Oregon Bach Festival Symposium: Composing a Career

Composers Symposium panel offers career advice


“In the past several weeks since my college graduation, I have become progressively more “lost” (for lack of a better term). Many of the hopes and dreams I had prior to completing my undergrad education have slowly diminished, and I feel as though I am at the point where I have no idea what my dreams are anymore.

I’ve been composing less and less — I haven’t touched my manuscripts or opened up Finale in close to a week now. Not because I don’t have the time, but because I feel no motivation to work on the craft for which I earned a bachelor’s degree.”

Career Development Panel with L-R FearNoMusic members Nancy Ives and Paloma Griffin Hebert, Duo Damiana (Dietter Hennings and Molly Barth), and Dr. Robert Kyr, panel moderator. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Career Development Panel with L-R FearNoMusic members Nancy Ives and Paloma Griffin Hebert, Duo Damiana (Dietter Hennings and Molly Barth), and Dr. Robert Kyr, panel moderator. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

College graduation is a time of transition, which isn’t always easy, especially for those majoring in the arts. Having just left the nurturing environment schools provide, many graduates find themselves unsure about the future. This apprehension was well expressed in a recent Facebook posting, quoted above, by a music composition graduate and used here by permission of the author.

Trying to answer the question, what to do after graduation, was the task of a recent career development seminar at the 2014 Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium at the University of Oregon in Eugene. A panel, including cellist Nancy Ives and violinist Paloma Griffin Hebert of Portland’s FearNoMusic, Duo Damiana members guitarist Dieter Hennings and flutist Molly Barth, and symposium director Robert Kyr, who heads the University of Oregon’s music composition program, shared their own transitional experiences to provide insight into this process.
A career totally focused on composing new classical music is something that few achieve. Kyr himself, for example, is one of the most prolific American composers of his generation and yet his full-time work revolves around academic administration and teaching.

Many renowned composers held day jobs at various stages of their careers: J.S. Bach, church organist and teacher (including teaching Latin); Tchaikovsky, a Russian civil servant in the Ministry of Justice; John Cage, once a graphic artist/stylist for Jack Lenor textiles; Virgil Thomson, chief music critic for the New York Herald Tribune; Charles Ives, life insurance executive; Philip Glass, part-time plumber and taxi driver. Portland native Lou Harrison wrote some of his greatest music while employed as an animal nurse, clipping poodles by day and composing at night. Day jobs, either allied with music composition or outside the field have been, and will continue to be, the norm for most graduates.

Broadening Skills, Expanding Options

Kyr encouraged symposium participants to pursue a wide range of experiences by extending learning beyond degree requirements inside and outside of music so as to broaden one’s skills and knowledge. Working in internships, organizing concerts, composing or arranging for local theater groups, performing as a soloist or ensemble musician, and other activities can enrich a recent graduate’s profile. Kyr noted that his own journey allowed him to explore film writing, directing, editing, and sound design in addition to his composing.

He also suggested that trained composers/performers have a variety of career paths available that combine composition with an allied area within music such as performing, arranging, conducting, or working as a music director, music educator, sound engineer, music producer, sound designer, or music copyist, to name a few. Specialized fields of composition such as music for media advertising, film, television, and increasingly interactive media and game design offer other opportunities. A participant noted that writing for niche markets such as  band music or music for children, shouldn’t be overlooked.

Members of this year's Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium. Photo: OBFCS.

Members of this year’s Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium. Photo: OBFCS.

Other panel members noted that their and other professional lives in music have often required taking jobs outside their field of study to make their music possible, including arts administration, communications, and technology. Working at an alternative job to pay bills while composing may be the norm for many composers today and that is not necessarily a bad situation. In a related interview, Andrew Stiefel, director of the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (ECCE), noted how colleagues had found well-paying technology employment opportunities that have allowed them to set aside 10 percent of their income to develop music projects, such as concerts, recordings, or other endeavors. With enough savings, a nascent composer could consider taking a self-supported year and dedicate that time to a specific undertaking.

Stiefel added that musicianship skills are transferable to a variety of non-music related jobs. Musicians are self-motivated and put in long rehearsal hours each day. They are problem solvers given the tasks of orchestration, arranging, or organizing events and performances; they are detail-oriented when it comes to composing, or organizing and staging concerts that requires keeping everyone on task and schedule.

Many music students develop effective communication skills and are able to write and develop promotional materials, and even produce audio and video content for Internet and other distribution systems. These organizational, communication, management, and problem solving skills are important to employers. Stiefel suggests that recent graduates match their musical skills with those required skill sets listed in non-music job announcements.

Cultivating Collaboration

Panel members urged composers to be prepared for opportunities that might arise through networking and collaboration, describing how they sought out others with whom to develop projects, or shared music with groups for little or no compensation so that it could be performed, heard, and known. They also encouraged cross-cultural and multi-community involvement such as coordinating events in two or more cities to attract audiences to new music.

The idea of forming an ensemble to promote their music and that of others is appealing to young composers. When asked by Dr. Kyr how many in the seminar hoped to have formed such a group within five years, more than half raised their hands. But when Paloma Griffin Hebert asked how many would be interested in the required administrative duties an ensemble requires, only a few hands were raised.

New music ensembles come and go just as garage bands form and dissipate. The ensemble that achieves an extended lifetime (like FearNoMusic, which like its Portland counterpart Third Angle New Music has flourished for more than two decades) frequently takes years to nurture, manage, and promote before it is successful enough to have a full tour schedule, or to win a Grammy Award such as eighth blackbird  or, more recently, Roomful of Teeth.

But the appealing idea of coming together to share new music locally and between communities, if done well, may lead to commissions and other opportunities that will supplement a composer’s income. And according to Kyr, it also helps create public awareness of new music and changes our culture in the process.

Will the “hopes and dreams” of the young composer quoted above be realized? It is too early after his graduation to answer that question. As the symposium panelists noted, this is a time of transition in which skills are evaluated, further study considered, networking and collaboration initiated, and an evolving career begins. Being open to, and pursuing new opportunities with symposium colleagues and others will lead to a lifetime in music.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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