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.  


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  • Very inspiring. Thank you, Rodney. 

    Rodney Carlyle Money said:


    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.  


    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…
  • I don't think it's a good idea

    Raymond Kemp said:

    sorry Gavin, I couldn't resist.

    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…
  • Hey Gav, yes post links on this thread. I would love to take a look and listen. Concerning why most sheet music companies do not accept submissions of original works, I’m not sure where you are coming from. From what source did you hear this rumor? So far 99% of my published works have been originals. Do you know who purchases most of today’s classical music? It’s the schools, private lessons, churches, universities, and community ensembles; and schools and all-state honors ensembles are not going to play or sing Lady Gaga or “The Harry Bieber” for their state contests or concerts. Even today’s competitive marching bands are looking for original material for the field of battle.


    Now you do hear arrangements for the stands at games or if a school or community ensemble wants to show their “cheesy side.” Every autumn we hear last year’s popular hit on the radio all across football stadiums in America, and yes they do sell like hotcakes, but do you want your reputation as a composer to be the one who arranges Ke$ha for  marching band? I once summited a work to a company and got a rejection letter which simply stated, “It does not fit our catalog.” When I did more research on this well-known company they were more concern with arrangements of today’s top 40 than music that concerned a deeper level. But we must remember it’s a business. Do you want to become a millionaire in the music world? Write the perfect beginning piano book that every student’s teacher wants to start them on.


    I personally find that publishers are looking for the next composer who has their own sound, their own voice, and there is a huge market for original works that shows that passion. Composers, do you have your own sound or are you just another water down version of Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, James Swearingen for the band world, Eric Whitacre for the choral world, John Williams, Howard Shore, or Hans Zimmer? If composing scores for video games and movies is your passion then go for it! But how many times do I have to hear this scenario: aggressive strings in a minor key (mostly I hear c minor,) brass, mostly horns, with soaring melodies, drums with names like “Epic Something” or “Godzilla Hits” playing accents with no concept of rudiments, and with a choir singing nonsense. Since when did the words in music not matter? Words are power, music is power, and if you put them together simply with perfection you can change the world. I am not putting down this type of cinematic music. It absolutely sounds amazing and so inspiring, but we’ve already heard “O Fortuna” on steroids before. It’s time for the world to hear YOUR voice and what YOU have to say.        


    Gav Brown 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?

    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…
  • Thanks Rodney, your posts are always interesting and take some time to absorb. Regarding sheetmusic publishers not accepting original material: many of the companies have a disclaimer like this on their sites:
    Do you accept unsolicited material?
    Hal Leonard Corporation does not accept or review unsolicited material for publication consideration. This includes music manuscripts, book proposals, recordings, videos, CD-roms, or other submission formats for any product area in the Hal Leonard catalog.
    We produce our publications and products utilizing the talents and skills of an established group of composers, arrangers, transcribers, authors, producers, and editors.
    Hal Leonard is not responsible for any submission materials sent to us via mail, courier, or e-mail. Submission packages will not be returned.


    It's discouraging to one who is "not established."

    I try to write works that teachers would find accessible, I'm aware of that being a big audience. I actually have a beginning piano book (all the songs are 5-finger position) which I would love to share with you, but unfortunately it's on another computer which is currently in the shop being repaired. I also write wedding music, which has actually been performed at friends' weddings. I do realize that companies are in business to make money and in general try to write music which is accessible.

    Regarding your comment about having an original voice, I entirely agree with you. To me nothing is more important. One of the things I have discovered over the years is that getting to the original voice in oneself is a never-ending journey. My current music is much more original than things I wrote earlier in life.

    The recordings are all electronically done, I don't have the resources to do a live recording, sorry for that. Thanks for listening!
    American Anthem - a recent work (full score and sound)

    A wedding march & recessional (I don't publish the full scores to wedding music as I consider it to be my most saleable work, but you can see the first page for each piece and the sound files are complete)

  • Gav, I will check this out. It looks as though you have your own website and the compositions look published! Have you tried putting them on the publishing site I have not done this but you can self-publish your works there and that's where a lot of people go in search of music.


  • Thanks Rodney, yes, I'm published and have even sold some music. I will definitely check out jwpepper, thank you for that tip!

  • Thank you for this!  I really appreciate getting an inside look at how a higher education in music works.

  • My pleasure, just doing my best to help.


    Jonathan Senigaglia said:

    Thank you for this!  I really appreciate getting an inside look at how a higher education in music works.

    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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