Well, I am writing this on my employer’s computer during work hours. And I don’t even feel guilty about it – the same increases in productivity via computers and the Internet that now allow me to do the work of three people for my employer (at the same pay, of course) also lets me do some extra-curricular activities – all with time to spare.

I find I can get a lot of networking done on Facebook, G+ and the various new music blogs during work hours. Reading articles, posting comments and maybe creating some album artwork – all easy to do between phone calls, quoting prices, responding to emails or rewriting technical specs for our products where I work. I can also print out scores, break out the parts and get them ready for copying. So one way to leave more time for composing at home is to get all the other stuff done at work. Of course I have my cubicle set up so I can quickly put my emergency spreadsheet on the screen as soon as anyone approaches, but that is actually pretty rare.

At home I try to reserve the same time slot each week for composing and for me this is Saturday morning. I’ve been able to sleep in so I am refreshed, the house is quiet and I know I can concentrate on getting all the notes in the right places. I work strictly by PC – so I don’t need to bang around on a piano or fool with staff paper – it all goes straight into the notation program. When I’m finished I can print out a .pdf score and upload to my website in just a few minutes.

I do a bit of processing to the resulting midi file – sequencing, normalizing, maybe stretching or adding some reverb, echoes or equalization. But the final mp3 or .wav file can be uploaded directly, again in a matter of minutes. Everything is on my laptop so I can do this pretty much anywhere – although I prefer the familiar surroundings of home. But the whole process is a beneficiary of the efficiency that the PC (and Mac) has brought to music creation over the last several years.

All of this has encouraged me to believe that a full-time day job need not prevent the composer from a reasonably productive musical output. Many of us must make a living outside of music – and even if you are teaching the academic life is pretty crowded with job-related responsibilities. It might even be argued that a full-time composer will spend much of his time on non-composing tasks anyway – networking, rehearsals, traveling, overseeing the distribution of scores, etc.

So what makes you productive? Do you have a full-time day job? How would your composing habits change if you could work at it full time? If you now work exclusively at writing music, what is the best thing about full-time composing?

7 Responses to “Composers With Full-Time Jobs – How Do You Make It Work?”
  1. chris sahar says:

    When I had a full-time job I had gotten a commission to write a one act opera or opera scena.

    I had the idea running in my head for awhile as the performance organization had approached me months in advance but a death in my family had made me unsure about making the deadline. I’d like to add that the libretto developed from my famil history so I was working with material I knew – thus saving time otherwise spent on a ton of research.

    Well the performance organization approached me in late Nov of 2010 and I was contending with a difficult workplace and family obligations. I decided to write the opera scena at the encouragement of my composition teacher. At the time I was taking a composition class .

    So one may wonder, how did I do it? Well, I asked what was the range of duration for the one act operas they had set to perform. With that information I aimed for a piece at least 6 minutes at most 10 min.

    Fortunately, when I began to work on the music it was around Christmas holidays, and I had started on the libretto a little earlier. Writing lyrics or text can easily be done at work – easier to do than writing music. I find I need much more quiet to write music.

    I calculated the amount of music I had to write each week. So, I’d go to work and weekday eves, work on music – usually if I had a strong instrumental texture in mind I’d write that first but it was faster to set lyrics to music because I would discover if there were anything missing or extraneous in the singers’ parts, and, therefore, the instrumental parts.

    I employed some structural strategies in the composition of the work to ensure greater efficiency. At work I analyzed an intro I worked out at the piano. Before I go further as the performing company’s resources were small I had the scoring for piano and B flat clarinet, soprano and tenor. This was very important to take forces I could write for with all my other obligations. Without going into a rant, I think that is why writing for orchestra can be such a turn off – the time and effort required in most cases is not worth the results you get from hasty readings and the few opportunities to get into workshops due to the cost required for these activities. OK, back to the structural strategies. I figured the voices would be quite plainchant like with mostly stepwise motion – leaps only being absolutely required by text and psychological state. So, to depict the tension of the character’s situation – I had the piano and clarinet participate in a fugue while the piano tries to fulfill a continuo like part. The fugue serves as a great tried and true form that save much time.

    Eventually I knew in the text where the fugue should end and the opening be brought back fractured – again this strategy was efficient use of time as I had plenty of material I could review at work to get ideas as to how to divide it up and reach a cadential point for the first act.

    The second act I simplified my life more – it was going to be a simple ABABABCoda aria. I reviewed the 1st Scene and realized P4s, tritones were a common interval – so I used that idea to create arpeggios to reflect the contrasting state of mind of one of the characters.

