Never Stop Growing as a Composer

Set reachable goals — Try breaking up the year into four 13-week segments. How about setting one goal a week. As the old saying goes you begin a journey of a thousand miles is traveled one-step at a time.

Hang around good players/composers — you know who these people are. They are constantly working, and getting the good gigs and everyone loves or hates them for it.

But remember this:

These people did not always sound this good.
They are people like you and me
All musicians look for new experiences and that means meeting new people
Everyone likes to be respected and felt that they are good at what they do.
Everyone has bad days and the best players have made their own share of mistakes.
Good musicians become good because of their hard and intense study.
There is a good chance you will become one of these people

Learn your craft

If you have something to say you better learn how to say it.
Learn how to get your point across. The following is a list of areas a musician needs to be skilled in. Take a pencil and rate yourself and where you are at with each

Ear training
Chords and scales
Sight Reading
Music History
Ensemble playing
Arranging and Orchestration
Time and Rhythm
Music Business
Other types of music
Score notation

From that see what steps you can take to improve in each

Pour you life out through your music

I believe composers should draw inspiration from all the liberal arts not just music.
What also helps me out immensely is two things. Keeping a daily journal, and going out by myself to an Artist Date * ( read the Artists Way by Julia Cameron for more on this)
Go to an art museum, or read Philosophy etc.

I think as composers we can be absolutely terrible at being creative. This is working with a film will help us to question our pieces, because it forces us to put our music into a context.
I will always remember what the head of Composition at Yale said to me ” Without a context a sound is just a sound.”

Often time I will sit down to compose (when for my own joy) and say ” well Doug …why not take drum and bass and mix it with Steve Reich over a African Kora.”

While that is fine, it is only one way of working. Try bringing out your Intention, and getting clear on that before the craft issue’s. Such as “This piece is about the political
struggle in Africa and the disorientation of the hard ships of poverty.” The more your ask your self what your intention of the piece the more creative you may become, and the more personal the piece will feel to you, because the was no possible place for you to look up the answers in a book.

Record yourself and your pieces

One of the best possible things we can do is to listen to ourselves as others are going to hear us. I believe that teachers can only teach so much …beyond that, or to get beyond that we must learn to teach ourselves. Keep as many of your CD’s as possible. It is great to go back and hear how far you have come along, and check your progress.

Time Management

I think it is a very wise idea to use a diary to schedule your time for the week, and days.
Often on the weeks I don’t plan out my schedule I always wish that I did. However there are going to be some weeks where, I don’t care what books you’ve read, it is going to be crazy and you will just have to do what you can. This is especially true for Film Composers, as we have to learn to meet ridiculous deadlines and to be comfortable being un-comfortable. But here are some areas I believe that if not given order to will go un looked by most composers.

Sending your music out there.
Getting your business skills in order
Network – get out of your room!
Support other people’s music – get out of your room!
Developing web site – show reel – marketing
Brain storming future projects – be an entrepreneur

Learn to Transcribe

Doing your own transcriptions I believe is the next best thing to composing.
I really think those with the best ears are well — the most free to compose what they
want. Now if you are an ear composer alone you most likely will never learn how to compose like Stravinsky or Ravel. But through a composition course you will learn the techniques that they used and developed, and with your developed ear you will be much better at making your own personal music. Some other advantages to transcribing are.

Developing your ear.
Gaining a better understanding of dynamics and articulations
Learning new styles
Developing a better time feel for music
Learning to hear a new concept
Getting better at hearing the music inside you own head.

Take care of your self

“Making it” as a composer or performer is much more like a marathon than a sprint.
Get exercise, eat well, and get ample sleep (especially when your schedule allows it!)

Compose at 75 % – 75% of the time

This is my complicated way of saying “Less is More” Often when I want to make a good impression I will over compose. It happens when we don’t compose enough or when we place too much importance on what we are doing. If you compose at 75% you will always have somewhere to go with the music for corrections. More often than not, a Director will like a piece that he at first didn’t after I have left more space in the music for the film. Also I find this motto helps me to relax a little when composing and sometimes being relaxed allows me to be more open to new ideas, rather than trying to just meet
A deadline.

