So, as a traditional classical music composer, I have failed. Now let me start off by saying that this is not a post about failing. Ten years ago, when I was a doctoral student in composition at Indiana University, I had a definite idea about what success was as a composer. My models were of course my professors. I could look forward to the time when I would have my tenured University job and my own composition studio. A time when I would be writing music for ensembles far and wide – where I would be going off to do residencies at other Universities, and when I would be jetting off to that artist colony in the woods during my year long sabbatical to work on my opera. OK, so maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but that was my general idea of success.
I had been in school for a long time – seen many of my fellow students graduate with their doctorates and get good jobs. Everything was on track – it was a done deal. Right?
I graduated in 2008, and since then things haven’t exactly gone as planned. I viewed myself as a failure for a long time. I didn’t have ANY of those things that defined success for me. To this day, I still don’t – no tenure track University job – no commissions (well, none of the traditional sort where people actually pay you to write music for them), etc. If I would have had this vision of my future ten years ago, I would have been horrified.
This, as I said, is not a blog about failure. Rather, it’s a blog about my journey from feeling like a failure, to redefining what success really is, and finally, feeling like a winner.
My journey really started in March of 2009. I had a pretty cool job working with the Ft. Worth Symphony and its conductor, Miguel Harth-Bedoya. I had landed that job through pure happenstance. I was grocery shopping in Ft. Worth, and ran into him. Long story short, he asked me if I did copy work. I landed a job working in the orchestra library of the Ft. Worth Symphony preparing scores and parts for publication, and also doing some score and part work for the Symphony itself. It wasn’t what I wanted to do forever, but it was kind of a dream for me to be working so closely with a big symphony, and as a composer, it was an invaluable experience for me to see the workings of a Symphony from the inside. Things were going well – I was making some nice money, meeting incredible classical musicians, and the orchestra librarians had finally accepted me into their lair (which was not the case initially – I was definitely an intruder into their space – lol).
Then, in March of 2009, due to the economic downturn, the Symphony had to lay off some of its employees for the first time in its history. They ended up laying off five people, of which I was one.
This was the beginning of my journey. Since I no longer had a job, I moved to Terre Haute, Indiana to be with my fiancee (now my wife). She had a job, and I didn’t – it made sense. However, I felt like – well – Terre Haute, Indiana?! What would I do here? I would be completely isolated musically – what would I do?? I still had my traditional definition of success that I was following. The answer was very simple! I would just continue to apply for University positions, and I would only be in Terre Haute for maybe a few years. Right?
Well, it’s been almost four years, and I’m still here in Terre Haute. I’ve applied to more colleges and universities than I would care to discuss, and I’ve never even been close to landing a position. I did have an adjunct position for one semester here at Indiana State University. It was wonderful while it lasted, even though it didn’t pay hardly anything and had no benefits or job security – as most adjunct positions go. As jobs that pay the bills go, I’ve had a wide variety here in Terre Haute – from teaching guitar at a local music store, to working in a factory for 3 months, to my current job working as basically a salesman in, well, let’s just say the nations largest music retailer (I’m sure it’s not much of a stretch to figure out what that is).
By the traditional definition of success – one that is hammered into all composers that go through the university system – I am a failure. I believed this for years. I saw many of my former colleagues get “chosen” for jobs, as winners of competitions, grants, commissions and other opportunities. I would think, why am I not being chosen? I have talent – right?
It was then that I decided to start choosing myself. I read a good blog about this recently – check it out – “Getting Picked” – by Seth Godin. It resonated with me, because I had made this choice a few years ago. This choice to redefine what success was for me – to stop worrying about all of the jobs and the competitions and the commissions I was not being chosen for. I decided to start choosing myself by making my own opportunities.
I think this all started in the Fall of 2009. A good friend of mine, composer Elliott Miles McKinley came down to Terre Haute for the ISU Contemporary Music Festival, which was hosting composer Steve Reich that year. Elliott, being the awesome guy that he is, invited me to do a mini residency at the University he was teaching at at the time – even though I did not have a job and could not reciprocate. When I did the residency, it was like re-igniting a light that I didn’t even realize went out. It reminded me how much I love teaching and sharing music. This led to my first instance of choosing myself. I thought, if no one will give me the opportunity to teach, I’ll do it myself. My solution was to start a podcast on classical music with the tongue-in-cheek title of All the Cool Parts. Through this podcast, I’ve been able to meet so many incredible musicians and composers, and it’s kept my passion for teaching and learning about music burning bright. It’s also allowed me to be less isolated – to be “out there” among other musicians and composers, even though I’m here in Terre Haute.
But that’s not all that was started at that festival. One of the events was a special luncheon for ISU students to have an intimate meet and greet with Steve Reich. At the time, I had zero connection with ISU, and I knew no one there. As I can kind of still pass for a college student, I pretended to be an ISU student, and crashed the luncheon. I was seated at Reich’s table – right next to him. However, it wasn’t meeting Reich that changed things. I mean, I had a great conversation with him and he was a very nice man. It was who was sitting on my other side that opened new doors for me here. I was sitting next to Kurt Fowler, the professor of cello at ISU and the Executive Director of the festival.
As far as Kurt was concerned, I was just some stranger from the community telling him, “Oh yeah, I play guitar. We should get together sometime.” Lucky for me that he was open enough to take me seriously. Through Kurt, I met some amazing musicians here – yes, HERE in Terre Haute! I know! I mean, my traditional success mindset would have thought this impossible! I mean, you can only find great musicians in New York, right?
My attitude toward composition also changed. Instead of lamenting that I was not getting to write for huge orchestras or wind ensembles, or for famous chamber groups, I instead decided to write for my friends. To write music for people that wanted to play my music. To write music that I could play myself, and actually have played and recorded. This led to pieces like Viridian Soliloquy, for myself and Paul Bro – Rush, for myself, Paul Bro, Kurt Fowler and Ted Piechocinski, and Instructions, for my wife and a whole ensemble of my closest musician friends here in Terre Haute.
It also led me to my first ever recital as a performer. I performed my own music, along with music of Astor Piazzolla and Andrew York in April of 2012. Many of my friends here in Terre Haute performed on the concert as well. In addition, a local music producer/recording engineer, Don Arney, was in the audience who at the time I had not met. He approached me after the concert, told me he loved it and that he owned a studio in town. His passion was finding talented musicians that he wanted to record and working with them. He told me that he would not charge me, and that he wanted to record whatever I wanted. I was blown away by this gesture, and still am today. I’m still working with Don, and we’re putting together a new CD of my music to be released soon. The point is, none of these opportunities would have happened if I had sat around and waited for someone else to choose me.
Today, I feel very successful. No, I am not a professor. No, I am not being commissioned on a regular basis. I have a pretty low paying job that is tangentially related to music at best. But, I have two successful music podcasts that have allowed me to meet incredible people. I am writing the best music that I have ever written (imho) and having a blast performing it with awesome friends. I’m releasing my first ever CD. And I have an awesome family that is full of love and support. In these times, we need to redefine what success is. There are more and more composers being turned out of universities than ever before, and there are less and less jobs for them. They need to know that if they can’t land a university job (which will be most of them) that all is not lost. There are many great examples of people that are, in my eyes, major successes. People that in the traditional sense, have “failed”. One great example is my friend, flutist Meerenai Shim – and she has a great blog about it.
There are many people in the arts that don’t have traditional success, and despite the day-to-day challenges that they face, are all STILL DOING IT. That’s the real success. Choose yourself, live life and do what needs to be done, and KEEP DOING IT.