Work hard and you [won’t] make it

What does it mean to reach success?



Our entire society might be said to be built on some fairly basic values. Most of our laws, for example, are essentially instructions on how to — and how not to — get along with each other. However, once the general principle of not physically harming each other has been dealt with, we move towards the much grayer territory of laws which try to govern fairness itself. The purpose of these might then be paraphrased as an attempt to uphold the idea that you ‘work hard, and you’ll make it’.

When it comes to becoming a composer of ‘art’ music, however, there is no amount of hard work that will make you successful.

Of course, this statement depends on how you define success. Is it success if your works are performed regularly to an appreciative audience? Certainly. But in terms of career success, of making all — or even most — of one’s living from writing ‘classical’ or ‘art’ music, you would have as much luck chasing Bigfoot or the Tasmanian Tiger.

If you disagree, I personally challenge you to name one living composer in Australia who is earning their living from writing their music:

  • If they make up the shortfall teaching — as most do — or by working some other form of day job, remove them from your list.
  • If they do other forms of music writing, such as writing jingles or music for film and television to earn any substantial amount of their income, remove them from your list.
  • If they’re from a wealthy background or have a lawyer/accountant/doctor for a partner and don’t need to work to earn their income? You guessed it: cross them off.
  • Finally, if you think you have found an example of such an individual, check to see how long and how consistently they have succeeded in this way. Composers will occasionally have good years in which they might land one or more significant commissions, but good years are only ‘good’ because of the bad ones in between. (If, after going through this list, you have indeed thought of an example, please get in touch: I’d be very curious to know.)

My intention here is not at all to disparage any of these methods of earning an income; quite the opposite. I wish to point out what no one told me when I first pursued composing:

No matter how hard you work, or how talented you are, you won’t make it.

It is not that I ever considered a ‘career’ in composing to be a cakewalk, and we were all told often enough about these fancy new ‘portfolio careers’ that modern musicians were working. But it was never stated directly to me that, in Australia, at least, composers don’t make a living. Lecturers, school teachers, and music service providers; these people make money. Composing art music, on the other hand, doesn’t.

This is an important thing to acknowledge, because this is where composing is substantially different to performing. There are, thanks to the various state symphony orchestras, probably several hundred-or-more musicians who make the majority of their income from performing. Many of those musicians choose also to teach privately on the side, but they have sustainable work even without generating supplemental income streams. In addition, there are some musicians that manage to make the majority of their income from solo and chamber music performances.

Composers, however, do not, cannot, and likely never will be in any such position. There is, to my knowledge, not a single composer in Australia who makes their whole, or even the majority of their living from composing music.

There may have been a few individuals in the past that did so, and I anticipate an example being Peter Sculthorpe. But since Sculthorpe’s passing, every composer I can name fails the challenge I posed to you earlier. Indeed, most young composers who aspire to become professionals truly have their eyes on one of the exceedingly few university positions available, whether they realise it or not. Considering there are ever-increasing numbers of university composition graduates, and a fairly fixed number of teaching positions, this is far from a guaranteed career. You may be one of the lucky few who on approaching middle age, may at last secure a full-time academic post. But is that what you truly gave 20-or-more years of your life for? Especially considering that you can achieve a similar financially sustainable and artistically free situation in far less time by pursuing almost any other career. After all, does a full-time lecturer really have a greater amount of time or resources than, for example, a school teacher or a part-time accountant?

The question I can’t help but ask then is: why do we all work so damn hard for a career that doesn’t exist?

After all, from my perspective, there are no competitions that I can win, no awards I can receive, no composition workshops or camps I can attend, and no commissions that I could secure, that, even taken together, would make me a financially independent composer for any length of time.

While this might sound depressing as hell, I wish someone had told me that years ago. I am not saying I would not have taken the same path I have thus far; I am exceedingly content. On the contrary, if I had known this when I first became an undergraduate at the Queensland Conservatorium, I think I would simply have enjoyed the last 10 years of my life a lot more. For while, on one hand, this might all seem depressing; on the other, it is liberating.

Those opportunities, prizes, and awards I have worked so hard to earn (and so frequently failed to obtain) wouldn’t really have helped me long-term to become anything other than a marginally more-successful part-time composer. Which makes me wonder just how much time and energy I have wasted trying to build such a future when – if I somehow did win every composition competition, prize, and award in Australia – my life would probably look…not much different. And if – during such a period of glorious, hypothetical-victory, you did what I have, and undertook a PhD in music – then at the end, you might be able to work your way up the university ladder until you are eventually made a full-time staff member (who gets paid only marginally more than a school teacher once you factor in the difference in holidays).

The truth can set you free, just as surely as this myth of a ‘composing career’ can coerce you into working tirelessly for a fantasy. For instance, I’ve always hated composition competitions (probably because I seldom win any), but the biggest difficulty of them was always the feeling that ‘if I can’t win any of these, how will I be a successful composer?’. Further than that, however, there was also the feeling that I needed to participate in spite of not really wanting to. Because it was considered important I receive recognition in order to have a career.

However, the reality is much more forgiving. If my music is being played at all (which it quite frequently is) and I am sharing my work with other people in an open-hearted way, then that is as close to true success as is possible. How I pay my rent is ultimately irrelevant. For me, that just makes it all so much easier.


This opinion piece was written by Christopher Healey, a young Australian composer and PhD Composition Student at the University of Queensland.

