A few months ago, I was having lunch with a composer-friend of mine who has a nice teaching job. He was explaining to me how, when he was in grad school (he’s in his fifties now), he and his colleagues, while not indifferent to their job prospects, were nowhere nearly as preoccupied with them as students today. His explanation-which I found incomplete at best-was the greater amount of debt students today take on. Debt’s an issue: but do scholarship students not worry equally as much about their job prospects?

29 Responses to “Jobs and Composers”
  1. Daniel Wolf says:

    Perhaps even more than debt is the increase in graduate programs and numbers of students admitted to those programs relative to the development of the academic job market. The increase in programs is, in part, due to deflated values for degrees — through the 1960′s, a Master’s was a terminal degree for academy-bound composers — but also to the creation of music theory as a separate profession, competing for many of the same course offerings, while musicologists have now taken 20th century music into their teaching portfolios, leaving relatively little in the way of service course instruction left for composers. And then there is the matter of graduate students as a source of cheap instructional and research labor — not only cheap, but willing to finance their own institutional positions through the accumulation of personal debt…

  2. Daniel Wolf says:

    But the important issue, methinks, is to get away from the notion that a composer employed as a teacher is “making a living” as a composer. Teaching, as attractive and stimulating as it can be, is, for a composer, another day job, as respectable as any other day job, be it in copying music, writing software, lawyering, doctoring, harvesting wheat, or tending bar, and many other day jobs have the virtue of being less musically engaging and draining so that the time left over for composing is musically fresh.

    The depth of this assumption, particularly in American serious music circles, is so great that I sometimes wake up nights in a cold sweat with the realization that if a Charles Ives were alive today, composing in every moment spared from his non-academic, indeed, non-musical day job, both he and his work would be even more disregarded by the “professional” musical establishment.

  3. David Salvage says:

    First of all, no-one is disregarding Ives today. I object to the “even more disregarded” comment.

    While I broadly very much sympathize with you in that making a living teaching is certainly not the same as making a living composing, I have trouble imagining a day job more inspiring and fruitful for one’s composition than teaching. And considering that teaching is, frankly, a part of the tradition of being a composer in the Western classical model, I don’t know why anyone would shy away from it or think it antithetical to one’s artistry.

  4. Daniel Wolf says:

    Unfortunately, there are some who still make a point of their disregard for Ives “lack” of a certain kind of “professionalism” (Boulez and Carter, to begin with, are still aorund and kicking); but I was addressing the specific problem that nowadays, the lobby discussion at new music concerts and festivals too often turns from musical concerns to talk about this teaching job or that, and suddenly those outside of academia are effectively rendered invisible.

    While it is the case that many composers have also taught, it is important to distinguish between those who did it from choice and talent and those who had to do it, for material reasons, thus speaking of it as a “tradition” is missing a large part of the story. There are plenty of superb composers for whom teaching, or more narrowly, teaching theory and composition, was or is not attractive. Some people value a day job which has nothing whatsoever to do with music and has no carry-over into their imaginative life, others are skeptical specifically of the composition teaching enterprise — Bartok and Kurtag famously refused to teach composition — and I believe that Steve Reich has indicated that he is not interested in “sharing his secrets”.

    I happen to enjoy teaching myself, have a full set of traveling papers should I ever wish to enter into an institutional relationship, and I think that I might even be pretty good at it, but good teaching requires such a careful balance between confidence in ones own ideas and work and humility in the face of the ideas and work of others, particularly those of students, that I would be very cautious about making the assumption that teaching is necessarily inspiring and fruitful for either the teacher or the student. Some well- entrenched university composers are famous for beating their students into their own aesthetic mold or turning them into ex-composers, others steal from their students or use their students as subcontractors on their own scores. Some students imitate their teachers, music, manuscript or even haicut; others students bring unrealistic expectations (in my day, it was the Juilliard students who wanted to write minimal music). Moreover, once you are teaching, you will likely have to perform a great number of institutional services, and as the generation of my own teachers has moved into retirement from academe, each and every one has expressed their great relief at being released from these services and “finally being able to get some composing done”. Yes, after all those years, the medical plan and pension are good, but it might have been better with a postal route or selling insurance or haberdashery.