    I listened to my teacher who was a huge help with creating the libretto and guiding me with the music composition. I also listened to the performance organization – I had finished the vocal parts and came to a cadential part a little earlier in the instrumental parts. I told the organization I have to take a trip out West for a week and I will fill music to the end once I returned – but they thought it would sound great if the music ceased and the two voices were heard alone. I agreed about 95% with them, I just felt a quick few gestures in 2 bars would be needed to end the piece.

    Finally, I was lucky to have considerate family – I always was out there on the weekends during the two months I wrote the piece. But sometimes I had to tell them I could not make it for the whole weekend. I gave them prompt notice and made sure all was OK.

    I will say I have not been as busy since but I hope to be soon after I enjoy this calm period.

    Hope this illuminates and inspires composers. If you want to see/hear the results – email me at cgsahar66@yahoo.com. I have a video of the performance.

  2. Paul Muller says:

    Chris makes some good points. Deadlines are harder to meet if your day job is unpredictable – that can add to the pressure. And there is real value in a support group like your family – they need to know how important they are.

    The bigger the project the more complications – and this makes fitting it in between a full-time job more difficult.

  3. I just left an academic job to compose full time. I find that I am no less busy than I was last year (sometimes it feels like I’m BUSIER! Part of my day job is being a father to two kids) but I do have more time for composing, at least in front of the computer (I used to have a long commute, so a lot of decisions I now make in session were often made while I was in transit). I do find, though, that I leave the house less often, which is a bit disconcerting. ;-)

  4. Armando, welcome to my world, for the most part — I took an adjunct professor job last year at age 61 for the first time, so I’m no longer an academic virgin.

    It can get exhausting to work at home. A tension can arise, especially when there is a deadline and home caretaking gets behind. There are times I wish that I’d rented an office to work because being outside the home is perceived as working, being in the home as, well, being home. My phone is now always on answering machine, and avoid answering the door.

    On the other hand, I’ve found that home caretaking is actually a great tool for developing pieces without staring at a screen or sheet of paper. Good ideas stick and develop while I’m doing dishes or wash or carpentry or plumbing or wiring, bad ideas don’t stick and vanish.

    And yes, I’ve never been busier than while working at home … even after 34 years since leaving my last hourly ‘job’, not including the seven years as founder/president of a computer company.

    Good luck!


  5. chris sahar says:

    Yeah I second the fact that being at home you are busier. And it is for a very simple reason.

    At work when there is downtime and you have used a little time for composition, you have periods to just rest rather unsettledly. Or you get mindless distraction such as chitchat. In a way these can help with composition – but being home is more advantageous as when you have a good idea you have the freedom to work it out without being as concerned about fulfilling other people’s needs.

    Also, working at home you work more because there is no one there shutting off the lights, air-conditioning, heating and restaurants closing. Why do you think Google offers their employees free breakfast and lunches? You take care of people’s basic needs and they will be inclined to work longer. Now add in you are doing something you love and it is obvious how one can be busier at home.

    A few tips – 1) Always ask yourself, am I receiving some significant, tangible compensation for my musiucal activities? 2) How close is the deadline? 3) Why am I doing projects that offer neigther 1 or 2? 4) What daily non-music activites do I ensure I do to clear my head?

    And for my initial entry pardon any typos and a few rambling sentences – there was so much to relate.

    Dennis did a great personal project that may have seemed not productive – write a certain amount of music per day (Everybody is Mozart project I believe Dennis?) and he posted it on his website. Composers could see the rewrd and Dennis set up a time limiot – one year. However, he had top prioritise his tasks and not let this project swallow up everything else.

  6. Yes, Chris, that was a heck of a year. http://maltedmedia.com/waam/ was the project. It didn’t swallow up everything … as the year went by, my composing became better AND faster. Each piece was practicing for the next. By year’s end I was disappointed there were no more pieces to write (I actually wrote 110 pieces in 2007, some for ‘regular’ projects, including some for a month-long residency in Portugal).

    But prioritizing is important. It’s a learned skill. I use lists… I’m on #239 for this year, for example (“re-edit Eleva recording”) and I always give myself deadlines. And some things are untouchable — breakfast and dinner with my wife, gardening whenever the weather allows, and home duties & repairs.

    I’m pretty much always tired, but then I’ve been working since I was 14 (that’s 48 years’ worth) and don’t anticipate the time or economic wherewithal to retire.


  7. JC Combs says:

    I have enough difficulty washing my clothes and doing the dishes on the weekend, let alone composing!