Advice to a young composer: “Get a real job”

There comes a time in one’s life (usually around junior year of high school) when you have to answer the question, “What do you want to do with your life?” More often, this question comes in the form of “What colleges are you looking into?” and “Have you picked a major yet?”. But the underlying issue remains “Now that you’re 16, what activity do you plan on pursuing for the next 50 years?”

For me the answer was obvious. I had been studying music intensely since second grade. I had been performing in musicals since third grade (including a professional regional production). My listening habits, which had started with Bernstein and Sondheim in elementary school, had progressed through Gershwin, Stravinsky, and Bartok in high school. Simple. I was going to be a composer of orchestral and musical theater works.

That is, until my piano teacher talked some sense into me.

It was after a lesson when he casually mentioned, “So your father tells me you want to be a professional musician.”

“Yep! I want to be a composer.”

“Well. You could do that. You’re a solid musician. You could definitely make a living being a musician. And composers can make a good living. They can be comfortable. But it’s hard. And there are no guarantees. And unless you’re really lucky, there’s a limit to the success you can expect. Now… there are other things you can do. And I understand from your father that your grades and your SAT scores are both excellent. You have a real shot at getting into some schools that would open many, many more doors for you, allow a level of success and comfort that most musicians constantly struggle for. Maybe you should consider doing something else…”

I was dumbstruck, couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How dare he? How dare my father? The both of them, colluding, planning my future! Telling me what I should do!

Soon my brain’s normal reaction to emotional tumult began, ie. my rational brain declared martial law, cutting my emotional response off at the knees. Much of what they said made sense. My grades were quite good. I had a pretty good shot at a few of the Ivy League schools. Math and science were also very interesting subjects and I was good at them. Maybe being an engineer wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Heck, I could even be an engineer and focus on musical topics, like electronic music. Or designing synthesizers. Being a scientist doesn’t mean I can’t still be a musician. After all, while it’s pretty hard to be an engineer without a degree in engineering, you can be a darn good musician without a music degree.

That’s when I formed my master plan. Go for the engineering degree at as prestigious a university as possible. Find a job that balances potential income with creative satisfaction. Stay active in music and theater, practice piano, perform regionally. And at some point later in life, if the need is still there, launch into a more serious music career after building a solid life or yourself.

For me, so far, this plan has worked perfectly, more perfectly than one should reasonably expect. Not everyone is going to be as remarkably fortunate as I have been between the ages of 18 and 38. (If one’s going to spend 15 years at a day job, it’s hard to complain about Pixar Animation Studios.) I’m just now starting the switch to a more serious music career and I’m definitely playing catch up. The kind of success I imagined having back when I was 16 seems highly unlikely at this point, but in truth, it was highly unlikely back when I was 16 as well. I just didn’t realize it. And now, the price of failure is much less. I’ve hedged my bets, which doesn’t make for a dramatic story, but does make for a solid life.

I’ve told this tale to other musicians and I’m surprised at how often the response has been “I WISH someone had told me that.” On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone express outrage at my mentors for their gentle intervention. It’s solid advice. You should be a musician (or any sort of artist) only if you can’t imagine being anything else.  And even if you can’t imagine being anything else, realize life may well force you to do something else to make rent.

It’s a far cry from the “you can be anything you want” message that tugs at our heart strings and wins oscars, but for me, I consider it the best parenting my father ever did.