Young composers have it really, really hard. Most composition teachers I know do everything they can to help students prepare for the difficulties of the profession, but there really is no way to fully explain to a young musician how tough it can get. Students who struggle with the minimal performance opportunities available while in school are in for a rude awakening when they graduate. The opportunities can go from minimal to zero very quickly.
Soon after graduating, most young composers are faced with the fact that there is virtually no interest or need for their work. It is up to them to create the need and interest.
I had it easy, supposedly. I went into the professional world with a doctorate from a prestigious conservatory and a few substantial prizes under my belt. And yet, in the first six years after graduation, I had but one performance of my music. From my current vantage point, it’s easy for me to see those six years as fruitful in the long run, but at the time they were the longest, most excruciating six years of my life. And I’m one of the lucky ones. Most composers have their horror stories.
One of the problems for young composers is the level of expectation. They come out of school and are immediately thrust into competition with composers who have had years to sharpen their craft and refine their voices. Many of these older composers have worked very hard to find their audience and, sadly, are bent on using their professional status to suppress new ideas that might threaten the position they’ve clawed their way into.
And that’s just the competition from living composers. Composers in the early stages of their careers also find themselves suddenly pitted against centuries of dead composers who got there first and have staked out impressive posthumous territories. Talk about intimidating.
The very idea of “masterpiece” presupposes “mastery,” which can only come with time. First works can be brilliant, beautiful, astonishing – they can be many things, but they are seldom masterful, in the same way as works by a fully mature composer. Young composers who try to rush their way to mastery often end up creating awkward monuments to inexperience. These early works are necessary in their own way, steps that must be taken on the long road to Parnassus.
All of these thoughts have come to me in the last few days in connection with the premiere of my third string quartet. It can take a long time for the most obvious things to dawn on me, and I’m only gradually absorbing the fact that I am no longer a young composer. This realization is both sad and a relief. It’s sad, because my range of potential has, inevitably, narrowed. It’s a relief, though, because I know exactly what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and why – sometimes more than I realize.
In my last post, I expressed concerns about the open rehearsal of my quartet. I needn’t have worried. The musicians were spectacular, they were completely involved in my conception, and they delivered the goods. And, quite frankly, I was an excellent coach, finding just the right words to help them refine their performance so that it positively sparkled.
And I walked away from that rehearsal realizing that I am no longer the young composer that I still carry around inside of me.
So, young composers, stick with it – and someday your reward will also be your loss. This part of your life can be awfully tough, but some of us, at least, are rooting for you.