How College Prepared Me to be a Professional Composer

 

I am a professional composer. That’s what I do for a living. I have published works; my music is performed around the world, and has even been featured on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Several people have asked me about the requirements I had to meet for music composition in college that prepared me for my career. Literally the week after I graduated I received the first phone call asking to publish my works. Before college I had a great sense of melody, harmony, orchestration, and rhythm but my music lacked maturity. So here are the requirements my music professor set for his composition students to prepare them for a life in music.   

Requirements for each semester:  

  1. Complete 4 compositions.
  2. Have 2 public performances from 2 different works.
  3. Keep a contemporary listening log with a minimum of 10 compositions not previously heard.
  4. 30 minute private lesson once a week with the professor.
  5. Attend composition seminar for an hour every Friday which gives you the chance to work with other student composers and talk with professional composers.
  6. For your senior year, you must organize a complete hour long senior recital featuring a selection of your compositions.

 

Works to compose in this order from freshman year to senior year:

  1. Compose a hymn for SATB with proper voice leading and chord progressions.
  2. Compose a solo piano work and be able to explain how your work has a beginning, middle, and end.
  3. Compose a work using one of the church modes (Instrumentation that I chose: TTBB and Strings.)
  4. Compose a work for solo instrument using set-theory (Flugelhorn.)
  5. Compose a song for solo voice and accompaniment. Make sure the words are from a poem that is public domain (Soprano, Piano, and Cello. Words that I used were William Blake’s “The Garden of Love.”)
  6. Compose a song for solo voice and small ensemble. Make sure the words are from a poem that is public domain (Tenor, Celesta, Vibraphone, Marimba 1, Marimba 2, and cello. Words that I used were Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.”)
  7.  Compose a work using a twelve-tone technique (3 trumpets.)
  8. Compose a work for a small ensemble of percussionists using a duration series of rhythmic patterns (3 percussionists and a duration series of 4, 1, 2, and 3.)
  9. Compose a work for small ensemble using set-theory (Violin, Clarinet, Bassoon, Tuba, Congas, and Claves.)
  10. Compose a work for large percussion ensemble.
  11. Compose a groove piece for large percussion ensemble.
  12. Compose a work using an original contemporary technique (Violin and Cello using fully diminished 7ths as my original technique that I came up with.)
  13. Compose a work for full band.
  14. Composer or arrange a work for marching band.
  15. Compose a work which the harmony modulates every measure (Harpsichord.)
  16. Compose a work with your own synthetic scale (Piano.)
  17. Compose a work for full orchestra.
  18. Compose a work for large brass ensemble.
  19. Compose a work for programmed music that tells a story (Strings, Piano, and Gong.)
  20. Compose a work for choir using a foreign language (SSAATB using Spanish.)
  21. Compose a work for electronic music.
  22. Compose an exotic work (String Quartet using Celtic style.)
  23. Compose a work for found objects.
  24. Compose the score for a movie scene that is public domain.
  25. Compose a large scaled work longer than 30 minutes (Requiem for Orchestra, Organ, Piano, and SATB.)

 

 If anyone has any questions I will be more than happy to answer. I know many people are now against formal training in music composition, but college gave me many opportunities to hear my music performed live, form professional relationships with musicians, organize concerts working with musicians and studio producers, meet professional composers and publishers, and a chance for my music to grow and mature.  

~Rodney

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Replies

  • These look like great assignments, and are far more extensive than those I had in college, although there are some similarities. I don't feel that my education gave me the skills to become a professional composer, but gave me an in-depth overview/introduction. I do have a few questions:

    Did your school have a graduate program; where did your musicians come from; was your school a private or public college/university?

    How was your first publisher made aware of your works?

    Was there any instruction on making contacts with publishers?

  • I went to a public school called Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina where they offer both Bachelor’s and Master’s programs in music composition, and my professor was Dr. Scott Meister who told it like it was. If you got a compliment from this guy you knew that you deserved it. The musicians who played my music during college were the professors, their top performance majors, and visiting professionals performing various seminars for our school. I became really close with the professors by composing and arranging music for them and their personal ensembles and choirs. They would also ask me to rehearse their groups and conduct them in concerts as well. I received these opportunities because I forced my introverted self to become a people person and learned the art of lifting people up.

