I first started…

…composing when I was 13 years old.  Maybe it was because I was young and isolated, or maybe not, but I had a lot of assumptions about what being a composer is like.  These assumptions, though largely changed or negated from time and experience, still show up as prejudices today.  I wish I could go back in time and talk to my 13-year-old self, but in light time travel being…um…difficult, I guess writing a blog post will do.

Here, then, is my Letter to a Young Composer.

Dear J. M. Gerraughty,

Yup, here we go with this cliché…Hey, it’s you (um, I mean us) from the future!  As I recall, you’ve been composing for about 5 months now.  Mr. Bailey has been trying to teach you species counterpoint, and you’ve been half-assing and ignoring it.  Before we go any further, let’s talk about that for a second.  Get to work on those; you’re an idiot for ignoring species counterpoint.  I know it’s boring.  I know it feels irrelevant.  Suck it up.  Counterpoint is like scales and arpeggios for composers, or like working out for athletes.  It’ll help in the long run.

Next up, you’re gonna need to learn piano.  Why?  A couple of reasons.  First, most people in music academia know how to play piano, and if you want to have a job teaching someday, you’re going to need to learn how to play.  Second, most people assume that all composers are at least facile on the piano.  I’ll give you a peek into your future, here: you suck at piano.  I mean it.  You’re pretty damn awful.  It’s gonna cost you at least another semester of grad school (and about $7,000 in student loans) for you to barely make it past the proficiency exam in grad school.  Mostly though, you should learn piano because if you don’t, we spend our life acting like we have a small compositional penis because we can’t play it.  It’s gonna lead to you freaking out every time you meet another composer, sabotaging relationships with colleagues, and keeping you from actually doing what you love.

You’re going to feel, for a lot of reasons, that you’re not a “legitimate” composer.  The piano thing is part of it.  Another part is your lack of musical heritage.  New Hampshire is cultural black hole.  And there are still kids that are more talented than you there.  You haven’t run into them yet, but give it three years.  You’ll be up to your neck in those people.  The good news (and in another way, the heart-breakingly frustrating news) is that most of those kids will become engineers or doctors or whatever.  Either way, you’re not going to be the best at this.  No matter what you accomplish, there’s always going to be some nine-year-old kid on Oprah that’s gonna make you feel like shit for not being a child genius.

You can’t win at composing.  You’ve got to think of a new way to find meaning in your life.

There are going to be lots of composers that are from better-looking schools than you.  Kids who have been studying at Juilliard while you were studying in some guy’s basement.  Kids who have had every advantage in the world that you didn’t know about or didn’t have access to.  Just because they got into better schools than you doesn’t necessarily make them better composers than you.  You’re going to come to realize that being a successful composer is not synonymous with being the best composer. The best composer is not what you should be aiming for.

There are prize-winning composers out there who still can’t get their work done.

Make friends.  Friendships and meaningful professional relationships are how you’re going to make it as a composer.  You can’t be the composer douchebag that constantly propositions people to play his pieces.  People will get skeeved out; plus, it’s degrading to do that day after day. Still, learn to walk up to people and introduce yourself.  It will help with everything, from asking girls on dates, to getting a commission.  It never gets easy, but it gets less difficult.

Lastly, a word about the actual process of composing.  There’s a difference between struggling with ideas (which is necessary), and struggling with what you think the ideas should be (which is not).  Don’t be afraid to write the “wrong” music: compose like you breathe, or sweat, or sleep.  Go with what feels natural to you.  Your point of view is what you can offer the world that all those geniuses with rich parents can’t.  I guarantee that when you do that, composing will remain something you love doing, not just something that you do.  Never lose sight of the fact that you love this.



J. M. Gerraughty

  3 comments for “I first started…

  1. 06/06/2011 at 12:43 pm

    this is wonderful and honest and insightful. having been surrounded by those juilliard kids for the past four years, reading this is a fresh new perspective that i really learned a lot from.


  2. 06/07/2011 at 4:57 am

    Amen! And especially to the piano thing. Everything you say is true, so listen up, 13-year-old JM! I’m a rubbish pianist and I always feel a little ashamed when I have to tell people I can’t really play. I look for reassurance in the fact that Berlioz was a flautist too and didn’t play piano, but alas, it never quite overcomes the sneaking shame… Great post.

  3. 06/10/2011 at 9:32 am

    Nice. Thanks JM. All true. Just breathe, relax and do what you can do. I am struggling with the same feelings. I am getting back into composing after a long hiatus and trying not to focus on the gossip and BS of the academic composing world. Music is so much bigger than all that! And Caitlin – it’s never too late to pick up skills – I started lessons again at 51 and I’m a lot better at piano. Going back for my Masters in the fall!

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