Snapshot: “A Day in the Life of a Composer,” or “Why I Don’t Write Much Music”

There are no doubt plenty of professionals who can identify with the following statement:

“I could get so much done, if only I didn’t have to _________!”

At most I produce one or two works per year. That’s not very much music, but then again, I have never been able to churn it out. At various times in my life I have beat myself up about this fact. Ringing in my ears are two quotes from past teachers:

“A composer composes.” (Ned Rorem)

“I can’t make you write music––you have to want to be a composer!” (John Corigliano)

And those came while I was still a student! If I wasn’t cranking out the music then, WHAT WAS I DOING?

Still, I don’t want this to sound like a complaint; it isn’t. Along the way from school to real life, certain things presented themselves: a job, a marriage, another job, some children. And the fact of the matter is I am pretty lucky to be (so far) gainfully employed in this day and age. But if you had told me in 1996 that in 2012, a typical day for me would look like the following, I think I would’ve jumped ship, maybe tried to get this guy’s job.

Here’s one day’s agenda:


0400: Rise to coffee already made; retreat to studio upstairs; poke around on computer for about 30 mins.; try to compose until something good finally starts to present itself around 0600.

0615: Child #1 awakes, comes to find me in studio; requests a cup of dry Cheerios, feigns interest in Daddy’s music; composing effectively drowned out by sounds of cartoons.

0630: Morning ritual begins in earnest; Child #2 now a part of the equation.

0830: Child #1 delivered to school; Child #2 sufficiently entertained with Star Wars Legos (the good guys won).

0911: Depart for Job #1.

1000: Observe colleague’s class at Job #1; write report of said observation.

1115: Collect thoughts.

1130: Teach Classes #1 and #2.

1400: Lunch alone in office; 90 mins. of mindless paperwork and correspondence (no composing).

1530: Arrive at Job #2.

1600: Teach Class #3.

1700: Dinner alone.

1715: Weekly departmental meeting for Job #2.

1745: Excuse self early from meeting.

1800: Class #4––conduct orchestral reading of student orchestrations.

2200: Reading concluded; orchestral studio picked up and in order; students happy.

2249: Train home from Penn Station.

2315: Arrive home; pretty much beat but oddly energized.

0010: Pass out.

0400 (Day 2): Rise . . . .

Again, this is not an “I’m soooo busy!” post. Especially in light of this recent article making the rounds. Rather, it’s an illustration of what I think many, many artists deal with day to day. We take jobs, occasionally outside of our preferred fields, to sustain life. We have families. We do all these things that are required of us (and we should do them joyfully, I believe, or else, what’s the point?). And the essential often gets lost in the mix.

Still, somehow I managed in the past 24 months to compose a 30-min. string quartet, a 4-min. septet, and I’m wrapping up work on a 15-min. piano duo. (I’m now about to embark on a 25-min. ballet score.) But if my catalog strikes anyone as a little lean, that’s okay with me.

After all, that’s my blood on those pages.

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4 Responses to Snapshot: “A Day in the Life of a Composer,” or “Why I Don’t Write Much Music”

  1. Vivian Thompson says:

    I am the slowest composer! I am in absolute awe of your productivity. I appreciate you’ve done your time and studied under some giants particularly in Mr Corigliano, oh whom I’d love to study under. In 2007 I graduated from a very useful music production degree in the UK which has helped with the film music route. However my “holy grail” is methodology. I’ve managed to fashion a method loosely based on Corigliano’s from the odd interview and online lecture. 1). Note as much info that comes toons about the subject/purpose/emotions of the piece. 2)draw my X Y graph and scribble 3). 2-3 line sketch in my lovely moleskine note book 3) score onto large manuscript or sequencer if film composing.

    But ANYTHING and I mean ANYTHING you could share on the miracle method you testify to would be unreal! Emails take time. 20 mins of your time via skype/FaceTime etc would be amazing if you could squeeze me in. I will pay you for your time!

    This is all for a specific never been done project/business that I’ll save for another time.

    Thank you so much for this post. It gives me hope!!!

  2. Liz Pauly says:

    Dear Daniel,

    I loved this post. It would make a wonderful addition to one of the units I teach for my Intro to Music Class (the life of a working musician). I would love your permission to copy this post for my class. If you are willing, I would greatly appreciate a follow-up. Thank you so much!


  3. Chris Sahar says:

    Great post Daniel. Also I know you from NYC and one thing that is rather important is that your teaching encompasses both young students on the path of a performing/composition/theory degree as well as those seeking to refresh their love of composing years after they earned a degree and now at a day job.

    Only thing I would like to add to your post is the situation of when “life happens”. In my case caring for a sick parent. As I do not make any substantial income from composing and care taking has eaten to those activities which do my income, composition has been set to the back burner although I still write and stay involved through organizations I belong to that support composers. But composers should understand there will be periods (as you well know Dan) when life simply doesn’t allow you to compose much if anything at all. As with all things in life, one must maintain priorities and maintain an optimistic outlook that time will afford again opportunities to renew and grow one’s composition career.

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