    If I wanted someone to play my music I would not do it this way, “Hey… um, my name is Rodney, and my friend told me about you… and I got this work that, it’s ok and stuff, but do you think you can just look at it, and um… maybe play it, or not. It’s up to you… sorry to bother you.” No I would do it this way, “I am going to compose a work just for you. It will be about innocence, suffering, redemption, and exaltation, and I feel that only your voice can give the music the life it needs to come alive. The concert will be the 3rd Sunday of May at 2:00 pm. Do you have that date and time opened?” By using this method I had the musicians coming to me, and I had others get upset at me when I did not choose them.     

    My first publisher became aware of my works because I first became aware of them. I write classical music so I am looking for a publisher who publishes classical music and has the resources to publicize the works. You have to know what each individual publishing company specializes in. For example, I am not going to send a vocal work to Arranger’s Publishing Company who specializes in marching band and concert band works. I will find another who looks for contemporary classical choral works. Also with publishers you have to write for ensembles that sell. For example, it is more marketable for a work for SATB with piano than a work for tenor with percussion and baritone saxophone accompaniment. In the game of publishing, bands want new works, orchestras love the old, and choral ensembles are in-between. That’s why I have three different, almost four now, publishers for different types of works.  

    So here’s the instruction on making contact with a new publisher:

    1. Compose a great work that you love and it’s also playable and marketable.
    2. Look for a publisher on the internet that publishes music that fits you. Also I am picky. I will not even consider a publisher who does not make a professional recording of my work for advertising. Musicians purchase new music that they can hear, not just sees a score sample.   
    3. Have the piece performed and recorded. To quote a publisher on their website, “If your work has not been perform yet, it’s probably not ready for publishing.” There are many opportunities for live performances of your works throughout the communities. Some of the most passionate performances and recordings of my works have not come from the professionals but from talented students and community ensembles. Almost every time before I hear a performance of one of my new works, the musicians’ rehearsals inspire me to change a part here and there making the work more expressive to their individual instruments and thus making the music greater.
    4. Contact the publisher following their guidelines for submissions if they have any. Write a cover letter talking about how your work would fit in their catalog and be marketable for their company.
    5. Wait and see. If they publish your work then it will be easier next time to go through the same company. Plus the publisher will start contacting you to see if you have certain works. One of my publishers emails me more than I email them.     

    ~Rodney



    Janet Spangenberg said:

    These look like great assignments, and are far more extensive than those I had in college, although there are some similarities. I don't feel that my education gave me the skills to become a professional composer, but gave me an in-depth overview/introduction. I do have a few questions:

    Did your school have a graduate program; where did your musicians come from; was your school a private or public college/university?

    How was your first publisher made aware of your works?

    Was there any instruction on making contacts with publishers?

    How College Prepared Me to be a Professional Composer
    How College Prepared Me to be a Professional Composer   I am a professional composer. That’s what I do for a living. I have published works; my music…
  • Bt the way, my new 3rd publisher contacted me because they heard one of my works performed in Holland.

    ~Rodney

  • Hi Rodney, I have several questions too:

    1. What college told to students? To make a true great composition or marketable pieces?
    2. Which is the most gives you opportunities? because you compose great music or marketable pieces? or the publisher trust your work for you studied in college?
    3. One of your instruction to contact publisher is have a piece performed and recorded. And you said there are many opportunities for live performances of your works throughout the communities. Which community? the college?
    4. Do you have some tips for a self-taught wannabe pro like me?
  • Rodney, it's great to hear a workable approach from one introvert to another! I like your style. :)

  • Assignment number four is "Compose a work for solo instrument using set-theory (Flugelhorn.)".  Is that using Allen Forte Pitch-class set theory?  Or something else?

    Was the idea to get you outside your comfort zone, and into composing atonal (but not twelve-tone) music?  How useful an exercise did you find it?

  • Hey Rodney, just wanted to take a moment and tell you I found this very interesting and helpful, thanks!

  • College taught us to compose great works that are marketable if you want them to be published. You can create the greatest duet composition ever written for both players alternating between 10 different instruments but how marketable will that work be?

    What gives me the most opportunities is my strong, constant work ethic in which I always set goals and deadlines to accomplish them, but you have to have the music to back it up. I will tell myself, “I will compose a brass fanfare and complete the score this month, contact performers and research possible new publishers next month, and then summit the work and recording within the next 3-6 months after I received the recording of the performance.” A music composition degree does nothing more than show a publisher that you’ve studied for years and now have credentials. You music must speak for itself. It must have musical value and be marketable for the company to make money. College gave me the tools and scenarios to compose in various styles, instrumentation, and conduct the business of music.    

