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Every once and a while a student comes to my office and proudly announces that they would like to study music so they can become a composer. I respond by saying, “Fine. Let’s see what you have written so far.” Then the student says, “Well, I haven’t written anything yet, but I would like to learn how to be a composer by studying here.” To which I reply, “It is already too late. If you haven’t written anything yet you will never be a real composer, someone whose every fiber is infected with the composing bug, someone who writes music because some force within them makes them put notes to paper.”

If you want to be a better composer it is important to take private or class instruction in theory and counterpoint. Most importantly, you must share your music with a trained composer you respect who can critique your work and offer suggestions for its improvement. It takes many years to be able to write a melody that beguiles the ear and just as much time to be able to provide an accompaniment to it that provides the perfect complement. Add to that the investigation of musical instruments and arranging and you have a full course of study that should keep you busy for a lifetime. All the while you should be playing and listening to as much good music as you can get your hands on. There is a tremendous amount to learn just from looking at scores and listening to recordings as well as going to concerts.

The process of musical composition is an extraordinarily complex and difficult one because you are attempting to create something new that is true and beautiful, and is as close to perfect as you can get. Be warned, those are some lofty goals. The interplay of craft and inspiration is difficult to calculate but is significant in the search for the ultimate piece that is yet to be realized. Unless you are a Mozart, there is a need for much editing and rewriting until the musical narrative makes sense from beginning to end. Everything has to be just right. Eliminating the extraneous is critical. The difficulty of the process is in direct proportion to the quality of the end result. Depending on how you view the struggle, composing can be either painful or joyous.

Too many artists have writers' block and are unable to begin a project for reasons they often do not understand. I always say, "Just put something down on paper, you can always fix it later." As you proceed, the important thing is to trust your own instincts and good taste. If it sounds good to you that is the measure of its worth. The music must be you and not try to fit someone else's notion of what is good. The music must speak with your own voice otherwise you are just a mimic. At the beginning of our careers we steal everything we can from our favorite composers. Often we write pieces that stylistically meander all over the map. Later we strive to homogenize this mix, adding just a touch of our own individuality. Done correctly, the end result only has to be 5% you for it to sound original. Don’t try too hard to be a revolutionary; that status will come in its own good time. It is more important for the music to be good than to be new. To be good the piece must possess integrity and expressive power. It is more important to touch the heart than to tickle the brain. Most importantly, it must stop at just the right place, not a beat too long or a beat too short. Starting a piece should be relatively easy. Creating the right ending can often be quite vexing.

Early in my career, I wrote a goodly number of pieces that I later thought were without merit and that was OK. Occasionally, I came up with a gem and it made all those hours of struggle worthwhile. Composition is, by its very nature, an experimental activity. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Your failures often tell you what needs to be done better the next time. A really bad piece cannot be fixed, but a mediocre one can be polished to a higher luster. Throughout history, there have been composers who destroyed their weaker creations because they did not want to leave any evidence around that proved they were sometimes less than perfect.

I don’t know if it is required, but every serious composer I have read about or have known personally was an obsessive-compulsive individual who began each new piece aware that it would utterly consume him until it was finished. The composer has little or no real life while immersed in the compositional process. You work on it consciously or unconsciously every waking and sleeping hour. The real crazies begin to work on the next piece while they are still finishing this one. You may end up writing a lot of good music, and future generations will thank you for your sacrifice, but you are not a fully socialized individual while you are composing. You disappear into your own little world for long periods of time and completely forget about the bigger world around you that includes the significant others in your life who long for your return. Lost in space, it is just you and the piece informing each other about what needs to be written in a desperate attempt to express some inner yearning or complete some fantastical puzzle. If you are doing all this to gain approval, recognition, or validation you are barking up the wrong tree for that must come from within you, not from some imaginary, adoring audience that may include mommy or daddy or some other substitute. Think of all the great composers who died happy. How long is your list? We compose because we must—we have no choice. When the voice within you says, “Play with sounds, play with notes,” you can either get a pen, a job, or a life. It’s your choice.

An afterthought: Remember, your composition was created in a state of perfection. If you are lucky enough to have good musicians play your music they will try their best to realize your intentions, but they will never be perfect. Your reaction to their performance will range from appreciative delight to severe disappointment. Get over it and move on. Rest assured, the fame or failure will be mercifully short-lived. With very few exceptions, most composers who are not performers are virtually anonymous, poorly paid, and dream of an equitable world where they are just as important as pitchers, pundits, and politicians. Elliot Carter could walk a mile up Broadway and only one passerby would turn to his partner and say, “Isn’t that, uh, what’s-his-name?”