How to Become a Composer

The composition faculty is frequently asked for advice from both prospective and current students about steps they can take during their college years to become successful composers, whether their immediate goal is graduate school, additional professional training, or freelance work. Here are some of the ideas we often share with students:

  • Write lots of music.
  • Write for instruments and voices with which you are familiar, then branch out to less familiar territory.
  • Always write for specific people/ensembles—it is much more rewarding and beneficial to engage in collaborations.
  • Set aside blocks of time to compose—avoid squeezing composition into cracks in your schedule.
  • Listen to all varieties of music.
  • Learn the standard concert music repertoire—from Perotin up through Adams—by listening with a score whenever possible.
  • Listen to as much “new” music as you can—whether or not you like all of it is beside the point—you need to be familiar with all kinds of contemporary music making.
  • Finish your compositions well before the performance so that you have time to rehearse and revise.
  • Make good, clean, readable parts and scores.
  • Take an active role in coaching and rehearsing your music.
  • Schedule a dress rehearsal and record it.
  • Be well-prepared when you come to your composition lesson or seminar. Be ready to ask questions, able to handle criticism, and eager to learn new ideas.
  • Don’t over-commit yourself! It is tempting to take advantage of all the musical and extra-curricular offerings in college, but composers need to focus and dedicate their time to developing their craft and finding their voice. One applied lesson and one ensemble should be the rule.
  • Go to a summer festival. Many serious student musicians spend at least one summer in college at a festival. There are plenty of opportunities for composers—keep an eye out and begin planning.
  • Enter competitions. The more you enter, the better chance you have of winning. One of the best ways to get recognition in this field is through performances and prizes, which often are the result of competitions.
  • Join a new music society. All serious composers join either BMI or ASCAP. Locally, we also have the ACF in Minneapolis and the ICF here in Iowa. It’s never too early to start behaving like a professional!

By graduation, the ideal composer has in their portfolio:

  • 1-2 solo works
  • 1-2 pieces of chamber music
  • 1-2 choral works
  • a work that involves technology
  • a large ensemble work
  • a multi-disciplinary collaborative work (theater, dance, art, etc.)