You can support him by visiting his website, Facebook page, or listening – really listening – to his original music. Get started with the works below, or find the scores here.

8Birches (recording).
Christopher Healey (score and album artwork). Solo flute played by Brigette Tubb.
8Springtime Dances, Winter Weeps (recording).
Christopher Healey (score and album artwork). Solo flute played by Brigette Tubb.

Images supplied.

3 Comments on Work hard and you [won’t] make it

  1. Good article Chris. I agree that it’s extremely important that institutions are up front about the options for working as a composer, and that students take heed and are active in acknowledging the realities. This isn’t always straightforward, because for their own reasons music schools don’t always play fairly in this way, and students are coddled, to be blunt.

    However, I think the distinction you’re making here is strange. It’s worth considering that very few individuals throughout *any time* in history meet your criteria. Not long ago, “art music” composers only came from wealthy families, or they were beneficiaries of patrons, supported by institutions and taught, or they supplemented their “serious” work with more commercial endeavours – any such person is disqualified by your criteria; this surely accounts for almost everyone, even historically.

    Stravinsky played piano concerts to make ends meet, and he’s one of the notably wealthier art music composers of the 20th century. Philip Glass drove cabs and did plumbing into his mid 40s. Even commercial composers have had these trials; John Williams didn’t do his breakthrough work (Jaws) until he was about 42, by memory. Going back into the 19th Century and prior, we’re talking patronage (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky,) and existing wealth, or teaching (Bach, Rimsky-Korsakov, Bruckner) or performance or some related activity like conducting (Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz. . .these examples are just off the top of my head by the way), or by working on more commercial music (e.g. Leider) or indeed working outside of music (Borodin) or some combination of these things. Composers who fought the tide spent stretches of their life penniless (like Elgar, until he had a huge commercial success). This remains true even receding back to a time before there was anything considered “art music.” Most composers in the latter half of the 20th century have made an income from teaching.

    So it’s not just now that there is no such thing as the composer you describe, in fact there *never was* any such thing.

    I think this just means one must decide what one is aiming at. Given the above, it really shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that a contemporary composer must contemplate how to diversify income streams. This doesn’t require any dilution of their identity as a composer, because as I’ve said art music composition has *never* returned a complete, ongoing income; perhaps with the rare exception. Indeed I wonder what is an income from “art music?” Government support is a bit like patronage, and if it’s ticket sales, then sufficient of these to live off is inevitably something of a commercial enterprise. I sense a question is being begged.

    Even with an acceptance of our unusual, diffused methods of generating income (commercial work; teaching; performing; non-music work and so on), things are hard enough. It’s not like we can waltz into tenured lecturing jobs right now. It’s not as if an art music composer can say, “oh, I could always just pop in and do some commercial work but that would be lowering my standards,” when the truth is that commercial jobs are, arguably, just as hard to crack (with more participants upskilling and having shots at it daily). And the reason I make this point is because this broader reality also needs acknowledging. In short, there’s no such thing as selling out, and someone who makes “art music” needs to own this. From the outset, the question needs to be “how can I put myself in a position where I am able to compose *any* art music?”

  2. Firstly, the definition of ‘composer’ here is really ‘composer of non-functional instrumental concert music’. To write off composers of screen music is odd – these parts of the profession are highly demanding, require rigorous training, and often produce greater ‘art’.

    …which begs the question: why do universities teach ‘Western Art Music Composition’ at all? Isn’t a mentorship model better? It’s great that this new music gets played, but does the teaching of it belong at university?

    • I am sorry, but I think this is a fairly ridiculous comment. It is common knowledge among composers that if you want to work anywhere in the media industry (film, tv, ads, games, etc.) you are working on one of the hardest career treadmills in the industry. Bar more independent productions where there is often just as much money to be made as in concert music writing, your music will always be 2nd-fiddle to everything else and you will be expected to write quickly, effectively and change things at a moment’s notice. This is not even to mention the countless gigs where you may be an orchestration monkey working for much bigger composers. It is an admirable skill-set to have, absolutely, and because of the highly commercalised nature of the industry if you can succeed you will be able to make money, but it is ultimately a field where composers are limited in their ability to be at the helm of their own artistic statements, and you certainly can’t stray too far away from acceptable musical tropes. Do you want to make an atonal music score? You better be Johnny Greenwood and force your way in with star power. Not a fan of melodies or post-minimalist soundscapes? You have a better chance of getting your music into a film by writing a great piece of concert music and then hoping some visionary director à la Kubrick comes along and decides he needs your ‘atmosphères’ for a particular sequence. The reality is that it is artistically simpler (although no less stressful, I am sure) to work for someone else than it is to work for yourself and be the arbiter of your own work as most ‘art music’ composers are required to do.

      The mentorship model does actually prevail in the teaching of composition at the university level. This, however, is balanced out by a severe lack of rigorous training, analysis and grounding in the techniques, styles and compositional methods of recent and contemporary composition at the classroom level, which creates a vacuum students themselves have to fill stumbling around in the dark. So yes, teaching ‘Western Art Music Composition’ does belong in the university, as you can witness in many North American and European conservatories where issues of contemporary craft are taught with the same rigour as 18th-century counterpoint. Even if you do not end up pursuing a purely ‘art music’ career, these contemporary tools can only help broaden your compositional palette and help you push out past worn-out musical tropes.

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