Diary of a Composer – May 6, 2013 – Time to Make a Decision

When I began composing the music that eventually became The Bright and Rushing World for AnyWhen Ensemble, I began a blogging project called the Diary of a Composer to give myself the opportunity think out loud about the piece as it was taking shape. The idea was that the piece would might pick up recognizable influences from my personal life, perhaps even to the point where I could point to a part of the piece and remember what had happened the day I wrote it and draw some connection between the two. I have to say that the blogging project never really took off the way I intended. I eventually gave up almost entirely on writing posts. Now that I look back on that time, I can say, with a healthy awareness of the irony of it, that it was because the skewed balance of my work, personal and creative lives that I gave up on the project. I needed to focus on finishing the piece, rather than writing blog posts about it. So I did, and it was a good idea, but now I want to write about why, and that got me thinking about a few other things.

This post is a statement of my goals as a professional, but its more than that. As I said, I feel that the creative/work/personal balance in my lift over the past year had gotten out of balance, but I feel that I’ve finally found a way to bring back the balance I was missing. I won’t say that I’ve got it all figured out. Even as I was writing this post I was still doubting myself, wondering if everything is going to work out. But, I believe in following my dreams, and when I look at my life in the future, a life that is full with both creative endeavors as a composer and performer, and with productive consulting work that helps fellow artists to achieve their ambitions, I am very proud of that vision, and I’m excited to do the work that will make it a reality. I feel that this is a good time in my life to take the calculated risk of starting my own consulting business, and to press on with my creative work, even though I don’t know what will happen. So, as I sum up what has happened in the nine months since my last “Diary of a Composer” entry, I have tried to let you in on what has happened in my life, and how I’m planning on moving forward from there. I’m sure that there are plenty of other artists out there who have had similar experiences, and perhaps this post will be helpful to them as well.

The Bright and Rushing World of my work life

The nine months that I took to write this commission were marked not only by the great success of winning the commission, but also by the stress brought on by a continuing struggle to find enough paying work in music to continue living my life as I had up to that point, where I worked mostly as a music teacher, performer, composer, and took other temp work in arts non-profits as it came along. The composer fee from the commission really helped of course, and it was more than I’d ever been paid for my music before, but it wasn’t enough to live on for the entire time that I was working on the piece. While I was composing I decided that I would pursue a full-time job in the non-profit sector. After applying to many jobs and getting few responses, I decided to take an internship. I did it for the same reasons that anyone takes an internship, except that I was nearly thirty years old. I didn’t feel great, but at least I was doing something.

When I finally decided to apply for internships, I was offered several, and I eventually took the one I did because they promised to hire me at the end of it. This was a young non-profit that was growing quickly, but was still discovering the shape it would take and how it would operate. They thought they needed a development person, but by the end decided they didn’t after all because most of their revenue came from program fees. I thought that I would be learning from a development consultant that the non-profit had hired, but it turned out that I only saw this consultant for one day per week, sometimes for most of the day, but more often for only a few hours. On top of that, I had to wait days to address questions that came up as I did my work with the directors who were supervising me, as they were often too busy to talk for any more than 15 minutes at a time.

Needless to say, I wasn’t hired at the end of the summer. Because I was planning on staying with this group in the long term, I was shocked and demoralized when they finally told me. I had taken a risk accepting this internship, and it had backfired. Not only did I not have a job, but I also felt I hadn’t received much training to help me actually land a job in the future. I was never a good fit there. I never came home feeling good about what I had done, and I can say that it is definitely a good thing that I don’t work there now. The internship ended badly, wasn’t good to begin with, and, overall, it was a waste of time. Good riddance.

As I read back on the last few paragraphs, I realize I haven’t offered a good explanation of why I thought this was the best course of action. I went back and read my last Diary of a Composer entry, “Big Boy Pants” from June of 2012. In this entry I announced that I had taken the internship, and I considered it to be a “big boy” course of action. My theory turned out to be true, but not in the way that I expected. Its clear from reading that entry that I was worried about my income after the grant was over, and it seemed prudent to take steps to make myself eligible for better-paying work, and to me at that time, that meant leaving the arts world, at least as a full-time performer and composer.

In some ways this was smart. Everyone knows life as an artist is challenging in economic terms. But, what I didn’t know was that while I had a use for this other sector, it had no use for me. Few professional arts organizations are willing to take a risk on someone without a few years of full-time experience in the field, even if you have applied experience in the field that these organizations are trying to support. I know that many people are struggling to find work now, but most often these are people with little education and few skills that can’t be replaced by machines or digital technology. I didn’t feel that this described me and I still don’t. But, it did mean that I had a problem to solve, a serious one that required real soul searching, led to a lot of lost sleep and ultimately, the pressing need to take serious steps in a new direction.

Time to make a plan.