  5. david toub says:

    Personally, I agree with the two of you, David and Daniel. Teaching is unquestionably underrated, and I always found it to be very noble.

    That said, those of us who are ”outside the grid,” who are not academics or who at least do not work in a music-related field, are indeed often dissed and/or discounted. Boulez recently did “dis” Ives for lacking professionalism. While there are different interpretations of what he meant by that, I took offense. And for good reason, since even on this forum I have been dismissed for not working in the music field, and know that others who work at a nonmusic day job are thought of in the same way.

    David, if you remain open-minded within the academy, that’s great. It’s also, I fear, somewhat unusual. But keep at it. I wouldn’t ignore what Daniel has to say, and he’s saying much of what I’ve said over the years, and I’ve been pretty pilloried for it at times, but I stand by it just the same.

  6. Rodney Lister says:

    A number of things—yeah, probably less debt (certainly less debt), but also fewer people and, proportionally, more jobs.

    Not only are you sort of looked down on if you’re not teaching, you’re sort of looked down on if you not teaching in college (as opposed to doing pre-college work). Just to use myself as an example, I teach at the Preparatory School of New England Conservatory. I can’t seem to ever get any teaching in the college division. I seem to be good enough to teach at Harvard and BU (where I have taught), but not there. After years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it can only be that I teach high school kids, and therefore am not considered, there, to be qualified to teach in the college.

    I think the moral of the story is that life’s hard all the way around for most people, each one experiencing it, as Tolstoy said, in his or her own way (well he almost said that). At least I hope that’s the moral of the story.

  7. In my optimistic youth I truly believed in the community of artists … and in some damaged ways, I still do.

    What I did not know is that academia is almost entirely a walled community. It provides its own network, its own access, its own services, its own support, its own coercive student participation system, its free summers, its paid sabbaticals, its own promotion, and its own documentation and history — aside from the stable income and pension. All these academic freebies are worth as much as the salary — and speaking as a freelancer, I know what it means to decide between working to afford another toner cartridge and composing a piece that won’t pay for that cartridge.

    Academic composers are also traded institution-to-institution for teaching, conferences, seminars, lectures, workshops, etc., and the institutions themselves provide a wide range of support from the simplest such as office staff through collegial hiring to travel expenses and conference fees. And so conferences become academia-dominated … no, not entirely, as some S21 composers are successful at external visibility, but there is no free money outside the walls.

    The tradeoff is personal time and energy drained from composing, as Daniel noted, and also a kind of stylistic nepotism (speaking from under my OMG-not-another-one-of-those! K&D hat).

    Outside academia, I have been able to survive, albeit barely. I have no savings and no pension and so won’t ‘retire’ from whatever day job work I’m still capable of doing when I’m 65 … less than six years away.

    All that I can live with, and yes, I would do it again. Academia is another world, its own world of stability and show-us-your-papers welcome. I don’t feel comfortable at universities with their enormous sense of privilege.

    But if there’s one thorn for me, it’s that when it comes to creating history, activities by academic members are documented by other academics and become ‘the’ history. Academic centrism effectively means that an unaffiliated composer almost does not exist, with the few well-known exceptions — Ives already mentioned, two or three minimalists who can no longer be ignored, etc. — and those whom academics choose to champion. (Combine academic centrism with urban centrism and you get composers like me, whose work is unknown even to most S21 people.)