Learn Different styles

This should be a given for film composers. It really is a prerequisite for the job.
With this I should say learn or at least keep up to date on trends with computer
Technology. The more styles you actually participate in and truly enjoy the better suited you will be than someone just trying to look it up to make a director happy.

Your creative – take action and create your career

I believe the creative skills we learn from our training as composers can carry over to all
Areas of life. I encourage you to think of yourself as an entrepreneur. Tale action and some risks with your career. Don’t be the musician waiting for the phone to ring. If you want something to happen take the initiative and do something about it. If there is a musician you want to work with why not book a gig and hire the people you want to work with? Also there are many great lessons you learn about being a leader. There are decisions that have to be made, and the responsibility of starting and finishing the job.
This can be a great confidence builder.

Finally you don’t have to be a leader all of the time. It will make you a better side person too. I learned a great deal doing the Foreign Exchange Film and Music festival about
The concerns an event organizer has, and also what is important to me when working, or hiring the composers. It wasn’t that I cared if the did 20th century classical music, or Jazz or whatever. I want to feel confident they would be on time and deliver a high quality piece of music regardless of the style and that they would bring in people to the show.

Keep a practice Journal

Recently I was hired by a company to do a score for a promotional video they where looking to launch inter-nationally. They asked that I invoice them with an hour-by-hour breakdown of the work and the costs involved. I actually found this to be eye opening experience, and a great way for me to track when my own energy levels where going up and down. I did this when I was younger but had fallen out of the habit. I now suggest that indeed keeping a daily and weekly music log. You may want to not only include your workflow but also

Problems and areas to work on
Comments to your self
Brainstorming solution and new ideas
Check off corrections made

Go back each week and see how you are doing. If you adhere to it, or even better yet have someone who makes sure you adhere to it you should see progress. If you think about it makes perfect sense and why teachers have beginning students work out of method book or grade. As we get older we tend to not use those things, but it is a
wise move.

Clean up mistakes as you make them

After much pain and truly learning things the hard way, I would advise to clean things
Up as you go along. Don’t wait to the end to clean up your score. If not things slip by
and will keep coming back to haunt you. Don’t develop the habit of ignoring mistakes !!
This will only make you more insensitive and callous. I truly believe the Quote ” God is in the details” or the opposite when things go wrong ” The Devil is n the details.” The great composers thought abut their score all the way down to such an intensely meticulous detail. When I think about it, I believe one of the reasons Beethoven or Shostikovich (fill in you favorite great composer) is that they don’t need to be there to have their scores played correctly. All the information is on the page. As a teacher said to me “If you go into the recording studio and someone raises their hand for a question than you have not done your job”. I think that is a great work ethic to aspire to.

Get everything in writing

Putting everything down in writing really is essential. While most directors or even composers do not insist on this at the early stages of their careers. I do, and I recommend it. I have found when I take the time and effort to draw up contracts
And send them to directors no one is against it, and it shows that you are serious about what you do, prepares you for the million dollar gig. I highly recommend getting a book on the subject or the web resources for this, even if you are scoring the film for free.
The more you hone your business skills; as well as musical craft the more prepared you are to be a composer for the long term.

Develop Musical “fingerprints”

How to find ones own unique voice in music is one that is an ongoing process and takes many years to develop the most important element of strengthening one’s own voice is the concept of consistency, repetition, and practice writing lots of music. In the beginning do not worry about any of this. The most important thing is to write. Write in the style of music that inspires you the most. Get this music performed and feedback from the best players you possibly can. Once you have composed for a few years you can go back and listen to your compositions and reflect on the musical devices that still hold your interest. It is at this point that you have some distance from your work and you can reflect more objectively. Where you depart from your influences is where your own voice lands. I believe that authenticity in your work, or rather being deeply connected and passionate about what you are writing will give you the most gratification as an artist, and most likely have the deepest impact on the audience. I believe that music come from a deep spiritual place it has the power to change people. Most influentially on the person who created it.

Posted on September 6, 2011 in Music Composition

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About the Author

An award-winning composer, accomplished musician and sonic storyteller, Douglas Gibson resides in New York City, where he composes and gives music composition lessons locally and online worldwide.
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