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Living by Your Craft

by Gwyneth Walker

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[The following article is condensed from a talk given at the "Composing a Career" Conference sponsored by The Women's Philharmonic at The New School, New York, NY -- November 6, 1999]

    As composers, we have choices in the paths that our careers will follow. There are many sorts of music to be written, for many sorts of performers and audiences. The choices that we make reflect our personalities, our areas of strength and support, our faith, our political or social philosophies, and, most importantly, our musical styles.

    Some composers aspire to create major symphonic works, intended for performance by the major symphony orchestras. Other composers focus on chamber, choral or vocal music. Most composers aspire to have their works published and recorded.

    So many aspirations. Yet, often the result is discouragement. This need not be.

    I offer words of encouragement. Firstly, it might be helpful to remember that most music in the United States is presented in churches, schools and community centers. Most people who go to hear most music in the United States go to hear this music in churches, schools and community centers! Therefore, when we composers involve ourselves in the musical life of our communities, we are choosing to participate in a healthy, (often) very accepting climate for our new works.

    Secondly, we might remember that the majority of performing musicians in this country are singers. Church choirs and school/community choruses are always looking for new repertoire. One way to begin working with a local chorus is to attend a concert, to meet the conductor and singers afterwards, to offer some congratulations on the better parts of the performance, and then (without pushing!) to mention that one is a composer. Say no more, and wait for a response. In most cases the conductor and/or singers will express interest and ask if there is music for them.

    By all means, go home and write some, if you don't already have it on hand! There is no reason that if one writes a good choral work for community chorus, it could not then be presented to a publisher. Performances by choruses around the country might result.

    The same approach is true for local chamber ensembles and community orchestras. If the composer shows an interest in the group and attends a concert, there are often requests to see new music. Performances and commissions may follow. A work commissioned and premiered on the community level might well eventually be published, performed nationally and recorded. If the work is good enough to delight one's neighbors, it will delight audiences everywhere!

    Start locally. Move nationally. Take advantage of the abundant opportunities within the community. Craft the work with utmost skill. Attend rehearsals and the premiere. Evaluate the new work. Once it is fine-tuned, share it far and wide. This is a product tested through local performance. It can stand national scrutiny!

    Living by one's craft means earning an honest living from one's compositions. The possible sources of income are commissions (large or small, from any musical organization looking for a new work), royalties (from ASCAP or BMI, and these can be generated from community performances too), rental and sales (remember all of those singers buying music!) and lectures (when the composer is asked to speak about her experiences).

    Yes, one can make a living from within one's community. Moreover, one can find there the gratification and support for one's work that is so necessary for artistic growth. There is inspiration which comes from knowing that one is a valued and contributing member of one's community. Composer for hire!