“What kind of music do you write?”

Easily my least favorite question.

Most composers get asked it on a routine basis by strangers or loose acquaintances, usually followed by unsolicited advice.

“Hey! You should write for movies!”

Funny that no one thinks twice about giving unsolicited advice to an artist. What if I were to turn that question around to my doctor and say, “Hey! You should find a cure for cancer!”? “Hey! You should invent a car that drives itself!” to my friend the engineer. No—instead those professionals are asked to give advice. “Should I get this checked out?” to his cousin’s girlfriend, the dermatologist, pointing to a blemish. “When do I really need to replace my timing belt?” to his wife’s friend’s husband, the mechanic.

The problem is this: the inquirer, whether he recognizes it or not, is hoping for a response that relates to his own experience. “Well,” he hopes I’ll say, “do you know the music of John Williams?”; or, “Do you like James Taylor?”; or, “Ever heard of A Tribe Called Quest?” Having safely pigeon-holed the composer, he can then talk about his own interests in music, and on rare occasions he might actually seek the advice of a composer: “Hey, buddy, you got a second? I have this guitar downstairs and I’m wondering if you can tell me whether it’s worth anything.”

Even worse than the what-kind-of-music-do-you-write question, however, is the inevitable follow-up: “What instrument do you play?” This is bad enough, even if you’re not a composer but a performer on one of the following: oboe, bassoon, horn (and you actually say “horn” and not “French horn” because you’ve got a modicum of self respect), viola, timpani, or (God forbid!) any period instrument. Because then you’re invariably locked into explaining your trade: whether you need to stand or sit to play your instrument; whether that’s the same thing as a violin; whether it looks like a saxophone or not; whether that’s actually spit coming out; whether you’ll teach their daughter how to play, too….

My problem—one shared by many of my brethren—is that I don’t “play” anything. I’m a passable pianist, but I have nothing that approaches real technique, and I stopped playing horn (which I was actually pretty good at) not long after grad school. Therefore, I usually say “piano,” but then run the risk of being shepherded over to the keyboard to entertain the rest of the party, which I refuse to do. There are precisely three pieces that I can play from memory: 1) Bach, Concerto Italiano (1st movement); 2) Bach, keyboard cadenza from Brandenburg 5; and 3) Ravel, Sonatine (1st movement). Let me tell you, no one at that party wants to hear any of those. True, I am probably better than your cousin Bobby, who started playing when he was 11 (“He got pretty good in college!”), but asking to hear me play piano would be a lot like asking a carpenter to watch him saw a two-by-four—the piano for me is a tool I use to do my job, but it’s not the job itself.

Of course, among the most dreaded of follow-ups (and it’s a toss up as to which one is worse) are: “What have you written that I know?” and “Play us one of your songs!” Truthful responses here are mostly embarrassing. “Nothing, really” to the former, and “I can’t really play my own music” to the latter. These are embarrassing because they actually expose your shortcomings right there out in the open. (I usually save mulling over this stuff for when I’m lying awake at night, or for a well-timed rant to my spouse.) On the one hand, it would be nice to tell the person that they likely know your wildly successful “such-and-such,” the one that made you both wealthy and esteemed by your colleagues, but you don’t have any of those. Also, you can’t play your own music because it’s too complex, which is why (you now realize) it doesn’t get played very often—or else you just simply don’t have much in the way of performing chops at all, which is actually really bothersome, though mostly you’ve been telling yourself the lie that it’s “okay because you’re a composer, not a performer.”

Here’s what I’m secretly dying to say: “Well, Tom, the reason you haven’t heard any of my music is probably due to one of two reasons. First, the kind of music I write doesn’t get played a million times all over the air waves, which is to say, I’m not exactly raking it in hand-over-fist in my chosen profession that I spent one decade in school pursuing advanced degrees for, and another decade working my ass off for meager compensation and little public recognition! Or second, you haven’t heard any of my music because, in a perfect illustration of the slow death of my beloved Art, you don’t have the least interest in classical music. You’ve never even been to the symphony, ballet, opera, or any kind of chamber music concert before, and MOST of us in this world are KIDDING OURSELVES in thinking that, in as little as FIFTY YEARS from now, there will even be ANY ORCHESTRAS LEFT AT ALL!! Your entirely vague notion of a classical composer is of a guy who writes the music to movies, or else someone who stands in front of an orchestra waving a baton, because you’re confusing COMPOSER with CONDUCTOR!! And now, ONLY NOW, do I finally see why aallllll my former teachers seemed so BITTER AND DISILLUSIONED!!!”

Now, when I began this little essay, I thought I would endeavor to provide some guidance to my fellow composers as to how one might answer this question. After all, in my best moments, I sometimes take the opportunity to engage my audience in a little demonstration of what it is I do. I might say, “Well, the kind of music I write you would probably think of as classical, though it doesn’t really sound like the kind of classical music you might be familiar with. If you’re curious, you could go to my website and listen to some of my music, or check out a new music concert at (Le) Poisson Rouge sometime—they have food there!” But when I’m feeling weak, I usually will just simply avoid the issue altogether. Before the conversation even gets as far as “What kind of music do you write?”, I’ll just tell the person I’m a college professor. That’s usually the verbal equivalent of this sound. Of course, they’ll then ask me what I teach, and I’ll say “music,” which will bring to mind their old music appreciation professor who gave them a C- freshman year. That’s sure to leave me hugging the corner of the room in isolation faster than you can say “post-minimalist impressionistic haze” (or else send me to the fridge for another beer)….

In reality, there’s not that much to complain about, even if, as a composer, I have to dodge a few questions here and there. After all, isn’t it a tad unbecoming to moan about doing for a hobby living that which most people consider a hobby? Your high school friend, the highly successful trader, who decided to quit the trumpet when he went to business school, still wishes he could make music—it’s what he’s daydreaming about right now, even as he dozes on a beach in the Caymans.

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