fresh music or are you, down deep, really more interested in pleasing someone else, or maybe becoming recognized as a member of an honorable list of great composers going back in history? As a young man struggling in New York to make a living freelancing while trying to develop as a composer, I was inspired by words from the second Harvard nonlecture (among six) given by e e cummings: “The very thought of being oneself in an epoch of interchangeable selves must appear supremely ridiculous. Find and dandy: but, so far as I’m concerned poetry and every other art was and is and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality. If poetry were anything—like dropping an atom bomb—which anyone did, anyone could become a poet merely by doing the necessary anything; whatever that anything might or might not entail. But (as it happens) poetry is being, not doing. If you wish to follow, even at a distance, the poet’s calling (and here, as always, I speak from my own totally biased and entirely personal point of view) you’ve got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being. I’m quite aware that, wherever our so-called civilization has slithered, there’s every reward and no punishment for unbeing. But if poetry is your goal you’ve got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about selfstyled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it’s you—nobody else—who determine your destiny and decide your fate. Nobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anybody else. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, but none of them can ever be you. There’s the artist’s responsibility: and the most awful responsibility on earth. If you can take it take it—and be. If you can’t, cheer up and go about other people’s business; and do (or undo) till you drop.” (Published by Athenuem New York, 1962.)
    I was so heartened to read the words of someone who understood what I was going through, and those thoughts became my credo for years to come. And they still are. If you can find the recording of cummings actually speaking those words in that Harvard lecture (he calls it a non lecture because he said that to lecture one must know, and that he wasn’t concerned about knowing only feeling) you will hear how deeply those words mattered to him—a beautiful oration.
    So, hold heart, and keep going William. It sounds to me like you’re on the right track.

  7. Dear Michael,

    Thank you so much for your blog posts. This comes as a much needed insight into not just how this world works, but how one such as yourself might choose to orientate himself in relation to it. In your reply to Williams comment, I like especially the way you remind me that the way that world is expressed (people striving for D.M.A’s, teaching positions, or others who do nothing of the sort!) comes down to human values, and in that sense there is a necessity to consider who you are before retrofitting yourself to a predetermined perception of the creative world.

    Thank you very much!

  8. Bryan,

    finally, it all comes down to knowing what you want and what it would take to get it.
    I went to New York City as a young man in 1956 and knew that I wanted mainly to compose and that I would pay the bills by freelancng as a percussionist. To me, my only needs were a roof, a bed, a fridge with food and a piano and work table. I had no other material desires. I didn’t drive a car, need nice clothes or other things, and avoided wanting things I couldn’t afford. I never borrowed money and always stayed free of debt. I just composed at every spare moment and did my best to wangle a commission where I could. In 1967 I decided to study all the other performing arts and soon thereafter learned NLP (Neuro linguistic programming) a learning technology I soon became a trainer of. Gradually I stopped playing and made extra money giving workshops in all the performing arts as well as NLP. I avoided taking a university teaching job; I believe in universities but just don’t want to live or work in one–my creative part gets restless in that environment. I didn’t avoid it, I just went for something different. In 1966 I married a woman who believed in what I wanted to do and thought composing was very important. Gradually, I got more and more commissions and found myself making a living at it.
    I wouldn’t tell anyone what to do, only what I wanted and did. I am a happy person and have now the life I want, artistically and personally.

  9. That a very inspiring story Michael! And I hear what your saying about the University environment – I graduated last year from a conservatoire in London last year and feel the same way when I imagine what working there would be like, there is something a little stifling about the atmosphere. Thank you for sharing your thoughts – may I ask you some specific questions? I’m current doing a bout of research into various music fields and would love to grab this opportunity to hear your insights and wisdom (in addition to the really great stuff you’ve already shared!)
    My questions are:
    1 – What do you like most about your work?
    2 – What do you like least?
    3 – What was your training and background that prepared you to work professionally in this field?
    4 – Knowing what you know now, how would you have approached this field differently?
    5 – What course of action would you recommend for someone who wanted to get into this field? (you mentioned composers creating their own paths these days – is that mainly a result of social media and internet?)
    6 – What talents or skills are most important for this work?
    7 – What do you see as the future of this kind of work? Is it really on an endless spiral downwards in terms of public interest? (as so many tabloids say)
    8 – What is your typical working day like in this career?
    9 – What are you work hours? What were they like when you were starting out? Would that be different now?
    10 – How is the game played in this field – how do you get ‘to the top’?
    11 – Do you feel you must be located in one area, or is one in this field free to move about (countries, states, cities) as he likes? (I’m thinking of the need to preserve networks).

    I hope its not too much to ask, but I would be so grateful for such important answers to questions I am very curious about.

    Thank you! Best wishes

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