    This has veered from the original topic, but with a more corporatized world, it’s inevitable that even students in the arts will be affected by it. It’s a different kind of optimism (one that will ultimately be destroyed; welcome to the human race), and one that also surprises me. In giving my occasional academic presentation (about my We Are All Mozart project) I discovered that it wasn’t the music that most interested the students — they seemed indifferent to it — but rather the project’s economic considerations: How much did I charge? Could it be done again for more? Why $1 instead of 99 cents or $1.88 or $1.99? (I’m not making that last one up.) Not, of course, that the economic considerations would make a difference to them, as they could fall back on an academic network if nothing else worked out.


  8. david toub says:

    Dennis, you said exactly what a lot of us think. THanks.

  9. Anonymous Source says:

    As someone in an academic job, I see a lot of “the grass is always greener” in Dennis’s post. I work at a large university with a small music program. I had to purchase my own office supplies, provide my own printer, and toner, and paper, and binding combs. And some furniture. The desk that I got is a broken hand-me-down from another department (primarily held together with tape and happy thoughts). The only real office “support” I get is paid postage. I don’t sneer at that because it does save me some money.

    My salary is not enough to survive those “free summers.” Nine month contracts don’t stretch to 12 months and the cost of living where I am is rather high. I do have some savings, but not very much anymore since I was unable to teach a class this summer.

    The time spent teaching, grading, and in committees and other such meetings is about as much of a distraction as if I had a normal 9-5 job. While I am expected to maintain a broad presence as a composer, and I am supposedly given time to work on that issue, the teaching aspect of the job becomes easily overwhelming.

    As for financial support for travel, I get about $1000 a year. That is about enough to cover a single conference with registration, flight, hotel, etc. Maybe two conferences depending on the venues. In order to get tenure, though, I need to do considerably more than what is funded by my university. There is a strong financial penalty to success. I get a work accepted at a festival: Great! I have to attend: I’m going to spend a considerably amount of money on it. Right or wrong, it is how I have to play the game in order to get tenure. Of course, if I was working at a bookstore, I wouldn’t get ANY funding for such things and it would probably be difficult to get the time off to go to such conferences. I see my advantages there.

    Like the students hearing about WAAM, my P&T committee doesn’t care about what I’m composing, only if it is successful (whatever that means, preferably that it brings in money). Even though I get good feedback about my progress towards tenure, the P&T committee’s ideas of the contemporary music scene are woefully outdated. Self-publication is not sufficient. Using Tunecore to get my music out is not sufficient. I am expected to teach my students and prepare them for the music scene in the 21st century but I’m being held to standards from the 1970s.

    I have some skills that I could use to get a job away from academe and I’ve recently investigated doing just that. Yes, my current job gives me a certain amount of perks that make being “a composer” easier. Many would object that I could call myself a “professional composer” since, once again, I work as a faculty member and am primarily paid to teach. The grass always is, was, and shall be, greener on the other side.

    I am aware of the advantages, but walls exist all over the place. Great, so my music will get performed at venues by, for, and with other academic composers. What if I want to be performed somewhere else? If my music is only getting performed at SCI venues, is that really what I want? Getting play anywhere is tough. And just because I’m surrounded by performers doesn’t necessarily mean that they are willing or interested in playing my works.

    Many of you might think that I’ve got it made in the shade. Just know that I think the same of you.

    And, if I was to get a job away from universities, I’d probably miss it terribly and think of how good it was. Or, as They Might Be Giants put it, “It is sad to say you will romanticize all the things you’ve known before.”

    I’m sorry to be anonymous, but I fear what retribution might happen if my department found out who I was…

  10. I sympathize with the anonymity you have to maintain.

    Based on what you write, I’m guessing you’re also young, at the beginning of your career. Unless you mismanage your academic life, chances are it will improve and you will settle in to where your income is stable and your opportunities are enhanced by the network around you. Fellow classmates will support you as you and they advance through their academic careers, affording you performance opportunities and featured lectures and presentations with honoraria. Your imaginative work will be documented and become part of the academic history of music, with you never reaching six-months-from-sixty with the future as unclear as it was at six-months-from-thirty.

