Questions for a composer

School_WorkEvery now and then I get sent an email from a student who is doing an assignment on a "living musician", or a "real composer", or on how to "make it in the music industry". Recently I got a list of questions from Jayde, a student at Kerikeri High School. I first met Jayde when I did some composition workshops there last year. He had a great list of questions and I thought they, and the answers, were worth sharing.

Why did you choose to become a composer?

I definitely never thought I would grow up and be a composer. When I left school all my friends automatically went to university to do music, so I did too. I am no performer so composing was the natural progression. As I progressed further I realised it was something I really loved doing.

Is it hard to become a composer?

Yes. You have to work very hard to get each job in the first place. And most jobs will be for free until you have experience.

What sort of essential skills do you need?

  1. You need the musical skills of course, like theory, knowledge of instrumentation and ability to be creative with ideas.
  2. These days you also need to be excellent with computer software. As a composer you generally have very tight deadlines and can be thrust into performing many duties like preparing parts, recording and editing music, and so on, so it is very important to know what to do.
  3. Business skills like doing your accounts, invoicing, marketing, advertising, networking and so on. No point creating a business if you don't know how to run it.

Where do you source your inspiration from when you compose (if any)?

I have always found that compositions are for something quite specific. Like for a "rivers" concert as an example, or to celebrate a certain event or location - so that makes it very easy. I would then go to Google (or would go there first if I have no inspiration at all) and research different topics, words, pictures until I have a clear focus for the composition.

What do you begin with first in the composition process i.e. planning ideas, or finding a nice melody to build around etc.?

Most often I will play around with different ideas on real instruments and come up with some ideas - could be melodic, rhythmic, harmonic.... I usually am then very excited about putting some notes down in the score so I write the initial ideas down. Then will I think about the structure!

What does composition mean to you personally?

It means a lot to me. I get lots of ideas in my head and I have to get them out somehow!

Do you regret ever becoming a composer?

No. Some people think I'm crazy and wonder how anyone could ever make any money off writing music but I am super happy, have just bought a house with my lovely wife and I really do think I have a dream job!

What composition activities are you currently involved in?

Currently I am writing "Dancing Thistles" - a piece for string orchestra, and "Tiraki" a piece for the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the newly refurbished Auckland Town Hall organ.

What sort of opportunities are there on offer these days for composers such as yourself?

For young composers there are a number of good opportunities to get your music performed by professionals, in competitions or workshops. Notably the NZSO/TODD Young Composer Awards which I was part of three times, and the Nelson Composers Workshop which is run by the Composers Association of New Zealand and will completely inspire you and open your eyes to music of your peers.

What advice would you give to prospective composers?

  • Always get your music performed by real musicians - you will learn hugely from each experience.
  • Always write effectively for the instruments and performers - think about their specific characteristics and don't write virtuosic moments for a piece you are hoping your classmates will perform.
  • Be open to all styles of music and types of performers. We all speak the same one language of music and every element of it has something important to offer.