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:
- Complete 4 compositions.
- Have 2 public performances from 2 different works.
- Keep a contemporary listening log with a minimum of 10 compositions not previously heard.
- 30 minute private lesson once a week with the professor.
- Attend composition seminar for an hour every Friday which gives you the chance to work with other student composers and talk with professional composers.
- 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:
- Compose a hymn for SATB with proper voice leading and chord progressions.
- Compose a solo piano work and be able to explain how your work has a beginning, middle, and end.
- Compose a work using one of the church modes (Instrumentation that I chose: TTBB and Strings.)
- Compose a work for solo instrument using set-theory (Flugelhorn.)
- 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.”)
- 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.”)
- Compose a work using a twelve-tone technique (3 trumpets.)
- 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.)
- Compose a work for small ensemble using set-theory (Violin, Clarinet, Bassoon, Tuba, Congas, and Claves.)
- Compose a work for large percussion ensemble.
- Compose a groove piece for large percussion ensemble.
- Compose a work using an original contemporary technique (Violin and Cello using fully diminished 7ths as my original technique that I came up with.)
- Compose a work for full band.
- Composer or arrange a work for marching band.
- Compose a work which the harmony modulates every measure (Harpsichord.)
- Compose a work with your own synthetic scale (Piano.)
- Compose a work for full orchestra.
- Compose a work for large brass ensemble.
- Compose a work for programmed music that tells a story (Strings, Piano, and Gong.)
- Compose a work for choir using a foreign language (SSAATB using Spanish.)
- Compose a work for electronic music.
- Compose an exotic work (String Quartet using Celtic style.)
- Compose a work for found objects.
- Compose the score for a movie scene that is public domain.
- 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.
My pleasure. Let me know if I can help you in any way.
Viktor Velthuijs said:
Rodney, since you are a successful composer and seem to want to help out, could we other composers on this site submit scores and/or mp3s to you? Could you help us by getting our works to the attention of publishers?
Wow, very informative! I will probably print this out and make your list of 25 compositions part of my goals. Thank you!
My pleasure and I hope that you can use this information for your composing. I feel completely honored that you are going to use this for your own goals. If you did accomplish this you would have a pretty substantial portfolio under your belt.
Cory Mollenhour said:
I hope Rodney doesn't mind if I respond to your question, Gav. I think there are a lot of reasons why this wouldn't work. First, there is risk. Rodney's reputation with the publishers is not based on his personal standing, but on the unique output of his work. He assumes a personal risk of rejection every time he submits his work for publication. He probably has had a few rejections, and can certainly expect some in the future. A publisher who has previously accepted his work might still give him an ear even if the next piece is rejected, but may not if another were. For Rodney to recommend other composers works, he assumes greater risk of rejection and damage to his own reputation.
Second, Rodney has written works marketable to particular publishers. Other composers would have to limit their work to the same genre/styles that Rodney is already writing in. That may not be a restriction the composers would appreciate. And if it is, then these new works are in direct competition with Rodney's own! I bet some of the publishers limit how many new works they put out each year, and Rodney might prefer the greater chance.
Third, his process is very time consuming. In essence, he would become a representative/agent for other composers, a whole new career that wouldn't afford him his new house. ;) Not only wouldn't he get paid, but he'd have less time to compose new works that might get published. Rodney is giving us a lesson in how he fishes, he may not be able to feed us his fish!
In the end, I think we all have to walk our own paths. Rodney's methods and insights shed a lot of light on his path. Sharing them may help ignite our own torch.
Gav Brown said:
I would be more than happy to help in any way that I can, but remember publishing starts with the quality of one’s own music. In the publishing world a composer is only as good as his current submission. You may have worked with a certain publisher for years but that doesn’t mean they are going to publish your next work if it’s not up to par or doesn’t fit their catalog. That statement is even written in their contracts. If a composer is looking to publish their music there are some factors that come to mind.
Gav Brown said:
Wow! I'll be forever amazed at the power of a direct simple question. Rodney, are you saying you would forward and recommend someone else's work to your publisher that you believed fit the criteria?
Hello Janet! I think that we posted at the same time. I have not even looked at your response to Gav, but I'm about to read it now. I will be back in a bit.
Janet Spangenberg said:
I don’t mind at all if you respond to Gav, and you explained it better than I ever could. My connections with my publishers would not mean anything in the world if I recommended that they published a work that they saw as not yet publishable, but what I can do is look at your work giving you suggestions that will lead you down the right path for what companies are looking for.
Janet Spangenberg said:
No harm in asking and I appreciate Rodney's and everyone else's comments. As a working stiff, I probably will not be able to bring to bear the resources necessary to do much more than post to this and a few other sites. Maybe someday, after I've retired. Rodney, I appreciate your offer to look at our works and offer advice. I have a number of of sheet music scores with recordings on the site, if it suits I can come back to this thread and post links. If you prefer it some other way, let us know. I also have one additional question for you, which is: why do most sheet music companies not accept submissions of original works?