    And throughout that career you will likely never need food stamps, never have to calculate your own paycheck, never pay double Social Security, never have to raise your own travel funds for every conference or concert, never have to buy your own office furniture no matter how it is held together, never have to buy health insurance, never have to face old age without a pension, never need to budget where your money will come from next month — even if it is summer vacation and you have to stretch the pennies — and never have to do the thousand things that every self-employed person does. Slim though the surroundings may now be for you, staying in academia means you will never lack the means to achieve your tomorrow … if academia ultimately suits you.

    On the other hand, the grass is indeed green on my side, where I composed and performed while working day jobs as a truck driver, laborer, graphics designer, secretary, etc., for a dozen years and then became a self-employed freelancer for another 30 years afterward. I do not answer to any committees, can refashion my schedule to compose if I need to, and find time to do other work of interest such as http://www.amazon.com/Country-Stores-Vermont-Dennis-Bathory-kitsz/dp/1596294752/

    There is pride in having clients for my engraving work, customers for my audio restoration, authors who seek my editing skills, and people who purchase my photographs. I have left behind a history of producing new music events that stretch back to 1969, and I’m proud of that, and know that I could never had done them under the academic yoke.

    But that doesn’t mean that the academic support and networking mentioned in my previous post wouldn’t be welcome.


  11. It seems to me that there is definitely a bias in academia toward seeking an academic job–the presumed “correct” aspiration for a young composer in school is a PhD followed by a professorship, and composers without those aspirations are taken less seriously. I realize that the term “academic” composition is pretty loaded and a lot of people object to it, but to a large extent it’s a valid term. There are in fact styles that have had their base of operation inside the academy, and composers like Babbitt who have explicitly argued that certain musics belong in the academy because they deserve to be insulated from the vicissitudes of market forces. It’s unsurprising (though unfortunate) that composers of “academic” music would be expected to aspire to remain in the academy.

    But part of the problem we’re having in this conversation is that we’re assuming that “composer” means and should mean “stylistically academic composer.” We’re buying into the very model that produces the assumption that composers ought to want to have academic jobs. If we look at all composers who compose classical music, we have to look at film composers, too, who don’t aspire to the academy but are perfectly serious about making composing a career. They tend to get so marginalized by academia that we usually forget they even count.

    For composers who are primarily interested in composing concert music in the academic style but who don’t want or care about having an academic job, though, there’s a problem, and I’m proposing that the solution to the problem is to broaden our definitions of what counts as legitimate classical music so that legitimacy is no longer synonymous with stylistically academic, and stylistically academic is no longer synonumous with aspiring to a post in the academy. Then, of course, the term “academic music” will cease to be meaningful.

    To get back to the original question about increased concern about getting a job, though, I don’t think increased student debt is the main factor–I think it’s just that the ratio of available jobs to candidates is getting worse and worse and so the people who really want to land those jobs are justifiably more and more worried.

  12. Galen, I’m not sure anybody was referring to so-called “academic” music or what you call a “stylistically academic composer” — at least so far — unless you really want to fork there. (I sure don’t!)


  13. Dennis– What I’m saying is that by convention that’s what we were referring to whether we like the term or not. And to be clear, I’m using a fairly broad definition of “academic.” But maybe I’m wrong–what kinds of music are we talking about that you don’t think qualifies?

  14. Galen, I thought we were talking about people, not music — careers, pay, benefits, etc.

    (I mentioned stylistic nepotism, but that happens in cities and collectives as well as universities.)


  15. We are talking about people–composers working in particular styles. My contention is that the career aspirations that are treated as “correct” in various circles are based in part on what style the composer is working in. An undergrad who emulates John Williams is going to be treated very differently from one who emulates Anton Webern. There are lots of kinds of music you can make without being treated as strange for not having or wanting an academic job, so if we want to deal with the fact that some people are considered strange for that we need to identify the relevant factors. I think style and genre are big ones.