    When you are trying to get your music performed the worst any ensemble can say is no. Do you play an instrument? Could you play in the community orchestra, chorus, or band? The very best way for an ensemble to play your music is if you are a member and build relationships with the players and conductor. But if playing is not possible then you need to make a great rendering recording and have a score and parts ready. Attend the ensemble’s rehearsal; a community ensemble’s rehearsal is normally opened to the public. Then after the rehearsal go up to the conductor, compliment him on the way he conducts, his interpretations, the sound of his ensemble, and the love that the musicians have for music shows in their playing. Then tell him that you would be absolutely honored if he considered playing one of your works in one of their concerts. If playing in a concert is not possible, then simply sight-read it during a rehearsal, for you would love his and the performers' wonderful opinion on your composition. Don't forget to smile and then hand him a copy of the score, parts, a cd, and say, “Thank you.”


    Concerning college orchestras, this is what I would do. First, you need to build up your reputation first. Orchestra and Wind Ensemble directors can be absolute snobbish pricks, so start out by contacting the brass instructors or percussion instructors to see if there are any brass or percussion ensembles you can compose for. Brass and percussion ensembles love to play new works. Next in terms of what ensemble would play your music concerns the woodwinds. You might get the fun, out-going clarinet teacher, the peculiar bassoon professor, the sweet but socially awkward oboe teacher, or the very sweet and confident flute teacher. You could write for clarinet choir with bass clarinets and contras, even altos; flute choir, and double reed choir, or just bassoon choir. 4 bassoons sound very well and can perform almost anything. String professors can be elitists, but still ask. They might surprise you. So write for the smaller sections first then build your way up in the college setting or just go all out and see what they say. Remember, the worst scenario is that they say no. This advice goes for schools that have a reputation for having a great music program. If the school is not known for their music program then go straight to the conductors for they will be more accessible.

    High schools love new works, and out of them has become some of my best recordings of my music. These students expel so much passion in their music. In new music, bands or wind ensembles love new music, orchestras tend to love the old, and vocal ensembles waver in the middle. As long as you write music that is beautiful, performable, and has meaningful words, the chorus world will love you.

    The tips I can offer you right now is to set goals for yourself, perform live, form relationships with other performing musicians, have a strong work ethic, compose like you’re on a mission, and compose outside your comfort zone.  

    ~Rodney



    Dust Composer (Ronald Hutasuhut) said:

    Hi Rodney, I have several questions too:

    1. What college told to students? To make a true great composition or marketable pieces?
    2. Which is the most gives you opportunities? because you compose great music or marketable pieces? or the publisher trust your work for you studied in college?
    3. One of your instruction to contact publisher is have a piece performed and recorded. And you said there are many opportunities for live performances of your works throughout the communities. Which community? the college?
    4. Do you have some tips for a self-taught wannabe pro like me?
    How College Prepared Me to be a Professional Composer
    How College Prepared Me to be a Professional Composer   I am a professional composer. That’s what I do for a living. I have published works; my music…
  • We studied the set theory that isolates a group of pitches by treating them as equals. In most cases there is no tonal center in set theory, but instead the composition was conceived by going through transpositions, inversions, and retrogrades of the sets creating new sounds and variations. No specific person was recognized, but the exercise’s goal was to compose outside one’s comfort zone and discover new sounds and possibilities through composition. To this day the compositions that I used set theory have been a source of pride and accomplishment both in composition and in sound helping my music mature and find its own voice. Often I will add tonal theory to set theory practices thus tricking the listener in believing that he is not listening to a work that was conceived by a mathematical process.        

    ~Rodney



    Charles E Gaskell said:

    Assignment number four is "Compose a work for solo instrument using set-theory (Flugelhorn.)".  Is that using Allen Forte Pitch-class set theory?  Or something else?

    Was the idea to get you outside your comfort zone, and into composing atonal (but not twelve-tone) music?  How useful an exercise did you find it?

    How College Prepared Me to be a Professional Composer
    How College Prepared Me to be a Professional Composer   I am a professional composer. That’s what I do for a living. I have published works; my music…
  • Yes, and funny things happen to me all the time. For example, just today my wife and I were looking for a new house, and a neighbor came up to us saying, “Rodney, you don’t know me but I know you. I heard your performance just this past December and the neighborhood will donate $500 on the closing cost if you choose to live here.”   

    Also one quick way to make money is writing for marching bands during the summer. You can make at least $2000 in one week just by arranging one show.

    ~Rodney

    Raymond Kemp said:

    Rodney,
    Can I ask, do you support your life style by composition alone?
    How College Prepared Me to be a Professional Composer
    How College Prepared Me to be a Professional Composer   I am a professional composer. That’s what I do for a living. I have published works; my music…
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