How to become a great composer in 10 steps

If you’ve been slaving over your sheet music, listening to non-stop Mozart for some inspiration, or spending hours on end at the piano trying to get that opening chord sequence just right for your first masterpiece, it looks like you’re wasting your time. At least according to Kile Smith, a composer and music teacher, who has written an article providing some helpful advice on how to get your composing career going in 10 simple steps. Let’s have a look at his suggestions.

how to compose like beethoven
Smith thinks that if you can’t aim to be like Beethoven, you shouldn’t be in this business.

1. Make sure you’re the centre of attention

It’s probably got something to do with the self-confidence you need to put your name to a piece of music and take the criticism if it’s not up to scratch. Smith insists that you speak up, and chiefly about yourself and your musical achievements. Probably you should aim for something like Mozart as portrayed in Amadeus.

2. Express your opinions

It’s likely that if you’ve cracked the first step, this should come relatively naturally. But do bear in mind his advice about making sure your audience won’t be put out by what you say. This is actually something most professions could learn from. When I look back now at a trial piece I wrote to secure one of my first writing contracts, I realise selecting an opinion piece on euthanasia may not have been the cleverest idea.

3. Bide your time and aim high

Our time is always limited, so if you’re serious about making a career of it, it makes sense not to spend all your effort writing pieces for your best friend’s quartet. Then again, if you wait for the big break too long, it might just pass you by.

4. Get to know your musicians

Smith is keen to make sure you get the best out of your orchestra, or singers by asking what their highest and lowest notes are. As well as enabling you to use the full range of the musicians in your work, it’ll also avoid any uncomfortable disputes when you insist that someone stretches themselves beyond their limits, like what happened between Handel and the famous violinist and Arcangelo Corelli.

5. Stop worrying about deadlines

It’s true enough that “you can’t put genius on a clock,” as Smith writes. You can never tell when you’re going to be inspired. These days though, with concert programmes being organised seasons in advance in some cases, you may find yourselves having to compromise on this one.

6. Don’t hold back with the bass

With all of the technology we’ve got nowadays, especially those headphones with more bass than some surround sound systems, it’s easy for the bass in real life to fail to live up to your desires. Smith advises, “You might want to put accents (>) over every note. If that doesn’t work, make them the accents that stand up like party hats (^). Those are good. Or add a line under the accent. Or a dot. Or a line and a dot, or even better, make up your own, which shows ingenuity, and as we all know, the root of ingenuity is genius, and the root of genius…is u.” Then again, you could just use those tiny headphones with your computer that make it sound as though you’re listening to music over the phone.

7. Keep the players right

It makes sense really when you think about it. If you’ve laboured over this piece of music for hours and hours, you want to keep the players who are going to perform it on their toes. So Smith recommends that you tell them what they’re doing wrong. And if there’s nothing specifically wrong, make a vague comment about some improvements that can be made.

8. Pick up some bad habits

When you can look back on a history of composers with short tempers and no fear of confrontation, why wouldn’t you follow suit? That way, at least all that’s left for you to work on is developing your talent.

9. There’s a conspiracy

The idea that all of the music competitions or opportunities are stitched up among friends has been pointed out elsewhere. This article, also giving tips on how to be a composer, takes the opposite approach and advises making friends to increase your chances of winning.

10. Intimidate your competitors

Once the idea that you’ve been hard done by is firmly consolidated, this final step on your journey will be made all the easier. As well as pulling those down who are perceived to be better than you, you’ll build your self-confidence and intimidate your rivals.


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