  16. Oh. Well, then I’ll go find the thread I thought I was in. The pay, benefits, perks thing interests me, but I’ve see that that stylistic dead horse beaten an awful lot. Still don’t move.

  17. I think when “academic” becomes a “broad term,” it stops being “academic.” Or is that just me?

  18. What stylistic dead horse am I beating? What I’m talking about has direct impact on pay, benefits, and perks. Composers writing academic music from inside the academy get taken more seriously by the people with money, and if you think that’s a problem then we’re still having the same conversation.

  19. Combs says:

    Oh that jobs!!! LOL. Imagine the look on my face when there was no mention of an Ipod or Iphone in this whole thread.

  20. I can’t speak for academia, but I would treat an undergrad who emulates John Williams the same as an undergrad who emulates Anton von Webern: I’d encourage both of them to expand their horizons.

    If they persisted in their preferences, though, I would treat them differently, because they deserve to have their aspirations respected, rather than forced in to a one-size-fits-all.

    And I would be sure to advise them, to the best of my ability, where they would be most likely to find a living, given their strengths and weaknesses.

  21. Combs says:

    “And I would be sure to advise them, to the best of my ability, where they would be most likely to find a living, given their strengths and weaknesses.” -quote

    I wonder why money even comes into it. Isn’t that what stifles academic composers? The need to fit in which leads to making a proper living? Take money out of the equation and you have a fearless composer, willing to try new things. And what is of this “strengths and weaknesses.” Based on what model? That is somewhat of a strong objective term applied to the arts.

    Honestly, if you are worried about their salaries and not their art, why not suggest they compose in their spare time and look up a lucrative career provided also by academia? Isn’t that much more practical?

  22. Nothing stifles a composer unless that composer lets him or herself be stifled. I think it is irresponsible for a teacher to spend four years with a young composer without giving that composer some insights into money matters. Why would you think I was “worried about their salaries and not their art?” I’ve got plenty of worry to go around – I worry about the whole person whose future I’m entrusted with.

    You are talking about generics (academic composers, fearless composers) that have some relation to reality (although I’ve known both financially well-off and poverty-stricken composers who I would not characterize as “fearless,” so taking money out of the equation doesn’t give such a clean result), I’m talking about caring for individual students, not categories.

    As for assessing strengths and weaknesses, students who pay me for lessons are entitled to my honest feedback. I never pretend that I know everything, but I have about 30 years more experience than they have — it would wrong for me not to share it.

  23. Combs says:

    About caring about salaries and not art: I meant salaries as well as art (no edit function here).

    However, when you say, “nothing stifles a composer unless that composer lets him or herself be stifled.” Really? I have a hard time reading that as a realistic statement. Not everyone is the same and some people fold under pressure easier than others. Not everyone is Beethoven. I think the arts are getting to intermeshed with business. But thats our western society for you.

  24. Sounds like we’re saying the same thing: some people fold under pressure more easily than others. To me, that means it’s not the pressure, it’s the person. And that’s where a concerned teacher can help — sharing information and coping strategies that the student can turn to later in life. There is no simple solution, but we can at least be proactive.

  25. Rob Deemer says:

    Several points:

    Combs:I’m in total agreement with Lawrence here…as an educator it’s my role not only to help a composer find their voice, but to equip them as best I can so that they can make a living at whatever they do, whether their careers end up in academia or the private sector or in a completely different field altogether. You mentioned that his statement about stifling wasn’t realistic, only after asking us to take money out of the equation (which to my mind is a much more unrealistic request). That’s hopefully at least one of the reasons why one would study composition…to learn the tools necessary to be able to compose under pressure.

    Galen: Colin Holter just wrote a column in NMBx saying that he’d like to add the descriptors “simple” and “complex” to the list of words he wants to never use again when referring to music. I think I’d like to add the term “academic” to that list, especially when in a stylistic context (”composing concert music in the academic style”). “Academic” is no more a style than “unemployed” or “day-gig” is. While there may be one or more prevalent styles at a particular institution, I am quite sure there is no such thing as an over-arching “style” that will get you a job or keep you out of a job at a university. If you put works of Mackey, Bolcom, Theofanidis, Lauridsen, Welcher and Ueno next to each other, you’d come up with a very wide swath of styles, techniques and voices…and they all teach at universities while they compose.

