A Letter To Aspiring Composers

J.D. Frizzellcomposition Leave a Comment

Dear Aspiring Composer,

You want your music to be heard, to be performed, to be appreciated, and to be acknowledged.  You hope that some day your compositions will be played by professional ensembles and performers all over the world.  But for now, all you really want is some constructive and helpful insight– and someone who will give your piece(s) a performance.

I get it.  I’ve been there– the frustration, the confusion, and the lack of direction.  Being a young composer is tough.  While there are a number of ways one can learn the craft of composing, there are no manuals on how to build your compositional brand.

I write to you to dispell five common myths young composers seem to consistently have.

#1.  I Have To Be Published.
More than anything else I’m asked by young composers is “How do I get ‘Piece XYZ’ published”?  Piece XYZ is usually something like:

  • An 8-part a cappella choral piece with extensive ranges and collegiate-level vocal demands.
  • A concerto for harpsichord, soprano saxophone, euphonium, and orchestra.
  • A full-length orchestral work with soloists and narrator.

You get the idea.  I may be slightly exaggerating, but not much.

When you are a young composer, you can’t be focused on getting published.   Period.  At all.  In my experience, publishing happens naturally as one continues to hone their craft, expand their collection of works, facilitate many quality performances, and expand their professional network.

Publishers all have niches– very carefully carved-out market segments establishing their voice as a brand.  If you really want to be published, study their catalogs and see what has been recently released.   Honestly ask yourself if your particular piece would fit in perfectly with those works.

Publishers do serve a variety of very important roles, including marketing, engraving, printing, and distributing your work.  One day, they may partner with you in a mutually beneficial way by publishing things you write.

In the meantime, consider self-publishing.  Just because something is not profitable enough  to be worth a publisher’s time doesn’t make it worthless.  There may be a market for your marimba sonata, it just might not be big enough to be financially viable for a publisher.  There are a variety of self-publishing options out there, but of course I am inclined towards CadenzaOne.

#2.  I Have To Write For A Marketable Instrument or Ensemble.
Of course things like mixed choir with piano, grade 2 concert band, grade 1 strings, big note piano, and solo flute are all large markets in the sheet music industry.  However, that doesn’t mean you have to start by writing for them.

Instead, write for performers you know.  It doesn’t matter what the instrumentation is.  Talk to them in advance, asking them if they would be willing to play a piece should you write it for them.  Here are some guidelines:

  • Keep the piece short and playable.
  • Be sure you have watched the musicians closely, ensuring that what you write is well within their ability.
  • Write idiomatically.  This isn’t the time to test some new extended technique you invented in the practice room (yet..there will be a time for that later).
  • Study the instruments.  Writing outside of a range, slurring stringed instrument parts (if you’re intending to play legato, not intending the string players to play the passage on a single bow stroke), not notating any articulation, constructing unrealistic passages– these are all mistakes that will erode any confidence these musicians may have had in you.

#3.  I Have To Show Everything I Can Do I One Piece.
Probably the most common problem I see in early works.  I had the same issue when I was young.  My first choral piece was an arrangement of the gospel piece “Oh Happy Day”, in which I employed every rhythmic, harmonic, and textural technique I knew.  It was a lot of fun to write at the time, but utterly ridiculous looking back on it.

Rather than do this sort of compositional vomiting, I encourage you to stick to one or two main compositional ideas or goals.  Every note, every gesture, every theme, and every motive should have purpose.  As Igor Stravinsky said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”

Remember you are creating art, not trying to prove yourself in one swift moment of compositional grandeur.

 #4.  I Can’t Change This Piece, It Is Already Done.
Programs like Finale and Sibelius are incredibly useful tools for us, but they can also be a crutch. By seeing our pieces so quickly and attractively engraved, we too quickly consider them to be finalized.

Remember that as a composer whose craft is developing with every note, you are bound to make mistakes.  Learn from them and use them to move forward.

#5.  My Compositional Style Is Already Set.
We all have our own unique compositional voice, and yet so many of us get caught in ruts, unable to muster fresh, new ideas.  This last misconception is one that even experienced composers can have.

How do we avoid this trap?

  • Listen to new music, all the time.  By constantly stretching our ear, we are subconsciously expanding our creative palates.
  • Listen to music you don’t like.  One of the worst ways to remain creatively stagnant is by feeding your brain with ear candy–things that simply reinforce what you already know and enjoy.  Sometimes you will find a technique by a composer you don’t love that is exactly what you were missing in one of your own works.   In college, I experienced this with a 20th century composer that I will leave unnamed and metric modulation.
  • Listen to music that is not an instrument you play.  So often, pianists listen to just piano muisc.  Choir conductors choral music.  Jazzers jazz.  You get the point.  Hearing music with different timbres, textures, and nuances can inspire you to new limits in your own writing and ensembles.

Experienced composers out there– what else do you see aspiring composers do?  What advice would you give them?  And if you are a budding composer looking to grow, what advice can we give you?

About the Author

J.D. Frizzell

Dr. J.D. Frizzell is an award-winning educator, director, composer, arranger, author, and entrepreneur. He is the Director of Fine Arts at Briarcrest Christian School in suburban Memphis, TN. Winner of the Integrales Composition Contest, Dr. Frizzell has best selling works with dozens of publishing companies. His vocal ensembles have performed at state, regional, and national conferences and have collaborated with numerous GRAMMY winning artists.