I’ve recently completed a course of independent study with composer Martin Arnold supported by the BC Arts Council’s Early Career Development program. The aim of the study was to focus as much on questions directly related to composition as on questions about the nitty-gritty of maintaining an artistic practice. In particular, I wanted to learn from Martin’s experience maintaining a productive composition career alongside various other occupations (including landscape gardening, arts administration, and pedagogy), as I’ve felt strained trying to find a balance in this area myself.
This post will summarize the practical portion of the study. The conversation around mental health and burnout has recently occupied more public attention but has yet to find its way into institutional pedagogy. It’s my hope that the information in this post will be useful in a very pragmatic way to other composers, musicians, and artists at large in maintaining long and healthy practices.
The impetus for this study came from a near brush with burnout. After completing my MMus at UVic in April 2015, I worked as a web developer in both freelance and full-time capacities. Keeping up my music practices (composition, bass performance, and recently sound art) was a challenging experience. When freelancing, time was available but financial stress was intrusive. When working full-time, finding the energy to focus after a full day’s work was increasingly difficult, and spending all my evenings in the studio took away from the time available to enrich my practice with social and artistic experiences. Thankfully, I was able to use the ECD grant to learn from a composer who has already solved this problem.
Early in the study it became clear that it was impractical to separate artistic and career concerns, which was of course fine, life is messy. The implication for the present post is that the content is a summarization of the salient points in my notes rather than verbatim copy.
Retaining energy and focus
I’ll begin with the exception that proves the rule. In one meeting I asked Martin to directly address the topic of finding focus and energy to compose after work, and he iterated more or less the following list:
- Don’t make your practice something that requires 100% energy and focus (all the time)
- Do carry it with you throughout the day so that by the time you sit down to compose you have an idea of what you’re going to write
- Don’t rarify the practice
- Do find incidental time daily (ten bars here or there)
- Do think about other art
- Other practitioners in your practice
- Other analogous practices (eg, noise music)
- Other non-analogous practices (eg painting)
- Do think about what you share with other practices
- Don’t over-theorize – mix up how you experience other art (eg, don’t always listen with a focused aim to try to learn something; also listen to surface things, to groove, to structure, etc)
- Don’t think of art as a commentary on life
- This is bourgeois
- This separates art from being part of life
- Art is another aspect of how you exist in the world
- Art enacts (rather than represents) its politics
- Eg, you don’t have to compose radically pacifist songs
- Eg, sitting and having an aesthetic experience is a valuable use of time in itself (more valuable than going shopping or watching bad TV)
- Art is part of the mess of stuff
I don’t think this list needs a whole lot of explanation. In addition to providing a base for Martin’s pragmatic suggestions, it implies his artistic and political perspectives. I found it very satisfying that the integral aspects of this approach (efficiency, respect and curiosity for experience and material, art as just another facet of existence) could be applied artistically, practically, politically, and in non-artistic day-to-day living. This way of being “enacts rather than represents its politics” and allows its art to do the same.
Practice vs praxis
Practice is something one does frequently, often regularly, intentionally, over a long period. Praxis is the aspects of practice that become habit: they have been repeated so often that they require far less intention and forethought. Working from praxis is more efficient than (always) working from practice: it allows for things like technique, working assumptions, and effective truths to develop from practice. This means you spend less time reconsidering your basic principles, which leaves you with more time to hone your work and then go and take in other people’s music. (A phrase Martin used was “assume your assumptions.”)
In addition to material, Martin is big on context – aesthetically, politically, and professionally. He noted that it’s better to find collaborators in your social circle than to make your career by cold-calling everyone. These kinds of collaborators are more natural to find, will have more investment in your music, lead to further work, and, importantly, feed an artistic community. Following from this, the way to finding more collaborators is to actively engage in the new music community in your area. This starts by going to concerts and meeting people and continues by doing more: helping out as a performer, promoter, producer, or simply as a volunteer at events.