After leaving that non-profit, I immediately began looking for other non-profit jobs, but even after a few interviews I still wasn’t having any luck, and it began to look like working for myself was the better option. And really, this is what I had been doing all along, but now I needed to do it better.

Winning the Chamber Music America New Jazz Works commission was an absolute blessing, but it came with some downsides of its own. Now that I had this piece to write, there was the thought that perhaps I might be able to rely on commissions to make up a significant part of my income. I can see that some people might take this success as a reason to push even harder to become a full-time composer, but for me it actually did the opposite. I knew that this commission would bring others in the future, but it also brought on the realization of how expensive a commission can really be, and that I probably shouldn’t hitch my wagon to what I think would only be an occasional source of income, at least for the near, conceivable future.

I finally made a decision. With a potential non-profit job looking like an impossibility, and likely any other full-time professional job as well, I decided to shape my life to be a full-time freelance musician who primarily composes and works as a consultant to other artists, but also performs, teaches, and writes about music. I’m a good musician, I’m a good teacher, and I think that I have a lot to offer to the arts community as a consultant. Things have been going well already, and I think that I’ll be able to support myself in this way as long as I work hard to develop my skills, to build my ties to the community, and to find more ways to raise the level of achievement and success for as many artists as possible. What began as my reaction to crisis is now a proud, conscious decision.

Consider this essay a proud announcement of my goals for the coming years of my professional work in the arts. I think that my decision to leave the arts community was based on the fact that I didn’t have a plan for how I would continue, but now I do, and I feel much more ready to face the uncertain future. In fact, I think that this lack of a plan was the real problem, and I think it is the biggest lesson that I have drawn from my experience, and it is perhaps the most insightful advice I can offer for anyone else facing similar issues. Read on for some of the nitty gritty details.

What I’ve learned, and what I hope you can learn, too.

This blog isn’t meant to be just about me. As a member of a broader arts community, I want to try to turn my experience into a lesson for others who might be dealing with similar problems. Life as freelancer can be great. Its wonderful to work for yourself: you get to do what you want, when you want, and if you need to take some time off to do something important, then so be it. For me that means taking a week to go on tour, to make a record, or to go camping. Or to go out and get some ice cream. I like ice cream.

But, a freelancer’s life is also filled with challenge. The biggest among them is that we don’t have the benefit of employer-provided health insurance. There are some great people working on this problem. One group of them is the Freelancer’s Union, whose main mission is to provide group-rate health insurance for the self-employed. Currently I’m covered under my wife’s insurance, but this will be coming to an end as she is leaving her job for a Significant Life Opportunity that I won’t formally announce here at the end of a pretty lengthy blog post, (talk about burying the lead!) but we’ll have this problem to solve as well in the coming months.

There are more and more professionals going out on their own. Musicians have been doing this for a long time, ever since the breakdown of full-time employers like orchestras or steadily jobbing bands have been less and less able to provide enough work for their employees. But, it is happening more and more all across the economy. If you have a skill that will help bring success to others, and you can find ways to tell the right people about it, more and more people are finding that they can do well enough on their own, and in some cases, even better.

Now that I have been pursuing this for a little while, just a short time, really less than six months, I can say that I think it will work out fine, but only if I make myself a deeply connected and significant helper in my local arts community and by building a robust network of friends through social media. I’ve been doing this, and I intend to continue doing it, and so I’m really depending on the success of the arts community to bring me my own success as both an artist and a consultant. What seems to be the most important element of developing a growing arts practice will be to prove that I can help others be successful.

For me this means writing music of great quality that shows off the special talents of the performers, whether I am performing this music or not. As a consultant, it means that I help other artists to be successful in their artistic work, as well as their fundraising and marketing efforts. In other words, I believe in the idea that if I want to be successful, I need to help others be successful, and that means being not just a member of the arts community, but a leader, an organizer, and a helper. So, that’s what I intend to do, and I look forward to it. I’m planning some future blog posts about the specifics of this, stay tuned for that. An easy way to thinking about it is to borrow a phrase from the cold war and turn it on its head: helping others in order to help yourself is “mutually assured success”.

And now you’re caught up.

My last diary entry is humbling to read now, but I’m not concerned with appearing to know all the answers. No one does, and I feel that being honest about that will only help other artists to realize the complex forces at work in their lives, to plan for the future, and to still make great work even as we worry about how we will make a living now and when we are older.

So, from now on I plan to write a few more posts about my life as a musician, and how it effects my work, beyond just the scope of The Bright and Rushing World as I originally intended. You can find them here: Diary of a Composer.

There are some significant milestones coming up in my life, and I find that trying to write about them will be a great way to both give shape to my own thoughts, but also to test them against the reality of other people’s ideas, and see how they hold up. So, when I call this ongoing blogging project a “diary” I mean for it to be an open diary that my friends and family can participate in, and to see what they think about the solutions to the problems of my work and life, and the balance between the two.

Thanks for reading, and please keep in touch.

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