    The primary issue I have with the whole “academic” thing is that student composers look at the system and figure if they become a good composer, win a few awards and get in good with a top-flight teacher, they’re golden. Being a good composer isn’t the end game if someone wants to teach…teaching is. Being a good composer is only the first step.

    David: Going all the way up to the initial post, I think one of the important reasons why composers worry about jobs more these days is that there’s much less than there was in decades past. From what I know, there was a shift in academic departments in the 1970s and 80s; up until then, composers were entrusted not only with teaching composition but theory as well – my first alma mater had 4 composers on faculty and all taught theory and composition. Over time the idea that theory and composition must be two separate areas run by specialists was a boon for those new graduates with degrees in Music Theory, but it also spelled a decline in the number of jobs requiring a degree in composition. Currently it looks like the job market consists of around 70-80% theory jobs and 20-30% comp jobs (with maybe a quarter of the theory jobs going to composers). Compare that with the number of students in each area – where I got my doctorate, we probably had about 15 theory grad students and almost 30 comp grad students. The math isn’t pretty.

  26. Combs says:

    Points taken. If I were in charge of the whole artistic college setup, I would create a system where classrooms were held outside, in a field. There would be no need for competition, just performing and composition. There would be no grading system either. That might create a ton of broke composers, but the experimental growth would be outstanding, one must admit!

  27. Chris Sahar says:

    Simply addition – take in the famous title of Virginia Wolf’s “A Room Of One’s Own” — you need the physucal and mental “space” to compose.

    Students may be worrying more because the job opportunities are changing – for example, in public schools the arts are not a priority as a mandatory subject but in some systems are seen as a great adjunct for students comprehension of maths, sciences and literature as well as improving learning behaviors. Also, the freelancer world can seem quite overwhelming and frighteningly insecure and the college and universities a “walled fortress” as others have described.

    Back to my first point, students do need to learn to create a “space” to compose under many circumstances. If it is not possible at all, they must be taught that they can return to it – the opportunities , depending upon this length, may be drastically humbler in the world’s view of success but is it so terrible? Outside the compositional cskills, the composition teacher responsibility is to instill this ability to create “room” to compose in his or her students – which is simply a confidence that upon graduation they will have the tools to solve these problems – even if it seems as non-musical as finding time to write music while raising two baby twins and working as a store manager.

  28. Tim Olsen says:

    I’m an academy-trained composer whose primary academic responsibilities do not involve teaching composition. I do have an occasional senior project in composition, mainly in jazz/popular genres [another colleague handles most classically-oriented student composers]. As a previous poster noted, the composition/theory market and composition market have dried up, so composers with other talents/interests/marketable skills have to emphasize those attributes in getting hired and staying hired. One downside of this is being pigeonholed as “the jazz guy” or “the music history guy” and having to say “but I’m a composer, too”. Preparing and running courses and executing administative assignments take up amazing amounts of time, whether they’re in your specific sub-discipline or not. I teach lots of intro music history/culture courses to non-major audiences, and have learned a lot about lots of different musics. Before I can explain a musical language I have to understand it myself, and the “on the job” training has proven very useful to me compositionally. Of course I’m currently filling out my annual faculty activity sheet wherein I list my teaching, professional, and service activities over the last twelve months, and note that I’m still in the process of extracting parts for a wind ensemble piece finished three year ago… that’s the world of academe.

  29. Stephen Harms says:

    Are we completely convinced then that in order to be an “academic” one must be employed by a college or university? I’m not attempting to ridicule but am worried that the divide between academics with teaching jobs and “non-academics” may be somewhat more complex than mere educational background…