In a similar vein, it’s important to acknowledge your musical context by writing to your performers’ interests and strengths. Not only will this invariably lead to better performances, but it increases the likelihood that the performers will enjoy playing the work, which could lead to them advocating for the piece and for you as a composer (and perhaps even programming it again or commissioning another piece). The inverse is also possible: working in a way that your collaborators aren’t interested in can easily lead to frustration and bad blood, even if the conception is well-intended. After all, music is a collaboration on an aesthetic event and not a polemic.
Having an online presence is more important now than it was maybe ten years ago, but less important than many people think. Martin’s suggestion was to keep your website / social media up-to-date, but spend more effort going to as many concerts as possible and engaging with the community. The reason behind this is that very few performers or presenters will program your music after stumbling on your website, LinkedIn page, or some recording. Instead, people generally program music by composers they’re already familiar with – that is, their friends or colleagues.
Anecdotally, I have heard of this happening and have also felt inclined to reach out to composers of pieces I’ve enjoyed hearing online, but these are certainly exceptions.
Also, this bit of advice speaks directly to finding collaborators but not to listeners. Online recordings might bolster your listenership, but having more listeners won’t translate as directly to finding performance opportunities as first-hand connections with potential collaborators will.
Finding performers (and professional group concerts)
Martin’s preference for collaborating within your community is clear. The popular alternative is to work the competition, festival, and workshop circuit by continually responding to calls for scores. Martin noted that having a professional ensemble perform your work in these contexts is a good way to gain exposure but not something to wait around for or depend on. We discussed the benefits and drawbacks of this approach:
- Depending on the piece-ensemble pairing, these can result in high quality performances (even if it’s just a reading, but particularly if the ensemble rehearses the piece)
- It’s a notch in the ol’ resume
- The ensemble will advocate for your music in this concert (they have to sell tickets) and possibly in the future (if they like it), and they might ask for another piece
- Good way to expose your music to other circles (such as people who follow the ensemble or the other composers on the bill)
- The programming resulting from these calls is very often a disparate collection of pieces by composers with very little in common. At worst, this can feel like a variety show and may not be the best way to represent your music. If the programming is varied enough, you will find people who came to the performance for one piece they knew they’d like and left not liking any of the other pieces and having had a bad time.
- If your piece targets something the ensemble isn’t specialized in (such as open scores or just intonation), their rendition might be shaky.
- In most cases, professional groups work with a tight turn around, so rehearsal time will be limited. This can sometimes affect the quality of the performance.
- Playing the application game can be time consuming and requires some luck.
Making a living from music (and money in art)
A common thought I’ve had is that if I were paid even a little bit for the music work I do, I could afford to take on less work elsewhere and therefore have more time and energy for composition. I’ve even gone so far as to consider angling toward a career in double bass performance.
Martin’s response to this line of thought is that, broadly speaking, depending on art for subsistence income leads to changing your work and how you make it in order to maximize that income. Not that a society shouldn’t support its artists, but rather that artists shouldn’t depend on that support when it is clearly extremely limited. With respect to project grants, Martin thinks that these should allow the artist enough dedicated time to create the work (and that increases in commissioning rates reduce the total available funds, effectively pooling the grants away from emerging artists toward established ones).
Very few musicians in Canada make their living exclusively from performing or composing new music. We tried to enumerate those who were and came to a list of well under ten names. In many cases, musicians are supplementing their incomes by performing in other areas of music, occupying the whole gamut of composer, performer, and improviser, and taking pedagogical work as well. One exception was Quatuor Bozzini, but we noted that most of their income came from very frequently performing abroad.
The idea of the career artist can be seen as a holdover from the romantic hero-artist trope of the late nineteenth century, an idea perpetuated by Hollywood and the music industry (in pop stars as much as in concert soloists). This individualism is at odds with a conception of art as an opportunity to share unique experiences with a community. Given how insistent Western culture is on individualism, it’s important to double-check your motives when making career-shaping decisions in order to avoid falling into that trap.
I hope that this information is helpful to you in forging an artistic practice which is sustainable, fulfilling, and natural. Many thanks to the BC Arts Council to supporting this study and to Martin for undertaking it with me.