Letters to a Young Composer

Letters to a Young Composer

21st of June 2022

With apologies to Rilke, I'm collecting together a series of replies to some of the  questions I've been asked, about the how, when and why of composing.

Zen and the art of Pencil Sharpening, perhaps? Or the Composer's Way? In any case, I'll keep this page updated as more come in, and if you have a query - feel free to get out your paper and pen.

“Firstly, taking on projects for free. There seems to be some pretty divided opinions on this. Some people say that you shouldn’t take on work for free at all, as you can become known as ‘that person who does free work’ and people can take advantage of you. Others say that it’s a good way to gain experience and build a portfolio.”

My Dear Young Composer

Thank you for writing, you’re already asking all the right questions.

Trying to value your time and work as a composer involves more than just money. Although money can be very useful! When you’re starting out as a composer and you’re lucky enough to be asked onto a project, it’s unlikely to be funded in the same way as a network TV show or a studio movie. Your value as a composer is also (with respect) likely to be lower, in terms of creating a set of Heads of Department that reassures potential investors. So how do you balance the value of a credit and new relationships, against the ‘going rate’ for both you as an individual, and the composer community as a whole?

I’d suggest testing any new opportunities against a few factors:

  • What’s the artistic benefit?
  • What will I learn?
  • What relationships will I make?
  • What financial benefit is there?
  • How will the outside world see this?

I’ve deliberately ordered those for you in order (roughly) of internal to external values. If you work through this list you may end up with a more rounded sense of whether or not to take on a project, and also what your expectations for are for having finished it.

If you cultivate a broad sense of worth, then ‘free’ starts to look more nuanced than whether or not any money changes hands. Alongside that, if you’re also nurturing your sense of awareness of other people, you’ll find it a little easier to spot the crooks and time-wasters, who sadly are always part of the world too.

And also.

Be kind to yourself. A long career could be many decades, and you’ll learn much more from the mistakes you make, than from the easy wins.

 

“I also wanted to ask him what he thinks about the benefits of studying film music (specifically a masters degree) as opposed to getting out there and building a portfolio and experience straight away. Are there any courses that he would recommend?”

If you can stay a student of things you love for the rest of your life, you’ll be genuinely blessed. I find myself wanting to study more and more as I get older, although theoretically I should, by now, have a little experience in what I’m doing. In fact, I’ve found the reverse to be true – the longer I’m around, the clearer it is how little I know.

Buddhism has the concept of Shoshin, or Beginner’s Mind.

“If your mind is empty … it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” (Shunryu Suzuki – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)

I don’t know if that means I’m an expert now, as I don’t seem to have many ideas today, but I’m sure you have plenty.

So should you find a course to study Film Music at Masters level? For me it depends whether this is part of a real enthusiasm to study, learn and discover new things, or if it’s a transactional chess move to get on the next rung of the career ladder. The problem with those chess moves is that we often forget to enjoy the game itself, and just focus on winning.

I don’t think there’s much correlation between extra study and career success, and probably even less causation. I didn’t do a post grad, although maybe, when the kids have left home, I’ll treat myself to some more quality library and cinema time to find out all the things I should have been doing.

If you decide it is something that would bring you joy, and you’ve got the means and opportunity to do it (which is not the case for a very large group of those who might benefit – more on this another time!) then picking the right course is like many other significant life decisions, such as choosing a home, partner or pet. Maybe not in that order. Anyway, the more honest and clear-sighted you can be about yourself, and what you want and need, the better chance you have of a positive outcome.

Do you want to throw yourself in at the deep end with a group of film-makers and study the ‘film’ part of film composition? Then, in the UK, the National Film and TV School (NFTS) is terrific. Do you want to be surrounded by musicians and maybe focus on the ‘composition’ side of film composing? The Royal College of Music (RCM) have very good post grad courses for that.

Either way, the most important thing is that you nurture your Beginner’s Mind, and enjoy the lifetime of joyful learning ahead of you.

 

 

“Lastly, in his talk, Michael spoke about how composers would typically work under someone as a sort of assistant in order to gain experience and break into the industry. Is this something that he would recommend to someone starting out today? If so, how would he go about trying to achieve this?”

I wonder if there’s a generational change happening with this route into composing for film and TV. And also whether that’s maybe a good thing. I was lucky enough to be an assistant to Michael Kamen for 5 years, and in hindsight, that opportunity clearly opened many of the doors through which I chose to walk. I’ve also got a huge respect for the depth of knowledge and tradition embodied in the art and craft of those past masters. But maybe that way forward stifles change?

One of our favourite (and clearly fictitious) family stories is about cooking a joint of beef for a Sunday roast, and goes something like this. A long time ago, my own Mum was making lunch, and just before she put the joint in the roasting tray, she cut a thick slice off both ends. I asked why she was doing this, and she said she didn’t really know, it was just something her Mum had done. The next time we went to Granny’s I asked her about the beef, and she didn’t know either, but swore blind that her mother had always done it, and so there must be a good reason, to do with getting a really tasty flavour, maybe?

Finally we popped in to see Great-Granny and asked her. Turns out she’d always cooked those end slices separately for Great-Grandad’s sandwiches, and the only reason that she’d cut them off in the first place was that her oven was too small for a full joint of beef. She’s always thought it was a terrible thing to do to a good cut of meat.

That’s a very roundabout way of suggesting to you that not every aspect of the way that things have been done needs to be learned and copied without  looking at why. Maybe by finding your own path you’ll come up with your own individual way of doing things. And also learn to cook a delicious plant-based Sunday lunch.

With very best wishes,

Michael

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